A Brit Abroad: Things I Wish I knew Before my Year Abroad
In the UK, university students that do a degree in modern languages are required to do a “year abroad” (minimum 7 months) in third year, in their target language country. I am a fourth-year French student, 6 months successfully rehabilitated back into British life again (I’ll never forget saying ‘Merci’ to the lady in Greggs the day after getting back) and like most post-year abroad students I am still riding the wave of my “amazing” cultural experience.
I spent my year abroad in Rouen, a beautiful city in the north-west region of Normandy, France. I was working 12 hours a week as an English foreign language assistant in a middle school, which allowed plenty of free time for me to explore my new home and travel around France and even to other countries in Europe. So, without, further ado let me share with you some of my advice about France and specifically what I wish I knew before I left.
Sundays in France. I would sometimes wander into the town in the morning to pick up my groceries or buy a baguette at Paul to nibble on in the square. Sounds idyllic? Well unless you’re living in a big city like Paris then forget about doing anything exciting because nothing is fucking open!
The supermarket shut at 1pm on a Sunday, meaning if I had no food in the flat I had to scramble to get to Monoprix if I wanted to eat for the day (I know 1pm doesn’t sound that late but trust me after a samedi fou at the club until the early hours it was often a struggle). Paul was one of my few perks for a Sunday as it was the only bakery near me that stayed open.
2. Embarrassing miscommunications
It’s a given that most people aren’t as articulate in their second language as they are in their first, but just be prepared to get it wrong now and again. I did this many a time. I remember the first night I arrived I met my mentor teacher at the school and he asked me if I arrived by “avion” (aeroplane). I was so overwhelmed listening to him and the only word I caught on to was “avion” but I misheard it for “viande” (meat) so I responded telling him I was a vegetarian.
Other things I got wrong (that you can look up if you want): I said I would coucher with my sister when she came to stay (instead of se coucher), I told a boy I was busy playing with the chat (cat) but pronounced it as chatte (cue some interrogation from him), I announced “Je suis pleine” at a dinner party instead of “Je n’ai plus faim” (I’m not hungry anymore)… there are more but I think that’s enough to get the gist.
Mortifying in the moment but funny in hindsight. These mistakes definitely improved my French and taught me not to make the same mistake twice, as well as giving me some things to laugh about with my friends. Don’t be afraid to mess up, its all part of the process of learning.
3. Strong beer (and very nice wine)
Maybe it was just the beer I chose in bars but I found it all to be so much stronger than the beer I was used to. Week one in France I ended up vomiting after two pints of chouffe - pathetic even if the beer is stronger. In my defence my British and American friends agreed with me that the beer was stronger than our beer back home. A personal favourite of mine was Kriek- a delicious cherry flavoured beer.
Leading on from that, I was so surprised by the quality of supermarket wine in France. Its hardly a secret that France is well known for its wine, but I didn’t think this would apply to 2€ or 3€ bottom shelf supermarket wine. As well, most of it is corked rather than screw top.
4. Being vegetarian
I was a little apprehensive about being veggie in France, knowing the country is so famous for its meat- think steak bleu, escargots and cuisse de grenouille.
I am delighted to inform you that it is possible! I immersed myself in the French diet: croissants, baguettes and wine, all of which are vegetarian. To be fair, most of my local supermarkets stocked a range with good vegetarian alternatives including a line called Bio. With the world evolving and people becoming more aware of the issues of meat consumption, being vegetarian in almost any European country is much easier than ever before. Sure, not every restaurant had an abundance of options but it was generally pretty manageable. However, one thing I will say- don’t bother trying the petit mcwrap au chevre at Mcdonalds. Pretty grim.
The French love their bureaucracy and unfortunately every formal process from setting up a bank account to going to the doctor seemed so much more complicated to me. More paper work, forms, official documents… if you’re going to move there, be prepared. And maybe get in with some practical locals who can give you a hand.
6. Vive La Révolution
Turns out the French revolution didn’t end in 1799- the revolutionary spirit lives on and manifests itself in French society today. From transport strikes to the gilet jaunes, the French citizens don’t take shit and are much more likely to get physical than the Brits are, particularly in response to politicians. The gilet jaune (yellow vest) movement started in November 2018 when I was living in France, initially in response to a rise in petrol prices (it has since become more developed than just this) and for a foreigner, the whole concept of protesting so strongly was so strange. Places I have been locked inside during violent protests include: a French supermarket, a car, a falafel restaurant and my apartment. While it may seem extreme, I do sometimes wish that the British could learn a trick from the French when it comes to political protest.