It’s OK to talk to people you don’t know (yet), in fact it can be quite fun.
It’s OK to tell someone if something is bothering you, like that really loud phone conversation they’re having in the silent study area.
It’s OK to complain sometimes.
These are the most valuable things I learnt on my Year Abroad. I went there expecting to come back with much better spoken French, I went there expecting to see more of France and of Europe. What I didn’t expect was to learn how to be more confident in myself and what I have to say.
Like a fair proportion of students who do a year abroad, I was an English Language assistant. Unlike a lot of my friends, I was the only Language Assistant in my two schools, and in fact the whole town I was working in. The town was big, but empty. If I’m being honest, it didn’t like it at all. I like people, and I struggled not having any company. I eventually persuaded myself that moving to the bigger city, an hour’s commute away, was in my best interest – and it wasn’t ‘giving up’.
When I did move, there were a lot more people around me for sure, but no clear avenues through which to make friends. There was no students’ union, there were no readily available societies or clubs I could join. I found a volunteering project I enjoyed and a French-English evening, where people would meet and spend half the time speaking in French and half the time speaking in English. But on the whole I found I had to make a real effort to put myself out there and meet people. Most of the friends I made I met in random places. Like one Sunday, bored, I left my room to explore the city and heard some music coming from the nearby square. There were tables set up and people stood around them, so I went up. I put on the pair of gloves I was handed and started peeling vegetables with the rest of the table. That is where I met two of my closest friends that year.
It was a Disco Soupe event. Every month the group collect reject vegetables from supermarkets, set up vegetable chopping stations in a public space and people passing by can help make a gigantic vat of soup. The event always ends with everyone enjoying some live music while eating the soup.
My point is, having spent a month essentially as a hermit, I no longer felt paralysing-ly nervous talking to strangers. I then discovered that talking to strangers is generally fine and most people are nice.
A couple of things happened recently that made me appreciate what I learnt.
Over a year ago I shelled out for a pair of ‘100% waterproof boots’ Doc Martens. But they weren’t. I barely wore them because my right foot was always cold and damp. Eventually I decided I was outraged and had to say something about it. I tried resolving the issue online, contacting the sellers and also the Doc Marten facebook page. I didn’t get very far. A few months in, Doc Marten asked me to send in the shoes and they would repair them. Two weeks later I was pleased to receive a box with what looked like my boots re-soled. And there was that promising tag ‘100% waterproof’. I was so excited that I wore them on a weekend away to Liverpool that promised to be wet. Lo and behold, my right foot was soaked. I was walking past a Doc Marten store and on an impulse walked in. I showed the shop assistant my foot, and with little persuasion she agreed that that was not ok. The model was no longer in production so instead I got credit for their price to spend in-store.
I left with these rather funky beauties. My feet are always warm and dry. The lady was lovely. In my experience nothing solves problems better than talking to someone. I have no hard feelings towards Doc Martens. Much the opposite I was very impressed by how I was treated in store and am more likely to buy more from them!
Another episode that reminded me of how incredibly easy it is taking to people when there’s an issue rather than keeping quiet and letting it fester. I was at work and got shouted at as though I was a child by a stranger. I had made a mistake but was never given the chance to apologise let alone explain the reasoning behind my actions. My instinct was not to approach them, but to moan about them to my near and dear. I decided against it, the next day I went to see them and explained why I did what I did and that I had no intention of causing trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I felt very anxious doing this and it would have been so much easier not to. But our interaction the second time around was much more pleasant.
Had I not gone round to see them, I would have spent days bitter about the way I had been spoken to and thinking uncharitable thoughts and they would have continued thinking I was incompetent and generally disliking me. I’m glad I spoke to them.
Before my Year Abroad, I would never have DREAMED of walking into the Doc Marten store or talking things out after I had been shouted to. Now I go and get the waiter/waitress if we have been waiting for 20 minutes for someone to come to our table and take card payment. Now I will ask the couple having a loud conversation next to my desk in the library to please speak quietly or elsewhere. I make myself sound like I’m fearless and don’t care what people think. I am not and I do. I still get a bit nervous doing things like that, and I am always very polite about it, but I have come to realise that sometimes you have to speak up.