Tim Gay graduated in French in 1974. After spending some time teaching, Tim forged a successful career in PR and currently supports businesses with photography, commercial writing and promotion.
While studying Tim spent a year abroad in Belgium, where he had a particularly unique experience.
"Back in the early 1970s a year abroad was not an integral part of your degree course but it was seen as an advantage to those who opted to go as they returned more confident both in their target language and in life. The downside was losing all the friends you made in the first two years and having to start all over again in year three.
"Unfortunately for me it turned out to be one of the most difficult years of my life. It began with a tutor at Exeter (who shall remain nameless) who decided I spoke English with a marked northern accent. Naturally she argued that would mean I would teach the school students I was to meet a brand of French with a northern (English) accent. It was such a bizarre opinion that I was dumbstruck, especially as I spoke then and still do today with Received Pronunciation or RP. My French, learned in the north of France as child wasn’t bad either! I should have complained but there was no one in charge of organising the year abroad and students who went were totally alone and unsupported.
"As a result I wasn’t offered a place in France but ended up in Brussels on a fraction of the pay my colleagues in France were on. Even then £50 a month didn’t go far in a capital city. Worse still I was not considered an adult and couldn’t hold a bank account for a job where I was paid a salary into a bank. It was challenges like these that improved my ability to use my French.
"I was offered a place in the Internat (or boarding section) of a school in the suburb of Forest or Vorst (the area was Flemish speaking). I believed that the accommodation (a small room big enough only for a bed and my suitcase) would be free. I was to be disillusioned.
"All went well initially as the supervisors at the Internat were very friendly, as were the boys. I played chess badly and on occasion snuck off with some of the boys to see bands. At school I soon found myself covering the classes of the Head of English for a month while he went off sick. He was best mates with the Head of Flemish and they would call me over to settle arguments about English pronunciation. It was always the Head of Flemish who was right.
"I found a Greek restaurant where I could eat like a king for 50 pence! Yes, really. I went to the cinema a lot sitting alone in the cheapest seats right under the screen. There was also a café called the Drugstore which allowed you sit all day with just a coffee watching the world go by.
"Brussels could be pretty vicious. I saw a lady pushed under a tram because others thought she was jumping the queue. I also encountered an old man on a tram pontificating about the foreigners who come over here to eat the bread from our mouths. It was unlucky for him that he fixed on me. I carefully considered what to say and waited till I was about to get off. I told him that my father had fought a war to save people like him and I now wished he hadn’t bothered. (Point of fact, my dad was a scientist and in a reserved occupation but I needed to say something).
"One of the funniest things was on flying back to Manchester (thanks Mum and Dad) I was the only person on the flight not wearing a suit. Every time I was hauled over for a drug search by HM Customs. No doubt the smartly besuited courier laughed all the way out of the terminal.
"Shortly before Christmas I was unexpectedly taken aside and asked by the Finance Director to pay my bill. I was taken by surprise so I asked him for a paper copy. That was when it all hit the fan. The next day I was sent for by the school Prefect (or Headteacher), and given a humiliating dressing down about all my failings. These included forcing the school concierge to drive me round Brussels on the weekend to the tourist sites, and a whole list of other supposed misdemeanours that were simply untrue. Sitting with the Finance Director I was informed by the Prefect that I was to thrown out of the Internat and to find alternative accommodation.
"I was tempted to just go home but I decided that it would be better to stick it out and show my contempt for the senior managers of the school by my continued presence.
"Finding anywhere to stay proved tricky as I had very little money to spend on rent and worse, back then there was no law against landlords pasting up posters saying No Blacks No Foreigners. This was a crucial part of my political awakening in short measure.
"I nevertheless landed on my feet when one of the friendly supervisors at the Internat said he knew of an old lady who could use the money and had a spare room. Madame Poitevin was a remarkably kind lady who even denied my presence in the flat to armed police officers who were searching for ‘foreigners’ who had robbed a bank in the street below. She completely mothered me for which I have been forever grateful.
"Back at work I made a determined effort to socialise but gave up wearing a tie as that was a requirement for male staff, and tried to grow my hair long as that too was verboten! I was less successful with that! It wasn’t easy but I think quite a lot of staff were sympathetic as the Prefect was particularly full of himself and would opine at length about his heroic defence of Belgium against the Germans that lasted all of ten days. I had many revenge fantasies about the crooked Finance Director who was putting my money in his pocket without a paper trail, but sadly these were never realised.
"After I graduated in French I stayed on to do research and spent a wonderful year at Dijon University. I think it was some kind of payback."