By Dai-Khue Le Duong
Starting university is probably most people’s first taste of independence. It’s incredibly exciting, but there is also that touch of hesitation and nerves too. So now imagine that feeling has been enormously intensified, and that’s what it feels like to take a year out and live in another country.
I spent my year in Paris, a city that felt familiar but also fresh and inspiring too. Living in Durham often made me miss city life: I missed being able to travel further than 4 stops on the bus, and it also made me miss a life where the highlight of my week was more than just getting one of those coveted seats for brunch at Flat White Kitchen.
I lived with an amazing French family in a Parisian suburb that was pretty much the equivalent of living in Gilesgate – fairly far out where no one ever wants to come and visit. I had the luxury of living in a proper house, which even had a garden. Most people living in the city centre would be lucky even to get their own private toilet, that isn’t situated right next to the two sad portable hobs that the landlord has called a ‘kitchen.’ Paris housing situation is no joke: it can be ridiculously expensive for very little space.
It isn’t just a stereotype, everything in France is incredibly bureaucratic; the housing dossiers you have to bring with you to apartment viewings can be as thick as a final year dissertation. Even the most mundane tasks became complicated, such as opening a bank account. I initially went to HSBC, thinking that as it prides itself on being an international bank, they would be sympathetic to the plight of a disorientated student in a foreign country. How wrong I was. I was bluntly told that my monthly wage was not sufficient to open an account with them. Switching to a French mobile number was also a huge headache. I couldn’t get a phone number without having a French bank account, but also couldn’t open a French bank account with having a French number. These frustratingly ridiculous catch-22 situations were typical of my first few months in Paris which, along with my sub-par French at the time, made life quite difficult at first. It was strange that I had learned to write essays in French about intellectual topics such as Foucauldian philosophy, but still struggled to say the word ‘printer’ on my first day at an internship.
Nevertheless, it’s not all doom and gloom! Once you have sorted out all the administrative tasks at hand, you can actually start having a good time. For all those who have the opportunity to work during their year abroad, I would strongly urge you to take it. Working is an easy way to integrate yourself into a country, whilst improving your language skills and gaining some worthwhile work experience in the meantime. The thing I valued most from my year abroad was being able to have a taste of what life after university could be like. It was my first proper experience of working in a company, and it made me realise what I did and did not want to do career-wise: a definite, hard no to administrative work and possible yes to a career in HR.
It was also amusing to see the differences between French and British behaviour first-hand. Most notably, whilst we may pride ourselves on being polite and (usually) politically correct, the French often do not have a filter and have no reservations in letting you know if they do not like something. I once accidentally asked for “un crêpe” instead of “une crêpe”, and was given a 15-minute lecture on the importance of correct French grammar by the crêpe vendor. As much as I found certain qualities like their inability to form an orderly queue on public transport exasperating, I also learned to be more open and straightforward. Their fierce love of their language and pride for their culture was also admirable.
Living in a city like Paris also meant that I could never complain about being bored. Most tourist attractions and museums are free for European citizens under the age of 26, which meant that you had no excuse not to immerse yourself in some aspect of French culture. There was always something new and amazing to do, see and eat. Even having a baguette with some wine whilst sitting by the Seine feels highly authentic, as if you’re re-enacting what Balzac, Baudelaire and Hugo might have done back in their time.
As clichéd as it sounds, my year abroad was probably the best year of my life so far. Although my experience has been fairly Paris-orientated, a year abroad anywhere would be a highly valuable experience. When else can you say you’ve lived and worked or studied in another country for a year whilst you’re still young? Also, if you are considering doing your year abroad in Europe, now is the time to do it, with the consequences of Brexit still shrouded in uncertainty. My year abroad was a perfect break from non-stop summatives and exams, and it has left me feeling refreshed and ready to take on my final year back in Durham.
Photograph: Dai-Khue Le Duong