Je Ne Sais Quoi: A Year Abroad
Molly Walker-Sharp tells The Gryphon about her personal experience of her year in Northern France and the pros and cons of choosing to study abroad.
With study abroad opportunities becoming more and more popular in nearly all degree areas, it’s worth starting to think about whether this would be the right option for you as early as possible. According to the European commission, the Erasmus scheme is taking on thousands more undergraduates each year, with nearly 270,000 students benefitting from the programme in 2012-2013.
Before heading abroad, you are warned by everyone that ‘culture shock’ will hit at some point and I, like everyone else, scoffed at the very idea of this. I was only moving 350 miles away to another Westernised country – how different could things be?
However, I soon discovered that culture shock really does exist and that it manifests itself in four different stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery. My honeymoon phase came to a very abrupt end after just two days, when I was refused registration to my university because it was closing time, despite the fact that I had been waiting there for the entire day. And so I embarked on the negotiation phase, a longer process as I encountered many of the varied cultural disparities faced throughout the course of culture shock.
The first and most obvious cultural difference roots itself in the hurdle of the language barrier, only I hadn’t realized quite how high I would have to jump. There was an eclectic mix of nationalities on Erasmus at my university and every single one of them chose to speak to me in English. I was also asked on several occasions why, as an Anglophone, I was bothering to learn another language. Many a time, I would begin a conversation in French and they would respond in English – the French delight at the opportunity to practice their second language just as much as you balk at the idea of having to speak your own. The problem lies in the fact that English is almost more accessible out there than the native language is. Everyone watches the same popular American and British TV shows in English and films are always available in their original version with subtitles, because dubbing is perceived as annoying and unnecessary by the younger generations. There is English music playing everywhere you go and you need a basic level of the language to get even the worst of jobs. I even had Mexican housemates who attended an English-speaking business school and didn’t know a word of French and it was never a problem!
The next battle also made itself clear early on, as I traipsed around my university in search of the timetables which were pinned to walls instead of being accessible online: the technology gap. In my experience, the French are complete technophobes: they still use blackboards, teachers just don’t use their email accounts, and there was one library printer serving all 23,000 students. Tuition fees over there were apparently a mere €500 a year, thanks to a socialist government, and everyone that I met was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship, meaning they only paid €5 of that. However, for the first time in my university career, I feel okay with paying what I’m paying. Our facilities completely reflect the money that we are investing. Whereas, Université Lille III was a desolate, grey maze of buildings and we discovered in our final weeks that the reason that much of the library was blocked off was because it was classed as ‘unsafe’ and that they were simply “crossing their fingers” that no ceilings fell down before the end of term.
The final wake-up call came in the form of cultural conflict, the realisation that standards and values are very different, when two of my friends were flashed in a local park. France’s previous First Lady, Carla Bruni, famously made headlines when she stated that her generation of women don’t need feminism, but I would argue that French women need it more than most. Sexual harassment on the streets of France is the norm. French girls in my city tended to dress down in the evenings for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Plus, if you went out to dinner with a male, he was given the important task of choosing the wine and was always given the bill, no matter who was paying.
Upon completing the negotiation phase, young Erasmus students are either ready to progress and proceed or regress and reject. I’m not sure if I ever reached the mastery stage but I certainly adjusted to France and its weird ways, learning to buy food before everything closed on Sundays and never to mistake a ‘Mademoiselle’ for a ‘Madame’. I gave up trying to be French and simply embraced my life as an English girl in France, although I still pride myself on being mistaken for a French person on two separate occasions.
Your year abroad might be the best year of your life, but then again it might not. To quote a fellow year abroad student who sums it up perfectly, “I wouldn’t do it all over again, but I certainly wouldn’t change it”. My university was frustrating to say the least, my landlord was definitely out to screw over foreigners, and I could barely wear red lipstick without being hollered at on the streets. But I met people that I would now consider to be some of my closest friends and have contacts all over the world. I travelled to ten different countries during my time away, I spent more than half of my year in bakeries, and the lifestyle is much more laidback than anything my third-year friends were going through back home.
I would fully recommend doing a year abroad in your time at the University of Leeds. The opportunities on offer are extensive and varied and are not just for language students. My year group is currently seeing students return from all four corners of the world – Tanzania, Australia, Holland, America, and so on. My advice would be to consider it sooner rather than later as many of my friends ran out of time to apply in the busyness of second year. Just remember that ‘culture shock’ is a very real thing and that sometimes it is okay to just crave a roast dinner and a decent cup of tea.