By Ruby Freeman
I spent my year abroad in the south of France, teaching in a primary school. It was lovely. My apartment looked out over the sea, and I swam every morning before school in water so clear that I could see my toes glowing white below me. Working with young children was, for the most part, a joy. I have decided that primary schools are magical places, full of colour, curiosity, new friendships, fresh creativity, and enthusiasm for life. Kids are refreshingly random in their playground exploits, interactions and questioning of the world. Every day, I traded the disorder of the adult world for the comforting chaos of the classroom. It wasn’t all great – toilet time was not cute, nor was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease or getting bitten by a three-year-old – but, on reflection, my time in Toulon was very happy and I feel so lucky that I landed on my feet.
So, how do I feel being back in Durham – what’s changed? I still love Greggs (no pastry pomp!), I have no appreciation for fine wine (the cheaper the better) and autumn is my favourite season, so no leg to stand on complaining about the cold. I would say that I have developed the concentration span of the three-year-olds I was working with, which, when combined with the lack of structure being back in Durham, isn’t a match made in final year heaven. But I’ve taken away more from my year in a French primary school than a toddler’s attention span and a photo album evoking happy days on the beach with friends or evenings at our favourite bar. In extreme danger of sounding painfully clichéd, my year abroad experience has undoubtedly altered the way I see the world and my own place in it.
Coming back to Durham, I have a newfound appreciation for how beautiful it is; the dominant cathedral, dramatic bridges, cobbled streets and winding river. We are so lucky to live in such a historic city and my time away has somehow allowed me to rediscover Durham. It may not have beautiful beaches and crystal-clear water, but it has its own unique, and very loveable, charm. Maybe it’s like seeing a friend you haven’t seen for a while – you’ve both changed and you’re remembering why you get along so well while enjoying the ways you’ve each developed since you last met.
My time away has somehow allowed me to rediscover Durham
For me, part of this rediscovery has been about engaging with the local community. In Toulon, I befriended the local shopkeepers, knew the team at our local bar, made friends with our elderly neighbour and, inevitably, became a recognised regular at our closest bakery. All these interactions gave the city colour and made me feel like I was part of its fabric. Reflecting now, I think I have tried to replicate that in Durham this year, perhaps even without realising it. I discovered the new independent bookshop, Collected, which only stocks female writers and makes incredible coffee (go!) and have started shopping at the independent greengrocers on North Road, Robinsons, for my fresh fruit and veg. Visiting local, independent places is such a pleasure and my year abroad taught me how much there is to gain from engaging and identifying with a place in this way.
What else? Well, spending a year abroad has given me an awareness of a much bigger picture. I think most of us would agree that Durham is a bubble – you arrive at the beginning of term and pretty much know exactly what to expect, it’s a small student world often governed over by muscle memory. I love it here, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your degree is a passport to an endless world of opportunities. I loved living by the sea in Toulon, living on the edge of something massive that was constantly moving, in global circulation. I fell in love with Marseille, a city which unfolds around every corner, gloriously unpredictable. While I lap up this final year in Durham, I have a sense of excitement for what’s to come. I can better appreciate the cosying comforts of Durham this year knowing that the next chapter is set in a wide world bubbling with possibility.
Image: Ruby Freeman