Europe Food France Friends Student Life Study

How my experience in France changed me

Emma – l’Universite Catholique de Lille, France

Semester 1, 2019
Bachelor of Laws (Honours)

Leaving my comfort zone

I had never been so sad to leave home in all my life – I felt like my world was crashing around me. Six months? Have I completely lost my mind?! When I lost sight of my loved ones at the Brisbane International Airport, I was immediately a wall of tears. It was 9pm on New Year’s Eve 2018, and I wouldn’t see them again until the 27th of June the following year. What have I done ! I don’t even speak French!

I couldn’t envisage the next six months without feeling a wave of terror. Yet, at some point between having my scissors thrown in the bin and posting a picture of myself at the departure gates on Instagram, I came to the resolution that I was not allowed to be sad. Fastening myself into my seat on an almost empty plane I decided, definitively, that I must be excited from that point forward. I’ve worked too hard, and spent too much, to let despair and fear cloud what would apparently be the best six months of my life.

It turns out not much at home would change over the course of 2019, but my world would completely turn upside-down.

Learning French

Exchange changed my life. I had always wanted to go on exchange in a non-English speaking country, for no reason other than I am a little insane. I learned French in high school (seven years ago) and for whatever reason, I thought that would get me through. I survived, but it was not thanks to high school French in the slightest. It was thanks to the most wonderful group of people I have ever met.

Through a friend of a friend on Facebook, I had arranged to be picked up and looked after for the first two days of my arrival by a lovely host family in Belgium. I am forever grateful to them for easing me into European winter with warm fires, German sausages, Magnum ice-creams and “old town”.

Meeting new people

When I arrived in Lille, alone, the knowledge that they were just an hour away by train stopped me from freezing on the spot … though not literally because I was underprepared for the weather. During my first days, I learned from one of the RAs (student leaders in my accommodation) that the kitchen was the best place to be to make friends, so from that point it was in the kitchen that I spent around one quarter of my entire exchange.

I met dozens of incredible people from all over the world each night in that kitchen, whipping up a little piece of home to generously share with anyone and everyone. The Indian students were the resident chefs, while the Spanish speaking students brought the party. The French students who braved the kitchen were lovers of pasta and rap. From other students I learned the value of spice and fresh herbs to turn rice and vegetables (as meat was far too expensive) into a culinary masterpiece (thanks Columbia and Morocco). I did become slightly addicted to brie cheese and baguettes, and yes I became one of those people who munches on a whole baguette on my way to class.

Many of my closest friendships were borne in the kitchen. During the weekend, alcohol would make an appearance and “voila”, a spontaneous dance party would appear. Somehow, I became the ringmaster of Kings Cup, which delighted the crowds to no end. We would head out at ridiculously late hours  to Le Latina or Le Network where we would dance until dawn – on one occasion we ate freshly baked Pain au Chocolat from the local boulangerie before heading home to bed.

Studying in a new environment

In addition to eating, I had classes to attend where I studied a plethora of wonderful subjects with my crew of international law students from Serbia, Georgia, Brazil and Argentina (and all the local French students). My subjects focused on either European Union law (the blackletter kind) or legal history and philosophy. It was fascinating to be party to in-class debates, encouraged by the professors, where we would discuss our respective legal systems, governments and national histories and identities in the context of what we were learning. Four Australian subjects equal eight French ones, so I spent a lot of time in class and learned more about Europe, the Union, and the development of our modern legal system than I thought possible, which thoroughly enriched my subsequent travels across the continent.

Travelling through Europe

As semester wore on, new students fell into comfortable groups while the leaves grew back on the trees and snow melted into rivers. The workloads became greater, and the spontaneous dance parties lessened, but luckily, I had found myself the most wonderful group of people to spend my time with. Once we were settled in our ways, they informed me that they were secretly glad that I stayed, because I was the missing piece of the continent puzzle. Turns out our little group had a member each from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and now … Australia (forget about Antarctica it doesn’t count). Amongst ourselves we also represented almost every major religion too! I can’t tell you how much I learned about the global cultures with these people by my side.

To enrich my European experience, of course it was necessary to travel via 99 cent bus and 13 Euro plane tickets to her many corners. I’ve always been cheap, but I learned how to be even cheaper and it was 100% worth it. Sometimes all you need is a punnet of strawberries, a pack of cards, some good friends and the nice day in the park, wherever you may be. Sangria and paella on the Spanish coastline, futuristic skyscrapers in the Rotterdam city centre, endless beers in Bruges and flying a plane in Geneva were just some of many highlights.

Challenges

It may sound like sunshine and lollipops but let me assure you it was also tough at times. The language barrier would drop at random like Mt Everest in front of me, completely impassable. I would ache inside for the pain of missing my family. I watched a man snatch my freshly minted iPhone from my grasp. As quick as I formed some bonds, I lost them. I struggled with my workload and the chaos of navigating French Blackboard (So. Much. Worse.). Sitting with those around me as they went through similar struggles, however, I realised that I would get through it, and so would they, because this little group of solo students had reformed into one very international family.

It is all about the people you meet

Reflecting on my exchange today has filled me with a rainbow of emotions, and there is so much more I could say. However, what I wish to stress, is that exchange is not about where you are, or what you are doing, rather it is about who you are with. It is the people that will give you an onion or spare frying pan, or bring you soup and heaters when you are sick, or email you their notes before a test, or help you clean up one of life’s many messes.

It is with the people whom you will dance at 3am after submitting an assignment, or make snow angels in a ball gown, or laugh until you cry while watching animal vines on repeat. It is with people who you will fall in love and who will change your life forever. Thank you QUT for giving me the opportunity to live in France!

When I returned home it was like almost nothing had changed, except for me. Well, most of me. I still don’t really speak French!

Read more about l’Universite Catholique de Lille

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Hi Emma,
    I found your post so inspiring! I have always wanted to travel to France on exchange. I also studied French in highschool. Like you did, I worry that my language skills are definitely not up to scratch.
    I really enjoyed your recounting of what it was like to make friends in an entirely new environment. I would never have thought that the kitchen was the place to meet people. When you think about it, it’s actually the perfect spot because everyone is in a good mood after eating!
    The photos you took on your trip look so amazing. I know you said that you learnt to be frugal, but I feel like the best memories are definitely made from experiences, rather than material things.
    I hope to one day study at Lille and reflect as fondly as you have in this blog!

Write A Comment