The year abroad: The good, the bad and the ugly

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Halfway through the year abroad, I decided to ask my fellow MMLers about their YA experience with a survey. Here is the year abroad experience: from the good, to the bad, to the downright ugly.

The good: the new memories

The year abroad is a once in a lifetime experience, and (for better or for worse) you’ll come away from it with memories you will never forget. Favourite memories of the survey respondents included traveling to different islands or new parts of their country, drinking wine on the banks of the Seine with strangers at 4am, and walking to the central square in Buenos Aires with four million other people to celebrate the Argentinian World Cup victory.

Post-victory scenes in Buenos Aires (Photo credits: Ishaan Dasgupta)

The bad: the loneliness

One of the biggest issues with the year abroad is the degree to which everyone prematurely hypes it up. When you expect it to be the ‘best year of your life’, you feel like a failure if you are at all unhappy. However, it is very normal and understandable to feel lonely when you are living by yourself in a foreign country: almost every MMLer will feel like this at some point during their year abroad.

Photo credits: via MMLLfess

The ugly: the language

Photo credit: via MMLLfess

Unfortunately, the expectation that you become fluent in your target language on your year abroad is, often, not the case. Blank stares, gaping mouths and glazed eyes will become commonplace in your day-to-day life. And, inevitably, when your parents come to visit, your linguistic humiliation will peak:

Excruciating moment courtesy of my stepdad (Photo credits: Kirsty Falconer)

Of course, if you had bothered to pay attention in any of your B1/B2/B3 language class variants you might fare better than I did ( I somehow got worse at French). The survey responses varied from seeing no improvement at all, to improving around the three month mark, to becoming genuinely pretty decent at the language. Like everything, it is what you make of it (but you might be better off lowering your expectations).

The good: the crazy experiences

Everyone always comes back from their year abroad with at least one funny or insane story to tell. From cockroach-infested accommodation to rubbing elbows with European aristocracy, the year abroad experience is incredibly varied. My friend was randomly invited into the house of an old man who saw him and his friends on the street: it turned out that he was a Michelin starred chef in Italy whose regular clients included Bowie and Princess Diana! I know other people who randomly got free tickets to music festivals on the Parisian metro, and people who got flown out to tropical destinations by would-be-lovers.

A very aesthetic picture courtesy of my friend (Photo credits: Anika Kaul)

The bad: the homesickness

This one goes hand-in-hand with loneliness: you will inevitably feel homesick at some point. One respondent to the survey said that “At times it felt like I was thrown into the deep end […] Making more available the names/contacts of people from Cambridge who had been in the same country/city would have helped, as when I did get into contact with someone who had been in Buenos Aires for their YA it helped a lot to talk about how to settle in and what to know.”

Not all culture shock is bad, though: check out THE most French sentiment of all time below, courtesy of the ‘welcome talk’ at the ENS de Lyon.

The last sentence of this slide is the most quintessentially French sentiment of all time (Photo credits: Kirsty Falconer)

The final line has irreparably changed my brain chemistry (Photo credits: Kirsty Falconer)

The ugly: the visa

Oh, god. The visa. No-one is exaggerating when they tell you that is an absolute nightmare. The process will vary by country, some easier than others (I’ve got some bad news for anyone wanting to go to Spain) but it is such an administrative and financial pain-in-the-ass. Be prepared to jump through thousands of completely inane and arbitrary hoops, encounter hundreds of hidden costs, and weep with frustration when you realise the consulate still have your passport as your departure date gets closer and closer.

Reaching the end of my patience (Photo credits: Kirsty Falconer)

The good: broadening your horizons

While it can sometimes feel like you’re thrown in the deep end, being pushed out of your comfort zone can be a good thing. One respondent of the survey claimed that the year abroad had “more than exceeded [expectations] had a great time and met a lot of amazing people, in a beautiful city. I was quite nervous at the start to move so far away but now I wish I was back in Argentina.” They went on to say that they “really recommend Buenos Aires as a city to do your YA in, or anywhere in Latin America. It offers an experience that you can’t find in Europe and makes your perspective less eurocentric.”

The Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls (Photo credits: Ishaan Dasgupta)

The bad: the bureaucracy

The visa is just the beginning. The gaping maw of administrative hell awaits you: insurance documents, academic transcripts, visa confirmations, medical certificates, passport photocopies, proof of accommodation, certificates of arrival, all swirling within its fiery pits. And, baby, you’re on your own.

Maybe the bureaucratic nightmare is worth it for the pretty sights (Photo credits: Kirsty Falconer)

The ugly: the costs

Again, this will completely depend on your destination country. However, in France (and, I suspect, in most other Western European countries), everything is SO expensive. After paying an extortionate amount for your visa, your airfare, your rent (especially if you’re living in a city like Paris or Berlin), you see that in your local Carrefour, three onions cost three euros and your eyes begin to well with tears. And don’t even get me started on European McDonald’s…

This image still fills me with rage if I look at it for too long (Photo credits: Kirsty Falconer)

There is no perfect year abroad, and not everything always works out to plan. This MMLLfess sums up my concluding sentiments better than I can:

(Photo credits: via MMLLfess)

Feature image credits: Kirsty Falconer, screenshots via MMLLfess (top left, top right, bottom right) and author’s own survey

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