Getting a placement on the Leonardo da Vinci programme

Through the living room window on Boulevard George V, the sun is gleaming on the screen of my ‘portable’ as I try to memorise its new, French number. My brain struggles to find room among the vocabulary and grammar it has been force-fed all week by eager ‘profs’ at the Alliance Française.

I arrived in Bordeaux a week ago to begin an exciting nine-week programme, funded by the EU, which aims to foster greater working mobility within Europe. The scheme opens with a week of language courses and cultural training, helping participants to settle in with advice about travel, sim cards, and affordable places to eat and shop. Candidates are then placed with a local business for eight weeks: for me, a small independent publishing house.

The Leonardo da Vinci programme is implemented across Europe via a network of organisations, including Twin Group in the UK. To apply through Twin you must be over 18, an EU citizen and a legal resident of the UK, but similar versions of the scheme exist in other European countries. Possible destinations for UK applicants include France, Portugal and Spain. While the work itself is generally unpaid, all flights, accommodation, insurance and language lessons are covered, and there is also a (very nominal) contribution towards living expenses.

As I measured the risks of leaving a job in London against a long-held desire to improve my French, this financial provision was obviously a strong draw. With residential language courses in France tending to cost upwards of £270 a week, here lies a tempting package indeed. The variety of placements offered by the programme is also rare. While many schemes offer roles within education (for example, the British Council’s English language assistantship), Leonardo is conspicuous in offering areas as diverse as business administration, tourism, journalism and marketing.

To apply, I first needed to provide a covering letter in French and to translate my CV. With recent job titles including ‘SEO assistant’ and ‘post-production runner’, this was a task more than a little daunting for someone whose A-level French had gathered six years of dust. Rather than bludgeoning the thing into French with an over-sized dictionary, I took time first to revise some basic grammar and vocabulary, hoping to reduce the risk of writing ‘Franglais’. For most countries, a written language test is required too, so a little revision at this stage is definitely advisable. Part of my interview was in French, but ‘ne t’inqiuète pas’, this was a far cry from the terrors of school oral exams. For the main interview (thankfully in English), think carefully about the kind of placement you would like. As well as conveying your enthusiasm, this is the best time to communicate your requirements clearly as the comments of successful candidates are passed onto the host organisation responsible for arranging placements.

Places on the scheme are allocated on a first-come first-served basis. Securing mine a few months in advance meant that I had ample time to arrange a weekly French evening class for a much-needed boost before departing. I also upped my intake of French films and magazines, and researched terminology and phrases which might arise in the workplace. However, a few days into my stay, a prolonged conversation with the landlady’s daughter about (it turns out) a burst pipe proves that attention to everyday household vocabulary is equally important. Small confusions aside, I feel at home in this charming old house and enjoy having an extra opportunity to practise speaking French with the family.

I was looking forward to my first day of work. I attended a short interview at the publishing house to ensure the placement is suitable and that they are willing to take me on, grammatical failings and all. Despite my nerves, the meeting goes well and I am pleased that my online research beforehand allowed me to ask some relevant questions.

The company specialises in books about the literature, art and history of the Aquitaine region and also participates in a number of cultural events, such as the Journées du Patrimoine. This is a nationwide festival in which monuments, museums and arts institutions offer free or reduced entry. Many buildings not usually publicly accessible also open their doors. My supervisor proposes that during my two months at the company, I help organise such events and also work alongside the editors to experience all aspects of production. It remains to be seen just how tricky a lesson on photoshop (hieroglyphics at the best of times) conducted in French will be, but the nature of the work outlined is certainly appealing. Above all, I know that the next eight weeks will give my language skills a thorough workout. Ba oui, I’ll be French in no time.

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