On writing for the internet (sometimes it sucks)

Plus an FAQ on life in France

A strange thing happened in between me starting this newsletter and now. I became a professional writer.

That’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. This month, a decent chunk of my income will come from writing about cargo tracking for shipping companies. Some of my income will come from actual journalism. The rest will most likely come from personal essays: writing about me.

Freelance writing involves a lot of rejection, but I’ve had good luck with finding a home for my personal essays. My first big byline was a personal essay in HuffPost — a straight-from-the-heart meditation on not traveling home during the pandemic. And more recently, in Business Insider, I wrote about the privilege and pain of teaching English in France.

The nice thing about publishing these essays is that it’s not complicated. I write, briefly, about a personal experience. Because it is something I feel compelled to say, it flows quickly through my fingers into a Google Doc. I turn it in. Someone publishes it. I get paid. Simple as.

Nothing like the 10+ hours I spent last week interviewing, researching, writing, re-writing, and ragequitting my way to a finished news piece.

What sucks about publishing these essays is that people feel ownership over me and my story. After I published my essay with HuffPost, I got multiple messages from strange men offering up their spare rooms. I’m sure they were well-meaning. After all, I was expressing grief at not being able to return home. All the same — thanks, I’ll pass.

And people have things to say about me, things that are so much bigger than my tiny little twenty-something life. I find my choice of words, my headline — even my author photo — being drafted into cultural conversations I didn’t sign up for.

My essay about the trials of working as an English assistant in France generated some pretty lively comment sections, replete with “oh please”s and “boo-hoo”s and “poor baby”s and eye-roll emoji. Young people are so soft these days! Always expecting a vacation, never wanting to work! Look at her — of course they ate her alive.

r/punchablefaces

Hey! I find myself wanting to say. Only I’m allowed to talk about myself like that!

I mean, I get it. Who wants to hear someone complain about working part-time hours in a beautiful country right now (or ever)? But still. I’m only human. Ow.

I write to explain myself. Sometimes I don’t get enough space to do that in a 1,000-word article. As I publish more of my writing, I think I’m going to have to get used to feeling misunderstood.


For now, though, the impulse to explain myself remains. I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions people raised about the article, so I wrote up some answers.

Did you seriously not speak French when you arrived?

TAPIF only requires B1 French, which, in my experience, allows you to stare blankly at a bank teller until you give up and ask “parlez-vous anglais?”

I’d achieved B2/C1-ish French years before, but intensive study of Swahili erased it. My pardons were poles and my ouis were ndiyos.

Out of necessity, I quickly caught up. Three months in, my French was solid enough to make friends in BlaBlaCars. Two years in, a French man asked me where my “petit accent” was from — the proudest moment of my language-learning life.

Now, it’s my Swahili that’s gone and forgotten. Catch me in two years writing about teaching English in Tanzania.

785 euros for 12 hours a week sounds pretty good.

It is! Unfortunately, non-EU assistants aren’t allowed to work more than that. Depending on where you’re placed, it can be difficult to make it on 785 euros per month, particularly as a young foreigner unfamiliar with the French system.

I don’t necessarily think assistants should be paid more. I do think the Ministry should provide housing support and allow supplementary work hours.

What were the students like?

Rambunctious, infuriating, sweet. Most importantly, too young for me to be talking about in a public forum. (Which is a shame, because I have a lot of stories.)

Why did you expect a vacation?

When I decided to take the position with TAPIF, I’d just finished a season as a crosscut sawyer and was in the middle of enlisting in the Army. Teaching in France was a vacation in comparison to either of those things!

Would you recommend other people apply for the program?

Absolutely. Just come to France with ample savings, Google Translate, and a trusted friend on speed-dial. And if it all goes wrong, remember you are free to leave.

Why do you say you were exploited?

I wrote that I felt both privileged and exploited because that captures the truth of my experience.

Assistants are vulnerable. They earn a minimal salary. They often have tenuous housing situations. They receive a total of two days of training for what can be a very challenging job for a 20-year-old — standing alone, in front of 15 high-schoolers, speaking English, which many students don’t understand and have no interest in understanding.

When things go wrong, they are their only advocate. Without the support of the same labor organization that protects their French colleagues, assistants are more or less alone.

For many assistants, this is not an issue. They are assigned to a city with a low cost of living. Their school provides housing. Their colleagues take them under their wing. They have a wonderful time and write enthusiastic blogs to that effect.

Others, however, experience situations that expose their vulnerability. What happens when the school garnishes the assistant’s wages because transport strikes kept them from work? When an assistant is sexually harassed, by a colleague or student(s)? These things happen — they happened to multiple assistants during my time in France.

My own experience was more the former than the latter. By the end, I had a beautiful house and a beautiful life in a beautiful town. But I think it’s important to speak out for the benefit of those who do have difficult, even traumatic, experiences in France. Prospective assistants should know what they’re signing up for, and how to make the best of it should they choose to go.


I’m going to keep writing about my life on the internet. I have so many more stories, and I really can’t help telling them.

I want to tell you what it was like to

  • go solo backpacking across Europe at 17, freshly printed passport in hand

  • work 9 days at a time sawing logs in the woods

  • have scabies (!!!)

  • have dozens of seed ticks sucking my thighs as I slept (!!!!!)

  • be the world’s biggest David Bowie fan, 2010-2012.

I still want to tell you all that. I’m still getting used to the fact that thousands of people are going to read it.

Bises,

Ciara

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