'What is this country? Who are these people? What is going on?'
Generation Erasmus: Calum Fabb told everyone last February that he was moving to Paris but he felt as if it was never actually going to happen.
Calum Fabb: "The day I moved I wasn’t emotional. I was a bit nervous but when I landed it all hit me: What is this country? Who are these people? What is going on?”
Calum Fabb is an Irish student from Trinity College who is currently on Erasmus in Paris, studying for the year in La Sorbonne Nouvelle.
I asked Calum to describe how he felt about the initial move to Paris (he’s been living here for four months by now). Although he told everyone in February that he was moving to Paris for the year, he never really felt like it was going to happen.
He wasn’t particularly emotional the day he moved, a bit nervous, yes, but everyone’s first experience of moving abroad is hard to pre-empt. Calum told me that when he landed it all hit him “What is this country? Who are these people? What is going on?”. Although it can be somewhat daunting the first day or two, gradually you just adapt to your new surroundings until one day, in a few weeks or months you mention the word ‘home’ and you don’t mean Ireland … you mean your new, adopted home.
I asked Calum how he finds studying in his host university, La Sorbonne Nouvelle. Calum is studying French and Spanish, so he’s immersed in languages on a daily basis. His Spanish classes don’t sound like they’re much more difficult because he’s still learning them as a second language, however his French modules sound more challenging (in particular the literature). In short he said: I’ll be so happy to pass this year.
For many students who go on Erasmus in their second year grades don’t matter – all that matters is passing the year (which corresponds to a grade between 40% and 50%). However for students who go abroad in their third year it’s more common for their grades to be of relevance to the grade they receive when they graduate, which can make Erasmus a lot more stressful for students in third year. Regarding La Sorbonne itself Calum said there’s no society presence there which is quite different from home. He talked about the lack of events to engage with and how that surprised him.
Life in France
One of the hardest things about moving to a foreign country is the language barrier and Calum was no different. He said the first while was difficult doing everything through French but then he just had to get used to it! Interestingly he said that although your actual level of language may not improve, your comfort speaking it and your fluency improve loads when living through a foreign language. Calum pointed out that “You have no choice but to speak French to official people so you can’t really be timid about it; you’re not able to sit there and say you don’t speak French. That expires after the first few weeks”.
Calum is living in Paris and I was dying to find out what he thought about it and if he liked being an adopted Parisian. When I asked him about this he immediately replied by exclaiming, “It’s something alright!” He continued and said that few people can pronounce his name in France (unfortunately you get used to extremely odd pronunciations, especially if you have an Irish surname) and he said that the smoking took some adjusting to “It’s disgusting to have to walk through clouds of smoke every day”.
Calum laughed when I asked him if he had opened a bank account (an infamous question among French Erasmus students) and he told me that it took him a month to finally open one and after all that he still didn’t have a bank card. “I think it takes the first term to settle in on Erasmus. The next term will be a lot easier” Calum sagely told me, and I think he’s right. Now that all the groundwork is done: friends, bank account, understanding your college system, the second semester will be significantly less stressful for anyone who is on Erasmus.
You gain a certain independence and ability on Erasmus to do what you want that you don’t get from living in your home country even if you’ve moved away from home. Everything is new and you’re tackling it all, for the most part, independently. Calum told me that he doesn’t really feel connected to everything around him in Paris, which he says comes from not being properly established yet. He compared this Ireland, saying that because he’s only just arrived in the past four months he’s not connected to the people and the culture in Paris so he doesn’t have many ties there. He concluded by saying “maybe by the end of the year I’ll feel more connected”.
Erasmus gives you a boost confidence when you’re least not expecting it. Remember, you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. You’re not trying to impress people (and honestly how can you’re constantly wandering around lost and confused and staring at people for longer than s acceptable when they speak to you in a foreign language). Calum said he doesn’t mind speaking out in class because “who is am I here to impress? I’m only here for a year and nothing I do or say will have any lasting repercussions; I can do whatever I want and nobody’s really going to care.” I thought this was particularly good advice because it’s nice knowing that you don’t also have to worry about looking like an idiot when you’re navigating your way through life abroad!
No doubt Erasmus changes your perspective on many things. For starters, home feels different after you’ve been away. Calum talked about how separate his life at home in Ireland feels to his life in Paris. He said, “Whenever you’re in one place the other place just feels like a dream. Nothing in Paris is relevant back home and nothing relevant at home is relevant here in Paris”. It’s true that returning home even for holidays some of your experiences on Erasmus can seem surreal and bizarre compared to what you’re used to at home. That also gives you a certain confidence when you return home, as Calum said, you feel like you can handle anything when you’re back in Ireland because you’ve lived abroad and you’ve managed to communicate in a foreign language and then you get back home and everyone speaks English! There is no joy known to students like the joy you get from hearing the Irish accent when you come home from Erasmus. The familiarity is akin to a physical embrace.
Finally, I asked Calum if he had any regrets about coming on Erasmus. He replied by telling me, “I think I would have had such a nice year in Trinity had I stayed but I think it would have been comfortable year. I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone and I wouldn’t have pushed myself to do anything. I feel like here I’m improving in confidence and in my ability to handle life in general”. No doubt it’s scary making the decision to leave familiarity behind, but it’s important to remember that it’s on for a year and the benefits are longer than this entire article. Most importantly, your perspective on things changes when you’ve been away from home and furthermore your perspective on your own life changes.