I’ve just come back from my year abroad as a Language Assistant in Strasbourg, France, and have had the time of my life. I was very lucky during my year abroad: I met some amazing people, adored the city I lived in, and generally had an enjoyable overall experience. However, there are always going to be a few bumps in the road along the way. Here are a few tips that will ensure you have the best possible year abroad!
1. Accommodation, accommodation, accommodation – (do your research!)
The power of research can never be underestimated and the more research you do for your year abroad, the better. This applies to revising key phrases in the language of the country you’re going to, researching the culture of the region, ensuring you complete the correct paperwork and, last but not least, researching accommodation. This is something I had to learn the hard way. I thought I had done all the accommodation research there was to do, and when I still couldn’t find anywhere to live, I resorted to finding a place when I got out there (which was a very stressful experience). In reality, there were probably a few other options I should have researched. I made the mistake of narrowing down my requirements too much: I wanted to live with young people and I didn’t want to be the only housemate. I would say make sure to keep your accommodation research as broad as possible; the main thing is that you have somewhere to stay for the year!
Some great sites to find accommodation in France:
2. Say Yes!
To everything. You’ve probably heard this advice many a time, but it really is one of the most valuable pieces of advice out there. Whether it’s to an after-work drink with your colleagues which you feel nervous about, or to that meditation taster session your friend wants to try (verdict: I fell asleep), you will almost always regret a situation more if you don’t go. It’s true that you perhaps won’t miss what you don’t know, but it’s even truer that you won’t feel as fulfilled if you don’t push yourself. Do as much as you can on your year abroad – you never know when the occasion will come around again.
3. Get Social
Making good friends is key to surviving your year abroad. They will become a second family to you. Like my good friend Bill Withers* says, “we all need somebody to lean on”, especially when homesickness creeps up on you, which it probably will at some point (*disclaimer- we’re not actually friends. Yet.).
Social media is a lifesaver for this. I personally hate to be too reliant on social media, but Facebook, and online dating/friend-making apps such as Tinder (and for France Adopte Un Mec – “Adopt A Guy”) are extremely useful. I found a language tandem group and a “language café” by searching on Facebook- where I met people from all over the world- and I became part of a close-knit group of language assistants after meeting through the language assistants Facebook page. With technology, you’re less likely to feel alone in a big, new city. It also enables you to easily keep in contact with friends and family back home! There’s nothing like a good Skype conversation with your mum to boost your morale after a long Monday at work/studying.
4. Concentrate on YOU
This is an important one. No one person will have the same year abroad experience as you, and that is just fine. You will have things you wish you could change, and things will happen that you wish everyone could experience. A pit-fall of the year abroad is comparing your experience to everyone else’s and feeling down about certain aspects that don’t seem to measure up (social media doesn’t help here). But at times like these it’s important to focus on your own experience, and how you can solve any problems you are facing, rather than wish you were living someone else’s experience. This year is all about “finding yourself” (so cheesy but true) – you’ll discover what motivates you and what you’re really interested in.
A classic piece of advice, but undoubtedly one of the best parts of mine and my friends’ years abroad. I preferred to save money on the actual travel, to allow me to have more meals out and do more at my destinations. One of the cheapest ways to travel in Europe is by bus. Flixbus, an extension of Megabus, was always my go-to. Take every opportunity you can to travel across the country, and across the borders if you have a bit more time/money. I was very lucky as I had school holidays off to explore, as well as a day during the week. I travelled to Brittany, Paris, around the south of Spain and to multiple cities in Germany.
6. Immerse Yourself in the Culture
One of my favourite parts about my year abroad was getting to know the ins and outs of French culture. I would listen to French music and ask for recommendations from my students (they seemed to be big fans of French rap), read French literature (my friend let me borrow a French version of Harry Potter) and cook French recipes. Make as many native friends as possible who can give you an insight into the country’s culture, and try and do what the locals do!
7. Keep a Diary
You’ll want to remember all the fun things you did and your first impressions of the people you met along the way. One of my friends did this for all of the people she met including our friends in our friendship group and it’s very funny to look back on.
8. Try Something…Old ?
Sometimes the best way to get yourself integrated into a new community is to try something you know and feel confident with! This will allow you to challenge yourself in different ways, e.g. I have always enjoyed playing badminton (I played a lot during my childhood and even more at uni) and so I tried to find a badminton club in Strasbourg to occupy my evenings. I did this for a few weeks before I had to choose whether to commit, and it turned out it was a bit expensive for me sadly. However, I was proud of myself for taking the initiative to find a group (this is easier said than done as sports groups are usually part of a larger societal group e.g. the postal service) and go along to a few sessions on my own, all the while trying to improve my French.
I do have to admit I am also a big advocate of the ‘Try Something New’ mentality, but perhaps start with something old, and when you feel comfortable with that move on to try new hobbies, sports, food, or branch out your music!
9. Get a Part-Time Job
Not a necessity, but I wish someone had given me this advice earlier. While a lot of my friends started doing private English tutoring, I didn’t think I would have the time for this. However, I actually did, especially if I prioritised my time better. Tutoring is a great way of gaining confidence, improving your skillset and earning some extra cash. In my region, most people charged between €15-20 for an hour session! Working in a café or bar would also be an amazing way to improve your language skills, and lets you meet new people and make new friends.
10. Learn the Lingo
One of the best ways to keep you occupied during your year abroad is to learn and perfect the language of the country you’re living in. Living in Strasbourg, which is in the region of Alsace, the Alsatian dialect was important to the locals. I managed to pick up a few words and phrases that I would repeat to my friends and colleagues, making them laugh a lot; a foreigner using their local dialect brought them countless hours of entertainment.
My Final Top Tips
Paperwork will be annoying and probably a long process, wherever you end up. Make sure to bring loads of photocopies of documents with you, including your birth certificate (translated if needed), passport, EHIC card, student card, acceptance letter, insurance documents, bank cards, plus loads of passport-style photos (these will be essential for lots of paperwork, e.g. transport passes, student cards, culture cards etc.) Basically, the more documentation you bring the better, as you never know what you might need. Digital copies are also really useful!
And most importantly, HAVE FUN! You will never have an experience quite like it again.
by Laura Leichtfried
Have a look at more of Laura’s fantastic experiences in her blogs below: