Since I will be going on Erasmus in Spring, I thought I would tell you about the first time I lived abroad by myself.
When I was sixteen my parents gave me an opportunity to live with a family over in France for a month. Doing this sort of thing would have usually be unheard of in my family, as it’s something my parents would have never done themselves when they were younger. But after seeing the success one of my moms friends had with a company, who organised exchanges abroad, she asked me if I’d be interested in doing it.
The idea of travelling over to another country and being surrounded by a language I didn’t speak very well, was unbelievably overwhelming but I decided to say yes.
Saying yes to new things is something I struggle with to this day. I’m a creature of habit and anything that throws me off that path can fill me with anxiety; but every so often I pluck up the courage to take the plunge.
I filled out forms describing myself and what type of family I would get along with. Then a few weeks later we got forms back from a few families that were considered to be suitable. The family that seemed like the right fit for me was a family that consisted of a mom, a dad, a boy that was a similar age to my brother and a girl my own age. They lived in the countryside in a farmhouse outside the city of Nancy.
The lead up to the exchange felt surreal. Looking back at it, I smile at how immense this trip seemed to me at sixteen. Now that I live in Dublin, and have been away from home for long periods of time (in Ireland and abroad), a month seems like nothing.
At the start of the summer, my family and I did the journey to Shannon airport to see me off. It was only after walking through security that I started to feel overwhelmed by the adventure ahead of me. This was also going to be my first time getting a flight by myself; (as you can already tell, I lived quite a sheltered life before this moment).
The flight went smoothly and once arriving in Paris, I encountered my first difficulty with the language barrier. All airports are mostly laid out the same, so even though I didn’t completely understand the signage around me; I managed to find my bag and head for arrivals.
I was greeted by my host family’s daughter (I’m going to call her Amélie for the sake of the blog) and her uncle. They were lovely and warm to me and switched between chatting to me in English and French. But I felt awkward and shy, mostly because even though they had excellent English, I wanted to make the effort and speak to them in French. But though I could get the general gist of what they were saying to me, I found it very hard to communicate back to them. This was something I struggled with the whole time during my exchange.
The first few days, settling into living with my temporary family- basically a group of tight-knit strangers that were welcoming me into their home- was hard to begin with.
I was brought on all the everyday outings; from food shops, local school plays, communions and once myself, Amélie and her friend helped out a kids summer camp. Half of the time I had no idea where we were going, especially when we were attending the communion. No one knew the English for communion but I got the gist that we were going to “a church for a ceremony”, I fully thought we were attending a wedding until we actually got there.
Amélie and her family lived in a little beautiful country area of Lorraine. My favourite memory is Amélie and I cycling down the road to visit her grandparents. This lovely couple were the sweetest and were filled with patience when it came to chatting to me in French (they both had zero English). The grandmother would often feed me constantly whenever I went to visit.
While living in France for the month, I had to attend school with Amélie. My school year had ended in the end of May, but classes over there go on until the middle of June. I didn’t learn anything in the classes, and was like Amélie’s shadow following her around to each class. I was mostly board out of my mind, because I wasn’t following a class plan and didn’t understand what was going on. But I do remember sitting in a Latin class which I had never done before, and found that very interesting. It wasn’t all bad though, I did meet Amélie’s group of friends and sitting in the classes helped me immerse myself in the language.
Before my month long exchange ended, we went on two big trips. The first was a hike/ adventure course in some part of France… I honestly can’t tell you where. I was clueless to where we were going, but I knew we had left Loraine to get there, as they kept telling me “we had left the district”. All I do know is that when we went on the hike we had a gorgeous view of mountains in the distance. I remember vividly a person from the group pointing at the mountains and going “that’s Germany over there”. Studying a map now, maybe we were in Strasbourg (??)
As I was taking the plane from Paris to get home, my host family brought me to the city a day before my flight so I could see the area. Paris was beautiful, and we manged to pack a lot in a day. I got to take a boat trip along the Siene and see all the landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.
We also visited the Lourve which was incredible. But the unexpected highlight was Morttamtre, We climbed what felt like a hundred of steps, but the view at the top looking out at the city was well worth it.
Earlier on in the post I talked about the difficulty I had with the language barrier. I think this is the thing that effected my exchange the most. Though I was there to improve my French, the language barrier I experienced made me shrink inside of myself. I can be quiet when you first meet me, but having trouble following conversations and chatting back to people left me feeling isolated. I would sit with groups of people, surrounded by conversations that I couldn’t keep up with, and I found myself zoning out; not being able to process or be part of the interactions going around me.
This isn’t any fault to the people around me, my host family, their friends, and people at the school, all included me and acknowledged me. Most of the time, there was naturally the few who clearly had no interest and would ignore me in a group situation, eye contact and all. These people made me self conscious and made me feel even more awkward then I already was. But people like that are in every walk of life, but at sixteen any social exclusion makes you die a little on the inside.
The language barrier also led to my extreme case of homesickness. Before this point I had never felt homesickness before, so for a while I genuinely couldn’t figure out why I was feeling nauseous all the time. But I soon realised the ache in my heart and the nausea I was feeling, was all connected to my loneliness and how much I missed home. I remember that I spent the whole month feeling tired all the time. Every day I was meeting new people; neighbours, cousins, friends. There was always someone new to introduce myself to. I won’t say the exchange was easy, because it wasn’t. Within the first day I was on the phone to my mom telling her I couldn’t do it, and I wanted to go home. Thankfully she reassured me and I stuck it out.
Though my exchange in France wasn’t always easy, I got so much out of the trip with memories, life experiences and the people I met. It also stood to me because now four years later I’m going away again… but this time for five months. The exchange in France reassures me that if I could do that at sixteen, then I should be able to do Erasmus (hopefully haha).
If you manged to get this far thank you! I know this was an exceptionally long post. If you’re planning on doing an exchange/ Erasmus, I hope my post has given you a little insight into what it can be like to live abroad by yourself.