4 Things I wish I’d known before embarking on my year abroad

It’s often said that spending a year abroad is an opportunity of a lifetime: you can experience an entirely different way of living, while being young enough to fully adapt and enjoy it. But there’s lots of things I wish I’d known before heading off on my travels. Here’s my advice to those considering taking the plunge in future!

Learn the language

Even in touristic locations like Madrid, it’s impossible to get by without any Spanish. Knowing a word or two here or there will help you out massively: from ordering lunch to sorting out housing, understanding the language is key and will make your life so much easier! And once you arrive at your destination your language skills will only improve.

Research the culture before you go

When travelling from one European country to another we don’t often consider the wide cultural differences. A holiday is short enought to briefly adapt to minor changes, but spending a year somewhere is very different. Small things such as shops closing in the middle of the afternoon to people habitually saying ‘bye’ instead of ‘hi’ when they pass you in the street will hit hard if you aren’t expecting them. Just be aware of the way of life in your country (and city) and your transition will be that much smoother.

Plan monthly catch-ups (at least)

Even if you’re used to spending months at a time away from your family and/or friends, being oceans apart can be really tough even for the strongest of us. Make sure you set dates for catch-up Skypes or halfway-point meetings. We all need to hear a friendly voice from time to time. Making new friends at your destination is important too, but make sure to keep up those strong relationships at home so your transition back at the end of the year is a simple as possible.

Be prepared for admin hell

The administrative part of a year abroad is probably the worst. From passports and visas to residency documents, there’s a lot to be done. Sometimes the guidelines won’t be clear so make sure to do as much research as possible before you tackle an admin task so that you’re fully equipped for every eventuality. Joining Facebook groups for other people abroad such as Erasmus students or Citizens Advice Bureaus will help you solve most confusions and save you time in the long-run.

If you’re prepared for things to go wrong sometimes, your year abroad will be so much more rewarding! Stay positive and enjoy yourself: it’s an opportunity of a lifetime 😉


The Realities of Culture Shock

Before embarking on my year abroad, the longest time I’d ever spent in another country was three weeks at a time. I distinctly remember the relief of sitting on the plane on the way home, delighted at being able to zone out and understand the perfect English that the flight attendants spoke. I’ve never considered myself patriotic or unadventurous, there’s just something about the familiarity of an English-speaking environment that soothes me.

Uprooting myself from England to Spain has been both trickier and more rewarding than I’d expected. The first few weeks just felt like a holiday, despite the chaotic mission of finding somewhere to live: one which I’d have found difficult enough in an environment where I fully understood the language, let alone in a remote rural city in Spain! Perhaps I was so distracted by all of my new surroundings that reality didn’t have time to set in. But once it did, it was a the most overwhelming feeling I’d felt since arriving in Ávila.

I started to miss the tiny things I never expected to even think about, like the orderly British way of queueing
and weekly family Costa trips. This became evident when on a weekend trip in Salamanca I practically ran towards the Starbucks as soon as I spotted it, in search of the taste of a familiar coffee! People warn you about culture shock, and let me tell you it is REAL. But it’s hard to predict in exactly which form it’ll hit you.

So, what can you do to prepare for culture shock?

And what’s the best way to relieve it?

Embrace the local way of life

As easy as it is to rifle through the local supermarkets in search of the exact brand of tea that you drink at home, chances it won’t be stocked there, or if it is it’ll be at least twice the price that you’re used to! Us students need to monitor our budget, so the more economical (and simpler) thing to do is try to adapt to the local taste. Swap your box of Twinings English Breakfast tea for a Spanish-branded mint tea and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

• Find some new “home” comforts

As a coffee lover, one particularly challenging part for me was not having a Costa or Starbucks within an hour of my house! Perhaps you might be lucky enough to have one nearby, or maybe it’s the atmosphere of your native pubs that you miss. Whatever it is, try out the local cafes and pubs and find one that’s right for you- it’s definitely worth it; think of all of the coffee/pints you can drink in the way of research! I found some beautiful cafes in my city, including a bakery that sold carrot cake called Granier and a shop called Santa Teresa selling local products which had the perfect coffee-shop atmosphere.

• Keep going!

As hard as it might seem to fit into a city so different from your native home, give it time. You’ll soon make new friends and find your new favourite places. Rather than focusing on the negatively different aspects of your new home, look at the positives: at least the weather is warmer in Spain!

Remember, it’s only natural to feel out of place sometimes. But you’ll get there, and you can have that Twinings English Breakfast tea on the return flight home!