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20 years ago - my Irish adventures: teaching, learning and discovering

On my social media feeds, there have been lots of references to "20 years ago" in the past few days. The vast majority of them, or course, relating to the tragic events of 9/11, which marked the turn of the century. Another one of a very different kind also caught my attention, which was the 20 year anniversary of the release of "Can't get you out of my head" by Kylie Minogue. Being prone to Proustian moments (and a big Kylie fan), this was enough to take me back to 2001, when I decided to suspend my university studies to go and spend a year as Teaching Assistant in Dublin. Here are some of the key flashback moments that come to me when I think back (cue to the start of "Dreams" by the Cranberries as soundtrack...).

1. National mourning and 28-bed dorm

I arrived in Dublin on Thursday 13th September 2011. The flames were still being put out and dust settling on ground zero, and the images of 48 hours earlier still taking up most of the air time on the only TV in the hostel I stayed in for the first couple of weeks after my arrival. With Ireland's history of emigration to the US, the feeling of solidarity and deep shock was palpable. The day after my arrival was declared national day of mourning, and the atmosphere sombre, as all businesses had closed their doors. My first opportunity to explore the city was in desert streets and quietness, with plenty of opportunity to reflect on what had just happened, but also, in a more positive way, of what was ahead of me in the following months.

The hostel I stayed in was called Avalon House, and was recommended as a first stop to foreign students coming to the nearby Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), where I was due to teach French. It was a friendly place where I started meeting people who would remain friends throughout, and it also was my first real experience in a hostel. Strangely, very specific memories come to mind: the artificial / plastic-y consistency of both the fruit yoghurt and muffin provided in our breakfast bag every morning (weirdly enjoyable though); the communal toilets which were flushing with hot water (in fact boiling hot water was all that was coming through the taps, showers, and loos, makes for easier pipework I suppose..); the immediate and implicit trust you were putting in your new roommates by leaving your belongings in shared spaces (on the understanding that we're all in the same vulnerable position). In terms of shared space, I was also about to try a new experience. Bookings could only be made on a weekly basis, and due to lack of availability, I ended up spending my last week in the hostel's 28-bed dorm, a symphony of squeaky mattresses, snoring people, and other varied noises. Intimidating at first, it turned out to be ok, the large amount of people around strangely giving a greater sense of privacy than smaller shared rooms, and a feeling of safety in numbers (safety from what?).

2. Out of money and saved by Gucci

A few days after my arrival, as I was beginning to meet with my supervisors at the DIT, it dawned on me that getting paid for my Teaching Assistant job involved claiming for performed hours in arrears, which effectively meant no pay until nearly two months later. With only very meagre money reserves, I had to take action, and so went off in the streets of Dublin with a few CVs in a folder, chasing for "staff wanted" signs, for evening or weekend work. One of my first stops was a shoe shop. After speaking with the manager and handing my CV, I was asked to come back an hour later for an interview, which I did, and remember it taking place in a tiny office in a corner of the storeroom. I had no retail experience, but a few years working for Disney in customer services, which seems to have done the trick, as later in the afternoon, I got a call back with a job offer - my job hunt completed within four hours!

The other surprise was that the job wasn't to be in the shop I interviewed in, but in the nearby Brown Thomas department store, as this company was running their shoe department. Better still, I was allocated to their luxury section, which is how I came to spend a couple of months spending my weekends selling Prada, Gucci, and Jimmy Choo shoes and boots, taking advantage of my French accent as my main (only?) sales technique. It also enabled me to get to know other people, and, unexpectedly, was met with a degree of admiration by some of my supervisors, and avid shoppers, at the DIT.

3. Teaching - from inspiring energy to accidental obscenities

Back to what brought me to Dublin in the first instance, the role I was going to take on as Teaching Assistant at the DIT. I was mostly there to support French lecturers for the International Business and Languages courses, and also picked up a few extra classes with the Catering and Hospitality college, as well as individual tutoring. I had no idea what to expect and what would be expected of me, which ended up varying significantly from one class (and one lecturer!) to another. And this became a wonderful blend of experiences, ranging from supporting lecturers during working sessions and simulations, working with students on set texts and topics, to running my own sessions and developing my own content - where I was trying to have fun mixing business related topics with popular culture phenomena (with the excitement of always wondering whether that would land, or whether I'd completely lose the students - both of which I experienced!). The students' reactions and engagement was equally varied, as could be expected, although mostly down to different levels of confidence, or general motivation; I was lucky not to have met any hostility (although the time I tried a joke about Irish dancing was as close as it got, but that was of my own making, and I learned that certain things were sacred.. including Riverdance), or attempts to derail the classes (unless I too was up for the derailing!). Some levels of energy, enthusiasm, and determination to learn, were inspiring and a great source of satisfaction. For others, it was just the degree of complicity and feeling that they were helping me move the class along which was heart-warming. And sometimes, it was just silly moments, such as times when mispronounced words of wrongly formulated sentences came out as rude and very explicit in French, with words or phrases which shouldn't be heard in a classroom (although I will admit that there has been the odd lesson in French swear words here and there...). With that in mind, this was also an excellent experience in reacting quickly, and plainly winging it (which came in handy for a later career in HR..).

4. Friends, colleagues and newfound family

Beyond the teaching experience, this was also an opportunity to be part of a team in an academic setting, observe and navigate the dynamics and tensions, but also, and mostly, develop great relationships and friendships. The feeling that I got from some of my colleagues who were genuinely treating me as equal, despite my status of "passing" assistant, through the way they were engaging with me, involving me, confiding in me even, was one of inclusion and belonging, which made a real difference. I also witnessed the dedication and commitment the lecturers were putting into their roles, sometimes hidden behind a more guarded appearance, but which clearly showed when it really mattered.

Outside of the DIT, going back to my first week at Avalon House, I had met a group of French people, mostly coming to study at the DIT, and roughly the same age as me. Overtime, I remained close to a small group of them in particular, which enabled me to build what was the closest to being a small family "cocoon" far from home. This was the main difference between my time in Ireland, and my later experience in the UK, where I quickly connected with local people; in Ireland, the majority of my circle of friends and close connections remained French, perhaps because I knew that time that I was only there for a few months. That said, I also experienced that being in the same situation, away in a foreign country, meant that we got to know one another and support one another probably quicker than we would have done otherwise, and build really close ties. Because despite everything, there were still some tough times. After the hostel, I moved into a large house-share, in a lovely area close to the sea, but over an hour away from the centre of Dublin. My housemates were friendly and cohabitation worked well, however it never quite went much beyond cohabitation, not for any particular reason, people were mostly keeping themselves to themselves and things just didn't quite click. As a result of this, of being far from the centre and other friends, of being away from France of course, and to an extent being in a place where I didn't feel comfortable enough coming out to other than a very few close friends, there was a certain feeling of loneliness at times, added to the fact that, although I hadn't put a name on it, my depression was already there at the time. This made moments of connection with my closer friends out there, colleagues and students, all the more special and rich.

5. Exploring the country with familiar faces

Of course, being in Ireland for close to a year, it would have been a missed opportunity not to venture outside of Dublin, and go and explore the country. Equally, it was an opportunity for friends and family from France to come over and go on a little tour. And so throughout my time there, one of my closest French friend, my brother, and my mother all came over (separately), and each time we rented a car and went across country.

This enabled me to discover wonderful places and stunning sceneries, including the Wicklow Mountains, Connemara, Galway, the cliffs of Moher and the Dingle peninsula (pictured here, probably my favourite), with all the things you'd expect to experience, like being stuck with the car in the middle of a flock of sheep, the atmosphere of local pubs in small villages, and hospitality and warmth of the locals. I loved all of this, and it equally made for an enchanting experience for those who came to visit.

With these visits from home however, it was a little bit of France which came over every time, and left afterwards. The last visit was my Mum's in the spring, and I surprised myself starting crying after I had waved her goodbye at Dublin airport. Around that time, thinking back to what I could be doing in France, knowing that I had my flat waiting for me near Paris, my Masters to continue, my head gradually decided that it was time to head back, which I did a couple of weeks after the Easter break. And even though I was leaving a little before the end of the academic year, I had one last surprise which was the goodbyes I would get from the entire team at the DIT, who recognised my contribution over the previous few months, and the friendships I had developed, and organised a lovely presentation for me, and a brilliant send off, which completed my experience on a high.

In a few paragraphs, I have probably only just scratched the surface of all the richness I gained out of this experience, and fond memories I have. It had started with me seeing the role advertised on a paper add pinned outside of the university admin office, and a "yeah, why not, that sounds like fun" reaction, which is how most of my greatest adventures later on also tended to begin!

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