The Ups and Downs of Being Abroad
The hype, the tears, the laughter and the proximity to Schnitzel: it will all soon be over as my year (or ten months) abroad draws to a close, finishing with a month-long reviewing course in Berlin. For those of you who want a good idea of what the year abroad or being away in another country is like, here are a few of the highlights and lowlights.
1. Constantly Meeting Peeps and Doing Stuff
Fairly self-explanatory. The teachers, the pupils, the tandem partners, the students at uni, the friends of friends, the family of friends – it’s an education in being sociable, at times tiring, at times exhilarating. The first few months away are difficult, because everyone you are close to is suddenly far away and the only thing you can count on is your inability to understand the local dialect. At the end of the language assistant induction course, we were all given a long list of emails of the other assistants in nearby areas, which is how I met many of my closest friends. We became crotchety regulars at the Irish Pub quiz, and winning a rare round of shots for doing well is a particular favourite memory. I also found a Facebook group for German students at the nearby uni, and met up with people from that too.
2. Trying Out Random Stuff
For me in Hannover, this meant going in cluelessly to a dance taster session titled, “TWERK/DANCEHALL” and wondering why all the women there were wearing kneepads. It soon became clear when all the enthusiastic participants got down on the floor and started wiggling their bums in the air, encouraged by a seductive tanned blonde lady who possessed a thick Eastern-European accent and apparently few clothes.
Moving on swiftly, I toddled along to a Rock’n’Roll dance class, where I was partnered up with a chap and heaved into the air. Good fun, but the class was late at night and I wanted to keep my neck intact, so off I went to a salsa taster. There, everyone received large hugs as a greeting from the dance teachers in true Latin-American style, and although I couldn’t be bothered to go along again, it was fun to try it out.
3. Having Time to Think…
As a language assistant working only 12 hours a week with few other commitments I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. On the induction course at the start of the year, one of the best and most obvious pieces of advice which was given to me by a former language assistant was:
“The worst thing you can do is stay in your room.”
True, but if there’s little else going on and you don’t have the energy, don’t feel bad about it. I had time to rediscover random past hobbies like painting and writing, which are usually so low on my priorities list they have been all but bumped out of existence. I usually had at least one thing on each day to keep myself busy: school, catch up with a pal, or a trip somewhere with the other assistants and that meant my room didn’t become a hermit’s cave.
4. …and Overthinking Everything
Constant decision making and being alone in a foreign country with limited language level leads to a lot of insecurities. Dire winter weather does not help. Should I have studied at uni instead? Could I have found better accommodation? Am I speaking enough German? Is my accent that bad? Is the cashier grumpy with me because I’m foreign? Is this level of bureaucracy the same everywhere in Europe? Am I even enjoying this year yet? Does my flatmate dislike me because I forgot to recycle the bottle of orange juice? What is actually expected of me in my job? Is it normal for the staffroom to be so quiet? Is a lack of small talk actually unfriendliness though? Just a sample of the thoughts I had when away, and why it’s important to get out and do stuff to forget the worries.
5. Fluency Frustration
Conversational German is achievable, fluency is not, in my case anyway. After almost ten years of supposedly learning the language it’s a depressing thought to realise that you still feel left out in group conversations, will always have an obvious foreign accent and occasionally forget basic vocabulary. I used the German equivalent of spareroom.com – wg-gesucht.de – so that I could live with German speakers and try to integrate the language into my life as well as by reading local newspapers, singing in a German choir, watching German TV, speaking German in the staffroom and finding a few tandem partners to practise with. However amongst all that, my closest friends there spoke English and I would keep up with family, friends and boyfriend back home in English, meaning despite my efforts I was never fully immersed, but I could get by just fine and that’s an acheivement to be proud of.
To an extent, the year abroad is what you make it, just like the uni experience and life in general. Challenging, but a time to be enjoyed.