If we learnt anything about social media in 2015, it’s to be a bit more selfie-sceptic. From hipster Barbie on Instagram to nomads posting exotic vistas, it’s time we admitted that our virtual lives are rose-tinted. So when you see the digital published life of your friends abroad, seemingly idyllic and cosmopolitan, there may be more to it.
One of the biggest options for third-year language students is the British Council scheme, whereby students work part-time in schools abroad for 7 months. Their webpage is awash with language assistants abseiling past misty mountains and singing their praises in front of the Eiffel Tower. But what if, like me, you’re in a town of around 12,000 inhabitants in the middle of an agricultural region? When my work colleagues suggested that the berrichon people could be a little reserved, I simply brushed this off as a natives’ self-depreciation. It’s true that the French are polite people, there’s a chorus of “Bonjour!” every time you walk into a room, but I soon realised that doesn’t necessarily translate into friendliness. Although many people initially took interest in me (“What are you doing here though?” and “Do you know the Queen?” were typical), once the novelty wore off I wasn’t sure whether I’d made any friends. At the beginning I was so glad that I’d managed to rent an apartment that I didn’t even realise how isolated I really was. Nonetheless, my blog was full of roasted chestnuts and daytrips to local chateaux. I think, maybe without realising it, I was editing my whole life to fit into a preconceived idea about the year abroad experience.
Social media does, of course, also help year abroaders to combat their loneliness. This is where blogging platforms such as WordPress have made their mark: increasingly I’ve see posts which take an alternative look at the year abroad experience, and try to give an unvarnished account of what it’s really like to be living in a foreign country. From lease agreements to medical emergencies, people feel comfortable to ask about a wide range of situations, which become difficult, disheartening or downright hilarious by turn. There’s always another year abroader experiencing the same unforeseen difficulties, which helps you realise that you are not the only person to be confused by this, or clueless about that. So as much as social media pages can be a great way to pool knowledge and find solutions, they also have the potential to be great sources of reassurance. Just by their existence, they prove how vital it is that year abroaders support one another. They’re also a way to celebrate the little victories, such as successfully ordering your coffee like a local, or grasping the usage of that most elusive of filler-words, “quoi”.
However, as important as it might be to keep in touch with friends, it can never fully substitute the support networks which we build around ourselves in our daily lives. I’ve opened up to all sorts of opportunities since I arrived here, including being a tutor, joining local societies and even going to (American-style) dance lessons. For a while I felt that I had failed at my new independent francophone life, when I realised that the real failure would be to not make a change. I decided to move out of my one-bedroom apartment and am now sharing accommodation, taking on the experience of living with les français full-time. Maybe I’m still waiting to meet those many Brigittes and Bernards to sip espresso with in philosophical cafés, but I’m getting there. So whether the year abroaders you know are your friends or just people you used to see on your staircase, stay connected. You never know when they might need it.
IMAGE/ Eric Bennett