Dana, 19 ans, Jardin de Luxembourg, Paris, le 22 janvier 2010.
Don’t mind the bangs.
Five years ago today, I arrived in Paris.
Little did I know that my journey through Normandy would have shaped the course of my twenties to where I am in life today. Without a doubt in my mind, studying abroad in France was absolutely THE best decision I made during my undergraduate career. Without my semester in Normandy, there is no way I would have rekindled my interest for languages and majored in French/ESL Education. Additionally, I probably would not have become an assistante de langue, and I would definitely not be currently working in a French Engineering School as a lectrice d’anglais. I wouldn’t know some of my current best friends. All-in-all, my four months in France back in 2010 was definitely the spark that has led to my currently life of travel and expatriate-ism, and I will always be grateful for my experience.
Looking back, there are many parts of my study abroad I still laugh and smile about, but there are also things that make me cringe or leave my mouth hanging. I’ve compiled the best and worst parts of my study abroad:
1. Living with a host family did wonders for my exposure to the French language and culture.
All study abroad participants in my program were required to live with a French host family. Although some of us felt that this was cramping our style of independence at 19 or 20 years old, this did wonders for my overall exposure to the French language and culture, and definitely enhanced my overall experience. My host family was the reason my stay in Normandy was so wonderful, and it was because of them that my love for the country as well as my level of the language improved so much.
Celebrating my 20th birthday at their home!
2. At the same time, I was stuck in a study abroad bubble.
Caen has a huge study abroad program, so there were always plenty of foreigners around. In fact, my program specifically required us to enroll in intensive French language classes at the university (that would transfer directly back to completed credits at our universities in Wisconsin.) These classes were only offered to foreigners, so as a result I only went to classes with foreigners and hung out with foreigners, resulting in spending the semester in a big fat foreign bubble. Don’t get me wrong, during my time abroad I was exposed to a wide-range of people from very diverse backgrounds, and I met some amazing people from various US universities, as well as Canada, Norway, Thailand, Austria, Australia, and China, among others. But really, apart from my host family and my friend Ryan’s Parisian friends (coucou, Marou!) I didn’t meet many other French people during my time in Caen.
3. By the time I left France, I barely had a B1 Level of French.
Long story short, my French absolutely SUCKED when I arrived in France back in 2010. I had taken four semesters in college in addition to my five years in middle and high school. I could use the passé composé, le futur, le conditionnel, l’imparfait, le présent. I could conjugate verbs and I knew a bit about le subjunctif. Overall I could talk about myself as well as very basic things, but I had literally zero comprehension skills, and I had a very hard time with reading. During my first week of studies, I was placed into B2 and was then quickly sent to B1 after only two days of class. Worst of all, I hardly understood any of my professors for the majority of the semester, and also had a very difficult time understanding my host family. I ended up validating the DELF B1 at the end of the semester, but it was very difficult for me to do so. (To reference, today I would be between C1 and C2, which are the highest levels you can go, ranging from A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2.)
4. LOL at the “study” part of Study Abroad.
During my semester abroad, we were expected to be in class 19 hours per week. I wasn’t really one to skip class, but that was a lot of class, even for a full time undergraduate student at home. Not to mention, I, along with the vast majority of my friends, put in minimal to zero effort in regards to outside class preparation. I did the homework, but I never really revised. I participated in class, but I never stayed in to study. I came out of the semester with a respectable 3.5 GPA.
Annecy, February 2010
5. SO. MUCH. ALCOHOL.
I was alone, at 19 years old, in Europe, for the first time. It was almost like the freshman year I never had. Holding the Europe-is-my-playground-I-can-legally-drink attitude and mentality, I went out and partied nonstop with my new friends both during the week and at the weekends. I once passed out drunk on a stone-cold bathroom floor in a local bar; I made out with random, disgusting men in clubs on more than one occasion; and, was a hot mess in Amsterdam. Do I even need to mention the cat calling? I also gained a ton of weight in a short amount of time- I had chipmunk cheeks! I never studied. I went to the School of Life.
6. Technology has changed.
In 2010, I brought my Dell laptop with me to France, as well as my lime green digital camera, from which I would extract the memory card, insert it into an external hard drive that would then be inserted into my computer, from which I could then upload my photos to my computer and Facebook. Whew! Not one person had a smart phone; all of us bought cheap track phones from Orange upon arriving in Paris, and then we would buy pay-as-you-go credit from the Phone House during the semester. I could only call and text on my brick phone, and I think I filled up a total of three times in four months. Wifi was also hit or miss– half of the host families (as well as our university) didn’t have wifi.
Amsterdam, April 2010
7. My blog was basically a public diary.
I attempted to start a blog on Blogspot. I was a horrible, very informal, and unprofessional writer. I was writing diary-style posts about my adventures, but forgetting that they were out there for the entire world to read about. Worst of all, if you glance back deep into the archives, you may still find a few of thoe unedited posts– it was pretty shameful. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot about blogging since 2010.
8. The exchange rate was gut-wrenching.
I studied abroad during the peak of the American economic crisis. The dollar was WEAK. I’m talking, like, $1.60 for 1 euro, and $2 for 1 British pound. It was even worse during my Scandinavian adventure around Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, where Krona is king. I was given a 300 euro monthly stipend, and had maybe $2,000 in savings, but I blew through ALL OF IT. I also maxed out both of my credit cards before returning home. It sucked at the time, but even today, I feel that it was worth it.
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
9. I once found a flight for 5 euros.
On the bright side, RyanAir was even cheaper back in 2010, and we once found a 5 euro flight from Paris to Oslo, and an 8 euro flight from Oslo to Stockholm. Today the cheapest I’ve seen is 25 euros one way.
10. I learned that I can’t cope with traveling too fast.
During our four-month stint, we had a two-week Easter break. We tried to do the whole let’s-try-to-see-and-experience-all-of-continental-Europe-in-two-weeks thing. No surprise there, but it didn’t work. I hated traveling at such a fast pace, and always being constantly on the move. It made me grumpy, stressed, and unbearable to be around. Not to mention, this was during the time of the epic Icelandic Volcano Eruption, during which we were in Iceland. Needless to say, ever since coming back to Europe last year, I travel at my preferred pace– slow and steady.
11. I was set on going to London.
I was dead-set on completing my year abroad in London. I don’t know why, but I was completely obsessed and enthralled with the overall idea of the magic of Britain’s capital. I even applied and was accepted to another state school-sponsored program, and sobbed like a 5-year-old child in a candy store when I had to face the reality of the program being much too expensive for my family to afford. The day I came to terms with London being a no-go, I was determined to still go abroad. So, I made a split-second decision to finish my French minor abroad before completing my intensive 3-year sans-interruption Special Education degree the following semester, and frantically ran around campus collecting my transcripts, application documents, and passport photos; I submitted my application in late September (the deadline was the previous July). I had a phone interview and was accepted a few days later, and that was that. I still wonder how different my twenties today would have been had I actually studied abroad in London.
Although I did eventually make it to London.
12. I was lost and a bit distraught before I left for France.
Long story short, I began college as an Elementary and Special Education major with a French minor. In fact, my program didn’t even enourage or have room for study abroad, which is why I studied abroad so early during my undergraduate career. The semester before I left for France was a practicum semester; I spent 7 full weeks integrated in a Special Education classroom. I had a horrible placement experience; I also quickly discovered that I didn’t have the dedication or passion that is needed to teach students with special needs. So, long story short, I went to France completely blind– I didn’t know in which direction to take my life post France. I was convinced the world of teaching was not one for me.
Thankfully, I did find myself in France and was able to put myself back on a track which made sense to me, sticking to teaching but officially changing my major to French and ESL Education, two days upon returning stateside.
13. The reverse culture shock was AWFUL.
I sobbed the entire plane ride home. I rode home in the car with my parents in silence. I didn’t want to be back in the United States. A part of me didn’t want to see my family or my friends. I didn’t know how to process how much I had learned, grown, experienced, and changed in such a short period of time. I couldn’t figure out how to successfully integrate a whole new me into a world of people and places that had stayed exactly the same. I didn’t want the new me to fall back into old habits, and the negative American mindset. My friends and family didn’t know how to respond (and that of course was normal). I had a really, really awful summer, and an extremely emotional junior year. I didn’t even realize that there was a word for what I was experiencing, or that there were other people who felt the same way. But, it’s thanks to the reverse-culture shock that I learned to cope by reading other travel blogs, and starting to use Twitter for networking, which is, in the end, how I was able to reach out and connect with so many fellow expats and francophiles. By extent, my internet connection with a current Lille expat was how I got into touch with another Lille expat, and hence found myself as a lectrice in France five years later.
14. I’ve changed a lot since study abroad.
Six is not a big number, but I’ve found the difference between 19 and 25 to be enormous. I feel like my study abroad in France is what gave me the push to become the person I was always meant to be– the person I am continuing to grow into today.
My advice to you is this: if you’re having any doubts about study abroad– just go.
Did you study abroad? Are you currently studying abroad? How is/was your experience? Did it shape your life for one of travel? I’d love to hear your story.