When in Rome, do as the Romans do. That’s the philosophy that I like to try and subscribe to during my travels. And to do this most effectively, I’ve held the opinion that it’s necessary to Couchsurf with a local in order to experience the local customs and behave as a local.
Perhaps there remains some truth in this, but my time in Montpellier was about to drastically change my opinion of that. When I came across Geoffrey’s profile, I couldn’t help but send a request. Whilst he is American in origin, he has spent several years in France and has adjusted to life as such. I figured that Geoffrey could provide me with two important insights. The first being the intricacies and strategies to setting up a life in France and how to adjust to it as a foreigner. The second being that he had previously participated in the vendange, the grape picking in the vineyards for the wine making – something that I have been considering doing myself.
What I discovered was so much more than these two benefits. Geoffrey is actually an English teacher here in France and has taught at various locations throughout the country. His current contract brought him to Montpellier to teach at the university, but as the period that I was Couchsurfing with him coincided with a study break at the university, it meant that he had some free time to show me around the place.
Here I was thinking that he wouldn’t be able to give me any local insight. Here I was confident that I couldn’t learn any historical facts or culture from him. I could not have been more wrong. One of the first days that I was there he gave me a comprehensive tour of the city of Montpellier, discussing the history of the city and how it became so successful.
It became evident that, perhaps due to the fact that he wasn’t a true local himself, he had taken an equal interest in the history of the place himself and had researched it. This is something that I had never considered – that visitors could have just as much knowledge of the place as locals due to their research of the area. Of course, it’s no different to the way the locals would learn it themselves, either through word of mouth or reading texts.
Geoffrey was a fun guy that was an active person in Montpellier and as a result had many friends and contacts in the area. One night we attended together a language exchange meeting. These are quite common across the world and typically consist of an informal environment where various people from around the world, either living in the place or visiting, converge at a bar together to talk in a variety of different languages. Although they are commonplace, this would be the first such that I would attend, and I found it very beneficial. Geoffrey himself had been to many of these events and as a result knew many of the frequently attending members and introduced me to many of them.
It was fun to practice my French at this meeting. Of course I had been practicing my French all along my journey but this was a different environment. This was an environment where the other people of the conversation had a prior understanding (indeed, almost an expectation) that my French would be far from perfect. This was an environment where they had become used to the idea of interpreting, understanding and correcting with clarity the errors that I would make. This put me at ease while speaking and I wasn’t so stressed about making too many mistakes as I knew they would be more readily accepted. This comfort actually allowed me to speak at a quicker pace without constant hesitation. But perhaps this is what I should be doing regardless of the scenario I am in? Perhaps this is the type of practice that will fast-track my development?
Geoffrey, after having spent the better part of four years in France, could speak French without problem and could understand everything that was thrown at him. He had retained his American accent but there was never a moment where a local frenchman did not understand him. This is the level that I wish to acquire. To be able to explain myself and be understood one hundred percent of the time, and to understand everything. Geoffrey had four years under his belt, but had studied the language at a high level in the US before coming to France.
Geoffrey loves food and wine and on multiple occasions during my stay hosted dinner parties of sorts. He had knowledge of all sorts of foods ranging from the more simple to what I would consider advanced. One night he whipped up a stunning batch of Ile Flottantes for the guests that went down a treat. Another night we had a sophisticated night of oysters with a local variety of wine that Geoffrey had much knowledge about amongst a backdrop of jazz music. Only the crossword puzzles were missing.
It was amazing to observe Geoffrey’s true generosity. He gave so much during my stay, constantly taking pleasure to cook for me or help me with my planning. He spent the better part of an afternoon with me trying to help me organise my trip to Madrid after I had encountered troubles. He seemed more determined to find a suitable solution than even myself! He accompanied me to the train station to assist me in buying a reduction card. And through all of this he never expected anything in return. I once helped him recycle a large array of bottles that had accumulated at his place by simply taking them to the nearest recycling deposit box. He was so thankful and grateful for such a simple act.
Geoffrey’s connections varied from group to group. He had friends that were French locals but due to being an English teacher also had friends that were from the US and were fellow English teachers. They accepted me just as easily as Geoffrey himself, so much so that I was ceremoniously sworn in as the leader of their private kingdom. Their initial king had gone by the name of Chris also, so it seemed fitting that I became the successor. As I was intending to leave in only a few days, my amendments to their constitution became
The 1st Amendment of the Short-Ass Reign of President Chris II
I won’t go into details on what the amendment contained, but it’s all documented somewhere, both in written form and video.
Another fun event came when Geoffrey had volunteered for a friend of his to do a short English lesson to some primary school children. He had invited me to come along and help and so I agreed, excited about the adventure. I don’t know what I had gotten myself into however. I had never taught English to anyone and didn’t have any experience handling a group of school children. As we took the bus towards the school I was regretting my decision to accept. Why was I doing this? I’m supposed to be traveling, not working. But then I realised. Part of traveling is taking yourself out of your confort zone in order to experience new and different things. This is exactly what I had wanted so I chose to challenge myself and go through with it.
The kids were a bunch of fun. I’ll never forget the moment that I was introducing myself to them at the start of the class. I presented myself in French and explained that I was learning their language, just as they were learning my language. I explained that I’m not the best in French and sometimes I make mistakes. Suddenly a voice piped up from the middle of the audience that reassured me
“C’est bien, tu vas y arriver”
I didn’t know how to handle them at all but Geoffrey took over and it was clear to see he was a natural at teaching. They learnt colours and played a game to pick out the colours and name them in English. They had such delight at watching their friends attempt the colours and even more delight when an answer was wrong! After this I read them a story, a story that I had actually read when I was a child too – Meg and Mog. Sitting in that classroom environment, reading Meg and Mog, it brought back a lot of memories of when I was a child and how far life had already taken me to be here, in Montpellier, reading the same book to an audience of French children.
Perhaps Couchsurfing with a “visitor” isn’t so bad after all.