(A continuation from Part I)
If only someone – myself, anyone – had forced me to answer these questions…
How are you going to make friends?
“I’ll just make friends with local students”, I told myself, and everyone else, failing to consider two really important things. Firstly, I arrived in Leipzig in early August, and students were on University holiday until October. Secondly, second-language conversations are more exhausting and far less natural-feeling. I did eventually meet lots of lovely Germans, but it was only when chatting in English with the English and American students I eventually met through Facebook that I really felt I’d found friends.
Facebook groups were a godsend but I wish I’d been more proactive in my search for pals. I did join a choir, but was too shy to approach anyone in the rehearsal break – and they didn’t approach me either. It took me a month or so to realise just how much I wanted and needed friends. I wasn’t as stoically self sufficient as I’d always thought myself to be. I’d never had to make friends for friendship’s sake before – they’d always come as a result of being at school, or college, or in a musical ensemble, with people. Meeting people purely for want of company was quite an alien concept.
Where are you going to live?
I’d been rash about this once before, moving into a house for second year with seven other people (i.e. far too many), including a then-current, now-ex boyfriend. I really should have given it more thought this time.
In Leipzig, ended up in a quite-tidy, very affordable, pretty-looking flat. I had two rooms to myself for the price of half a month’s rent in Oxford. I also had three flatmates who I never saw: two who were simply busy, and one who was, in my rare encounters with him, rude and disrespectful. I also had the world’s most uncomfortable bed. I’m not sure it was worth it.
Do you really want to do an internship? Really?
An Oxford year abroad involves choosing between three options. You either teach English, you study, or you find yourself an internship. While I stand by my decision that I definitely didn’t want to teach, I do wish I’d given the studying option a little more thought. I wanted to “do something different”, and because I’d already been a student in Oxford for two years, I didn’t think going to university abroad would be quite different enough. Oh, how naïve I was. Once you’ve moved to a country where you know precisely nobody, negotiated a bit of German bureaucracy, and forced yourself to speak a foreign language, you’ve had quite enough of different.
Working full time, every day, without any real holidays to look forward to, was a complete shock to the system. It is, inevitably, something I’ll have to get used to in adult world, but for this year, perhaps it was just too much different – that magical quality I was so desperate to find.
As glad as I am to finally have substantial contributions to my CV – and to have identified two industries I definitely do not want to work in – I think that perhaps a year abroad with a little more free time and a little less filling in of databases and other ***fun*** intern tasks might have been nicer. A year studying would have been more sociable, more relaxed, and, in the scheme of things, probably far more useful for finals next year.
The blunt truth is that however beautiful and exciting the city you’re living in is, an internship means you’ll spend most of your time at a desk in an office. And that can be just as miserable in Paris as it might be in Wolverhampton.
Are you going to get time off?
‘No paid holiday leave’, said my German contract.
Okay, I thought, so I’ll just take holiday leave and not get paid for those days. That’s fine.
Actually what it meant was that I wasn’t really allowed to take time off at all – a clever loophole allowed because it was only for six months. This was somewhat of a shock. I was eventually allowed a few weeks off for Christmas, because my supervisor was very sympathetic to her poor homesick ward. But I was the exception rather than the rule.
I did manage to cram an awful lot into my Leipzig weekends regardless, but it was often frustrating to see my Language Assistant friends on their four-day-a-week schedules going off on long weekend trips that I couldn’t possibly join.
How are you going to split the year?
Oxford, unlike apparently every other university, doesn’t give linguists the choice to focus on one language more than the other. A speaking examination in both is mandatory, and unlike several of my fellow students, I’m not lucky enough to have spent my childhood in France/have a German parent/have worked as an au pair on my gap yah. So a fairly even split seemed like the logical solution.
I wish I had been able to spend the whole year in one place. I was just beginning to feel settled in Leipzig when I had to leave, and never really felt like I lived in Paris. I was just passing through, transient. My time in Lyon, although wonderful, was even more disjointed.
I sacrificed stability and feeling settled in the hope of two slightly more even finals marks, but in doing so, I think I also sacrificed the chance of a first in either. Perhaps being able to settle completely in one place and emerge feeling completely fluent in either language would have been a better choice.
How easy is it to get home?
Pre-year abroad me thought that visiting home during year abroad was for wusses. When I was in Leipzig I tried desperately to keep believing that, because I couldn’t have gone home for a weekend, no matter how much I wanted to.
Knowing that there is a three hour bus journey, a two hour flight, and several hours of airport time between you and everyone you want to see can be quite unsettling. I felt far more relaxed in Lyon and Paris knowing that I could fly to Birmingham in an hour if I wanted to – and of course, since I could, I never did.
Do you have a back up plan?
I didn’t pay much attention to Oxford’s brief advice on what to do if your physical health needs attention while away. I assumed I wouldn’t need to. I didn’t get any advice on what to do if mental health gets bad, and I wish I had.
It is so easy to be blasé. But perhaps just knowing how to go about getting support when necessary might have made the whole process of looking for it that little bit easier.
It wasn’t all bad!
This post, and this blog in general, has been as bluntly honest about year abroad as I could possibly be. The pressure for this year to be amazing, incredible, the best, is completely exhausting and unfair. It wasn’t like that for me, and it shouldn’t have to be. So I spoke about the bad parts, and sometimes the bad parts needed to be spoken about more than the good parts. Sometimes there were just more bad parts than good parts. And that’s okay.
But there were good parts too. There were wonderful adventures around East Germany; lovely evenings sipping drinks by the Seine; joyous afternoons strolling around Lyon in the spring sunshine. I’ve made friends from other colleges, other universities, other countries, and realised just how much I like the company of other humans. I’ve spoken to my parents far more this year than in either of my years at Oxford, and probably more than I did in sixth form too. I’ve got a much clearer idea about how I want my career to look, and how much I appreciate spending my time thinking and being challenged. I’ve realised just how much I love Oxford: how none of my complaints about stressful essays and messy housemates were anything in comparison to problems this year; how lucky I am to sit in the cosy Exeter library reading and thinking and writing for weeks on end, punctuated with coffee breaks and chats with lovely friends; what a privilege it is to sing in Exeter’s divine chapel with my brilliant choir several times a week. I’m determined to enjoy finals year and not let the looming stress of exams get to me.
It has been a voyage of discovery. I have learned lots of important things about myself, like that I would rather have a messy flatmate than no flatmate at all, and I am just a worrier, and I actually quite like running, and nightclubs are just not my thing and that’s okay. (Among many, many more). It certainly hasn’t been the best year ever, but I think I’ll look back fondly: glad that I did it, and proud of myself for surviving.
If this had been a cheesy gap yah, I might even say I’d found myself.
ps. this post was inspired by Chiara’s post Things I Wish People Would Stop Saying About The Year Abroad, which is well worth a read.