Claire Ward from Durham University (Combined Honours French and Music) is currently studying Music in Toulouse, as an Erasmus+ student at the university and as an independent student of Singing at the Conservatoire. This is her take on 'fitting in' during your year abroad...
It’s a trendy thing to do, write a blog as you head off for your year abroad. After all, moving away to a foreign country is a big and exciting part of our student lives. I confess, I too opened a Tumblr account upon my arrival here in Toulouse and I did write a few entries. But as I read over them, I quickly realised that my blog wasn’t just recounting my experiences. A recurrent theme was emerging - the theme of difference.
1. Erasmus Goals
Studying Music in Toulouse, my greatest aim for this year was quite simply to live a normal, everyday experience - to integrate myself into the French way of life, to make French friends and speak as much French as I could. The most important move in this aim was to find a French housemate. I used the website Appartager, but I know there are many other sites and Facebook groups with people looking for housemates. Yes, you take a risk, living with a stranger in a city you don’t know, but after a few Skypes, it was clear my future French coloc and I would get along just fine.
2. Living with locals
Living with a native is not only useful at the beginning (she helped me open a bank account, told me where to buy my metro card, etc.), but it also has an enormous impact on your language ability. Being obliged to speak French at home, throughout every emotion, at all times of the day, hugely increases those speaking skills, not to mention your confidence. A native housemate also gives you a cheeky pass through to meeting other natives and obliges you to ignore differences and adapt to each other’s cultures! What was strange to me at first has actually become normal. (That said, I do still put milk in my tea, which continues to disgust my housemate).
3. Erasmus friends
It is thanks to the Erasmus programme that we have this incredible opportunity to live abroad (and of course we all welcome the celebrated Erasmus grant!). Furthermore, Erasmus societies do marvellous things to make sure us foreigners feel welcome with loads of great events to help us meet people on arrival. However I have some serious concerns with the term "Erasmus".
First, all these friends from Erasmus events are foreign, therefore we communicate in English. To make native friends you need to do things individually. Throw yourself into local groups and societies. Find something that interests you, whether it be a sports team, a painting group, a church or a circus troupe and enquire about joining! Be confident! Joining my uni basketball team gave me an immediate sense of inclusion. Finally, I no longer felt like the token Erasmus but like a key member of a team of ten French basketteuses.
4. Being "An Erasmus"
For the first part of my year here, I too frequently referred to myself as an Erasmus. It was an excuse for not understanding, for skipping classes, for explaining why I was in France, everything. However Erasmus is synonymous with difference AND it underpins the fact you’re not a permanent resident - two things which won’t make it easy to get involved in real, native, local life. Perhaps it’s best to let go of the Erasmus title. Don’t segregate yourself from those native to your year-abroad destination by defining yourself as different. I get an enormous sense of pride when people don’t realise I’m foreign and my advice would be to start saying ‘I live in France’ and stop saying ‘I’m on Erasmus’.