Living Abroad: The Dignity-Robbing Obstacle Course

There are many challenges one faces when living abroad, particularly in the first week, which is accompanied by a crippling fear of everything (and everyone), an alarming amount of sweat and the fully formed, grammatically perfect, structured sentence becoming a distant memory.

As linguists, one assumes that by definition, being abroad is our natural habitat in which we can thrive, and one would be right. What are we complaining about? We speak the language, what more is there to it? Well, I respond with a click of the fingers and a shake of the head, when you find yourself plonked into the middle of a foreign land and told to get on with it, the regular tasks that compose your daily routine become as intimidating as those Big Red Balls on Total Wipeout. If only Richard Hammond was available for commentary…

As part of a languages degree, you are obliged to spend a year in the big, wide, non-English speaking world. The last month’s run up to leaving home and starting this amazing adventure really does get you pumped. You start looking pensive and distant when your friends are around, cleverly titled photo albums begin appearing all over Facebook, and you find yourself stocking up on PG Tips and Marmite. Then suddenly, it’s the day before, and you’re pooing your figurative pants.

My first stop on the “Plebs on Tour” adventure that has become my third year of university landed me in the sleepy, cobbled town of Alcalá de Henares, in the suburbs of Madrid, on an exchange programme known as Erasmus. With my not-linguistically-gifted-in-the-slightest mother in tow, brandishing several maps, we found our way to my shared house with five other Erasmus students, none of whom were English (or Spanish, for that matter) and began to settle in. Mum stayed for the first five days in an attempt to help me find my feet before I plunged into the deep, shark infested waters of Culture Shock and Homesickness.

After a nerve-racking few days of muddling my way through supermarkets, phone shops, train stations and wrong classrooms, I began to feel like I could actually communicate. If someone stopped me, I could tell them the time. In restaurants, I was ready to order…after whipping my pocket dictionary out a few times…

By the time Mum left, I had ordered taxis over the phone (with a lot of stuttering, hanging up and calling back to start again), I’d caught the right bus (albeit, on the wrong side of the road), I’d plucked up the courage to ask for directions (a LOT harder than it sounds), I’d returned home safely from a night out (after only getting lost twice), and I’d established that the tap water was in fact drinkable.

All of the above was achieved without the dreaded, inevitable acquisition of sun burn. Boo-ya!

Long story short, I’d made it across the Big Red Balls of communication. Next was to come The Sweeper: surviving.

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