One year ago today, I moved to Paris. A year later, my blog draws to its natural conclusion. I'm back in Blighty, on a permanent basis this time, surrounded by my family deep in the deepest depths of exotic Hampshire. This is the 48th post on this blog (I’ve managed to write a lot more than I had expected that I would when I started this blog!). It’s also going to be the last post, for the obvious reason: there’s no more year abroad to blog about! Sad, sad times :(
To business, then! This post is going to be a bit of a soliloquy, really. It's a post that I've been thinking about and writing, on and off, for quite a few months now, and the more I enjoyed my year abroad, the more I added to it. It’s become a bit of a love letter to the last year, if you like. Call me a sap if you like, I don't care.
302 days after I moved to Paris, 401 days after I started this blog, my life in Paris came to an end on 28th June 2014. And now, with my return from China, it’s official. All told, by the time I arrived back on UK soil on August 6th, I had spent 341 days as an official year abroader. Not quite 365 days, but I think, quite close enough. My (not-quite) year abroad is over.
And after all that, what can I really say? Sojourn to Chengdu aside, which I have already blogged about in six separate posts this month, my year abroad was really all about la cité d’amour that is Paris.
It really is such a beautiful and charming city, with a lot of character, and it’s not difficult to see why it is somewhere that so many people dream of visiting, it really isn't. Building on something I wrote to this effect back in February: I still prefer London as a city and as a place to live. Snap me in half like a stick of rock and London would probably be written there, I just love it so much. It’s also a gorgeous city, home to my favourite place on the planet, and has its own fair share of excellent restaurants, fascinating museums and historic landmarks. It’s the place I gained my independence, the place I have made most of my friends, and the place which has had a large impact on who I am becoming as an adult. It’s exciting, and fast paced, and a perfect balance between old and new.
I was always super excited to go on a year abroad and come to live in Paris – who wouldn’t be? But perhaps because of this love that I have for the British capital, it took me longer than it perhaps should have to really appreciate Paris as it should be appreciated. The turning point was somewhere in the middle of February, but I can now say this with absolute certainty – Paris is always going to be equally as special to me, just for different reasons.
|Going clockwise, from top left: the canal at Versailles; the Louvre; the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, and the Sacre-Coeur|
Paris was the place where I spoke in French every day; where French was just another language, not a foreign language. It's where nipping into the patisserie for a freshly baked croissant or a beautiful dessert was part of my normal routine. It has a unique charm that I've not seen anywhere else, with beautiful buildings, narrow streets, and a pace of life that is just slow enough so that you can sit back and enjoy life. (Lunch is so much tastier when you sit back and take your own sweet time to eat it, sat outside a café with a glass of wine!)
Paris is the place where it’s perfectly normal for men to hop on and off the metro with their accordions, playing their French melodies as each station whistles by.
True; the administration is slow; the bureaucracy incroyable, and not in a good way. Drinks, with the exception of wine, cost an absolute fortune, and as someone I know posted on their Facebook status quite early into the year;
"…bakeries are run by culinary angels, but beer is drafted by semi-trained monkeys."
Fact of the matter is, I've studied French since I was 4 years old and even with all that under my belt, I was remarkably ignorant, this time last year, about Paris, France, French life. Not so now, and I love all three of those things more than I ever had before or ever imagined I could.
We Brits might make jokes about the French, but Paris – and France in general – is a massive collection of weird and wonderful extremes, of every variety. It’s been an awesome year. One of the best of my life ever (so far, I hope).
I’m so lucky to have had the chance to do my year abroad there. Anyone can admire Paris, anyone can enjoy visiting it, but I don’t think you can ever understand it until you've lived here. And that’s probably true of most cities on this brilliant planet we call home.
|Going clockwise from top left: Champs Elysees, Palais du Luxembourg, the Catacombs and the Opera Garnier|
Over the year, I've not just come to love Paris, but plenty of other places too. I've been to the beautiful franco-germanic gem that is Strasbourg. I've been to Dijon, in the Burgundy region. I've been to Berlin, and then there is the month that I have just spent, and posted about, in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province of China.
Fact of the matter is, my year abroad has given me the opportunity to see so many new things and have so many new experiences that so many people my age don’t have, and many people older than us never will. I imagine that living abroad would just get harder as you get older, and add jobs and mortgages and responsibility to your plate.
In Douglas Adam's story Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer, Deep Thought, ponders the so-called "Ultimate Question":
"What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?"
...and eventually decided that the answer is 42.
If you were to ask that question in reality, I say that the answer to the Ultimate Question is a year abroad. Because the year abroad is an education, about life, the universe and everything. That’s why Erasmus as a scheme and other cooperation agreements between universities in varying countries are so important.
Getting serious for a second, I actually did a bit of research on this point, because I wanted to make my point as effectively as I could, and I found a debate on the New York Times website (links at the bottom of this post), where various people submitted their opinions. For instance, Stacie Berdan and Allan Goodman, co-authors of 'A Student Guide to Study Abroad' write that;
"...[studying abroad] teaches students to appreciate difference and diversity firsthand, and enables them to recognize — and then dismiss — stereotypes they may have held about people they had never met..."
Another contributor, Violeta Rosales, pointed out that;
"[We]… should study abroad in order to realize that we are more alike than we are different… Cross-cultural understanding – the exchange of ideas, information and art – is imperative in a world made smaller by globalization and the internet"
But that's all to easy to write when you think about a year abroad in the abstract. I can speak quite passionately myself on this subject, just more in the context of my own experiences.
|Clockwise from top left: Wenshu Temple in Chengdu, the Mutianyu stretch of the Great Wall, Pandas at Chengdu's Giant Panda Research Base, People's Park and the Leshan Giant Buddha|
|Clockwise from top left: Berlin Cathedral, the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Brandenburg Gate|
I look on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and I see photos from people doing their year abroad elsewhere – America, Holland, Australia, Spain… All kinds of places. We’ve travelled, explored, and laughed ourselves silly. We've overcome homesickness and language barriers and cultural differences; we've tried new things, and seen new places, and together, we've got enough photos and tickets and souvenirs to fill thousands of scrapbooks.
The point I'm trying to make here is that we've had a year in which we've really truly lived, away from the constraints of the education system which for many, me included, is the only thing we've ever really known.
And that’s exactly what it’s all about really isn't it? There’re still so many places in this beautiful world that I want to go and see – I’m very well aware that I have barely even scratched the surface, especially after spending time with some much more seasoned travellers than I in China - but I’m still so thankful that I've had to chance to cover even the small - tiny, really - corner of the globe that I have. I dove into the deep end, feet first, and I don’t regret one single second. Not even the things that went completely tits up.
Turning onto a different tangent completely: when I think about it, my Law degree has taught me a lot of things over the past 3 years, being completely honest, only a tiny portion of it has been about the laws of the land. The university experience is an education in and of itself, and the year abroad in particular is brilliant in terms of personal development. A year ago, right now, I was completely, gut-wrenchingly nervous. In fact, exactly one year ago as this post is published, I was in the air somewhere above the English Channel heading towards Orly Airport and the unknown – a flat I had never seen, a university I didn’t know, a city I had only ever visited for approximately 6-8 hours as a stop off on a school trip to Futuroscope. So yes – I was nervous, maybe more nervous that I have ever been in my life.
Having said that, I am now a firm believer that the unknown is (or at least, can be), a good thing. I said in one of my earliest posts that I was viewing the year as a confidence building exercise. It’s worked. I am a shy person by nature, but I’m now able to push that to one side and plough on through it. I picked myself up, lock, stock and barrel, and landed in the middle of a foreign capital city where the language isn't my own and where I could count the number of people I knew on one hand. Difficult situations have never fazed me, particularly, but they certainly won’t now.
Going to China – a country where I couldn’t even pretend to speak the language, or read the characters and where I was really going to be on my own, with no one familiar around, was easy in comparison.
|Me, being exceptionally fortunate, without exception.|
That said, I am the first to freely admit that this year hasn't been easy - you only have to read back through this blog and you could probably identify when I was feeling low and when I wasn't, and there were plenty of lows. It is tough, it is difficult, and sometimes I wished that I had never bothered to go away in the first place (these were most definitely half-hearted wishes – I wouldn't throw my year abroad away for anything).
One reason that most people go away – it was certainly an important reason for me – is to improve your language skills. The language gap was also the biggest hurdle I had to overcome.
Obviously, my French has improved considerably. I lacked confidence in my own language skills when I first got here – I just read back through my very first post from Paris, on 2nd September last year, and it was full of doubts. That’s definitely not a problem anymore – I know I can handle most of the demands of everyday life. I’m not, however, fluent, which is what I had wanted to be - and if you go on a year abroad expecting that to be the result, I’m here to tell you now that it’s unlikely, albeit a very worthy aim. (This is partly, I will admit, my fault, for hanging out far too much with other English people). I don’t think in French – ‘Franglish’ is a better description. When I first got home, if I were to say, bump into someone in Asda, my first reaction was to apologise in French. In China, my first reaction was actually French more than it was English (probably because a foreign language felt like the right response, even if it was the wrong foreign language). So, there's definitely been a touch of reverse culture shock. Language wise, though, I’d need to go back for a good few months yet before I could realistically achieve fluency.
Who knows? Maybe one day I will. I'd like to think so.
|Left: Strasbourg, Right: Dijon|
So - in addition to everything that was said in the New York Times, with all of which I am in complete agreement, I would say that the personal growth is a compelling reason all by itself to go on a year abroad.
This has been the fastest year of my life, and it's been a real journey, one which has helped me prove to myself and others what I'm really capable of. Let's face it; I’m a different person than I was a year ago, in [hopefully] all good ways. I've grown up; I'm more independent than ever, and the boundaries of my comfort zone have widened exponentially beyond what they used to be. The year abroad has opened my mind and I am personally of the opinion that it will continue to do so even after my year abroad is long in the past.
And one day in the future, I will tell my kids about this past year, and what I did and saw, and hopefully they’ll be similarly inspired and will go off and get to do something even more wonderful themselves. The cycle will start all over again – as it should. I am firmly of the opinion that you need to see and experience the world to be able to deal with it.
Last but not least, thanks to everyone who's been reading my blog, whether it was just the one post or each and every one. It's been nice to see the page views on my blog stats gradually creep up and know that people have followed my journey.
That's it! At risk of sounding like a dodgy acceptance speech at the Oscars, I do need to say a massive thankyou my parents, my brother, my flatmate Parisa, and my two absolute best friends, Ashley and Akeelah, for carrying me through the last year. Couldn't have done it without you. Last but not least, thankyou Chengdu, thankyou Erasmus and most of all, thankyou, Paris, for a wonderful year abroad.
It's been an absolute privilege.
Signing off : Au revoir à tous.
Quotes above may be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/10/17/should-more-americans-study-abroad/ (accessed 30/08/14)