I just booked my flight back to Canada. Just like that moment almost a year ago when I booked my flight to France, it has all just become real that this too is coming to an end. In the 20/20 of hindsight, I’ve decided to compile a short (haha) list of hopefully somewhat helpful hints for anyone undertaking an exchange adventure in the future. You know, pay it forward?
It takes time to adjust.
I had friends who went on exchange the year immediately before mine, and who came back telling me they had the best year of their life. So naturally, this was where I unwittingly put my bar of exchange success/failure. Best year of my life. Don’t do that.
Because this, of course, led to a first semester full of doubt, thinking I must be doing this whole exchange thing wrong. I wasn’t loving Strasbourg’s grey skies, I was blurting out gobbledygook not French, I was still in that awkward new friend stage here and missing my old friends elsewhere, and school was, well, school. This went on for a while, with ups and downs of course, and then around Christmas something changed. I don’t know exactly what it was, but when I came back to Strasbourg in January exchange had become the comfy old slippers that you love till they fall apart- and the second semester became one of my favourite times of my life.
So all this to say that while I have friends who loved life on exchange from the get go, I took a bit more time to adjust and to feel like I was making the most of my year. Pretty much a whole semester, to be exact. So if you find yourself in a place like I was, you’re not doing it wrong. Be patient and keep making small talk and keep going to pub nights and keep on keeping on and you will get there too.
Thing’s aren’t weird, just different.
This is something that has become a bit of a pet peeve of mine over the years, and something I still have to stop myself from doing. It goes down like this: “This is how xyz works in France” “Oh, that’s weird. In [insert other country] it works like abc”. Personally I find that as soon as ‘that’s weird’ slips through my lips the immediate comparison is negative and my impression of the country is negative. If I consciously remind myself to say ‘that’s different‘, or ‘that’s interesting‘ in its place, I am reminding myself to be open minded and un-judging in my interactions. This may sound a bit far flung, but when you are sent to your third government office only to be told you need ten more photocopies and five more forms and that you need to go back to the office that sent you there, a constant reminder to keep an open mind can’t really go amiss.
Leading me to my next point:
The bureaucracy poses many problems but offers many solutions.
A German friend came up with this phrase, and I absolutely love it because it totally sums up what happens here. We had a mandatory meeting at the beginning of the year to learn how to fill out a form. Mais vous n’êtes pas allée, madame? C’était obligatoire, fallait être là! Je ne peux rien faire pour vous. (plead your case politely for a couple more minutes) Allez, prenez cette formulaire, allez voir cette personne, voilà. Mais sachez que les réunions sont obligatoires!
We also had to do our course selection for the whole year online. L’inscription est définitive, aucune changement ne pourra être effectuée après cette date. Two weeks later you go see the coordinator in her office. Je ne peux pas changer vos cours, madame. Je ne peux rien faire pour vous. (plead your case politely) Allez, c’est quels cours que vous voulez changer? (gets out her paper binder full of printed copies of the online course selection, neatly rules a pencil line through the courses you want dropped). Allez, c’est bon.
See? Many problems, many solutions. Just never forget your Ps and Qs, which count for everything here.
Know your niceties.
One can bookend any manner of negative information here as long as it is proceeded by a bonjour, followed by an au revoir and that there is a good peppering of SVP, madame, monsieur and merci in the middle. And, if you are friends, a bise or two in the mix as well.
There was this awkward moment a month of so after I had first arrived when I was meeting friends of my roommates. I said hi, with a small wave of the hand as you do. The girl in question then got up and moved towards me, and I moved aside, thinking she must want to pass to go into the kitchen. She then stops abruptly, “on fait pas la bise?”. Oh, riiiiight. At one party when people arrived they did la bise to everyone in the room. Everyone. To the point where stragglers had to kiss twenty or so people before taking their coat off. Normale.
So what to take from all this? In short, at the end of the day if you are polite, flexible, open-minded and patient with yourself, you’ll be fine. You may even have the best year (or half a year) of your life. (I think I did!)