The Year Abroad is more often than not coined as “the best year of your life,” and so, you may have quite high expectations about what it’s going to be like. It is great when you are off traveling every other weekend in the sunshine, but adapting to life in a foreign country away from everyone and everything you know is not easy.
Personally, a better definition for the Year Abroad would be that it is ‘an education.” Be it living away from family and friends for the first time, coping with a long-distance relationship or getting to grips with a foreign language and culture, the Year Abroad teaches you things about yourself and the world around you that you can’t learn from a textbook.
Still, despite the coined phrase, the Year Abroad doesn’t have to be the best year of your life, but you can give your best shot nonetheless – saying yes to opportunities that come your way, travel whenever and wherever you can, meet people from different cultures – it is definitely a year you will be reminiscing about for years to come, for all the best and worst reasons!
Julia, moi et Kam at the Tortoise Sanctuary near Perpignan
Leading a more minimalistic lifestyle
When I first moved to Sheffield to start my first year of university, we had a car and trailer packed with all the things I needed and probably didn’t need for 10 months.
Boarding my flight to Carcassonne in August 2014 to start my semester studying in France, I felt so vulnerable with just a suitcase, cabin bag and rucksack for 4 months. Obviously I was able to buy things when I got there though (duvet, pillows etc!). When I finally left in December, I was able to give things away that I didn’t need anymore.
Moving again in January 2015 to Spain, I was better prepared and I managed to pack even less as I knew what didn’t use in France. Looking around my student room in Salamanca right now, I have very few belongings compared to my housemates who have x30 shirts or x10 pairs of shoes, but I don’t feel like I am missing out on much, except maybe some variety in outfit combinations.
I have one mini-dictionary and one book to read and that is the extent of my book collection here which is a shock for anyone who knows me. My wardrobe is quite bare; anyone who sees my photo uploads will probably know I am always wearing the same things. It can be frustrating, as I only have one jacket, two pairs of jeans, three t-shirts, for example, but I have come a long way since first year, and I am sure I won’t need that trailer when I move back to Sheffield in September. But I will make sure to bring plenty of woolly jumpers at least (it’s freezing, okay?!).
Me at the top of Les Arenes, Nimes
I’m not going to become fluent in 5 months
I knew this already but there is always that dream that I am going to wake up one day and just be fluent. I mean, this is my degree and what I am aspiring towards, isn’t it? All these things take time though and I am progressing.
I am lucky that I get to split my Year Abroad to immerse myself in two different cultures and languages. However I feel slightly envious of the Single-Honours and Non-Language Dual students who are spending the entire year focusing on just one foreign language and who can probably go that little bit further than I can.
I’m sure that if I were to have stayed in Perpignan this semester, my French would have continued to only progress and I would be going back to Sheffield in September more confident in the French language, instead of being in a ‘language dip’, which is how I’m feeling now that I have shifted my focus on to Spanish. Yet, if I were to have stayed, my Spanish would not have improved at all and that was something that seriously needed attention as when I arrived in Salamanca this January – I could hardly string a sentence together!
I should note though, that I still consider my French to be much stronger than my Spanish, and if I meet a French person and start conversing with them, I feel a serious sense of relief to be able to express myself with ease.
Either way, friends in both France and Spain have told me that my communication skills in *insert foreign language here* have greatly improved since I first arrived. The fact that others have noticed my progress is more than I could ask for and whether or not it is a lot or a little, this Year Abroad hasn’t gone to waste.
The world is a lot less scary than I once thought
Moving to a new city when I was eighteen for university was the scariest thing I had done at the time. New city, new people, living away from home – big life change. The idea of possibly living or working abroad after my degree was overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start.
After living out of a suitcase for eight months so far and moving to two foreign countries, the idea of booking a plane ticket and landing in a new place is not so crazy anymore, it’s strangely the norm. I know I can get by like this now. When people realise I’m not local, they are so friendly and do their best to help me feel welcome.
When I nearly fell down the stairs in Narbonne train station with all my luggage when I moved to France in August 2014 (no lifts/escalators), a lady helped me with my things and even offered me a car ride to Perpignan. I mean, how nice is that?! Strangers can become friends, unfamiliar surroundings can become a second home but you also have to be open to this change.
Still, the sense of achievement when successfully giving somebody directions in your new city and in the foreign language hasn’t died down just yet…
Of course, home sickness sets in, sometimes I just want to see films at the cinema in English, instead of dubbed Spanish versions and although the local cuisine is divine, nothing beats a chippie tea.
Learning to forget the plan
I pride myself in being a very organised person, possibly the most organised person I know other than my mum (I obviously get this trait from her!) and I like to plan things months in advance.
The more I travel though, the more time planning takes up and the need to do this has died down. I’m much more open to arriving in a place with no fixed plan except a few ideas of what I might like to do and take it from there.
I found accommodation for Salamanca all the way back in June 2014, way before I came here. I opted to find accommodation before I arrived because the idea of turning up with nowhere to live still unsettles me. However, despite organising everything to the final letter, I realised a little over a month in to living in the flat, that I wasn’t happy there, like seriously not happy. Accepting that things weren’t going as planned, acting on the knowledge I could do something about it was the best decision. Now I am spending my final 2 months here in a lovely, sunny flat on the other side of the city. I did have to go through a nasty confrontation with the landlord to let me move out though but it was worth it.
It’s the people, not the places that count
I have been lucky enough to spend my Year Abroad in two fantastic locations: Perpignan and Salamanca. One on the Mediterranean, with a beautiful beach nearby and close to so many incredible places to visit. The other, home to the most beautiful Plaza Mayor and the oldest university in Spain.
Canet-la-plage, the beautiful beach near Perpignan
Despite becoming attached to these two locations, it is the friends I have made and shared this Year Abroad experience with that have made the journey so enjoyable – soppy but true!
On the other hand, it is much easier to befriend other travellers, Erasmus students or people in the same mind-set who are reaching out for friendships and people to talk to. Although this is wonderful, it is frustrating that it is so much harder to make friends with local students who already feel secure and have friends. I am still not 100% sure why this is a thing. It is such a shame that as an “Erasmus student” I can be reminded that I am “different.” “foreign,” “not from here,” because people in class choose not to acknowledge my existence, even though I can speak their language. Yet, when there have been international students at my home university in the UK, myself, other classmates and teachers have made them feel comfortable and included by engaging with them. It’s something that has perplexed me during my time abroad that I want to challenge.
‘Travellers’ and ‘Tourists’ are different
I was first introduced to this idea when I visited Lisbon. The idea is that travellers are more involved and experience the places they visit more than see them: try to speak a bit of the language with locals, eat the local food or just move slowly enough to really absorb the feel of the place.
Travel is addictive: good thing, bad thing
The more I travel the more I want to continue doing it and I know I am not alone on this. I have caught the travel bug. My travel wish list is so long, and I am always looking online searching the ‘next possible thing’. So far on my Year Abroad I have visited many places, for example: Marseille, Barcelona, Villefranche-de-Conflent, to see Las Fallas in Valencia all the way to Bilbao and Lisbon! Although this has been an enriching experience, the more I travel, the more I realise how far I am from my home and family.
Of course, it’s incredible to be swapping rainy England for sunny Spain and I count myself fortunate for this experience, but my Year Abroad has also given me a different perspective. I am British; I miss having a kettle in the kitchen, politeness, people smiling in the street and our culture’s ability to form a queue in an orderly fashion. I have an even greater sense of appreciation for my family and friends at home and what they do for me, that there is nowhere better than “home.” I hope to return from my Year Abroad to make the most of my time in the UK and not sulk when staring at all my amazing Year Abroad photos in 4th year. Okay, I can’t keep my word on that last one!
What have you learned from your experience living abroad?
If you haven’t lived abroad before, is it something you are considering?
Let me know in the comments below 🙂