By Anna Fellows
As a modern languages student, spending a year abroad was a compulsory part of my degree. I was lucky enough to spend one semester at the University of Paris, and another at the University of Vienna on the Erasmus Socrates exchange program. I had great fun exploring both cities and the surrounding areas; Vienna in particular being ideally located for exploring Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. My year abroad really opened my eyes to some of the often very different ways of life outside the UK.
However, the year was not without its downsides. Being uprooted from all that is familiar and placed amongst all that is unfamiliar to you, but entirely familiar to everyone around you, is always going to create a certain sense of unease. For me, it was not so much my battles with the unfamiliar that caused me the most worries, but rather the very fact that what was different to me was entirely normal to everyone else. The biggest issue I faced was my desire to blend in; to avoid being seen as the tourist and attracting the attached stigma.
I wanted to appear, and subsequently feel, as if I belonged there, rather than being just someone who was passing through. I wanted to be living, rather than simply staying abroad. Being seen as the tourist may not be a problem when on a short holiday, but I quickly discovered that being viewed as one on a permanent basis, whilst trying to perform the same mundane daily tasks as hundreds of thousands of natives, soon becomes restrictive and frustrating.
As a result of this need for belonging, I gained great joy every time I bought a new monthly Carte Orange pass for the public transport network in Paris. It was like an act of defiance, a way of saying “look, I live here also! I am like one of you!” For the same reasons, I loved buying French and German novels and flashing my local student card. However, the fear remained that one day, during such a transaction, something would go wrong, I would be asked a question that I did not understand and my apparent belonging would be revealed as a mere façade.
Unfortunately, in many day-to-day situations, it proved very difficult to avoid being seen as the tourist, regardless of what I was trying to achieve. Somehow, they would find a way to catch me out. A British friend of mine, also living in Paris, told me of the time she tried to get hold of a form to apply for housing benefit. She had been told she could get one at her local post office. The staff, realising she was foreign and unsure of herself, first tried to tell her that the form did not exist, then that she should go elsewhere to find one. Having had it on good authority that she was asking for the right form in the right place, she persevered. Eventually, the clerk admitted that they did have it, “but it’s very rare.” One wonders whether a French native would have received quite the same response.
I fared no better myself, being not just a mere foreigner, but that apparent scourge of the earth the Foreign Exchange Student. When trying to get a phone line to my student accommodation activated, I was told repeatedly that it couldn’t be done, until I eventually got them to admit that it could, in fact with relative ease and no harm caused to anyone. On another occasion, when the fuse went on my only source of electricity, the warden took three days to switch it back on. On my repeated trips to his office to complain, he merely stared over the top of my head and told me he’d do it “after lunch” or “before 5pm” or “as soon as [he’d] finished [his] coffee.” On the third day, I marched over and demanded he do it NOW. On hearing this, he shrugged, walked five metres from his office, opened a cupboard, flicked a switch, and the problem was finally solved.
I also discovered that being specifically from the English-speaking world added an extra dimension to the problem of feeling like I did not belong. Because the very point of my time abroad was to improve my French and German, it became very frustrating to find that many of the people I encountered were either so eager to show off their English—or rather so convinced I would not be able to understand another language—that they would refuse communication in any other tongue. Any attempt at their native language would elicit a blank look, followed by the exclamation, in English and with some degree of confusion, “you speak French/German very well!” before continuing the conversation in… yes, you guessed it, English.
I am sure that in many of these cases, the person involved was merely trying to help, and I am the first to admit that as a nation we British are not always the most competent communicators in other languages. However, I never could quite comprehend the refusal to speak in your own language, whilst in your own country. Some even took offence at my efforts. In a bakery in Paris, the sales assistant, on hearing us speak to each other in English, asked why we had ordered our baguettes in French. After my companion explained (in French) our situation as language students, he became very grumpy, stating moodily in strongly accented English, “I can speak the English too.” We were left wondering what unresolved issues he must have had with his mother tongue.
Unfortunately, I never really discovered how to avoid tourist syndrome during my year abroad, and as such did often feel as though I was on one extended holiday, rather than truly living abroad. Despite my attempts at assimilation, my English accent continued to give me away. I must, however, point out that the negative situations described above were the exceptions rather than the rule. Indeed, there were other occasions when I was singled out as a foreigner purely because someone wanted to help. Perhaps, over time, one just learns to become less sensitive to the varied reactions to a stranger in the midst. I hope that one day, I will get the opportunity to live abroad again and find out. Maybe next time, I will really be able to live.