Letter from abroad: Spain and France

Caitlin McLoughlin shares how the year abroad is not just about the food and fiestas

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The year abroad sometimes feels like an eternity. But, conveniently, it allows you to spend another year ignoring how unprepared you are for Finals.

The stress of organising your stint on the continent can seem unnerving. However, when you realise on the night before departure that you have no choice but to accept the fact that half of your year abroad is still yet to be planned, things become a lot easier. The year abroad is a lesson in language, certainly, but also in optimism and improvisation.

My plans for last summer were wild. I intended to volunteer to work in a library in Barcelona for a month and then do a language exchange in Madrid. Working at the National Library of Catalonia was a particularly interesting experience. And, whilst the staff tried their best to speak Castilian and allow me to (at least try to) understand and participate, they would often slip back into Catalan without realising.

Unfortunately, in embracing the culture so ferociously, I soon realised that I was perhaps going slightly overboard. Struggling to find cheap accommodation in Madrid, I realised I had to change my plans. About a week before the end of my library work I found an opportunity at a nearby summer school. When your command of the language isn’t muy good, and socialising proves difficult for you in English, let alone in Spanish, spontaneity and optimism are essential for survival.

While in Spain my errors went unnoticed for the large part (largely because my friends didn’t speak perfect Spanish either), in France I got laughed at. I even got laughed at because I told people I was pregnant (which, incidentally, I was not). I grew fond of laughing at myself. In general, however, people are very positive and complimentary towards your efforts to speak their language. Whilst I know that my French accent is atrocious, my French friends say it’s rather cute. Given that my vocabulary is also quite bizarre, it’s actually nice to know that they find it funny. Additionally, even though my speech is often too literally translated from English, they tell me it’s rather charming. But, as I say, they are my friends, so they’re probably just being nice.

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In all honesty, one of the hardest parts of the year abroad isn’t speaking the language; after a few weeks your brain starts to adapt and communicating becomes a lot easier. What’s difficult is how new everything is: a new culture, a new job, a new apartment and none of your old friends by your side. Before moving to Spain and then France, my friends and I would often joke about the ‘tactics’ we’d use to make friends. Whilst this was funny light-hearted conversation at the time, loneliness can be a real issue.

Yet, as with everything, optimism and improvisation get you through; you can make friends in the most random of places, such as in the park or, unsurprisingly, at the pub. I even once tried the tactic of just straight up asking people if they would be my friend. It worked. It isn’t until you live in a country, and tell people unwittingly that you are pregnant, that you realise in the world outside of Oxford there are no collections for you to fail, but rather a life from which to learn from.