What I Wish I’d Known Before Coming Abroad

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Hello again 🙂

I had many, many thoughts about what my year abroad was going to be like. It felt like I had imagined every possible outcome of every possible scenario. However, what has actually happened has been something completely different.

One of the main worries before going on a year abroad is: will I make friends? Rationally, we all know that we will find nice people when we come abroad and it will all be fine, but there is always that niggling doubt. I can assure you, making friends was one of the easiest things I’ve done out here in Italy. Lectures are 2 hours long with two 15 minute breaks, giving you plenty of time to socialise and get used to the people in your class. The difficult bit is going up to people and introducing yourself, but once you’ve done that it’s plain sailing. Most Italians I have met are very keen to talk about the UK, about your experiences at university, how you feel about living abroad, etc. On the off chance that you meet someone who seems less friendly and open, just trying talking to someone else. Meeting new people and making friends is even easier in 1st year classes, as no one knows anyone and you are all in the same boat.

Culture Shock
Half of my family is Italian. I have plenty of Italian relatives, I’ve spent entire summers living here in Italy, and I was used to the Italian way of life. Or so I thought. There is a difference between visiting somewhere for long periods of time and actually living there. Italians have a much more relaxed approach to life, the general pace is slower, and the days are longer. When I first arrived here I struggled with just how much time I spent waiting around. I waited for over an hour to be seen by a secretary so I could be registered as having arrived, I frequently waited 30-40 minutes for buses, I waited for professors to turn up, I waited for a month for internet to be set up at the flat. Coming from London, coming from a British university, this was all a massive shock. At first I was frustrated, but gradually I became used to it and now I appreciate the slower pace. Yes, you may wait for an hour to be seen, but you can use that time to read your book or catch up with friends. You may wait a while for the bus, but you get to enjoy the permanent sunshine, listen to your music, and watch the world go by. Living abroad has definitely given me a chance to slow down and appreciate my time and what is going on around me.

The other thing that was unexpected is precisely to do with the Italians themselves and their clothing choices. Being a foreigner in any country, you feel a strong desire to blend in with the locals, dress sense included. However I have discovered that Italians seem to be very sensitive to the cold. When it was 19C in December, locals were out with Puffa jackets and scarves. The other week it was 30C and I saw a man walking down the road wearing a 3 piece business suit, a winter scarf around his neck, and a woolly hat on. However, after expressing my disbelief to many of my friends here, I have been informed that Italians mostly go by the date and not the actual weather. Coats/hats/scarves should be worn until 1st May, never mind what the weather is actually doing. I successfully managed to blend in with this, however my Coat Cut Off Point is 20C, where I will switch to a long cardigan…I have a feeling that I will suffer quite a lot in Durham in a few short months!

The academic year in Italy has 2 exam seasons: January-February (sessione invernale) and June-July (sessione estiva). One really important point to note is that the Italian university does not force you to sit any exams. You are expected to know which exams you need to sit and you are expected to organise it yourself. You will have a certain number of exams you need to sit, specified by Durham, and fitting them into an exam timetable is difficult. Each exam will have 2 or 3 ‘sessions’ per season, and you choose which session to go to. The danger with this is that many ‘sessions’ are on the same days and your exams clash. I wrote another post in more detail about exactly how the exams and the studying aspect of life work over here, so if you are interested go and check it out (self promo, click me). The Italian exam system has made me pine for the UK exams!

Life at Home
If like me your year abroad is added on to your degree, you will be leaving your main course behind for a year. Before you leave, there is a point when you realise that whilst you are abroad your friends will write their dissertations, pull all-nighters, sit final exams, and graduate without you. But please, do not worry about this. A year abroad will strengthen your friendships in Durham as you support each other from different countries and through different situations. Friends at home will listen with a sympathetic ear as you lament the difficult times and they will love to listen to your crazy and unexpected stories. And in turn, you support them through their dissertation hell and you are also secretly pleased that you managed to avoid that for an extra year. I am still sure that choosing to come abroad for a year was the right choice for me, even if it has meant missing 3rd year with my original course friends. I will still return home and complete final year. I will have the opportunity to meet new people in Durham and make new friends, with whom I otherwise may not have ever crossed paths. Plus, you can invite all your friends back to Durham for a fantastic graduation party.

Studying and living abroad gives you a chance to enhance your academic skills, develop another language, and it helps you to mature and grow up. I thought I was pretty independent and *adult* before I came to Italy, but being here has made me more sure of myself and my ability to handle unexpected and sometimes difficult situations…being in hospital on my own at 2am because a mosquito bite swelled up to the size of my hand is definitely up there in the top 3. It hasn’t been a totally smooth ride, but I wouldn’t change my decision to come abroad for the world.

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