Here is some advice for anyone studying abroad. Just do it.
It is true when they say that your college years fly by. Here I am in my second semester of my junior year and I can’t seem to comprehend the fact that I am supposed to have a career plan in a year from now. Hell, I’m still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts. Although there’s one thing I do know and it’s that I’m so glad I took the opportunity to travel abroad last June of 2015. When I look back to my college years in the future, my intent is that I never have to think about the “what if’s”.
Last summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit a little town in the south of France called Pau. You’ve probably never heard of it, but if you have, let me know because I want to meet you.
Pau is surrounded by the breathtaking Pyrénées Mountains that also extends to the border of Spain. Pau also has it’s own château, along with other rich historical architecture around the city. I experienced all kinds of bipolar weather, but the most being rain. Fun fact: I can proudly say that I had one foot in Spain and the other in France when my host family and I drove up to the mountains to visit a small market place.
Anyways, I could really go on and on about my experience abroad but I wanted to focus on a few things here. If you are a college student like me, and the thought of studying abroad crossed your mind even for a second, I strongly recommend it and here’s why:
Say good-bye to your comfort zone
You may be used to having the same routine every day that keeps your life on schedule. Living abroad, especially in Europe, time doesn’t exist. Looking back, I realized how much Americans are obsessed with time. In France, if someone invites you to dinner at 9 p.m., you better not show up until 10 p.m. Have an appointment after class? What’s the rush, let’s just go grab an afternoon coffee and talk about nonsense. Taking the train? Yea…you might want to be on time for that.
La langue d’amour
I put myself in a homestay to force myself to learn French in the quickest, most natural way possible. I kid you not, all those five years of French I took in high school and college, I relearned in three weeks. By five weeks, I was able to hold a conversation with my host parents at dinner about what I did during the day and what I’m going to do the next day. If you know French, you know that speaking in the past is not easy because you have to think about the l’imparfait or le passé composé. Did it happen once? Or did was it something I used to do? There’s your French lesson of the day.
Also, what could be better than home-cooked French cuisine every other night? Absolutely nothing! Coming from a Cape Verdean background, I felt right at home. For others, one might experience something called culture shock as defined below:
The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
To overcome this horrid curse, we must become open-minded to new experiences, ideas, and cultures and be willing to try new things. So, I’ll start with something we all can’t live without:
If you are a picky eater and you don’t like to try new things, then you will definitely struggle eating abroad. I ate a variety of food in France ranging from Vietnamese to Lebanese to Moroccan to Mexican (granted I ordered a cheeseburger and fries, but it was the best damn cheeseburger and fries I’ve ever had, and I was feeling slightly homesick) and even Italian. Oh, and of course I had to have sushi a few times, and let me be the first to tell you that there is no all-you-can-eat :’(
My point is that everything food-wise is just better. You really don’t have to worry about GMOs and processed food because everything is already fresh and organic. My host parents bought their fruit, veggies, meat, fish, and cheese from the local farmer’s market every Saturday.
I am completely surprised that I did not gain 100 lbs because I ate bread and cheese at almost every meal and dessert after every dinner. I ate at Georgio’s, an ice cream truck, about four times a week. I also had a box of macarons with me at all times. Even when I went out to restaurants, we ordered an abundant amount of food because we wanted to try everything. Also, the fact that I could order a £6 ($6.67) wine bottle for myself at dinner was game over for me.
If you are wondering what this means, it simply translates to “friends”. Again, if you don’t like to meet new people, I suggest skipping this part. But if not, I invite you to stay and read about why I think making friends abroad is important.
I met some of the nicest people in my study abroad program and even the friendliest locals. Another tip: Want to know another fast way to learn a language? Date a local! The whole “French people hate Americans” is just a stereotype. What is true, however, is that the French think we are loud — that I have to admit, is true. We can all recognize that cultures have their differences, but for the most part acting as French as you can without going overboard will definitely get you in with the locals.
Any opportunity I was given to either see a movie, go out to the bars, shop at La Place Clémenceau, or just to sit down with a friend and drink some café au lait, I wouldn’t miss. Every day is a new adventure being abroad, and it is even better when you have friends by your side willing to explore with you. I went to Spain with a Spanish speaking friend from my university and she taught me how to order a drink in Spanish, which still is the only phrase I remember how to say.
Becoming friends with the locals will really make you feel apart of the culture. I went out and played pick up soccer as often as I could and picked up (no pun intended) on street soccer terms like “vas-y, vas-y!” and “ouais” to call for the ball. For whatever reason there is, making friends with the locals is beneficial to learning the slang and non-formal part of a language.
Ma famille d’accueil
I couldn’t have asked for better host parents. They picked me up and dropped me off whenever I needed it. They fed me breakfast, lunch, and dinner whenever I was home. They threw me a mini birthday party with the best homemade tiramisu cake I’ve ever eaten in my life. They bought me a dozen of my favorite macarons. They drove me to their favorite spot in the mountains. They gave me a local cell-phone with my own French phone number so I could contact them and my local friends. They brought me to their garden to show me all the crops they grew. They gave me sweaters to wear when I was freezing because I only brought tank-tops and T-shirts. And they even asked me how I spent my day every single night. It really couldn’t have gotten any better than that. I miss them dearly and I try to stay in touch every once in awhile via email.
The most frequently asked question I get is about being in a homestay is awkwardness. Here’s my answer: it’s only awkward if you make it awkward. My host parents encouraged me not to stay in my room when I was home and to talk to them about anything so I could practice my French. I hope that you will have a family to make you feel as comfortable as mine did to me. If you are thinking of being in a homestay, I strongly encourage it because I built a connection so great to the point where I had tears in my eyes when I had to say good-bye for the very last time.
Traveling within another country does sound terrifying in itself. However, the only way to learn your way around is to become familiar with the area by actually experiencing the city. People don’t want to look like tourists carrying around a map, but sometimes it’s completely necessary. I had to take the bus from my homestay to school every day and it only took me two days to understand the bus routes. Granted that Pau is a small city, but the only way I learned was by making a mistake.
Story time. The first day I took the bus home from school, I got off one stop too early and I ended up walking around downtown for a good, solid hour. I was panicking in my head but I was trying not show it on my face. I was too proud and inexperienced in the language to ask for directions, so I just tried to figure it out on my own. I also was noticeably holding open a map like a full blown tourist…but no one stopped to help me. The good thing was that this happened to every one else in my program. We all at some point walked around aimlessly trying to find our homes. Eventually I made it home in one piece. I’m not exactly sure how, but I made it a point to never get off on the wrong stop again. Here is my lesson to you: familiarize yourself before you blindly hop on a bus and think you know where you’re going — you don’t.
For traveling short distances outside of the country, I recommend bussing it as often as you can. It may take longer, but it is way cheaper than a train or an airplane ticket. I had learned about “Bla Bla Car” from my host parents, so if it’s coming from them, then it must be legit...right? This is also a cheap way to travel and is very similar to über. All you do is look up people who might be driving to a certain direction you need to go, hop in their car and enjoy the ride. This method is best for traveling to popular cities.
Fortunately, I was only taking two classes during the summer. Learning a language isn’t easy, but engrossing yourself in the culture will make it 10x easier. I almost forgot I was in Pau for summer school because it felt like a 5-week vacation in Europe. All I can say is as long as you do the homework, stay engaged in class, and show up, classes will be a breeze.
Also, do not be afraid to speak the language. Fake it ’til you make it.
You are only as immersed as you allow yourself to be. Go out and explore. Say yes to coffee and crêpes. Be prepared to get little to no sleep and to walk a lot. Take a road trip to a neighborhood country. Visit that museum you walk by every day. Snapchat all your meals. Go wine-tasting and then buy your favorite bottle. Try that Lebanese restaurant every one keeps talking about. Keep a journal to document your favorite memories. Take pictures of everything, they probably already know you’re American when you walked through the door anyways. Lastly, be safe and have fun.
Traveling is truly exhilarating and reverse homesickness is real my friends.
One last thing
Be on time for your flight back to the U.S….yes, that’s correct. You might be thinking, “well, duh…” but you never know what could happen. Check and double check your flight information and make sure you have a reliable mode of transportation. Do not depend on the front desk clerk to tell you that the shuttle only takes an hour to get to the airport when it really takes two and a half hours because there’s loads of traffic and then in the middle of the shuttle ride, you realize that you read your itinerary wrong and have to admit to yourself that you’re probably giong to miss your flight. Then, when you show up to the airport, you only have five minutes to board the plane…but wait! You still have to check in your overweight luggage and wait by the check-in services because TSA shut down the gates due to a bomb threat and then you have to call your mom at 1 in the morning her time in tears. Please, just don’t do that. Moral of the story here: arrive at the airport at least four hours early when traveling internationally and you will avoid all of these issues.
To conclude, here is a quote from my dear friend and mentor, Barbara Lane:
“Travel enriches us…not only seeing beautiful places, but in the experiences we have. Our world views from language and food, from culture, is deepened. We learn about ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses.”