Celebrities recall a year on the Continent

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Alastair Campbell Former spin doctor for Tony Blair

I remember arriving in Nice, southern France, on a baking hot day, going to the beach and burning like a lobster. In my third year at Cambridge studying French and German I'd drawn the long straw for a year abroad as a language assistant. My classes at College Port Lympia were spent chatting about whatever the pupils wanted to talk about - a relaxed approach I'd learnt from the gorgeous French assistant we'd had at my Leicester secondary school. I don't think I added much to their formal learning of English, but I got a year in Nice. I could be at school as much or as little as I wanted. Mostly I'd be there just for the lunch. Lessons were organised so that if I wanted to wander off to Marseilles for a few days, I could, spending the money I'd earned from busking with my bagpipes. I didn't feel I was a natural teacher; I don't have the patience. I liked Cambridge better when I came back, probably because I was older, but also because I had become fluent in French. I used it a fair bit when I worked for Number 10, dealing with governments that didn't speak English but did know French. I hosted a briefing at an Anglo-French summit entirely in French. I've always encouraged my children to learn languages. Becoming an ELA is a better than a gap year.

Arthur Smith Stand-up comedian

In 1975, I left the University of East Anglia to teach posh children at Lycee Janson de Sailly, in Paris. I was a bit "Cor blimey!" But I was excited to find the son of then president Giscard d'Estaing in my class. I was meant to be just helping out, reading things to the class and whatnot, but they dumped me straight in front of 35 unruly 13-year-olds who called me l'herisson - the hedgehog - because I had enormous Afro hair. I was only 20; it was quite hard going. I used to come in and write on the blackboard "English food is the best in the world", at which point they'd all makes faces and noises. I asked them what they knew about English food."De la gelee!" they said. Jelly. So I took some into the class and it ended up smeared over the walls. I used to eat in le refectoire des profs; the best food I'd ever eaten. You could have wine - free wine - at lunch. I was pissed every afternoon for the first three weeks until I realised I didn't have to drink as much as I could lay my hands on. I had the freedom of Paris and spent the whole time pursuing French girls, smoking Gauloises, and writing bad poetry. On Sundays I did everything touristy it was possible to do. It was marvellous.

Sophie Raworth BBC news presenter

I remember driving my Beetle through France having no idea what would happen when I arrived in Toulouse. I was nervous about spending a year there, but my aim was to speak as much French as possible. The 12 hours a week as a language assistant were the hardest I've worked - ever. An enormous effort is required in thinking in a foreign language while teaching in your own and trying to keep the class under control. It's quite something at 22 to be handed a class of 30 pupils and told to get on with it. I remember the day I was able to answer them back in slang. The penny dropped: "God, I'm fluent!" I'll never forget the look on their faces when it registered that I understood their every word. I loved life outside the lycee where I immersed myself in the culture and language of my new friends. I could have gone to university there and surrounded myself with English people, but I chose to teach. I didn't want to leave. That year gave me a lot of confidence.

Phil Nice Comedian

I fancied spending the third year of my German degree in the German countryside, and in 1975 found myself at an all-girls school in Merzig, Saarland, near Luxembourg and the French border. The first few months were lonely; thereafter I laid down roots and made friends. I wasn't a teacher and had licence to be more rock and roll in class. When I had friends over from England I'd take them to lessons and we'd do comedy routines, nominally to demonstrate the language, but also to show off. I did songs...

another friend did magic to lighten things up because society there was rather stifling. There is a large element of truth in the cliche about the German obsession with order. Like waiting for pedestrian lights to turn green even though there's no traffic. I think the pupils had a memorable experience from their year with me. It made me feel I could teach. I did teach English for a couple of years after university. I also learnt you can't generalise about cultures. I had some great times with quite eccentric Germans whose sense of humour was akin to my own.

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