5 things no-one told me before I started my year abroad

I am now two months into my Year Abroad in France, a fact which never ceases to amaze me. What seemed so huge and scary is, in fact, flying by at an alarming rate. As the weekends pass in a blur of sight-seeing and catching up on sleep, I took the opportunity to reflect on some things no-one told me about the Year Abroad before it began.

1. There’s really no substitute for real-life immersion in a culture and language

No amount of reading famous literature in French or watching French series on Netflix as “revision” could prepare me for the level of listening comprehension and speaking fluency required to hold a five-minute conversation in French with more than two people at a time. Partially this is because listening comprehension has always been the skill I’ve found most difficult, but also because everyone speaks so ridiculously quickly, often interrupting and speaking over one another. Add to that a murmur of background conversations, the spitting of a boiling kettle, and the constant rumble of traffic outside, and you get a very confused English student who has no idea what is going on.

On the bright side, the more conversations I listen to, the more I begin to be able to understand. It’s slow, frustrating progress – but it’s progress all the same.

2….And yet it’s possible to live in another country without really being immersed at all

The idea behind the Year Abroad is great. Go abroad for a year, return to the UK fluent. Easy, right? Wrong. Lots of factors mean that I spend a lot of my time here communicating in English, not French. Firstly, it’s my job – having been hired for my English capabilities, it’s no surprise that a lot of my tasks involve me using my native language, whether it’s translations or proof-reading or emailing anglophone clients. At home, it is no different. In a world where we’re more virtually connected than ever, it’s all too easy for me to stay very much entrenched in monolingual communication. I message people back in England on a daily basis – in English. I post on social media – in English. I pick up the phone and chat with a friend – in English.

What this boils down to is that you can’t rely on simply being in the country to absorb the language – you have to put in the work to immerse yourself. Even when native speakers insist on doing you a favour by speaking to you in English all the time…

3. All the usual life admin is even more complicated in another country and language

Oh, foreign bureaucracy. Everyone’s favourite Year Abroad challenge.

While bank accounts, phone contracts and healthcare are complicated enough on their own, my biggest challenge by far was finding somewhere to live. Having stayed in university accommodation for the first two years of my degree, I had never even rented a flat in English before I turned up in Paris with nowhere to live and no idea what I was looking for in an apartment, or the right questions to ask. Most places abroad wanted a lot of paperwork I couldn’t provide through not being a previous resident or having family in France. As a result, the first week consisted of moving from one Airbnb to another, dragging two heavy suitcases on the metro and wondering where on earth I’d end up.

4. It’s not all adventures and sight-seeing

Anyone who sees my Instagram story would be forgiven for thinking my evenings and weekends are just a blur of tourism, socialising and adventuring around exciting Parisian streets in the golden glow of a sparkling Eiffel Tower.

The truth is… it’s not that simple. I might be living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, but even so, the Year Abroad can be lonely. It turns out that having a 9-6 job is exhausting, and it’s hard to make friends with people who don’t have a lot in common with you. Instead, I’ve found myself growing closer to other Year Abroad students. No-one told me that most of my social life would be with people I already knew from university, rather than a host of new French acquaintances… But equally, no-one told me how grateful I would be to realise we’re all in the same boat.

5. But… It’s not as big and scary as it sounds

For the first few weeks, I was very aware I was living in another country. It’s not the big differences, like the language, which are so difficult to adjust to - it’s the small things, like not knowing where anything is in the supermarket or which brands to buy. It’s things like walking on the other side of the pavement or crossing a road when the light goes green and finding that traffic is still allowed to cross your path. It’s realising you can’t walk into a supermarket and pick up a cheap box of paracetamol if you have a headache – you have to go to a pharmacy, where you’ll pay significantly more. It’s a whole host of other tiny cultural differences which you don’t notice until they’re part of your life. They’re not bad changes – they are just… well, different.

Now, two months in, it doesn’t feel so scary. What first seemed like an insurmountable change has become normality, its sharp edges rounded off by a comfortable daily schedule. Sometimes I still have moments of homesickness, of feeling like I’m out of my depth - but more and more it feels like a year-long adventure, where I’m learning not just another language but a whole new way of looking at life.

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