By Katherine Lemieux, Fourth Year French and German
‘How was your year abroad?’, The age-old question that haunts returners from their year abroad, but is it really ‘the best year of your life’?
Having decided to pursue a Modern Languages degree at the age of 17, the idea of spending a year abroad during my university studies was essentially a foregone conclusion. Every university course I considered included spending the third year abroad, promising a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity of cultural immersion’ where you were guaranteed to ‘enhance your language skills’ and ‘expand your horizons’. Therefore, as I sat my A Levels and started my studies at Durham, I frequently reminded myself of the promise of an exciting and enriching adventure; a break from the yearly cycle of studying and exams.
Entering second year was when preparations for my year abroad really began. The first term was filled with multiple year abroad talks, informal year abroad cafés and an inbox overflowing with year abroad related e-mails. I remember feeling slightly frustrated at the necessity of planning my third year so far in advance. After all, I had only just started second year! Nevertheless, as December 2017 arrived, I’d already confirmed a position as an English Language Assistant in France for the subsequent summer and submitted an application to the British Council to teach in Austria in February 2019. As far as I was concerned, I’d done my preparation and was ready to spend the rest of the year focusing on my studies. Therefore, I pushed the prospect of spending the following year in two foreign countries to the back of my mind and fully embraced the ups and downs of second year.
Somewhat predictably, second year rushed by and, before I knew it, I was preparing to leave Durham for one whole year, visiting places for the ‘final’ time and saying goodbye to friends who I didn’t know when I would see again. It was a very strange emotion; a mix of excitement and sadness. After leaving Durham in early July, I was fortunate enough to have a month at home before I started my year abroad, and I spent these four weeks surrounded by friends and family. It was a rather busy time and I gave relatively little thought to the six months in Southern France that awaited me. Nonetheless, the day I was due to start my new life in the Mediterranean (the 15th August 2018) rapidly approached.
Boarding a plane with a one-way ticket is a very scary experience and, before my flight to Montpellier, I had never flown alone before. Travelling in the peak of the summer holidays, the plane was filled with excited holiday makers, families with children and couples looking forward to a week in the sun, and I felt rather out of place, standing on my own with my heavy suitcase, large rucksack and overpacked carry-on bag. However, it was only as I prepared to leave the airport, having safely landed in Montpellier, that I suddenly realised I wasn’t here simply on holiday. I was facing the prospect of establishing a completely new life in a foreign country for an extended period of time and, without wanting to be dramatic, as my time in France (and later on in Austria) progressed, I realised just how life changing a year abroad can be.
The first few weeks living abroad can be summarised in two words: culture shock. Experiencing everyday life in a foreign county forces you to immerse yourself in a new culture, whether you want to or not. Not only is everything in a foreign language (unless you are in the US, Canada or Australia), but also mundane activities, like going to the shops or joining a gym, are a challenge to overcome. During my first month in continental Europe, I learnt that I needed a medical certificate to go for a run, paracetamol cost about £4 and could only be purchased in a pharmacy, opening a bank account is a bureaucratic nightmare and takes three hours, the French version of pay-as-you go is non-existent and a passport is required to simply buy a SIM card. Also, if like me, you end up living in a small rural town with a non-existent student population, you discover that it can be incredibly difficult to make proper friends as people are understandably concerned with their own lives and families. This therefore leads to severe bouts of homesickness.
I have never been one to suffer from homesickness, despite living five and a half hours away from home while at Durham, and so I had never considered the possibility of struggling with such emotions during my year abroad. Nevertheless, as time went on, I would find myself longing to hear a familiar English voice on the train or to see a row of neat terraced houses. I wanted to turn on the TV and be able to watch an episode of Pointless or pop to the supermarket without having to use my phone as a dictionary to make sure I was buying the correct ingredients. Most importantly, I missed my friends and family and easy social interactions that didn’t require fifteen minutes of mental preparation to respond to a question about my weekend plans in French and German. At times, I felt lonely and exhausted, and I was especially envious of my friends in Durham who could see each other every day and seemed to be having lots of fun without me. I was definitely suffering from #FOMO.
The hardest challenges for me were visits from friends and family as this was a reminder that life in the UK still continued, irrespective of my presence or lack thereof. Although I loved showing people around my new home and making the most of opportunities to visit the tourist attractions of the towns I lived in, it was always incredibly difficult when I had so say goodbye and I would often feel low returning to my apartment alone after waving them off at the bus-stop. My most difficult experience was after spending my 21st birthday in Durham celebrating it jointly with my boyfriend and all our friends, I then had to spend over 24 hours travelling back to France, leaving behind the familiarity of student life. It was a long and tiring journey, involving sleeping overnight at Manchester airport, and I found myself seriously debating whether I would prefer to write a series essays and revise for exams rather than return to the cultural otherness of France.
Reflecting on this idea as a current fourth year student with a looming dissertation, I find it hard to believe I could feel so desperate to return to studying. During my year abroad I was free and independent, no longer tied down by the stress of deadlines and academic pressure and able to utilise my weekday job, which offered holiday leave, to visit five countries across Europe. I had the time to spend my evenings tutoring children English, attending yoga classes and volleyball practice, playing the clarinet in an Austrian marching band and celebrating cultural events like the Festival Bonheurs d’Hiver and Fasching. I threw myself into the culture as much as possible, and never turned down an opportunity to explore something new and broaden my horizons. In many ways, despite the homesickness, I was living a sort of dream: paragliding over the town of Millau, bungee jumping and kayaking in the Gorges du Tarn, skiing in Saalbach-Hinterglemm and backpacking across Eastern Europe. I ticked numerous experiences off on my bucket list and discovered within myself an innate desire to travel and try new things and an appreciation for different cultures and their way of living. Through all the struggles, it had oddly been the most rewarding and exciting year of my life.
This is why questions relating to a year abroad are difficult to answer, it is often far easier to brush them off with a simple response saying how great it was, especially in a world where everything rests on social media and its distortion of reality. However, the true experience of a year abroad is far more difficult to articulate, particularly if you’re a languages student who was never forced to consider what the prospect of spending a year abroad actually entails (other than the fact that by the time you return you should be speaking French/German/Spanish etc. fluently). A year abroad is definitely the hardest challenge I have ever faced, but also my proudest and most important. The homesickness was horrible, but it taught me what I value most in life, and my ability to overcome it and power on with my year abroad has made me stronger as a person. I visited some wonderful places, experienced unforgettable moments and met some truly inspiring people, even if every now and again I was overcome with loneliness and a desire for home.
My year abroad was a paradox, sometimes the best year of my life and other times the worst, but It has made me who I am today, and for this reason, I will be forever grateful for the chance I had to spend a year living abroad.