Kent. Known to all us country bumpkins as the Garden of England; a land of beauty and beer, of hops, oasts, Dickens and Darwin. I am a born and bred Kentish girl, away at University yet regularly returning to my roots in Ditton, a small village near Maidstone, for family strolls along the Downs, a couple of Shepherd Neame’s and a trip to the ‘The Sugar Boy’ in Deal for a handful of sherbet pips.
Imagine then, the shock to the system that was my move to Normandy, France. I know what you’re thinking. Normandy..... a vast array of sandy beaches, stunning green landscapes and enough Camembert to shake several thousand baguettes at. If this is your current mental image, clearly you haven’t been to Le Havre. Completely destroyed during WW2, it is a town which to all intents and purposes seems not to have recovered all these years later. One look at the dull grey concrete of the ‘hôtel de ville’ (actual translation: town hall- no doubt a source of constant confusion amongst English tourists in search of local accommodation) tells all you need to know. Le Havre is not beautiful, but, as you’d say when trying to defend an ugly child, it has ‘character’. In the past four months, I’ve slowly learnt to love the tramway roadworks (the latest attempt to make the town appear ‘concrete chic’), the changing of bus routes and the constant drizzle which in fact makes me feel rather at home. And there is cheese too, to be fair.
But why am I here? I hear you ask. What on earth is a twenty-year old doing on the other side of the pond for longer than a daytrip booze cruise? And somewhere that isn’t Calais? Mental. Well, dear readers, I shall explain. As part of my French and English University course, my third year is spent abroad as a language assistant in two secondary schools, where I am currently attempting to teach English by cajoling a bunch of sulky French teens into copious amounts of over the top role-play and renditions of ‘Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes’. My Kentish family love my new life. For them, it means no more agonising ferry or Eurostar delays, a lifetime supply of Bic biros, and a form of ‘meals-on-wheels’ service when purchasing the more exotic Christmas nibbles and wine. Not to mention the opportunity to dust off their pocket phrasebooks and boast that yes, yes, they are spending the half term holiday with their multicultural daughter in France, sipping Sauvignon Blanc, nibbling at crepes and possibly also taking a quick soujourn to Paris en-route, darrrrling.
Of course, one of the first questions every French person asks me is whereabouts exactly I’m from. I’ve had some interesting suggestions by both students and teachers alike, from New York to Scotland. Rather bizarrely, they also all know of Brighton...clearly all avid fans of Gay Pride and sticks of rock. Yet the word ‘Kent’ unfailingly yields a roomful of confused blank faces. ‘London?’ I’ve often been asked hesitantly. ‘Yes, yes, London’, I reply. It’s generally easier, and avoids the inevitable next question of ‘what’s a county?’ You try explaining that to a bunch of narrow-minded frenchies who only work in ‘Academies’ and ‘Departments’. Impossible. However, when I first arrived, I did give it a go a few times. Turns out, ‘le jardin d’Angleterre’ (The Garden of England) doesn’t work as a literal translation. In fact, by saying this all I’d managed to conjure up was an image of me livin’ it up al-fresco style, skipping slow-motion through a massive garden of daisies, sheep and gnomes, and no doubt by night curling up in a hollow tree with a squirrel-tail pillow and lullabies sung by a choir of impossibly wide-eyed rabbits and hedgehogs, most likely all cartoons.
Well...why not let them dream.