Surviving my year abroad as a non-drinker

This article was written by Elizabeth Gibson, published on 18th August 2016 and has been read 5111 times.

Elizabeth is doing IPML French and Spanish at the University of Manchester, and spent her year abroad as an English Language Assistant at a school in Perpignan, followed by a French language course in Antibes, and finally a Spanish language, culture and economy course at the University of Salamanca. She has been blogging about all of her experiences. While many students drink to join in and meet new people while they're abroad, Elizabeth found fun ways to achieve this alcohol-free. Here's her experience.

When you say you don’t drink, there’s the sense that people immediately wonder why. For me, it’s that I just don’t like alcohol. I've no issue with other people drinking and I’m very capable of letting loose and having a good time.

When I set out on my year abroad in France and Spain, I wondered what it would be like for me. Erasmus, and general time abroad as a student, is often associated with drinking and partying. I wondered how I would fit into the community of language assistants in Perpignan and the student community in Salamanca.

In France, things were okay. The assistant community is a fun one with members from all over the world. We had many good times together that were nothing to do with alcohol, such as excursions, LazerQuest, making a music video and hanging out in coffee shops and around town. I went to a few parties and had a good time; there tended to be more of an emphasis on food and dancing than on drink.

I did feel occasionally judged for my choices; another assistant once said – not in a deliberately malevolent way – that they thought I was missing out on life. I didn’t really have a comeback, but I think it’s sad if you feel you need to drink to have a good time.

Many of my best year abroad memories are from the nights, when the others were out partying and I would go to the edge of the town where the skies were dark and stargaze. The rush I got from seeing the stars so clearly, and seeing so many more than I could in the city, was more amazing than any club. People forget that when you look at the stars you are looking far back in time, that some of the stars we see are now dead. I find that very moving.

I spent a shorter period of time in Spain and I was a student there instead of working. I think that definitely made things harder because there was the “university = drinking” mentality among my classmates. I think maybe they felt under pressure to go out all the time rather than actually wanting to. Some of them were also younger than the average assistant and that played a part. I certainly felt my non-drinking was scorned more by my peers in Spain than in France.

I still went out with the other students – we’d often go for tapas or ice-cream before they went out drinking and I went off and did my own thing. I had some great experiences in Salamanca, too – the city is well-lit at night and I’d wander it, enjoying the tunas (traditional musicians), the lit fountains and the beautiful stained glass of the Casa Lis. Because of the heat during the day, Salamanca really comes alive at night and there are plenty of activities available that don’t involve alcohol.

Overall, I would say being a non-drinker didn’t overly affect my year abroad experience. It excluded me from some things but it also meant I enjoyed more diverse experiences that the others may not have thought of pursuing, such as astronomy and live music. So, don’t let being a non-drinker put you off a year abroad – your year will hopefully be just as enjoyable as that of a drinker, if not more so, and in a different and maybe more original and personal way.

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