After two whole years of tedious grammar lectures and eye rolls from your French tutors because your language skills are absolutely shit (for most of us), your year abroad comes around. Finally, the chance to perfect your French (or whichever language you study) and come back able to have perfectly fluent conversations with your lecturers is here. You dream of having endless conversations over wine and dinner with all of the French friends you’re bound to meet within the first two weeks of your arrival. I’m sure this is partly true for many people who embark on their year abroad (maybe for all you bloody erasmus students), but I’m writing this to give you a more honest picture of the year abroad. To prove to you that it’s not basically a gap year, but sometimes it’s actually really hard, tedious and has you wanting to run home to familiarity.
1) Speaking the language
The whole point of the Year Abroad is to immerse yourself in the language and culture of the language you’re studying. This is, after all, the best way to learn a language, and it sounds so easy. Well, it’s not. It’s bloody difficult. Sometimes I can go a whole day without speaking a word of French. Sometimes all I say is ‘oui, oui’ and nod and smile like I know what the hell the other person is talking about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s starting to get better. The teacher’s at both of my schools are speaking more and more French to me, and I’m more confident to force my way into the staff room conversations than I was a few weeks ago. I also have a bit of a French-English language exchange with a colleague’s family friend. My point is, you have to work hard just to speak an adequate amount of French each day, and you can’t just sit back and let your year abroad pass you by in silence.
2) Making friends
You think that you’re going to meet so many friends with whom you can speak French. You’re going to be inundated with invites to sophisticated soirées in Parisian apartments where there will be a disgusting amount of cheese and wine (champagne for me, thanks). All I have to say to this is… lol. The people I speak the most French with are teachers, most of whom are in the 35-60 age bracket. Young, French people don’t really want to make friends with English people, unless they want to speak English. And then you have a French friend… who doesn’t speak any French to you. ARGH!! I realised this pretty early on and made sure that I got myself out there. I’ve joined a gym and have a few conversations with the instructors and regular gym goers, and I go to pole dancing lessons at least once every two weeks. Ironically, the few new people I’ve met are two English girls who go to the same gym as me – it’s like English people are magnetically attracted towards one another and then you cling on for life in this scary, scary French world. Again, you have to force yourself onto the social scene. Do things that you enjoy or want to try out. My next project is to find some sort of art course (maybe pottery or jewellery making) in the New Year!
Amien’s Christmas Market – I am so excited!!
When I applied to the British Council, I asked to be placed on the East border. For some reason, they completely disregarded my choices and plonked me in a pretty rough area just outside of Paris. I wanted to be in the east so I could travel easily around Europe. My plan was to spend weekends in Bruges, Berlin and Budapest with all of the French friends I made within the first two weeks (haha). To be fair, I can easily do that from Paris. Train lines run from Paris to pretty much all over Europe. But trying to organise your travel plans weeks or months in advance (train prices go up so quickly in the weeks leading up to a journey) when you’re struggling just to set up a life in the place you’re already in is pretty tough. So, I’ve given myself until Christmas to properly feel settled in Paris, with a trip to Amiens planned with a friend in a few weeks’ time, and lots of visitors to keep me company in the meantime. After Christmas, I plan to do a lot more travelling with my weekends off, and some inter-railing next summer – who’s in?
4) Playing the tourist
I thought I was going to be out every weekend trying out all the chic places to eat and drink, seeing all of the main tourist attractions and exploring the hidden gems of Paris. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to normal life and become just another inhabitant taking for granted your surroundings. Don’t judge me, but I still haven’t been inside the Notre Dame because… ugh, all those bloody tourists and the ridiculously long queue that I don’t have time for! Sometimes all I want to do with my weekend is catch up on sleep, go to the gym, lesson plan and maybe see a film with a friend. And then you think, for God’s sake, you’re in one of the best cities in the world, get your arse out there and do something… anything! This has become a recurring theme, but you absolutely have to make yourself do all the things you said you were going to do.
Here is a photo of the Saint-Chapelle last week. I didn’t post it on Instagram because I visited on Friday afternoon, and then the attacks happened.
Yes, being on my year abroad is amazing. I love it. It’s exciting and fun and I feel like I’m having a much needed breather from uni to get to grips with why I am actually studying French. But it’s hard. I’m constantly thinking of ways to speak more French and berating myself when I don’t. I feel despair when I realise I’ve made few French friends who are willing to ask me out with their circle of friends. And I feel stupid when sometimes I waste my time binge-watching Modern Family for the second time. But then I remember that what I’ve already done is amazing. I’ve moved to another country, I’ve battled French bureaucracy, I’ve forced myself to keep up with my hobbies, I teach unruly kids who sometimes make me want to cry, and I’ve done it all (almost) alone.