People say two things about going on a year abroad. The first is the cliché that it is a life-changing experience. The second is the slightly more realistic warning that planning it is incredibly stressful. Sitting in a university building in Limoges, France, halfway through my year abroad, I can honestly say that both of these statements are correct. My year abroad has changed me; and planning it has been the most stressful experience of my life to date.
This time last year, I had submitted all of my forms and had received two Erasmus placements: one in Catania (Sicily) and the other in Limoges. All was going well, I just had to wait for the registration link. Fast forward to the end of June 2020, the university in Catania had pushed the registration period back for a second time because they were unsure if they would be allowed to have exchange students. Although for a minute it looked like I would be doing my year abroad from my bedroom in north London, the registration came through and I was able to head out to Sicily.
While I was there, things went quite smoothly. I did not experience lockdown while I was there, and as annoying as a 10pm curfew was, it pales in comparison to lockdown 2.0 that was occurring in England at the same time. The biggest issue I encountered was the typical year abroad problem of understanding people. I take pride in my level of Italian. Before this, I never really needed to ask people to rephrase what they said, I could usually pick up words from context. However, in an online lecture where the audio and video are out of sync or when trying to speak to somebody when you are both wearing masks, it became harder and harder to understand. I had to swallow my pride and ask for help a lot more often than I was used to.
When it came to getting myself out to Limoges, I was relieved to hear that the Covid restrictions in place would not be stopping me. I had an urgent reason to travel, my education. I would be able to hop on the Eurostar armed with my acceptance letter. However, I had a different complication this time: Brexit. I discovered that I would need a visa to travel only a week before my placement was due to start. Previously, I would have panicked about not having enough time and probably would have given up, yet I was determined to escape the alternative of doing my year abroad from home. Motivated by what I can only describe as manic energy, I went to the French consulate with all of my necessary paperwork where I was informed that I would have to wait ten days to receive my passport back by post. The alternative was to come back to the consulate after a week. I was determined to be in France on time, so I chose the second option and actually went back every day for a week just in case my passport would be ready early. Although this was slightly crazy, I did in fact get my passport back in time to head out for orientation day. I usually cannot handle last minute plans, yet this time round I somehow went from worrying about whether my visa would be approved to unpacking in Limoges in the space of three days.
I am lucky. Simple as that. The ways that I have had to adapt consisted of learning to ask for help a little more and learning how to be flexible in my plans. So, while I’m out here finding ways to meet new people before France’s 6pm curfew and studying French literature, I can agree with those year abroad clichés. Planning a year abroad in 2020 and 2021 has changed me. Probably for the better. But I also do agree, planning a year abroad is stressful. Especially in 2020/2021.