An appendix

One of the things that makes Austria great is that Pierce Brosnan features in adverts for luxury supermarket food there.

Since my year abroad is officially over – as of 4 days ago – it is time to retire this blog. A lot of my friends are still out in Europe. I’d have liked to do that, but I can’t really justify hanging about away from home doing nothing. I think it was a good time to move on, even though I dearly miss Linz and the people there. It’s not an altogether pleasant feeling, but I’m trying to adjust to life at home again as well as I can.

So, I’d like to reflect on a few things…

Did the year abroad live up to my expectations? Yes and no. I knew it wasn’t going to always be a picnic. I indeed found that far from a drawn-out holiday, living abroad could be expensive, exhausting and emotional.

I remember very well the night before I got the Eurostar to Liège, lying in bed, so nervous. I hadn’t spoken French in months, and I was so worried I’d fail at even buying a bus ticket. I’d heard the first few weeks were hard; and yes, the first few weeks there were quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Even the simplest tasks were like moving a mountain – I remember it was quite a while before I had my own cutlery and crockery and stuff, just because I had no idea where to obtain it from. I also had no money when I got there – the ERASMUS grant didn’t come in until much later – so I couldn’t really explore and have fun, and I think that definitely affected how I interacted with my peers (i.e. badly).

It was tough. I already had some personal issues, and on top of that came the unfortunate environmental factors. It just added up and I felt like I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t go on. They were some of the lowest times in my life, actually. I remember counting down the weeks til I could go home. And my semester in Austria – which I was already sure would be better – seemed like a century away.

I realised later that Liège was the location for a rather dark film we watched for a class last year, La Promesse. When I mentioned this to friends who’d also seen it, they understood!

I had an awesome time in Linz and it was the place I enjoyed the most – no question – but I have come to realise some things about the differences between my experiences in Belgium and Austria.

I think it is actually much harder for a foreigner to assimilate into Austria. At first I found people to be a little too “direct” for my liking. Subtlety and politeness don’t really have a place there. But over time I made the best out of this – when in Rome, as it were. I began to have no problem with pushing in front of people in non-existent queues, and I stopped prefacing all my opinions with “I’m sorry, but…”, because I realised that speaking my mind was hardly going to ruin somebody’s day. (In fact, even in the few days since coming back to England I’ve had to alter my manners a bit – some people have looked a bit shocked when I say something a bit too bluntly. And I’ve totally forgotten how to queue.)

But I never did get used to the way people stared. On public transport, in the street. People of all ages and genders. In England, we are taught from childhood that staring is the height of rudeness. On the bus, you keep your eyes out of the window or on the ground. I felt like I was constantly being visually criticised and evaluated, even though deep down I knew it wasn’t personal. Not great when you’re in a bad mood and just want to feel invisible.

However, I do think the one thing that was consistently blocking me out was the dialect. Don’t get me wrong, I super loved being in a place with a different form of German, that was why I was interested in coming to Austria.  Overall, my German definitely improved by default of immersion, but the local dialect made it slightly more difficult to understand people, which meant I had to concentrate harder on listening – which was exhausting. I found I kept saying “Bitte?” like a stuck record. But also, I feel that the fact I wasn’t in on what was almost a secret language put a strain on my relationships with others at home, work and generally in public. On my account my housemates would have to speak Standard German, and one of them eventually admitted it was easier to speak English with me because he felt so weird and overly formal trying to speak SG, as if presenting the news. (A friend of mine even tutored someone who needed to practise his SG as he was going to do a presentation.)
At times I felt as terrible as I would if I marched into a shop in another country and immediately demanded they speak my language without even asking if they could. So there was not only that issue, but the fact that this meant in public situations I could be construed as a German. And that leads us to the fact that the Austrians have a mixed relationship with the Germans (a topic within itself).

Despite those difficulties, I’m glad I got to experience a new German-speaking country. But given half a chance, I’d definitely have picked another destination for the French side, like France – perhaps even in the Mediterranean or Pyrenees regions (to counterbalance the morale-draining winter). But lately I’ve been thinking about whether I would take Liège on with a completely different attitude if I went there now, with what I’ve learnt from being in Austria. I wonder if I’d be more motivated to hunt down lecturers and ask what the deal is with randomly cancelled lessons, if I’d be more outgoing and open to meeting people (even if it meant putting up with doing stuff I hated). I know there is no point dwelling on the past and whatiffing, but I honestly think that my experience in Linz has been so beneficial that I’m actually now able to see where I went wrong before. On the other hand, if I’d been thrown into my assistantship for the first semester, would I have been able to cope with all the responsibility? Maybe in some ways my time in Liège was a useful little segue into the “real thing”. It’s interesting to think about, but I guess I just need to accept everything for what it is, what it has been, and do what I can now in the present.

I’m publishing this in a bit of a rush because I want to get it out of the way while it’s all still fresh in my mind. I am leaving for Montreal in a week, and I have lots to prepare – not least that it’s time to brush up on my French again! I have been wanting to visit there for years, so I am extremely excited that I finally have enough money. And more importantly, I’ve realised that the year abroad has actually filled me with the confidence to actually just go ahead and buy that ticket. I think that this time last year, even though I certainly wanted to go, I don’t think I’d actually have had enough courage to do it. There’d be too much “what if”. But these days, having experienced so much wonderful stuff and becoming less naive by also experiencing some bad stuff, I see absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. I feel I owe it to myself, even. I look at how far I’ve come (on a personal level) and it’s a wonderful boost.

Overall, I hope that this blog has been useful and/or inspirational to anybody who’s thinking about studying or working abroad, even if it isn’t in Belgium or Austria. Couple more tips:

  1. Wherever you end up going, make sure you bring plenty of paracetomol (or whatever your painkiller of choice is) with you. Gone are the days of getting them for 60p from the supermarket. Welcome to making a special trip to the pharmacy and paying 6 € for them.
  2. You’ll probably hear/read a lot of people saying the year abroad is the best year of your life. Take that with a pinch of salt. I put myself down a lot in the first semester because I definitely wasn’t having a good time, and I think that impacted everything else. Just take it as it comes, but don’t put pressure on yourself to make it amazing. I would advise that you try to establish a good friendship group (i.e. support network) early on, even if you don’t always feel like socialising. It means you won’t feel alone when challenges do arise.
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