He told UUK: "When I got back from fieldwork in Kenya in January I was potentially facing my last ever months as a student so I asked my supervisor, Dr Jamie Furniss, who had done a post-doctorate in Lyon, if he knew anyone I could work with in France. Et voila, I landed an Erasmus+ Traineeship at Université Toulouse II – Jean Jaurès." Here's his story...
Under the shadow of a British exit from one of the great European projects, there is another where cooperation is still flying high: Airbus. Formed as a collaborative response by France, Germany, Spain and the UK to American dominance in the aviation industry, Airbus is headquartered in Toulouse where I have spent the last three months as an exchange student. Toulouse has a long history of all things aeroplane that goes back to 1918 and Aéropostale, an airborne postal service established to connect France to its colonies in Africa.
My PhD research has nothing to do with planes or postal services, however, during my time at Université Toulouse II I have spoken at length with colleagues whose research is in North African countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Although I am part of a Centre of African Studies at my home institution in Edinburgh, the majority of the research there is in East and Southern Africa, conveniently mapping on to former British colonies(!). However, in moving myself to a French institution, I can see how I might also move the geographical focus of my research in the future.
Another difference I have noticed here, from Edinburgh, is a greater commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, Yann-Philippe, my supervisor and office-mate, woopee-d with delight at his desk. Ever happy to take my head out of my thesis I looked up and he told me he'd just landed a €100,000 grant for a new research project looking at the end-of-life of aeroplanes. The two-year project is a collaboration between anthropologists (like Yann-Philippe), chemists, engineers, and geographers. Yann-Philippe told me to hurry up and finish my PhD because there might be a post-doc waiting for me.
A possible post-doctorate position is not the only opportunity my traineeship has presented however. I have also given a lecture, sat in on Yann-Philippe's weekly anthropology class, translated some of his work in to English, and had plenty of chance to practise mon français.
The pinnacle of my French practise came about a month ago when a mix-up on my phone contract led me to an argument with a mobile phone provider. Although frustrated by the situation, I couldn't help but smile afterwards: what a landmark moment! To argue in another language! Of course I have also sat through several long lunches with colleagues (a vital part of French academic life) and barely said a word, turned up to numerous social occasions on time (which means half an hour before anyone else) and seen bakers contort their faces in response to my accent (duh-bag-ett sieve-oo-play).
In many ways doing a PhD feels like the end of the academic journey, but in coming to France and discovering these regional, institutional, and cultural differences it feels more like I am taking my first steps all over again. But then again what is research if not the continual realisation of how much more we don't know?
This weekend I'll get on a plane and I too will leave Europe. But I have a feeling that, as a dear friend once told me, this is more au revoir than goodbye.