As a languages student, the big year abroad had been looming over my head from day one like a bad smell. Some days I was excited, others I just wanted to curl up in my bed and never get out at the thought of starting a new life in a new country. But the fact of the matter is everybody is worrying about it. Everyone around you assures you it’s going to be the best year of your life, but what happens when it’s not what it cracked up to be? Sure I made some nice memories and I certainly learned a lot along the way, but there are so many things I wish I knew!
(Disclaimer: this post is very real, based on my experience and I am not going to sugar-coat anything so read at your own peril…)
- Don’t expect to become fluent overnight. I put so much pressure on myself to pick up the language in time for final year that I became anxious about speaking at times. Just go with the flow and learn a little more each day.
- People will try to talk to you in English no matter where you go – I picked the most far flung little village in Provence that nobody at home had heard of, and still people tried to talk to me in English. The trick is to try and reply in French until they get the hint.
- It is okay to speak in English sometimes. The amount of times I reverted back to English and hated myself and felt like such a failure because I couldn’t express myself (especially at the beginning). There is nothing wrong with mixing up the two languages if you are struggling – remember you are immersed and hearing the language everyday so even if you don’t feel quite confident in your speaking, you are improving subconsciously. I actually spoke in English a little more than I care to admit, and that is okay – I have still seen enormous improvements in my language skills and feel 10x more confident than before I went. Don’t be so hard on yourself!!!
- It probably won’t be the best year of your life. Okay so for some people they have a whale of a time and they ‘find themselves’ blah blah blah, but if you are anything like me – it was actually a roller-coaster of trauma, anxiety, with a few fond moments thrown in. Don’t build it up to be something it’s probably not going to be. It’s not a holiday and things will go wrong at times!
- Don’t compare your year abroad experience to your uni friends. I spent so much time looking at photos of my friends in the Caribbean, travelling around South America, and backpacking through the mountains in China and I wondered why I chose to stay so close to home working 9-5 in an office job. Just because your job might not seem so exciting doesn’t make it any less worthwhile an experience, (and the work experience is possibly more appealing to an employer don’t forget).
- Take your time looking for a placement and choose something which you will enjoy. Don’t pick something in a panic because your mates have already got their placement sorted. It’s important to do your research and find something which will suit you. You have to stick it out for a good 6 months so find something that appeals to you.
- Don’t lose your voice. People will try to take advantage of you everywhere you turn. “Oh look the English girl who doesn’t have a clue, let’s scam her and rip her off at every opportunity.” This happens a lot more than you think – I was ripped off in my first rental, and I have friends who arrived in Paris and their apartment they had secured didn’t even exist and they lost a massive deposit. Be very careful with who you trust and do your research to make sure you are not being scammed. Similarly, you might end up with a boss who piles too much work on you (which happened to a lot of my friends), and you will end up as the intern who is walked all over. Be respectful and remember – yes they are doing you a favour by giving you the placement, but that doesn’t mean they can treat you poorly.
- If you are unhappy in your job or your city etc., YOU CAN LEAVE. I quit my first placement and felt so anxious about it so I put it off for months and was unhappy. It is okay to admit that you are not happy and you have every right to leave. Uni will actually be very supportive so don’t stress about that. Sometimes you might need a bit of time to go home and that’s okay too. It’s vital to remember that yes, this year abroad is important and you have to stick out the 7 months to pass the year, but the most important thing is your happiness, and you can always find another placement or last minute uni exchange to complete the last few months. Don’t stay somewhere because you feel you have no choice which is what I did for a while.
- Be prepared for a lot of paperwork. The Europeans seem to make life so much harder for themselves with mountains of paperwork. Just when you think the endless Erasmus documents are over, you need to fill in what seems like a 500 page book just to open a bank account…
- Make friends or do what I did and get in a relationship… Your year abroad can be a pretty isolating place without friends so do whatever you can to meet people – whether it’s through sports classes, societies, or even Tinder!! I found it hard to make friends in such a small town but I was so lucky to find an amazing second family through my ex-boyfriend. Don’t get me wrong, I was in love and I didn’t just get a boyfriend so I wasn’t alone, but it definitely helped having somebody to feel close to. He and his family were my saving grace when I faced obstacles and problems and were like my own family while I was abroad. Despite whatever has or hasn’t happened between us, I wouldn’t have survived those 7 months without him and his family.
- It will be hard to make friends in a small town. Most friends I made were my boyfriends friends and family so I never really felt like I had my own circle of friends. There were very few groups or classes to join so I was limited when it came to meeting people. Consider this before going to a tiny village – how do you plan to meet people?
- Stay vigilant at all times. Being the blonde English girl, I attracted a lot of unwanted attention in both France and Spain. People will be curious because you are different, and sometimes that might not be welcome. I was followed to work everyday by a man in his 40s and ended up calling the police. I’m not saying that will happen to you of course, but tell people if you feel uncomfortable!
- Try not to blow your Erasmus grant on things you don’t need. All money sense went out the window when I was in France and I felt rich with my grant – but it soon dwindled away with all of the French cheese and baguettes I was buying. I ate out too much and had a nasty shock when I checked my balance after a few months of being frivolous! Also, you will put on weight if you keep eating crêpes every day… I learnt that the hard way.
- Keep in touch with your friends back home. I really cut myself off from everybody back home, partly because I was so busy, and partly for emotional reasons, but it is important to maintain those relationships so that you have somebody to call when you just can’t take another night of awful European soap operas.
- You will miss British food – and you will become very protective of British culture. I love everything about French food (except snails which make me gag), but after a while I just wanted a chip butty or a greasy fry up. I got so fed up of people saying I was weird for eating bacon for breakfast, because actually, no I didn’t want to eat chocolate for breakfast every morning. I became weirdly protective about my country and my culture and if anybody said anything bad about us Brits I got really annoyed. French people kept telling me we have awful food and it really upset me!
- Culture shock is real. Once the novelty of living in a new pretty town has worn off, you might start to despise everything about it, and that is totally normal. Your mental health may suffer, but take into account you may be suffering with culture shock which disguises itself in similar symptoms to depression and anxiety such as irritability (in my case). I used to get really unnecessarily peed off when the post office was always closed, and I actually burst into tears once in the supermarket because I couldn’t find any cheddar cheese. I loved the weekly market at the beginning, but after a few weeks I dreaded leaving my apartment on a Sunday because the sight and smell of lavender from the Provence region was giving me a headache. The little things you loved at the start will probably start to piss you right off.
- Make the most of travelling around a little. One of my regrets is staying grounded in my little town and not visiting enough places. I wish I took the time to see the French Riviera! Don’t get wrapped up in your little life and your job – you are only there for a short time so see as much as possible without breaking the bank!
- France is pretty much closed on Sundays. Unless you’re in Paris, the town is likely to become a ghost town so plan ahead and do your shopping before or you might find yourself sat in your room eating rock hard bread and cheese which has seen better days.
- Be prepared for personality clashes and cultural differences. It is definitely not just an out-dated stereotype that the French can be abrupt and have a harsh way about them at times. Us Brits are so overly friendly and smiley – we say hello to everyone we pass and apologise when we have done nothing wrong for Christ’s sake! But I remember feeling really on edge when I perceived people as being rude. I was quite sensitive and took it as people being unkind, but in retrospect, it was just a cultural difference. For example, some days I arrived and shouted ‘Good morning’, and got no reply which made me feel like I was in trouble… I was also taken aback at how some people will answer the phone in a grumpy tone saying “yes?” or “what?”, rather than the familiar “Hello, how are you?” that us Brits are so accustomed to. Don’t take it personally!
- Enjoy the experience as best you can, and remember it is only for a short time. You don’t have to love every minute, but don’t wish it away either! I won’t lie, I am glad it is over and I have never been so pleased to hear the Brummy accent, but in a years time I will probably miss my little apartment with its shower which kept running hot and cold, and the lady who worked behind the rotisserie at the supermarket who always knew I wanted a portion of lasagne for lunch.
So there you have it, my top tips to getting through your year abroad relatively unscathed – minus the third degree burn scar on my leg as a lifetime souvenir of my crazy year (my first and last time on the back of a motorbike). Sorry if this post has completely terrified you but it is important to be well informed before you go! Despite the mishaps I encountered along the way and all of the times I locked myself in the loo to cry and then compose myself to carry on my work, I am proud of myself for getting through it and I am a much wiser, and more-rounded person because of my year abroad experience.
Good luck and try not to call your mum every 5 minutes complaining about the lack of Chinese takeaways x