Picture a school exchange to Marseille with a large group of year 8 students. They’ve grown accustomed to this land of distractingly handsome boys and so, when the time came for their teacher to let them roam wild without adult supervision, four girls knew they had what it took to finally prove themselves as teenagers and be ‘independent’. 

“Let’s all meet back here in exactly an hour so we catch our coach”, the teacher said, standing in the town square. Mission: accepted. 

My three friends and I decided to head back the way we had come in search of some chic bargains. Disappointed that the vintage jewellery shop we encountered was way out of our budget, we lost track of time in the safe haven of Claire’s purple walls. Looking at our watches in disbelief, we realised that we only had 15 minutes to get to the town square. Great. We hurriedly paid for our earrings in broken French and rushed out of the shop, but all the pale beige buildings faded into one stereotype of Mediterranean architecture.

Trusting my gut instinct, I made a series of turns in the hope that one of the buildings would jog my memory. Nothing. Time was slowly running out, and our panic was rising as we realised that four children getting lost in a foreign country was not nearly as exciting as it had seemed. None of our phones had service so we couldn’t get through to our teacher.

“This is it” I remember thinking to myself, “This is how I die: with a bag full of earrings and a half-eaten croissant.” Completely disregarding the rules of stranger-danger, we started approaching anyone and everyone to tell us how to get back, except our broken French made it impossible for anyone to understand what we were rambling on about.

“Isn’t French half of your degree, Sophie?” I hear you ask. Yes, but my (barely) teenage self didn’t care when she got lost in the backstreets of Aix-en-Provence; she had been too busy trying to take a selfie on a phone without a front camera to listen to what the French for “town square” was. Already 5 minutes late and with no data, Google Translate (every linguist’s Bible) was out of the picture.

But suddenly, my pay-as-you-go phone managed to ring our teacher’s mobile and I had a flash of linguistic inspiration which rivalled any great artist’s. “La mairie!” I practically screamed at this poor woman to whom I had been failing to explain our predicament. “The town hall!”. I was fairly certain there was a big imposing building with a French flag opposite the church. Only I was so happy for myself that I missed the directions we were given, and the elderly lady had already gone on her way. It was only by piecing bits of information together, our teacher still guiding us over my mobile, that we arrived at the town square.

We had been panicking right round the corner from our final destination all this time, but the experience has traumatised me so much that I still can’t hear the words ‘town square’ without feeling nauseous.

The blasted Town Hall

Sophie Benbelaid

When she's not drowning in the workload from her French and Russian degree, Sophie enjoys reading, yoga, ballet and writing. You can usually find her staying up all night in the throes of an existential crisis or in your nearest bookshop. She has previously been a Cultures JE and a weekly book columnist for the Blue. In true 'the student becomes the master' form, she is now SE for Columns.