THE FOURTEEN-YEAR-old Connor was probably secretly quite ignorant, as well as insecure, prudish, horribly narrow-minded and the size of an average moon. He was a stubborn creature of habit, living in a bubble the size of his postcode area, steadfast to the idea of living, working and existing within the UK. Bizarre for someone who was starting to realise that his academic career was geared towards foreign languages. The twenty-two (going on twenty-three (gulp)) -year-old Connor is radically quite different. Why? I owe it to the Year Abroad, of course.
It’s quite remarkable to find myself writing the twentieth instalment of this Year Abroad tome, a written journey from train stations to airports, via schools and hostels. It’s a horrible cliché but I can recall writing the first chapter almost a year ago, and all the simmering angst and excitement that went into it. Now, faced with packing up all my stuff and decamping back to university for the last time, I can’t help but look back at it all, like an old man reviewing his life. Heaven, forbid. Actually, I could have posted the reports and development logs I’ve had to write for university coursework, but I’m fairly sure hundreds of words about my developed employability skills will hypnotise you to death. Instead, I will indulge in what will be, I’m afraid, a self-indulgent blog post all about moi.
Back to a younger version of me, this time 18, and when I started university the prospect of the Year Abroad seemed a long way off, and, truthfully, a bit daunting. I brushed it off with an ‘ah, it’s ages away’ carelessness. Then it came and the reality became a bit starker. I’d never been abroad for longer than two weeks. I’d barely had a job for a year. In fact, I’d never actually been abroad without adult supervision. The idea of settling in a new country and being expected to just cope was a massive step. A challenge. A challenge I’m sure has defeated many before me. There was no question about not doing the Year Abroad; it had to be done. I had no idea what to expect from this chapter of my life – I just sort of went along with it, sometimes exaggerating the enthusiasm people expected – and even now, I don’t think I quite know what exactly I was meant to get from it. But its job was, I suppose, to do just that, and make me think about things a bit differently. And I’m glad it did.
And so, as a matter of fact, for this paragraph I’d typed out and deleted at least a dozen different ways of trying to explain what exactly my time abroad has offered me, but the truth is, it’s far too rich, too broad, too intangible, too abstract, too far-reaching and just too much to explain. I can say, however, that it has improved my confidence, independence, adaptability, patience (in France, one has to be patient), empathy, communication, organisation and self-understanding. It has challenged the often mono-dimensional way of thinking I had inhabited before, and has shown me things, places and people I would have never have seen. It has led me through over 40 cities across 13 countries, and has provided memory after memory along the way. It has taught me more than any lecturer ever could, without even speaking a single word. It has accelerated my language learning, deepened my awareness of cultures and given me an insight into the ways of life of different countries. It has also taught me that teaching grammar can be very difficult, that it is better value to order beer than a glass of water in German restaurants, that potatoes are highly sought-after in Tajikistan, that I can manage classes of teenagers without walloping them round the head with a dictionary, that six coffees a day is both doable and sometimes necessary, and that pizza really does taste better in Italy. It has taught me that having a combination padlock is never a bad thing, that I’m apparently popular with 15-year-old French schoolgirls, that I am a complete coffee, olive oil and bread snob, that the traffic in and out of Paris can be horrendous, that I need to somehow live on the French Riviera, that the ‘drugs’ the men in the street sell in Lisbon aren’t actually drugs, that I shouldn’t help people who need to ‘ring their wife because their car broke down’, that accommodation in France is very hit-and-miss, that I love goat’s cheese, that Microsoft PowerPoint is unequivocally the best thing since sliced bread, that the UK needs to get on the bakery/patisserie bandwagon ASAP, that Brazilians are perhaps the chattiest people going, that Germans are (usually) not boring at all, that Malaga is not tacky as I once imagined, that I no longer have problems conversing with strangers (especially after a Happy Hour) and that Stockholm Skavsta Airport is really quite rubbish. It has taught me that being spontaneous and carefree can be great, although I don’t think I’ll ever not be able to know exactly where, when, how and for how much I can get to and from airports and train stations upon arrival. It has planted in me an irreversible fascination, curiosity and obsession with the world – the much talked-about ‘travel bug’ that bites with unrepentant strength, leaving you longing to be surrounded by strangers in a noisy, sweaty and uncomfortable hostel in Nice. Well, not quite, but you understand me, I hope.
To say I am sad is maybe a little too dramatic. The ‘Year’ (very loose term) Abroad never really ‘ended’ – it slowly and softly dissolved into that horrible limbo students find themselves in between academic years, that time spent mulling over what has been and what is yet to come. I’m not sad it’s over or sad to be going back to university, but I’m looking forward to looking back. My time on the continent has given me enough skills, ideas and memories to thrive on for life. Having done it, I would encourage anyone to take one good look at a Nike advertisement and just do the Year Abroad thing. Milk it for every ounce of calcium it is worth because there’s bucket loads of it. I’m rather glad that my course made it a compulsory part of my degree, because otherwise, the belligerent prude inside me would never have had the courage to do it. I’d have plodded along through university, completely oblivious to (quite literally) the world of opportunities and experiences out there. And what waste that would have been.
This is all probably quite naff, but it’s terribly true, and I’m rolling my eyes at myself for how soppy it might seem, but I know already that in a few weeks’ time I will sit in a lecture theatre, much as I had done two years ago, asking myself what happened in between. Where did the white rabbits and mad hatters go? And most importantly, why the HELL is there no artisan bakery in Exeter?