Before I started this year abroad, I didn’t properly understand how hard it would be. I had lived away from home in Birmingham, feeling this was sufficient preparation for living basically alone in a foreign city (regardless of the fact I often went home for weekends to cuddle the dog & eat free food). I had studied French for years, and had passed all my French exams (so surely that meant I was good enough to survive?). I filled the first 5 weekends with visitors and was determined that after that I would spend my weekends and free time exploring the city and appreciating everything. Safe to say this has been somewhat of a shock to the system…
It’s hard not to feel competitive
How much am I learning compared to other people? How good are they? Why aren’t my marks looking like theirs? It is easy to get sucked into a spiral of comparison, especially with something as transparent as a language. The marks from a grammar exam clearly show who understands and who doesn’t. Speaking poses the problem of pronunciation – is that how I’m supposed to say it?
I recently got the highest average mark for my atelier, a form of mandatory grammar and writing sessions for French students. The response from the other students? It was only because I’m foreign, not because I work very hard each week to understand. Pity marks, in their opinion. Sometimes, I’m not sure even when I can feel proud of myself.
It’s hard not to compare yourself to everyone else’s experiences
People only post the positive on social media. No one wants to post a picture of themselves crying when they can’t complete their timetable in the office. It’s also hard not to panic when time is passing and I don’t feel like I have improved that much. 3 months later and my notes are still a confusing mix of English and French with a lot of question marks and not a lot of people to ask for help.
Besides, an ongoing panic is that each day at university much of my time is spent listening. Regardless of how hard it is to concentrate for 3 straight hours in another language, there are other year abroad students who are becoming more and more fluent because they spend each day talking to clients, colleagues, to anyone French. There’s only so many times I can say hello, smile and attempt to light a fire of friendship before the French students rain on my parade.
It’s not all negative – I do have one French friend at university and I’m hanging onto her for dear life. Alice made the mistake of talking to me and offering to sit with me in one of my classes. Cue the development of a lifelong friendship – I’m not letting her escape now. Next semester resolution 1; make more French friends.
It’s hard to stay positive
The response I often get from my friends at home is one of jealousy. A year living in another city! Paris is so romantic! I’m so jealous of your opportunity! Sure, je suis d’accord; if you have unlimited money, unlimited time and perfect francophone skills. It can feel like I’m basically spending a lot of money to feel constantly stressed, without any friends each day at university.
When you stop to consider Paris, it is beautiful. Granted, it’s a little scruffier than London and sidestepping dog poo and overflowing drains is a sort of daily obstacle course along each street. But after 3 months of constantly running late, constantly feeling lost and constantly feeling alone it tends to lose its charm. Next semester resolution 2 – try to fall back in love with this city.
It’s hard to anticipate what will be a challenge
- Posting a letter. Working the post office machines, finding the right post box. Adult stuff.
- Filling in a form for my metro card. Had to ask my flatmate for help about which boxes to tick.
- Finding cheddar cheese / bacon / porridge oats. Who wants Emmental with everything?!
- Organising a ‘fun’ night out between all foreign students in my grammar class when the French being spoken is diabolical… there’s a reason we’re all in this class and it’s not because we’re fluent.
Genuinely, attending French university feels a lot like being back at school. There’s no electronic plagiarism checks nor a need to provide a bibliography for our work. When attempting and failing to sort out my timetable, I find myself treated like a child – I have even been refused help because admin staff didn’t want the bother of talking to me when my French isn’t of bilingual ability. The simplest question can become a nightmare, regardless of how enthusiastic I am.
Before I arrived, I didn’t know anyone else going to study in the city. Now? I still feel like the only one. Of course, I’ve met some lovely students from all over the world but most of the people I see outside of university hours are in Paris working. There are challenges they face each day that I’m sure I wouldn’t even know where to begin to respond to them; but similarly, it’s hard to communicate the stress I feel over classes when they have not experienced them.
Perhaps at the end of this, I’ll decide it was the best experience. Maybe I’ll attend all the year abroad fairs encouraging UoB students to do one themselves. I might pine for Paris every morning when waking up for my final year classes in Birmingham. I might want to live and work in Paris after (or if) I graduate.
There’s still hope yet. By the way, it’s freezing.