She started studying for a career in languages with a degree in English Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Dijon. An Erasmus exchange with the University of Northumbria enabled her to spend some time in Newcastle, where she moved to in 1999.
Following the completion of her undergraduate studies, Hélène stayed in the North East and started a career in teaching, first at a school in Lanchester and later at Central Newcastle High School. During that time she continued her formal studies and completed a Masters in French and Spanish at the University of Northumbria.
After a 10-year career in teaching, Helene decided on a career change and in 2010 launched her company ‘Experience Northumbria’. She now offers tours in French, Spanish and English to overseas visitors, specialising in outdoor activities.
We wanted to find out from Helene how she found living in North East England .
What differences did you expect regarding the way of life/culture?
I had already spent some time in the UK on school exchanges and working as an au pair in Chester. So I had a vague idea about living in the UK. However, I was unprepared for the strength of the accent in Newcastle. It was unbelievable! The first two days people had to repeat everything at least once. It took a bit of time to tune your ear to the English and then the accent and after around three days my understanding was starting to get better.
How did you find the initial settling in period?
It did not take long to settle in – I took to it like a duck to water as I always liked Britain and the English language.
When I first came to Newcastle, I asked the University to find me a home stay. I got on fantastically with my Geordie landlady, who lived in High Heaton. She was really helpful and was already used to foreign students. She took me around and explained how the buses worked and was very kind and friendly. That really was a good start and it made me fall in love with the North East. The people here are very friendly.
What are the things you most enjoy living in the UK and what do you miss from back home?
I like speaking English – I like the sound of it and can’t really explain it. Also living here is a process as you’re always learning more, you find new films, new literature etc.
What I miss from France is public services that work. We do pay more taxes, they’re just more re-invested in efficient public services. For example, I pay more for public transport in Newcastle than in Paris. Also the trains don’t work here. A typical example would have been a trip to London, where we arrived at the station and I was looking everywhere for a button to press, so that the door opens. In the end, I realised I had to open the window and open the door from the outside. In France we had trains like that before the war. I’m not saying that there are no problems in France as we do have a lot of strikes. But when the system is working, it’s working and I’d expect for example a 800km trip to do in 3 hours.
Otherwise there’s not much I miss. I get the chance to visit home and then get the best of both worlds. I can fly from Newcastle to Paris with EasyJet and then take the train home, which is quite affordable.
How did you find making friends? And how did you this? Was it easier or more difficult than back in France?
It was relatively easy to make friends. First I met lots of people at university and then later at work. There were also people looking for French conversation groups and I made very good friends through that. It wasn’t harder than making friends in France, just a different way.
Do you recall situations that you initially interpreted wrong? If yes, what happened, what did you think and what did it later turn out to be?
I remember being called ‘pet’ all the time. This really felt invasive, but then I realised people say that to everybody and then I found it very sweet.
I also remember my godson coming to Newcastle who also stayed here for four years. We took a taxi to the Central Station and the driver, who had the broadest Geordie accent, was talking to us and we believe was trying to make a joke. We didn’t say anything, but we couldn’t understand a word throughout the whole journey!
How does the communication style in the UK differ to France?
I think people are very cautious, both in the topics and also in getting their own point across. As a foreigner you do get away with saying things a bit stronger. People never tell you that you shouldn’t do this here, but you notice their reaction and then you try to be a bit more diplomatic.
I organise for example philosophical evenings, where everybody brings some food that we share and I prepare a conversation menu. My continental friends – for example from Spain, Italy, Germany – all engage in heated arguments and go far in defending their strong ideas. I recently heard an interview with the French academic Alan De Botton on Radio 4 and he said that the best evenings are those with friends in deep conversations.
The topics the British avoid are for example politics and private life. You would need to be very close to somebody that they tell you more about the latter. People also don’t get emotional easily while on the continent people are more at ease with showing their emotions.
What values were you brought up with at home?
I had a relatively strict upbringing and we were taught honesty, reliability such as “my word is my bond”, the value of education, kindness, politeness, respect to elders and everybody else around you.
If people aren’t polite, I am not interested in them, no matter who they are – either French, British or any other nationality.
Do you think that children in the UK are taught the same values? If not, what do you think is important or the right way to be for the British?
As a nation, I don’t believe the British see the value of education as important. Things you know have to be more useful rather than general and cultural knowledge.
I also think that British society punishes family, women who bring up children. There is a lot of pressure to be everything – a good mother and good in a business. In France it’s easier to work part-time or stay at home longer. The family is an important value in life and a lot is done to help. Children are also more left free to look after themselves, whereas in the UK it’s too overregulated, they have really gone over the top. The litigation culture forces the state to cover their backs and you end up more and more with a nanny state.
Here I also believe that people are very individualistic. It’s how to make your life, your money, it’s not so much about solidarity. The continental model is more about society as a whole.
What is also strange here is the drinking in order to get drunk. On the continent you may end up drunk after an evening with friends, but it’s not what you set out to do. In 1999 we didn’t have the binge drinking culture, but it’s appearing in France now too. I can’t understand the motivation to do that and I also don’t think that it’s just the price of alcohol as I think a pint of beer for example is still quite expensive. That is a too simple explanation and I think it’s a form of destructive behaviour.
Also here boys and girls go out in separate groups, whereas on the continent we generally go out in mixed groups.
Would you work in another country again? And if yes, what country/ countries would interest you and why?
I would very much like to work in German or Spanish speaking countries as I would like to experience real life there rather than just holiday life. Also it would help improve my language skills.
Do you believe working abroad is useful for your career? If yes, how?
I wanted to study overseas as I also wanted a local qualification that would mean something to a UK employer. Also it shows that you have an openness of mind and that you’re not afraid to uproot, to go out and do it. That you’re not afraid of challenges.
What characteristics do you believe somebody should have, if they want to work/move overseas?
Open mindedness, tolerance. I think that nothing is ever as good as home, but you find out how people do things differently and sometimes better. If you also are outgoing, then the rest just happens.
What is your favourite food & drink here?
Yorkshire Pudding, bacon; and elderflower cordial – it doesn’t exist in France.
What places would you recommend people to see who come to either visit or live here?
Durham, Hadrian’s Wall, Coast and Castles such as Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, Holy Island.
What do you think people should definitely avoid? For example things you shouldn’t do, not talk about, food you shouldn’t try, places or activities that are just too weird for foreigners
I would avoid the Bigg Market with visitors as it’s just too unbelievable. Also if you go to a football match where England plays your country, don’t go and support yours loudly. I’d avoid tripe, which is something Geordie.
What steps would you advice somebody to take before moving to the UK?
If I had to do it again, I would start looking more at the Embassy/Consular website to find out more about the administrative steps of moving to the UK.
Are there any books, websites, films, tv programmes or networks that you would recommend to somebody moving to the UK?
I would recommend British tv comedies such as Faulty Towers, Blackadder, Father Ted and Only Fools & Horses. There are also films that accurately portray British life which can be either positive or depressive, such as Ken Loach films or the Calendar Girls.
Thank you for the interview!