What to expect from your Year Abroad
Nel is currently studying French and Linguistics at Toulouse II Jean Jaures on exchange from the University of Edinburgh. Having just had the scary realisation of being past the halfway point of her Erasmus year, she is keen to share words of advice for those thinking of embarking on their own year abroad adventure. To read more about her in La Ville Rose, visit her blog.
1. What not to expect
- Don’t expect the whole language immersion thing to happen by itself overnight.
I found the first month to be incredibly mentally tiring. Being thrown into the deep end of French culture (notably the administration), feeling like a complete beginner at a language you’ve studied for 8 years and meeting new people left, right and centre is far more exhausting that I had expected. Having said that, I learnt to congratulate myself on even the smallest of linguistic milestones – being understood in the bank on day 2 and making a phone call without too many cover ups of ‘ben…oui…d’accord…ça marche’ when I knew it definitely didn’t marche is way more satisfying that it seems and definitely deserves a Skype home. It’s a strange concept at first to seek opportunities to simply speak to French people but try and seize every opportunity. Use the manned checkouts instead of the self-service, take out your headphones and talk to your covoit driver and join tandem language exchange groups. Some of the nicest people I’ve met in Toulouse started by a tandem rendez-vous and they’re honestly not as awkward as you imagine! Having passed the halfway mark in February, it’s now about seeking more of these opportunities to actively improve your language – asking for that ‘truc’ you don’t know the word for. I realised in about November that I didn’t actually know the words for 'colander' or 'sieve' and I was just describing them as ‘the thing for the pasta/flour’.
- Don’t expect people to help you if you’re not trying.
This sounds very pessimistic but eager to help is not something I would particularly use to describe the French… So give a little, get a lot. Try that phrase you heard somewhere but are not quite sure if it works or not, try that joke you have been planning in your head for the past 20 minutes and definitely don’t just switch into English because it’s more than likely that your French is better than their English! Oh, and a smile goes a long way when you’re so ill you completely blank on the word for ‘cough’ in the pharmacy and have to actually mime the act of coughing. Yes this happened in my first month.
2. What to expect
- Expect events to happen that you definitely didn’t factor into your Erasmus budget…
Getting locked out of your apartment on day 3 of being in France = 180€. Getting chased by the city bike system for a bike they think you’ve stolen = 100€+. Having to make an emergency trip home = 200€. These things happen but they’re all part of the big Erasmus learning curve, right?! Just hope your Erasmus grant gets processed swiftly and CAF feel like they might want to give you some money at some point in the near future.
- Expect the inevitable loss of contact with some friends back home.
Unless you’re prepared to sit on Skype all evening whilst sending voice notes on Whatsapp and chatting on Viber, accept that because you’re away, friendships may change. If they surprise you at the airport when you get home after 6 months abroad, great. If not, just think of all the new friends you’ve met along the way!
- Expect big highs and big lows.
Riding a bike over the Pont Neuf in Toulouse one evening, I had the huge moment of ‘holy crap, I actually made it here. I live here and I love it’. In the same week I also had the low moment of ‘I don’t know anyone, I can’t say half the things I want to in French, I want to go home’. But trust me, the highs are so much more often than the lows and it is so worth doing it all for those moments!
- Bit of a weird one, but expect the simplest of things to be just a bit different than what you’re used to.
Home comforts, favourite shampoo, MILK and all sorts. Even in France, I sometimes find myself struggling to find the English equivalent of something I like in a favourite meal. And going to the supermarket tired and hungry is never a good idea… My brain won’t translate all the different types of milk - seriously France; sort out your dairy products! Demi-écrémé, entire, crème fraîche, crème fraîche fluide, crème entire liquide, fromage blanc, fromage frais, yaourt brassé, and so the list continues of unidentifiable creams and yoghurts… Oh, and fruit and veg in Europe is bigger and better than anything in England you’ve ever seen. Red peppers the size of my face? Of course.
- Expect wine. Expect cheese. Expect all the French clichés.
Walking cliché of a man resembling Claude Monet playing La Vie en Rose on the accordion. No one bats an eyelid. Normal. Man with little round glasses sporting Breton stripes and loafers clutching a baguette under arm. Comme d’hab quoi.
- Expect to hear the phrase ‘à demain’ often.
At the bank, they’ll tell you to come back tomorrow with that other document they never asked you for the first time. At Uni, they’ll tell you to come back tomorrow with a different course code that doesn’t exist. And at the post office, you’ll have to go back tomorrow because they’re taking their 4th pause café of the day.
- Expect free weekends (and maybe Friday and Mondays if you organise your timetable right…)
...and a sizeable grant (thanks Erasmus!) to play around with that will allow you to pop to Barcelona for the weekend, take a covoit to the coast if you fancy it on a sunny afternoon or spontaneously say yes to the offer of going skiing in the Pyrenées because they really are that close!
- Expect the inevitable game of comparing your own year abroad with others.
Accept that yes, that guy from your course is living on some rooftop place in Guadeloupe and hanging out with cool attractive new foreign friends. But, that might be just what he puts on Facebook and he’s probably having all the same struggles you are! Don’t let other people’s years abroad ruin yours! Look back on how much you’ve achieved so far and revel in how great it is that you too are living abroad!