Before going on my year abroad (Erasmus in Montpellier, France) I was constantly told that it would be the best year of my life. The university painted images of international students with many French friends, speaking nothing but French, becoming fluent, and leading a busy and happy life, drinking wine and soaking up the sunshine. It would be an idyllic existence of little work, lots of travel and complete immersion into local culture. But, although not entirely negative, the reality is quite different.
The most significant difference is the fact that I have made almost no native friends, a common theme for Erasmus students. Although I had a wonderful group of friends, nearly every single one was an Erasmus student. It is nigh on impossible for an international student to make friends in a French university. This is not solely because of the language barrier, although this has an effect, but also as a result of the fact that the majority of French students stay in their home city to study, so already have friends; thus the significance of university as a social hub is greatly reduced. As an Erasmus student, the likelihood is that your friends will be Erasmus students too.
One of the most notable impacts of this lack of French friends is on the level of my language. My social life is largely conducted in English, and so I am not constantly speaking in a colloquial register. Choosing to live in university accommodation contributes to my lack of fluency. The halls are unsociable and lonely places, and I deeply regret not finding a flatshare with French people, which would have vastly increased my contact with the language. On the other hand my fluency has improved massively since September: from casual day-to-day interactions with shop assistants to formal university classes to important phone calls with the bank, I am surrounded by the language, and inevitably my French is continually improving.
The year abroad has also given me a wonderful opportunity to travel both in and around Montpellier, and further afield, including Barcelona. Once in Europe it is the simplest thing to hop on a train and explore the surrounding area. Erasmus gives you the chance to see places and things that you might not otherwise. Montpellier is a beautiful and interesting city, which I would probably never have visited if it weren’t for Erasmus, and so for that I am immensely grateful.
However, the biggest challenge that I personally have faced on my year abroad is the sense of isolation. Being over a thousand miles away from Edinburgh is really hard: away from my friends, from the city I now call home, and from everything familiar and comforting. I never thought that I would miss porridge, but sometimes it is the little details which really count. The change is immense: not only moving to a new university and a new city, but also adapting to a whole new culture, and in a foreign language. I tell myself over and over again how lucky I am, but sometimes platitudes are not enough. I have realised that I have to stay busy in order to be happy, and constantly remind myself to appreciate my year abroad.
The idea of an idyllic year abroad is, in general, a false illusion, and not indicative of the reality. Although I was dreading it and expecting the worst, my actual experience falls somewhere in between the ideal and the nightmare. It has been a semester of serious highs and serious lows, and has been challenging, but rewarding. Whilst there is still a part of me that wishes I had stayed in Edinburgh, I know I will never have this opportunity again, and with hindsight I will view this year as an incredibly worthwhile experience. Somewhat to my surprise, I’m looking forward to returning for the second semester.
Image: Wolfgang Staudt