Monday, October 3, 2011

How to make friends and NOT alienate people

Sitting by the pool of my house in the south of France, it feels ridiculous to say that at points September hasn’t been the best month ever of my life. It’s been a long journey to reach this year for me, and there’s no denying there have been times I’ve asked myself if it’s all going to be worth it.

Moving away from home is hard at the best of times, especially relocating to a different country. My experience was made all the harder by the fact that my boyfriend – a relatively long-term one, for a 22 year old – split up with me completely out of the blue. Two days before I was due to leave the country. With his family. We were going on holiday in Carcassonne, and then his dad would drive me on to Montpellier. A week before the most important and most terrifying year of my degree started, I suddenly was not only dealing with a shock break-up, but also had no way of getting to France.

This is the point when you realise the importance of friends and family – one best friend watched Lord of the Rings and ate pizza with me for an evening, the other came the next day, brought me wine and packed everything for me. My dad appeared in London within hours and took me to my sister’s house. My sister put me up for the extra week, booked my flights and generally pep-talked me into not giving up. In short, everyone was brilliant.

On the other hand, I didn’t really have much time to feel sorry for myself, as I had one week to move house, sort flights out and generally pack and repack until I only had exactly what I needed (even then it cost me an extra £40 of luggage weight...). So it wasn’t until I actually arrived in Montpellier that I had time to sit and think everything through. Of course at that point, all helpful friends and family were all back in England.

Skype is of course a godsend, but it’s not a solution. Logically I couldn’t hope to spend four months abroad relying on people at home to get me through.  The two most important things to fend off the homesickness are undeniably making friends and keeping busy, which usually go hand-in-hand.

So I did what all students and teenagers of my generation do: I turned to Facebook. Very helpfully, UCL had sent everyone the same list of study abroad placements, so I simply found out through that who would be in Montpellier this term, added several complete strangers as friends, and made a group. That meant that the nine of us from UCL all had an immediate social base of people with whom we could guarantee we had a few common interests.

The other really important thing that helped me was making sure I was in touch with what was going on with all the Erasmus events. Any drinks parties, pub quizzes, picnics...I was there. It was exhausting. But it was brilliant, because everyone is feeling exactly the same – far from home, nervous about making friends and settling in, and so everyone turns up, open-minded and ready to meet people. Not only that, but everyone hails from so many different countries that French is often the common language – so you have to speak it!

A particularly good idea on the part of Montpellier’s Erasmus social team was the picnic and city tour. Like we’d just started primary school, we sat in a circle and said our name and age, and where we came from, and the ice was broken. I went from chatting quietly to two other UCL-ers to inviting Germans to my birthday party the following week, talking football with an Argentinean and making arrangements for drinks with a Polish girl. On the tour, we then met more English girls, who are now among my best friends here. And this all while getting to know our way really well around the city that is our temporary home.

At risk of sounding whiney and pathetic, but also to reassure, I’d say that my experience of coming abroad started on a worse foot than that of many people I’ve met. But really, everyone is in the same boat. I know people whose other halves are having second thoughts now they’ve arrived here. And many people in completely solid long-distance relationships who are, unsurprisingly, finding the separation very difficult. The majority of people have never been this far from their family for this length of time. Homesickness and relationship problems are natural in a situation like this, and it isn’t something to be embarrassed about.

But everyone also finds the same thing: it happens when you’re tired, or hormonal, or when you have nothing organised for the evening or weekend. The best thing to do is prepare yourself for the fact that this will happen, and be ready for it. There’s always going to be the odd evening where you can’t do things or see people – so that’s when you go online and find the rubbishy British TV you miss (or, if you have one, turn the TV’s picks include Walker: Texas Ranger, episodes of Fort Boyard, and Bad Boys II, so I feel really at home).

Otherwise call people, and go shopping, for coffee, to the park, to dinner, for drinks, to the cinema...there’s an endless list of things to do, and you can guarantee that of the many people you’ll get to know within days of arrival, there’ll be at least one person feeling the same as you who will also want to get out of the house and do something.

I’ve spent a month doing this, and have some amazing friends here – I rarely feel lonely. Although I’m usually fairly sociable anyway, I have to be grateful for the fact that the break-up has forced me make the most of my time, and get really into the whole experience. I was hit today by the fact that I only have ten weeks left here. It’s not a long time, and nobody should stop you from getting as much as you possibly can out of it – especially yourself.

I almost didn’t come out at all; I was terrified of how I’d cope. And there have been times I’ve wanted to jump on a plane home. But I’ve been strict with myself, and stuck at it thus far. And that’s why I’ve just pulled myself out of my home’s swimming pool in 30-degree heat before going for drinks with my friends. So for all the times I’ve asked myself if it’s all going to be worth it, the answer is still a resounding yes.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly, 22 is such a difficult time. I joke around with my friends that its the quarter life crisis. I too have aspirations to go abroad next year and its scary but exciting. I started a blog as well,