A few months ago, I wrote about some things I wish I had been told about the Year Abroad.
Today I am sharing some things I could never have guessed or been told about before planning my Year Abroad – events which have shaped my experience more than I could have imagined.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder (no, really)
This is one of those rare occasions where a cliché sums up the situation better than anything more original. Being abroad made me realise there are things I missed about the UK that I didn’t even know I liked that much: small things, like the way traffic lights work, or how people greet each other, or the availability of a particular brand of vegetarian sausages. And I’ve no idea how households abroad cope without a kettle! Then there are bigger cultural differences, like notions of personal space or attitudes towards punctuality and planning. Gaining a more flexible perspective has allowed me to better connect with other people from all cultures.
Making friends with… more English people
There’s something about being abroad that really brings travellers together, and the rise of globalisation and international travel means you’re more likely to find fellow compatriots on your travels than ever before (and even to be glad about it). Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I joined an English-language writing group, met up with other English-speaking Erasmus students, and sourced some English-style mince pies in Paris at Christmas.
Spending more time with Brits wasn’t the aim of the Year Abroad when I set out, but it kept me sane through the loneliest parts of being away from home. Integrating into a new culture is important, and no-one told me how difficult it would be to make new French friends (especially in a workplace) but it’s okay to take a break and maintain ties to your own language and culture too.
Getting creative to integrate
If you want to meet new people in a foreign country, it isn’t always as simple as going out and talking to strangers in the target language. Since these days we’re generally warned against doing that very thing – and most strangers are immersed in their mobile phone anyway – I found I had to get creative about immersing myself in my new home country. For me, that meant combining language practice with a topic close to my heart: volunteering for the Red Cross. You could also join a choir, pick up a new hobby, attend a weekly dance class… in short, do what you love, but do it somewhere new.
This list wouldn’t be complete without one of the most important geopolitical events of our time. Living in Europe while the UK struggles to come to any kind of agreement about how to get out of the EU is one of the most poignant experiences I have ever experienced. To be working in the centre of Paris, where many big businesses are arriving after having left London behind to avoid the UK’s chaos, and to know that I will have to go back to a smaller, more insular UK instead of staying here… to put it simply, it sucks.
I am one of the last UK students who will experience the benefits of free movement and the right to work abroad without a visa, the European shared healthcare scheme (using the EHIC, which makes healthcare free or cheaper for UK citizens abroad), the Erasmus+ exchange program and the accompanying Erasmus grant, a huge number of subsidised programmes and museums… The list goes on. I feel so lucky to have been able to experience this incredible opportunity, but desperately sad that future years may not.
It’s not just Brexit. For the past twenty Saturdays in Paris, the “gilets jaunes” movement has continued to stage protests across the city. That means almost half of my Year Abroad was been shaped by the social crisis in France – in the discussions I have had with colleagues, in the ways I spend my weekends (generally escaping Paris altogether to travel to other French cities), and in the way I see the trends which are happening across the world. The problems impacting the “gilets jaunes” are the same that have led people to turn to more extreme and/or populist and/or anti-system groups around the world: in the US, in Brazil, in Italy, even with growing movements in Spain and Germany.
The chance to see life through new eyes
One of the best ways to understand the world is to step out into it with your eyes (and your mind) wide open. Talk to new people and really listen to them, even if you disagree. This was a piece of advice I found very difficult to swallow when I found myself in a conversation with a fervent Eurosceptic in a bar on a Sunday night who insisted that the European Union was all kinds of evil. Even if I disagreed with his conclusions, it was hard not to see the truth in his concerns about the levels of inequality we’re seeing around the world. I could see this in person when volunteering in the Red Cross, or when I moved to Santiago and witnessed the current high levels of immigration from struggling South American countries.
For all the technological advances we’re seeing in some areas, studies suggest that inequality is getting worse in many countries. Travelling in 2019 has only made it clearer to me just how big the gap is today, in a way that articles and graphs just can’t illustrate in full. And it has made me feel extremely fortunate to be able to travel and learn as much as I have.
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