What to do if you’re a shy person on your year abroad

Bonjour à tous !

You might not know, but I am actually quite shy, especially when meeting new people. I don’t like talking on the phone, I abhor reading aloud in class, I hate ordering in restaurants, and I will wander round a supermarket for up to half an hour and then leave empty-handed rather than ask where I can find the unsalted butter – and that’s in England. Added to this, I have a horrible habit of liking being right which means that I hate making mistakes (granted, I’ve had to get used to it since starting uni, but I still don’t like it). These things added together are not ideal traits for someone going to live in a country where they don’t know anyone, with the intention of learning the language. But I’m doing ok.

If you are, like me, shy, English, and on your year abroad, the first thing to do is get over your fear of making mistakes. You will make mistakes. There are no two ways about it. The whole point of coming on a year abroad is to get better. Yes, it’s disheartening when you realise that some German girl you’ve met who is studying medicine at your uni can speak better French than you (and English for that matter) and she’s not even studying it, but whatever. Accept whatever level you’re at and run with it. When I first arrived in France, I had a lot of trouble remembering not to pronounce the end of words; embarrassing for anyone who has studied French beyond GCSE level (or ever), but because I’m a visual learner, when I want to say a word I tend to visualise the way it’s spelt and so naturally I pronounce its ending. I once tried asked Chantal how her chat was doing, but I accidentally pronounced the t, pronouncing ‘shat’ instead of ‘sha’. ‘Chatte’ has a very very different meaning to ‘chat’ and I actually ended up asking Chantal an extremely intimate question instead of if her cat was ok (look it up, you’ll see).

When that happened (in front of a whole room of people I might add), guess what I discovered? People don’t care if you make mistakes. They really, really don’t. As foreign students, many of the people we come into contact with are going to be either multi-lingual themselves or very used to having foreigners speak their language. They’re used to it. People have been so much more patient and willing to help than I thought they’d be, and I barely ever get English-ed (when you try to speak in a foreign language and someone replies in English). And if someone does laugh at your mistakes or make fun of you, just remember that you have the last laugh because you can speak one more language than them and quite frankly they can va se faire foutre.

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Pretty sunset at Paul Val this week

Getting more confident just sort of happens when you don’t have a choice. If I wanted to have any friends at all when I arrived here, I had no choice but to speak to people I didn’t know, and it really paid off. I do feel very, very lucky to have met so many lovely people here who are so kind and easy to get on with, but at the same time, I’m sure I would have met people I get on with anywhere (maybe not this much, but whatever). The thing is, the type of people who go on years abroad tend to have a certain level of confidence and open-mindedness, which means in general the people you meet will want to make friends. So you might as well take your chances and just talk to someone, because they’ll probably be super friendly and nice.

Getting over these things has helped my language skills so much. Before, I had to be on my guard all the time in case someone asked me a question because if I wasn’t concentrating I wouldn’t understand if someone randomly spoke to me in French, but now I can understand without thinking too hard (most of the time). I used to have to prepare a mental script before I ordered anything in a café and would get so nervous about speaking out loud that I’d inevitably get my words muddled up, but I’m able to be a lot more spontaneous now. I can tell I’m getting better, because I understood a whole film in French and can now discern whether or not someone is speaking with an accent. I even successfully bridged the tu/vous divide the other day!

Ah, the good old tu/vous debacle. Everyone learns that the French have two words for ‘you’, but often we don’t learn what the real difference is. It’s not as simple as ‘use vous with people who are older than you’. That’s what I was always taught in secondary school and I don’t know how nobody else saw the problem with this at the time – sometimes you can’t tell if someone is older than you or not. Also, having nearly always used vous in school and in speaking exams, when I arrived here I accidentally used vous with everyone without even thinking about it. Then, after getting used to speaking with my friends using tu, I went in completely the opposite direction and started calling everyone tu – waiters, teachers, old ladies on the tram. Neither option is ideal, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. The other day a nice friendly man came to clean the mould off my wall, and when he first arrived of course I called him vous because I’d never met him, he seemed slightly older than me, and we didn’t meet in a particularly informal setting. My wall, though, needed several doses of anti-mould gunk and to be repainted several times before it was back to normal, so I saw him at least another three or four times. He was super friendly and told me his name was Eric, which was obviously his first name. Someone told me that if someone gives you their first name, it means you’re allowed to use ‘tu’ with them, so I tried a tentative ‘toi’ and he didn’t bat an eyelid. Victory!

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Appropriately named

Honestly, I still make mistakes pretty much every other sentence. I still hesitate when I have to used I complicated tense like ‘I will have done the essay by the time it’s due in’ (loljk I’ve never said that). I still can’t pronounce the difference between ‘tu’, ‘tous’ and ‘tue’. I still have a strong accent. But I’m a hundred times better at French than I was when I got here. So whatever.

And if you’re still getting frustrated with French, then just remember that it’s essentially a stupid language that even the French get wrong all the time. When I was grocery shopping the other day, the man behind the till couldn’t decide what he should call me, going very red as he stammered through, “Mademoiselle… errr, Madame… errrrr, Mademoiselle… errr… pardon”. In the same shop, I heard a French man say to a shop assistant “Bonjour!” who then got a stern look and a cold “Bon soir” by way of reply. If they can’t do it, I don’t know how we’re expected to be able to. Or maybe it was just something to do with that particular shop.

Anyway, onto this week’s news! You might think that because I’ve written a long-ish blog post today that I haven’t got much on at the moment – au contraire! So far, I’ve had 2 exams and handed in one essay. I still have 8 exams and 2 essays to go – AKA just slightly less than I have at UCL in one year. Oh, and my year abroad project which I haven’t started. People seem to think I’m joking when I say that I haven’t even thought of a topic for the ‘dissertation’ that’s worth 12% (or 15% or whatever it is, I don’t know) of my entire degree and that’s due in about a month. I’m not joking. I really am just that behind. And I am, as always, dealing with it by pretending it isn’t happening and doing more fun things instead :)

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We actually wrote an actual essay each in actual French and if even if I don’t pass I still think that’s a life achievement

This week, I went to an international students evening at the town hall which was awkwardly similar to a school disco with the obvious improvement of free wine. It was a fun but generally uneventful evening, except from when a one of the men giving away free condoms explained to Thea what a femidom is and how it worked, complete with gestures. I sadly don’t have a photo of Thea’s face when she asked him if he was joking and he replied that he wasn’t, but it was one of the funniest moments of my life. Not much could top that, so I left when the wine ran out.

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We also got the chance this week to cross another item off the bucket list. I finally got to try the Velomags! We went on an intrepid adventure to the beach, sans map, sans internet and sans much of a plan. But we made it to the beach, had a picnic (of course) and made it back, cycling a grand total of 22km! I really really enjoyed it and I hope we can go again before I leave!

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Oh! And while we were out cycling we also came across Château de la Mogère, which is one of the folies of Montpellier! The folies are several stately homes from the 18th century on the outskirts of Montpellier and they’re sort of famous… ish.

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One last thing! I finally tried spécial at Barberousse and I’m still none the wiser as to what it is. We also went back to a bar we went to on our Barathon called Fabrik – this time we tried a parfait cocktail instead of a plus que parfait and it was still one of the best cocktails ever.

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Just going to leave these pictures here because they make me laugh

Crossed off the bucket list this week:

  • Find some of les folies de Montpellier (one is enough)
  • Try spécial at Barbarousse
  • Try the velomags

That’s all for now pals. Until next week,

Bisous xxx

One thought on “What to do if you’re a shy person on your year abroad

  1. Anonymous

    Well done Annie – I love reading your blog! Keep it up – be good to make it into a book at the end of your year! xxx

    Like

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