When I first arrived in France for my semester’s exchange at the Université de Versailles, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. “Well,” I decided, “I gave it a go. Tried it. Didn’t like it. When’s the next plane back?”
I felt that way when university started, and I had to sit in classes of enthusiastic French students, picking up about one word in five. I felt it when I moved into my residence, and when I first got lost looking for classrooms, and when I first had to spend the night out in Paris after missing the last train home. The thing is that for all these firsts there’s a second time that’s not as completely terrible. Then there’s a third, and then a fourth. And after a while, it all starts to get a little bit better.
One of the things that I knew would be the hardest was getting by in another language. I’ve been studying French for about eight years, and I was pretty convinced that I’d do just fine after stepping off the plane. After all, university courses had taught me how to talk about French film, literature, and current affairs – what else would I possibly need to know?
Quite a lot, as it turned out. It’s difficult to open a bank account when half the conversation is conducted in elaborate hand gestures. I decided to take up a sport, and spent the first few classes hanging around the back as the awkward exchange student, wishing I’d remembered to find out what the French for “bat” and “ball” were. That’s not even taking the classes into account. The style of lectures and tutorials here is completely different to that of Australian universities, and the language barrier doesn’t make it any easier. But, slowly, I’m starting to get by.
Exchange is hands-down the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and that’s not even considering the masses of paperwork and running around and terrible administration I had to deal with before I set off. Living and studying in another culture and another language is hard in ways that you can’t really prepare for.
At the same time, though, it’s great to have the opportunity to have all these firsts. By the end, I won’t be ready to jump on the plane back home. I may even be able to conduct a whole conversation in French without having to use hand gestures at all. That’s the dream, anyway.