Like most foreign-language students, I spent a year of my degree programme studying abroad in France and Spain under the Erasmus programme. It was a year like no other, one which simultaneously live my student life to the full and prepared me for adult life and ‘the real world’
It was an extended holiday, a bureaucratic nightmare, and ordinary, daily life. It is a whirlwind of experiences, where you have to learn quickly, make friends quicker and make the most of the time spent abroad before returning to the grey drizzle of Northern England. I learnt a lot more than language skills in those months – here are some of the most important or memorable lessons I learnt, which may help any traveller spending an extended period of time somewhere.
1. Engage with the locals
I didn’t do this enough. On the Erasmus year, there was a real sense of ‘us’ – the multinational collection of foreign students and ‘them’ – the home students, who looked at us like we were aliens landed from space. They didn’t really make an effort to get to know us, but why would they? We were foreign, it was an effort to hold a fast-paced conversation with us and we were only staying for a few months. Perhaps if we hadn’t clung to each other like survivors on a raft in the middle of the ocean, we would have had a greater chance of forming friendships with native students – I suppose it is the expat phenomenon. As it was, we must have formed a pretty formidable and strange group. It is natural to gravitate towards other people like you, who understand your situation and I do not regret one bit the deep and lasting friendships I forged that year, but I do wish I had made more of an effort to really get to know more of the local people and not have worried so much about my bad Spanish or whether they would like me. I should have been more fearless, which is easy to say in hindsight!
2. Take every opportunity to explore the town, region and country
Living abroad for a short period is not an opportunity which presents itself everyday, so you have to maximise the possibilities while there. I was very lucky in this respect; the friends I made were just as keen to explore and we were there for just the right amount of time where certain things became routine but most things were novel and exciting. We spent our weekends exploring – we made trips to other cities, to the surrounding countryside, or engrossed in cultural experiences in our briefly adopted home cities. I saw so many places and have so many good memories of those weekends, not to mention albums full of photos! I was an unashamed tourist, with the result that I know know the cultural heritage, geographical layout and hidden gems in various French and Spanish towns better than places I’ve spent years calling home in England. A few months in a place offers this unique opportunity to live the local life while still having the fresh eyes and eagerness of a visitor.
3. Pack light
It’s amazing how little stuff we actually need to live civilised, daily life. The amount of luggage I could take was heavily limited by the baggage restrictions of budget airlines, but even so, I could have got by on less. It’s better to take little, buy cheaply any extras you need when there and then donate stuff to charity shops or pass on books and course materials to incoming students when leaving. It is also good not to get too sentimental about stuff you buy there and not treat everything as a ‘souvenir’. Of course, take a few things back to remind you of the place, but for me this was always in the form of leaflets, maps, key chains and the odd piece of jewellery – not exactly things that take up a lot of space in a suitcase. A few months or a year abroad is an incredibly liberating experience, full of hazy, halycon days where you a free to explore and live life to the full, don’t let luggage weigh you down.Shclepping through an airport or on and off trains laden down with heavy bags is a horrible experience and it’s just not worth it.
4. Don’t fight the systems
This especially applies for study abroad, but is relevant for anyone living abroad for any length of time. Every country has their own way of doing things and however crazy and frustrating that way of doing things is, it is pointless to try and fight it. The Erasmus experience takes international bureacracy to a whole new level and in order to get the mobility grant to help fund the year, you pretty much have to sell your soul to the devil. From trying to open – and then close – a bank account in France, to crying at the international students’ office in Spain, I’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt when it comes to insane bureacracy. To this day, I’m not sure if my bank account in France ever did get closed, I merely assume it has, due to the fact that so far I haven’t been arrested on arrival into the country due to unpaid bank charges. France is especially notorious for paperwork, but Spain, with its laid-back air, can be equally as infuriating when trying to get things done. Their outlook that everything will happen in its own good time and that paperwork will more or less sort itself is a nice idea, but causes endless amounts of difficulties. These things are just facts of life – you just have to breathe deeply, count to ten and refuse to let it get to you, otherwise you could spend all your time there getting tangled in a bureacratic nightmare rather than enjoying sangria at a beach bar. I know which I’d rather be doing.
5. Enjoy it
I know that sounds trite and corny, but it is all too easy to get bogged down in the minutae of everyday life that happens everywhere in the world. If you have the chance to spend some time living abroad, whether studying working, or as a pause while travelling, it is a wonderful experience. While of course you still have responsibilites, particularly if you are working, it is almost like a break from real life. Make the time to enjoy whichever fabulous location you end up in – there is never too little time to enjoy a glass of wine at a pavement cafe as the sun goes down. Don’t feel that you can’t be a ‘tourist’ because you are living there – the liberating thing of spending only a few months somewhere is that hardly anyone knows you, few people recognise you and you’ll soon be gone – so make the most of it and do things you wouldn’t normally dream of doing. As long as those things are not highly illegal, of course! Looking back, that year was the best year of my life so far. Sure, there were difficulties along the way, sometimes it rained, I had an essay to write and laundry to do, but mostly it was amazing and if I could do it all again, then I most definitely would.