25 October 2015
Everyone says that your year abroad is the best year of your life. Terrifying at first, but something you will forever look back on with nostalgia, wishing you could do it all over again. As a languages student, it’s something you see slowly approaching on the horizon as soon as you begin your degree; and something that doesn’t really seem all that real until you’re actually on your way to the airport and – as happened to me – you suddenly burst into tears whilst blubbering on about how you can’t even speak Italian.
I have now been in Verona, Italy for 4 weeks as an Erasmus student and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not sure how I feel. Well, it’s not so much that I don’t know what I feel; more that I feel a hundred different ways in one week. There are times when I feel drained, futile, frustrated; when I know what I want to say, but I just can’t string the words together, and feel like I’ll never be able to. But then there are times when I could not feel happier – when I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have essentially been forced to spend a year in a country I have always wanted to live in.
And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to write about the past four weeks here: because so much has happened; so much is constantly changing. In four weeks, I have visited five different Italian towns (including Venice, Florence and Pisa). I have gone through stages of being convinced I was going to be forever homeless, to arranging flat viewings via hand signals and very broken Italian, to finally making myself at home in a flat which looks like it hasn’t been decorated since the 70s and for some inexplicable reason is full of Christmas wreaths.
As for the dreaded Cultural Shock…more than a shock, it was an affirmation that Italy is rather disorganised and very…very…slow. There are moments when I’ve started to lose faith; when I’ve asked myself why I’m putting myself through all of it – sitting in lectures and failing to understand what’s going on for a full hour and a half, or being sent round in circles for a day trying to print something off (never will I take the St Andrews library printers for granted again!). But then I realise it’s all part of the process of discovering a new culture, of looking at things in a different way. Maybe it’s not being slow and disorganised; maybe it’s just taking everything more calmly. Deciding to take an extra ten minutes out of your day to sit down and savour your coffee instead of rushing about with it in a take-away cup.
But the most important thing I have learned so far isn’t that you’re not supposed to drink a cappuccino after 12pm, or that peperoni actually means peppers and not pepperoni (I was confused when reading the ingredients in a vegetarian pizza), but that there is no “right way” to do your year abroad. Not only that, but there is no singular way of doing your year abroad. There is no point in comparing your experience to that of others – because, as silly as it sounds, each experience is different. So don’t worry about whether you really are having the “best year of your life” or not; or whether you can speak any more fluently than you could a week ago. Just try to make the most of it – the good and the bad – because before you know it, it’ll be time to leave.
And when times get tough, just do as I was advised by my best friend and listen to Jess Glynn’s hit “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” a few times (no, really). Because if you think about it, you’ve probably achieved more than you could have ever imagined.