BREXIT, COVID-19 and Boulangeries - Diaries of a Year Abroad in France


Guest post written by Pippa Bourne.


Moving away from home to go to university is one thing. Moving away from home to live in a foreign country for a minimum of five months is an entirely different ball game. Especially with the constant threat of the pandemic. And Brexit.


After the saga of COVID-19 and the many complications that it bore, September 2021 was perhaps looking unlikely for international travel, forecasting great disruption for all students travelling to countries abroad for the year. Not only are there different rules and regulations that must be adhered to in each individual country and region, but the pandemic in general has made job searching and placements almost impossible for third year students aiming to complete a work placement. Many companies have taken to working remotely, whilst others don’t want the complication of employing a foreign undergraduate.


However, for most language students who found themselves in the same position as myself, the desire to be Irish had never been stronger. The consequences of Brexit’s success and leaving the European Union firmly and undoubtedly stole first prize in making the year abroad quite so difficult to navigate. With very little knowledge from the consulates in relation to necessary documentation, and with Outbound trying to do everything and anything possible to help, the whole prospect seemed rather overwhelming. The fact that without a visa, you only had ninety days to live and breathe in the European air before you were expelled from the country, made me, quite frankly, nervous.


These two disruptive factors though of Brexit and COVID-19, have made the arrival abroad seem all the more rewarding in terms of effort made and planning in advance. I personally felt a kind of surrealism once I stepped off the Eurostar in the greatest train station of all time, Paris’ Gard du Nord. The stressful months were all worthwhile, and the honeymoon period of the first month living in a different country hit.


A month of meeting new colleagues and students, observing how lessons are taught in France, consuming many croissants, filling my camera roll with the same blue skies and castles, and trying to look as French as possible set the bar rather high. It is a period of time where you admire and look at all of the good things around you, finally so glad that the British Council’s selection of placing me in a lycée in the north-west of France, (instead of my preference of the south) payed off. After all, as every Saumurois says, we are lucky to live in the south of the north.


And then, it is after this honeymoon period when reality hits, when the two-hundred pound visa payment beckons, when trying to teach and control a room filled with fifteen year-old boys is actually quite difficult (who would have thought?!), suddenly the going gets a little tougher. The views become every-day, croissant consumption must lower, and the once lovely colleagues, actually need you to do your job. So, you now start to look at what you miss, at what English goodies can’t be found in the French supermarkets (where are you soreen?), and the fact is that you can’t just pop home for Mum’s Sunday Roast.


I know it’s a cliché, but the truth is that moving abroad is an emotional rollercoaster. One minute you are so happy that you live in such an incredible country and place, the next you miss everything about England, and to make it worse, you think that you shouldn’t be feeling this way, that you are so lucky and should be grateful rather than feeling down or complaining. But it’s the reality and for me, the sooner it is accepted that there will be good and bad days, the better. The other thing for me was that a lot of my colleagues at the lycée also took part in the Erasmus program when they were younger, so they know exactly how you can be feeling. And this is incredibly reassuring, so don’t feel as though you can’t talk to anyone if you’re having a rough day. Many of the teachers have offered to have me over in the holidays and at the weekends if I’m ever at a loose end.


My second piece of advice is to set no expectation for life abroad. When there is no expectation, you can find things out for yourself, you can come to your own judgements and discover what is around you, the other nearby areas and cities. Having a bucket list of things to experience and visit can be a great idea whilst abroad, as it sets a schedule of events to look forward to. These can include travelling to different cities, meeting up with friends from all over the country, or even, in my case, taking a hot air balloon ride at sunset over the Loire valley.


One of the things I love most about holidays is not having a routine, not having to do anything at any particular time and not feeling guilty about it. But, I really think routine in this case is such a blessing. Signing up for a gym, a yoga session once a week or an English speaking coffee morning in the local café can stand you in much firmer ground and give you a greater purpose.


And finally, say yes to things, go into shops, ask about books, try out different restaurants, find your favourite boulangerie, smile and make friends with the market sellers - they are the kindest people. The year abroad is not only for language learning, it is an opportunity to discover culture, to meet new people, to try out new activities and to return to England at the end of the year with many stories to tell.

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