It feels peculiar to think that what I write now is destined to be consumed by the readership of the university in a small town in Fife. It is peculiar because that small town appears in my mind like some memories in rose-tint of a life that is now a million years old. Sometimes it feels as if, out of my life here in France and my life in St Andrews, one of them must surely be a dream from which I had unwittingly awoken.
My name is Daisy and I am a third year French and history student. I am currently living in a small town called Croissy sur Seine, near Paris, working as an English Language Assistant in a college, for the British Council. I suppose I should start from the beginning.
I had never imagined I would be nervous, but stepping off the plane into France I felt absolutely terrified. My philosophical flatmate in St Andrews, Lauren, had told me once that fear of the unknown was completely rational and not to be dismissed as silly or childish. I tried to remember that as my parents helped me move into my new flat in this small town, 20 minutes too far from central Paris. I tried to remember Lauren telling me this but all I wanted was to be back with her and our flatmates and friends, sat around the kitchen table in College Street, naively cocooned in a blanket of familiarity.
This is my first piece of advice for going on a year abroad after you have spent what I hope were two wonderful years in our beloved town: be prepared to miss the town, your friends and the pure ease of the routine. Because when you are abroad and often alone, nothing is concrete or straightforward, familiarity is a thing of the past, and simple activities such as trips to the post office or supermarket can initially seem like mammoth exercises. Take it slow, don’t get frustrated if you feel you’re not adapting quickly enough. We do not realise how comfortable our day-to-day life in St Andrews is. For example, last year a walk to Tesco from our flat (an entire distance of about 300 metres) was met with rampant praise, widening eyes and exhilarated gasps of admiration. I now walk 40 minutes, mostly uphill, to the school in which I work. And yes, I am boasting.
It is inevitable that everything else in “the real world” will feel like a marathon, so under no circumstances should you attempt a sprint.
I sadly found that the new school was not very helpful or particularly welcoming. In fact, it is really only now that I feel settled here. Arriving here was one of the most isolating experiences of my life. No one showed me anything, not even where the teachers had their lunch. I felt so lost. It has, of course, become easier but I still have to frequently tell myself that this is all character building and, while the French may knock you down, you just have to keep picking yourself back up.
That said, the job and even just living here has given me a sense of independence that I never thought I could have. Back in the flat last year, I would dread being home alone. Safe to say, by the end of second year, my five flatmates and I had some deeply-rooted dependency issues. We spent nearly every second together, as some combination of the six. Now, although I have two lovely flatmates, I spend a lot of my time home alone, as they both work extremely long hours compared to me. The biggest shock has been that I now love being on my own, a ground-breaking discovery that no one could have predicted.
Your year abroad will not be just a language-learning or studying experience, just as your time in St Andrews was not only equal to the sum of your tutorials and lectures. Terribly cliched sayings such as “life starts at the end of your comfort zone” come to mind. Terribly cliched they may be, but it doesn’t make them any less true. Be prepared to do some serious growing up.
I remember the thing I was most worried about was making friends. In this modern world, a place where no one exchanges eye contact because their eyes are glued to a screen, you really have to go looking for it. I have joined a choir and am also taking part in an unpaid internship. I have met other language assistants and other students studying here. I have even grown really close with some other St Andrews students who live and work near me. Never be afraid to put yourself out there, because the other person is probably wishing they could be brave enough to make the first move. Oh, and apparently Tinder is a great way to practise the local language… although it might, arguably, provide a rather niche set of vocabulary.
To all those going abroad to work as a Language Assistant with the British Council, I will warn you of the following: be prepared to have a lot of free time. Terrifying expanses of time, between the meagre 12 working hours, can quickly become the stuff of nightmares. You will wake up and go straight back to sleep, bed becomes your best friend, Netflix will be calling your name (yes, the English version of Netflix) but you must be strong. If you aren’t already inclined to being proactive, you must become so, otherwise your year abroad will have slithered away down the drain before you know it. As I said, I found an unpaid internship in Paris, I do some writing for a website in London and have also started a blog. I am now thankful for those empty hours as they have given me the room to be creative and proactive and imaginative, which was often difficult to muster in St Andrews. But the hours of nothingness could have very easily swallowed me up whole.
I will also say that, although the British Council was arguably the easiest option, I do not want to be a teacher. I love the children and I get on well now with the teaching staff. But I do not feel fulfilled by the work there, it is simply a means to an end, a way to be in France and in Paris. So, I would thoroughly recommend that even if you aren’t sure about what you want to do, browse the other options and be brave. Don’t think that teaching is the easy option because it definitely isn’t, especially if it doesn’t really interest you that much. I have made some really great friends with other assistants but I do wish I had looked for something full-time in Paris or elsewhere in France, in a field that I am more passionate about. But I suppose, like everything in life, there are pros and cons to both, and I am grateful for the easy timetable and good pay.
Finally, I would like to advise that you make a serious bucket-list for your year abroad. I have just over two months left of this experience and I am seriously in awe of how quickly it has gone, and how much there remains for me to do and see here, especially in Paris. Travel when you can, go and visit other St Andrews language students, take every opportunity you receive. It is really the most remarkable yet fleeting time.
I am so grateful to my former self for having chosen to take a year abroad. It was terrifying to know that I would be working, not studying, and have two more years upon returning. I had several “What am I doing?” moments. But without the studying and the deadlines and the constant pressure, I have never felt so relaxed or free. It has been the fastest growing up in the shortest period of time and I am extremely proud of all that I have achieved. It is undeniably scary; nothing is easy and you are often completely on your own. But because of all that, and I am trying to figure out how to write this without sounding horribly cliche, I really do feel like a different person. Most of all, I feel grateful to have gained even more independence and an even stronger sense of myself.
If anyone has any questions about doing a year abroad, please do not hesitate to get in touch. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Best of luck!