So I was going to do a “Ten Year Abroad Commandments” style piece, and then halfway through I realised that
a) Everyone and his dog has already done one of those
b) They are nearly always i) preachy ii) kinda obvious
c) I already overuse numbering in this blog (see above).
The upshot of this is that I’m just going to write a super-casual list of Rowan’s Top Tips for Life Especially When You’re Abroad For A Year, as gathered from the nebulous learnings of my time spent in a country I chose arbitrarily when I was 13. I lay no claim to be any more relevant as an advice-giver than any other Year-abroaader, or indeed than anyone at all, but these are the pearls of wisdom that I thought were worth remembering and sharing.
Use your time wisely and do EVERYTHING
Ok, I’ll get the biggest clichés over with right at the beginning. The best decision I’ve made this year was to say yes to every invitation, travel suggestion and job opportunity that came my way – with the caveat, of course, that I thought I might get something from it; there’s no point saying yes to things you know full well you’ll hate. While being the ultimate yes-man isn’t in itself a brilliant strategy for life – in fact, it’s a great strategy for being an overwrought doormat – it’s a great way to start out a new life, because it’s much easier to select your activities once you’ve tried them all. It’s also an excellent way of meeting people.
By “use your time wisely,” I basically mean fill it with things that improve your life in some way. The number of Buzzfeed quizzes I’ve done testifies to the fact that I’ve only partially succeeded at this, but after a slow start last term, I did manage to find a fulfilling balance of downtime and regular activities like volunteering and language exchanges. Incidentally, I also deliberately set aside time for watching TV series and doing very little, because goodness knows when that will next be sanctioned as a way of life.
The time I’ve struggled to use wisely is that which I set aside for being productive under my own steam, which usually descends into the bottomless abyss of Facebook. I find self-imposed projects and deadlines helpful in this situation – for example, learning piano pieces, writing blog posts, doing NaPoWriMo. I am yet to learn to fit admin in at sensible intervals.
|I never really stood a chance…|
Do your admin. All of it. Right now.
Second years linguists, I’m looking at you. I’ve never been so glad of what seemed like a pointless effort as when I got to France and it turned out I genuinely needed all of the documents I’d photocopied and (despite the abject misery brought on by this thankless task) sorted into a series of folders. I’m definitely not the best person to go to for a list of what you’ll actually need, but thirdyearabroad.com has some excellent packing lists.
Be mistrustful of expectations, and ready to change your plans.
Use your connections, no matter how tenuous
In case you’re doubting the legitimacy of this advice, and particularly whether contacts from home can help you speak your target language, one of the people I’m happiest to have met this year is the daughter-of-the-neighbours-of-the-holiday-home-of-a-friend-of-my-grandma (shout out to Ginny!), who I was assured was lovely despite nobody I actually know having even met her. It turns out she’s both lovely and happy to speak in her upsettingly fluent French, and I wish I’d got in touch before October.
And don’t expect a bed of roses
Or do, but just remember that roses have thorns. Lots of them. And sometimes they give you hayfever. And if you sleep on them for more than a couple of nights, they go all squishy and rotten.
This, for me, is perhaps the most important one. While it seems a shame to say this to all the well-meaning people who ask how fantastic and awesome it’s been, it’s not obligatory to have “the best year of your life,” and not everyone will. I do know people who’ve loved every minute of their year abroad, but for me (and any number of others), this year has primarily been a learning experience rather than a long holiday in paradise. I’ve been through things I didn’t know I could handle and faced a lot of my fears, both voluntarily and through circumstances outside of my control, all of which has taught me a heck of a lot about myself and the world. What’s more, I’ve gained a whole lot of confidence, going from a fairly shy, underconfident worrier to a genuinely confident, slightly defiant worrier. There’s somthing about meeting hundreds of different, interesting people that makes you realise that you don’t have to be best friends with everyone (but that you can get along just fine with almost anyone), and there’s something about being in what sometimes feels like a very judgey culture that makes you not give a damn what people think of you. That, for me, is enough to make the tough times worth it, and I have enough fond memories of the rest to make me sure that it’s been a year well spent.