Learn with Lyster: A brief summary of my year abroad life-lessons

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.

I would also suggest doing some research into the area surrounding your accommodation (if you have any planned) for things like shops and laundrettes, because it’s incredible how hard it can be to find food, and you may not have internet for some time. This is how I ended up living solely on bread for the first weekend I spent in France.

Expect awkwardness

Because BY GOD it will turn up regardless, in all its toe-curling glory. It’s simply impossible to spend a year speaking a foreign language to unsympathetic strangers without constantly getting into situations where you look like a lunatic and/or moron. I won’t dwell on this, as I already wrote about it a few months ago, but apart from anything else, introductions (and the subsequent conversations with new aquaintances) are almost always awkward, and whenever you move somewhere new there will inevitably be a lot of introductions.
I’ve come across three strategies for dealing with awkward situations. The commonest, and least adviseable, is to freeze and let the awkwardness exponentially increase thanks to the horrifying silence. This happened when I thought I’d be able to inconspicuously sneak in halfway through a German class I hadn’t enrolled on, only to be sent out in abject shame when it turned out to be extremely full of very starey people. The second (my favourite) is to learn to find awkwardness hilarious; once you’ve mastered your own cringe-reflex, life just becomes one wonderful, Miranda-esque sitcom. The final strategy, most commonly used by Proper Grownups, is to appear confidently oblivious, enabling you to kill the awkwardness dead through sheer force of will. Please see below for an allegorical illustration.  

Be mistrustful of expectations, and ready to change your plans.

No matter what your expectations are, they will be wildly inaccurate – that’s the point of moving to somewhere different. This can be a good and eye-opening thing, but only if you’re willing to be flexible in the way you handle the unexpected. For example, I had perhaps naively expected to effortlessly fall into a group of Francophones, which very much didn’t happen; I’ve ended up spending most of my time with other foreigners and having to very consciously find opportunities to speak French. This year has taught me that expectations should be treated like split ends; inevitable, soon to be cut off, and not a good thing to constantly examine.
I drastically changed my timetable in October when I realised I just didn’t want to be spending every waking moment in inaudible, overpopulated classes where I wasn’t speaking any French, and (despite not really knowing her at that point) I moved into Bonnie’s flat at Christmas. This was an incredible improvement from the isolation of French student halls, despite the extra rent and subsequent landlord troubles. I have friends who made far more drastic changes, such as dropping out of Paul Valéry University to teach English, or even moving to a different country. Most universities have very few requirements for the year abroad, so it’s worth doing whatever it takes to make it work for you, because there’s nothing quite as miserable as feeling like the inevitable times of homesickness, loneliness and frustration are in pursuit of something you don’t want to be doing.

Use your connections, no matter how tenuous

If anyone you know knows anyone in your new home, it’s probably worth getting in touch with them, especially if they speak your target language. While I am fully of the opinion that this would be weird and pointless in an area you already know, there are some tips you can only get from locals. You don’t have to become besties with them, of course, but it can be very reassuring to see a friendly face, even if you just meet for a coffee.

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.

Me and Ginny chilling on a boat in Amsterdam
It’s also worth going to language exchanges (ask around, they tend to be in obscure places eg. a bookshop-cafe in MontyP) or advertising for a one-on-one conversation exchange via student forums etc – you might be lucky and hit it off with your new buddy, and even if you don’t, you’ll speak some French.

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.

Bonus picture: I recently started to tackle Proust’s mighty tome. I’m slightly cheating by using an audiobook, but it is in French so I figure I’m doing literature AND listening skills in one go. This is how I feel about having finished the first of seven volumes…

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