marcel boites aux lettres


When I arrived at my Mahorese school, I met several teachers who were in their last year in Mayotte. And universally, they told me that when you're in your last year, you're already at your destination in your mind. One, named Henri Denglades, was going back to his native French Guyana at the end of that school year. From September until the end of the year, he was mentally already there, thinking about how he would see his family again and reclaim his house. Every month of his last school year, he sent a box of stuff to said house, an idea which was designed to save him moving containers of clutter around at the last minute.

At the beginning of the school year, I knew I was going back to France, but there was nothing concrete to visualise as I had no idea where I'd end up. I've been in Lille in my mind ever since March, when I went up there and found a flat. The final paperwork for the flat arrived some time in June, a bit last-minute but we got there eventually. I've got a meeting with the solicitor about a week after I get back to France to sign some more paperwork and collect the keys to my new home. And since March, I've been thinking about this flat and the town itself, imagining myself living there, looking forward to some things and dreading others. I've also been trying to make the most of my last few months and then weeks in Mayotte, doing things I've wanted to do for a while now such as riding a motorbike round the island or competing in the tyre-race again.


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Mayotte has taught me quite a lot of things.

At school:

  • How to develop my own teaching style, which apparently means sitting cross-legged on the desk or on the floor in the middle of the room, doing cola tastings, designing posters and adverts, bringing in vuvuzelas, working on a new logo for the school and winding up teaching more drama than English.
  • How to concentrate on educating girls, because they're the ones Mayotte depends on and they're the ones who are the most likely to leave the island one day. And how to be a female role-model for girls who don't really have one of those at home.
  • How to understand that not all kids need to speak English, and that for some of them, an hour of sleep is going to do them much more good than an hour of gobbeldygook.
  • How to use their natural ear for languages and integrate words in Arabic, Swahili, Shimaorese, French or Malagasy into my lessons when they know the translations. Also how to interest them in languages in general by translating directly from Shimaorese into English and back. (I only know about ten words, though, so that doesn't last long.)
  • That you don't have to understand the language they're speaking to get an idea of what mood they're in and whether they're complaining or they're pleased about something. Also, that you quickly learn to know when they're talking about you, even if you don't understand the words.
  • How to be ridiculous and have a good laugh with the students. And then act surprised when students from other classes hear about your antics and ask you to do it again.
  • How to have a reputation as an interesting teacher, both in the classroom and in the staffroom.
  • How to deal with kids who can't read or write, kids who don't care, kids who are shattered because they work too hard in the fields or at home, kids who can't concentrate because they're hungry, kids who insult each other every two seconds, kids who steal things, kids who beg in supermarket car-parks, pregnant kids, kids who have kids, kids who attack and rape other kids.
  • And that it's perfectly acceptable to call my kids in for group hugs before they leave the school forever, the crying girls and even the grumbling boys, and that the students will probably remember me for it, even if it's just because I embarrassed them in front of their friends.


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In everyday life:

  • How to drive a motorbike like a civilized person and a car like a maniac. How to avoid potholes, drive three to a lane and squeeze the car past delivery vans and bush taxis stopped in the middle of the road so that a passenger can buy some fish.
  • How to turn an adult student from a nervous nutcase into a confident manager who can get by in English in his everyday work life, and then go bright red when he decides to come up and say thank you (in front of my boss) after three and a half years of lessons.
  • How to recruit and train a tyre-racing team, then compete in a tyre-race in the proper fashion.
  • How to swim with flippers and a mask. You don't get a lot of chances to do that in Poitiers. Also, briefly, how to manage an oxygen bottle and diving jacket.
  • How to reliably protect myself from the sun.
  • How to organise a Breton folk-dancing evening.
  • What it feels like to be solo flute in a concert. (That's not going to happen again in a hurry: in France, there's always someone better than you, whereas in Mayotte, they'll take what they can get.)
  • That tamarind and jackfruit aren't just found in chip form in Chinese-owned shops, but grow wild and can be found on lots of roadsides and hiking routes round the island. What a soursop looks and tastes like, and what a pineapple, banana or papaya looks like when it's still growing. That mangoes and oranges can be bright green but perfectly ripe inside, and that exotic fruit in the French supermarkets doesn't look or taste much like the roadside or back garden version here.
  • That you don't have to wait for green bananas and papayas to ripen, you just pick them as they are and use them as vegetables. It's a fight to peel the things, though.
  • What a breadfruit is, and how to cook and eat it. Also how to cut up a jackfruit, and how to cook cassava and taro root.
  • How to manage a (really) long-distance relationship. And a few temporary ones which are doomed from the word go, as both parties know that they're heading to different parts of the world after Mayotte.
  • How small the world really is. Even on the other side of the world, you're bound to meet someone who comes from the same area as you. And when that happens, you spend ages talking about one small village neither of you have been to for the last fifteen to twenty years.
  • How to move house on my own, including painting walls, getting quotes from moving companies, trying to get the Internet company to remove their satellite installations without bringing the wall down, selling my stuff, camping in the flat after the furniture buyer came two days early because he could only borrow a lorry on that day, stopping electricity and water services and managing two cats who had decided they'd rather travel with the moving company than with me.


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First came the movers, and some wishful thinking on the cat's part, then I repainted the flat, predictably ending up with interesting white-streaked cats and furry walls. A friend came on Tuesday with a few strong lads to collect the furniture, turning a mat into my new bed for the last few days.


Moving back to France, I'm looking forward to...

  • A change in the weather, to start off. It'll be cold, and rainy, and the sky will be grey, and sometimes I'll be setting off for school and/or getting back in the dark. I'll need a duvet for the first time in forever, and I can see myself huddling under the cover and watching the rain fall outside. I won't need air-conditioning and fans any more, but I'll have to put the heating on and wear a pullover. I'm looking forward to it.
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables. Lots of them. Cherries, strawberries, courgettes, leeks, cauliflower... most of which, apart from at various Christmases, I haven't eaten for four years. Also cheese, bread that tastes like bread, fresh chicken, and food that in general doesn't cost the earth. A friend's wife recently came to visit, and was instantly chastised by various acquaintances for not bringing cherries. I'll happily eat mangoes, pineapples and papayas here, then go back to France and eat apricots and peaches, but I don't actually miss European fruit (as opposed to Cadbury's chocolate, which has no equivalent) or feel the need to import it. However, I'm looking forward to the wider variety of available fruit and veg back in French supermarkets.
  • Fresh food without ants in it, dry food without weevils in it, a sink without a resident population of various insects and a flat without cockroaches, lizards, lizard droppings or large centipedes with painful stings.
  • Buying things. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not, as I tend to go shopping, but there will be much more access to consumer products of all sorts, especially as Lille is the fourth largest town in France (after Paris, Marseille and Lyon). No more waiting for hypothetical containers to arrive with or without whatever it is you need, and no more great long waits and high postage fees for getting things sent out here by companies that may or may not deliver to the middle of nowhere. Access to shops like Ikea, Auchan or Decathlon, as well as Le Comptoir Irlandais, which is the national go-to chain store for British products in France. Access to web-based shops and sites like eBay.
  • Talking of buying things, I'm looking forward to owning my own flat for the first time, and not just paying money to someone I only see once a year when it's time to put the rent up. This is going to be my space, which I'll be able to decorate or mess around with, and which I'll be able to rent out to someone else when I want to be an expat again.
  • Being able to walk around on my own whenever I feel like it. Not feeling that I have to take the car and drive to the supermarket, which is easily accessible on foot, just because it's after six p.m. and dark outside.
  • Being able to go for bike rides, just for the fun of it, without being discouraged by the humidity, the heat and the endless ups and downs of a volcanic island. I wanted a bike when I first arrived in Mayotte, but it really isn't practical here.
  • Walking on flat, stable surfaces without holes, gaps, planks, gravel or oil spills, and driving on roads without potholes and without having to weave all over the road to avoid smashing the car's shock absorbers.
  • Being able to go folk dancing. Currently, there's only the one traditional French folk group on the island, so if I want to dance with someone who knows the steps, that means removing two musicians from the group.
  • Teaching in a lycée (secondary school, 15-18 year-olds) rather than a collège (middle school, 10-15). Hopefully being able to do more than tell the students to sit down, go back to their seats, no, it doesn't matter if you underlined in green instead of in red, stop shouting for heaven's sake, don't insult him, and what do you mean he stole your pencilcase? The school I've been transferred to doesn't have any literature or language classes, just scientific and management groups who have a couple of hours of English a week, but they do have BTS (brevet de technicien supérieur), which take students for two years after the Baccalauréat and teach them professional skills. Now that should be interesting. Plus, it's not too far from my new flat (the one I haven't got yet), when they could easily have sent me two hours' train ride away then two hours' train ride back in the evening. It's a big area.
  • Being able to take a bike, a car, a train or a plane and travel several tens or even hundreds of kilometres on a low budget, rather than either driving round a small island or paying a minimum of eight hundred euros to get off the island. Travelling in a straight line and ending up somewhere new, or looking at a map and thinking: right, where shall I go? Paris Roissy airport is an hour's train ride away from Lille, things are getting interesting.
  • Above all, back to France means closer to England and closer to home. I like living on a tropical island and I'm very pleased to have spent a few years on one, but I'm looking forward to being able to see the family more than once a year. I also have a few friends who have managed to stay in touch, most of them now married and/or with babies, and I'm looking forward to seeing them again. I already have a friend who's coming to visit for the annual gigantic car-boot sale in Lille, which attracts visitors from all over France. It lasts for two days, takes up the whole town centre, and its main attraction is a heap of mussel shells to which every visitor must contribute by consuming moules frites in the local restaurants, which for the occasion serve very little else. However, I've also realized that I want to go walkabout again some time, and probably fairly soon, otherwise I can easily spend ten years in the same school, same flat, same city.


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