(n.b. I wrote this while I was quite tired, so some of it might sound like I was smoking something fruity. I wasn’t.)
For Part 1 at Cambridge, we studied the nouvelle vague classic, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7h. This film, which follows Cléo through her day, represents time as an elastic quantity, in which hours lengthen and shorten as we experience them. Varda marks the passing of time in Cléo’s day through occasional flashes: sometimes, an hour in Cléo’s day takes twenty minutes in the film, sometimes five. It is a human rendering of time, which never quite ticks along with quite such regularity as the clocks record – as anyone who has waited for 5pm to come around at work or school, or has felt surprised by ‘how time flies’ will know.
The Year Abroad has progressed in this weird warping of time. In both Bolivia and France, the first fortnight felt like several months, with so much to complete, so many people to meet, a new culture to absorb. And yet whole weeks then pass at a speed of hours, leaving you wondering how a month or two have passed. Preparing to go home, minutes and hours stretch without shape ahead: counting down the days as you accumulate them, with the prize the promise of friends and family at home.
Looking through my calendar yesterday, I realised that I am now almost exactly halfway through the Year Abroad. The speed at which the days have disappeared make looking back to the start of the year, to the stillness of late summer. There is no longer a point fixe: in Bolivia it is now Summer, in France it is sunny and spring like, in England it is snowing. The one-hour time difference between France and England is little in comparison to the 8- hour, but both mark separation between countries. Even in this era of instantaneous communication, where a Skype call creates contact over thousands of miles, the passing of time is a reminder of the distance that displacement – dépaysment – creates. And so it is sunny in France and snowing in England,
This displacement often feels like several dislocations. The version of me who stood in the Chilean desert, eating cactus ice-cream, or flew in the teleférico in La Paz, feels unconnected to the version of me at home in York, or on the familiar train to visit my boyfriend in Newcastle; and the version of me, working in the library at Cambridge, feels like another lifetime, another person entirely. Travelling fragments the self, even as you come to deepen your self-knowledge through the experience.
The cliché that you ‘find yourself’ through travelling does not, for me, quite capture this process. The self who leaves on the plane or train, from whatever lifestyle or background you know, is yourself: but in the slow, often testing, experiences of your new life, you discover some bits, develop others, and suppress or forget some traits or neuroses. In a different landscape, the unthinking routines, likes and dislikes of your previous life are no longer just there for you to continue. Instead, you have to consciously choose whether to re-invite these practises or people back into your new situation. Did you really like that TV programme, or that friend, or did you just engage with it or them because they were there, and you never had any reason to question your involvement? Moving to a new country forces you to re-assess your interests, and also brings a whole new culture to play with.
It’s the equivalent of putting old clothes in storage, and buying new ones to try out: you realise that you do miss that old jumper, but actually prefer ankle-boots to flats.
Simple conversations allow you to analyse your own culture. Someone raises a stereotype – that English people are reserved, for example – and you wonder if this is true; if you are reserved in contrast to your new country, or if not, why you don’t identify as such. Is it because you have found that you enjoy the more direct style of your new home? Or maybe the experience has proved that you actually you are perfectly happy not talking to anyone on the tube.
As Montaigne put it in his essay, ‘On The Education of Children’, where he recommends that young people travel abroad to open their minds and form their judgments:
‘mixing with men is wonderfully useful, and visiting foreign countries … to bring back knowledge of the characters and ways of those nations, and to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.’
Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.
- It’s much easier to learn, absorb, digest the language in the country where they speak it
- Long bus and train journeys really let you think
- You can get money from the MML faculty if you have to escape from a military coup in South America, if you ask nicely
- It’s hard to be funny in a second language
- People from England rely on humour to communicate roughly 60% of the time. This is a mixture of laugh-out-loud, bawdy humour, irony, sarcasm, self-deprecation, doing a ‘bit’ with your friend/ comedy partner, and you won’t realise how much you use this until you lose the ability to do it.
- People aren’t intrinsically more interesting because they come from another country. However, becoming part of an international community means you meet people who are generally open-minded, sociable, and adventurous, so it’s easy to believe that the grass is greener.
- It’s also easier to do small talk when you can just list different types of food you like in your country, and count this as ‘cultural exchange’
- In many ways, you might just revert to the conversational prowess of an inquisitive toddler, as you ask a lot of questions, like ‘What are you cooking today?’ and ‘Do you have classes?’ and ‘Do people like Blackadder in France?’.
- Travelling gets easier the more you do it. Both in the practicalities (checking bus timetables, reading directions) and in the psychological aspect (it’s not as scary as it seems. Ok, well, Bolivian buses are still pretty scary.) .
Should also point out that I’ve had a pretty great time so far – largely because the people I’ve met have been wonderful. So much of my improvement in French is due in large part to my flatmates, who defy every stereotype about ‘the French’ being rude ; and so much of my general happiness has been due to the lovely friends I’ve made in the past term. Lyon is a beautiful city and lets you slow down, enjoy good wine and coffee and food, as well as providing a pretty much endless array of diversions.
Challenges such as: anemia, ant infestations, banking bureacracy, unhelpful administrators, lack of Wi-Fi, malfunctioning phone contracts, and Erasmus documents – and much more beside – have been largely overcome – though they have all been A Bit Too Much at times. (And by ‘times’, I mean ‘most of all the time’).
Anyway, I’m posting this, a week after starting it (how am I ever going to get back to the productivity machine of the University of Cambridge ? ) from the gloriously grey UK – specifically Newcastle, where people don’t glare at you in the street if you have a ladder in your tights – and am glad to be back for a bit. Also trying to not Freak Out Unhelpfully about Corona Virus. À très bientôt.