Gemma – Exchange to the University of Lille, France – Semester 2, 2016
No amount of research, preparation, study, experience, recommendations or briefing meetings will ever be able to prepare you for leaving everything you once took for granted and arriving in your host country.
It is a surreal scenario that you only really begin to understand the gravity of the situation once you are thousands of kilometres from home with no friends and not understanding a thing that is going on around you.
You will feel every emotion known to humankind. Sometimes all at once. It is overwhelming, empowering, daunting, terrifying, and exciting.
In French they use the term ‘Depaysement,’ which is the experience of disorientation and strangeness at the drastic change in ones scenery.
The path to self-discovery during these first few days is tumultuous to say the least. That is the beautiful thing about travel. It teaches you to rely on yourself. Whether this be reading a map and navigating, mumbling some poor French to order some food, playing charades with the chemist to try and get the correct medicine, or even just developing tolerance and a spirit of open mindedness as you try and hold it together after a long day of missed trains and miscommunications.
If I were to sum up the key attributes for survival thus far they would be having an open mind, a high level of tolerance and resilience and being very self-aware. You have to have these things, otherwise every day would end in tears. You have to learn to let go and laugh at yourself when things don’t go your way.
My first few days in Lille were eye-opening to say the least. Having high expectations was a dangerous trap I fell victim to. Everything was so drastically overwhelming. Apparently the phrase ‘parlez-vous anglais?’ only gets you so far here.
I flew from Melbourne into Brussels. In terms of culture shock, being greeted by the military with semi automatic weapons slung over their shoulder was a huge one. In Australia we are relatively protected and shielded from this sort of thing. Due to recent events in France and Brussels in particular the level of security has been raised and there was definitely tension in air.
Due to my lack of French I missed a few trains so spent a nice morning waiting around the train station. The thing I love most about travel overseas is that someone else’s ordinary becomes my extraordinary. Just little things like buying coffee or people watching and noticing how people greet and interact with one another.
Lille is just under an hours train trip away from Brussels. Lille is a university city in the North of France with a population of just over 200,000 people. Surprisingly, over 100,000 of these are students. As imagined this makes for a lively and bustling atmosphere.
I took a taxi with all my bags to the student services centre to pick up my accommodation keys. This proved more difficult that anticipated as no one spoke much English. Once more all my hours of playing charades as a kid came in handy as the lady there tried to explain everything and help me navigate the metro on the map. Unfortunately for me she got her ‘left’ and ‘right’ mixed up trying to speak English, and I got hopelessly lost.
I finally arrived at my student housing. It was a converted hospice and backed onto a cemetery. Interesting interesting. To be honest I got into my room and just burst into tears. I have a feeling this was to be one of many breakdowns along this journey. I didn’t mind. This is all part of it. After I had composed myself and begun to unpack my things I went downstairs to go grocery shopping.
As fate had it I bumped into a fellow ACU student walking in the hallway. Such a welcome surprise. We had no idea we were staying at the same accommodation here and soon realised we had corner rooms on the same floor and could talk to each other out the window.
The next few days only improved and I could tell it was going to be a fantastic semester. I met a good group of Australians and orientation at the uni really helped introduce us to everyone and get a good feel for the city we would be calling home for the next 4 months or so.
We spent a good day at IKEA buying everything for our little apartments. Funnily enough we have been buying flowers and pot plants and scented candles, basically anything to spice up our bland rooms. It is starting to feel a lot more homely now.
The student association ha ve done a fantastic job at integrating us and making us feel at home. We have been to laser tag, bike riding, wandering around
the city doing scavenger hunts and of an evening meeting up for dinner and a drink.
I have been here almost a week now and feel as though I’ve known some of the students for ages. I’ve just had three fellow ACU students around to my apartment and we had a ‘family dinner’ of lasagne. It’s the little social gatherings that make you forget the familiarities of home.
Classes don’t start till the 12th, so I have enough time to finalise a bank account and the french healthcare system which is proving to be a logistical nightmare with lots of paperwork. There are many details of everyday life that I overlooked and each day we are kept busy with something new to organise.
We discovered that you can buy Tim Tams at the supermarket here, so life is looking up.