Sunday, 17 August 2014

8 things I wish I'd known before starting my year abroad.

In two weeks time I'll be back in the UK and my year abroad will be over. The much-hyped year abroad I'd been gearing up to for years. The year abroad that turned out to be a million times better than I'd ever imagined.

Those of you who've been reading Handbags and Cupcakes for some time may recall the post I wrote back in July 2013, Pre-year abroad jitters, or maybe even this one the day before I moved to Germany in September. Yup, this time last year I was practically weeing myself with nerves.

But with a solid 12 more days here in Brussels it's not quite time for an emosh end-of-year-abroad post just yet. You've got that one to look forward to, chums.

No, this is the time for me to pass on some of my new-found wisdom to all the students about to start (or just starting) their own years abroad. I know some have already waved goodbye to Blighty and jetted off to more exotic climes (or at least Germany), and I imagine a few of you may be feeling exactly like I was - daunted, nervous and a little scared of the unknown (as well as excited, obvs.)

So, dear friends, here are a few pearls of wisdom, pieces of advice, and general insights which may just put your mind at ease and let you know what's in store. Of course your experience won't be exactly the same as mine, but I hope these may help you make the most out of your year.

Without further ado...

1. Living with native speakers is the best thing you can do to improve your language.

With my Mitbewohnerinnen
If, like me, you're heading off for the third year abroad as part of a languages degree, improving said language has got to be your top priority. The absolute best way to do this is to live with native speakers. End of.

In both my placements - Bayreuth and Brussels - I managed to live with students, which has been awesome. I was with two German girls in Germany and seven (yes, really), French and French-speaking Belgians in Brussels. Doing this is the best because not only do I obviously speak to them in German/French, but I hear them speaking to each other which is brilliant for picking up colloquialisms etc.

Also, if you live with native speakers they're more likely to welcome you into their friendship groups, which brings me nicely on to...

2. Don't expect to automatically make loads of local friends.

With ma uni galpals at Nuremberg Christmas market
I'm afraid that's a lot harder than you might think. All my fellow year-abroader friends (the ones I've discussed this with) agree with me too.

If you're studying at a uni, you will probably find you spend most of your time with fellow foreign students. As a language assistant, you tend to hang out with other language assistants. And as an intern, you may find yourself seeking out people your age, of which the easiest ones to find - and the ones usually most willing to make friends - are fellow year abroaders.

3. But it's totally OK to hang out with Brits.

We love Schnitzel more than actual Germans
The thing is, as a year abroader, you may only be there for a matter of months, and the people who want to do the same things as you - eg. weekend trips - are likely to be those in the same boat. My German housemates said I'd seen more of Germany in six months than they had in all their lives!

It's inevitable you'll gravitate towards people going through the same thing as you, and that's OK. I know it was really comforting to share and compare experiences with nearby fellow English language assistants and I had such good fun travelling the country and generally making the most of the year abroad with them. Pretty sure a lot of us will be friends for life, and if that's not a fairly awesome thing to come out of the year abroad I don't know what is.

4. Getting involved in stuff is a great way to meet local people.

The view from the stage in Bayreuth Christmas Market
However, it obviously goes without saying that the more time you spend with native speakers the more your language will improve. Whether you join a choir, netball club or Christian Union, getting involved in activities is a really good way to make local friends. (Gaaad I don't like the word "local" but I can't think of a better one without specifying a nationality, sorry.)

It can be daunting to go along to something not knowing a soul, but from my experience people will always be friendly and welcoming - everyone knows it's a scary thing to do! And don't be afraid to say, "Hey, I'm new here and don't really know anyone. Would you like to meet up for a coffee?"

5. Your language development might ebb and flow.

It's hard to speak French in Brussels. Seriously.
It's really exciting to see how much your fluency has improved, but don't get disheartened if you seem to reach a plateau. My German went WHOOOOOSH in the first couple of months, then the rate of development slowed down. But hey.

Remember it'll still be improving more than it would if you were back at home!

6. You won't regret travelling as much as you can.

Schloss Neuschwanstein
If like me, you find yourself in Europe, you simply HAVE to make the most of your location and also having friends dotted around the continent with whom you can (hopefully!) stay for free.

Most of you will know I have been all over the place this year - Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands (posts from most are on my travel tab) - and I have absolutely loved it. I never thought I'd travel as much as I have done, but it may have been the best part of my year abroad.

You may have little money, but with a bit more time, it's easier to travel on the cheap than you might think. I have totally caught the travel bug, and I hope you do too.

7. Think about how you want to remember the year NOW.

If only I'd taken a selfie with Barack...
I really wish someone had told me this. Whether you collect postcards from everywhere you visit, take a selfie, buy a magnet or film some video to create a mash-up at the end of the year (one of my mates did an awesome one but wished she'd filmed more early on), you need to decide at the beginning.

My plan is to make a scrapbook so have been collecting everything from tickets to coasters over the year, but there are lots of creative things you can do. Because trust me, you'll want to remember this year...

8. It really is true when everyone says your year abroad will be the best year of your life.

So far at least, anyway.

Everyone told me this, but a tiny part of me feared that I might be the one for whom it doesn't ring true. Well, a year on I can tell you my year abroad really has been the best year of my life. And I'm fairly certain yours will be too.

Good luck, new year abroaders! I'm jealous you have it all ahead of you.

Anyone have anything to add to my list?

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  1. I've decided TODAY that i want to go travelling so this is very interesting, thank you!

    1. Brilliant, Gina! Have a wonderful time :)

  2. As someone who is about to head abroad for a while (albeit to another English speaking country), this is such a nice post to read. I only know about 4 people in the whole country, but I'm still stoked to start a new adventure!

    24 Hours From Home - Travel, Adventures and Beauty

    1. That's awesome, CB. Thank you :) Enjoy the adventure!

  3. Love this Rachel! I really should get my act together and write my own (which would mainly be for those destined for Italy and how they really need to prepare themselves for how god damn disorganised the entire place is). But very sage advice here although I would say that making friends with locals is super easy with! Ok, if you are female you will get all the mens falling over their feet to befriend the foreign girl but if you are mean (like me) and ignore them and use it to hunt out girls who actually want a linguistic and cultural exchange, you'll soon have too many friends haha. I didn't really take it seriously until about 4 months in but I have told my successor (sob sob) about it and she has already got loads of friends 1 month in! Have an amazing end of your year, mine ended a month ago and the time has flown and dragged in equal measure! Good luck!!! xxx
    Lucy : La Lingua Italy

    1. Thanks Lucy, and yes, do it!
      Ooh that sounds like a really useful website - if only I'd known about it a year ago! Sounds brill. Thanks! xxx

  4. This sounds amazing! It sounds like you have had such a good time! :D


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