Words and Images by Bethan Lewis
When it came to picking my degree whilst studying for my A-Levels, being able to live abroad as an integral part of the course was a huge selling point. Honestly, I had originally imagined lying on a beach somewhere in the south of France, spending the odd weekend in Paris and going to the boulangerie each morning for fresh baguettes. Basically, living some sort of Vogue-esque dream whilst disguising it as a wholly academic experience for the sake of my pitiful CV. However, although my year abroad somewhat differed from my (albeit optimistic) expectations, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Because of the law aspect of my course, I didn’t have much choice as to what I could do during my year abroad. I had the pick of four cities and each one would determine what year of study I would join. Having spoken to girls in the older years that had already been abroad and been completely deterred from certain places, I chose Université de Toulouse 1 Capitole.
Toulouse is one of France’s largest cities, boasting warm weather, beautiful architecture and an averagely-polite population. In France, being averagely-polite basically makes them Mother Teresa. Nicknamed ‘La Ville Rose’, the buildings of Toulouse glow pink from the terracotta bricks and the city is brimming with historical monuments and structures. Walking through the town centre every day would make anyone want to buy Chanel and live in a beret. That’s what the Erasmus grant is for, right? In addition, it is only a few hours drive from the border with Spain, so there is a prominent aspect of Spanish culture in the bars and restaurants around town, giving it a unique ambience that sets it apart from other French cities.
There are three large universities in Toulouse, which attract countless students from across the country and beyond every year. The already large international community is inundated each September with Erasmus students who go to the South of France to study, making the city seem far less scary, as there were plenty of people just like me finding their feet. Fortunately, the University Erasmus team was very much on the ball when it came to keeping us busy, organising vineyard trips, wine tastings, a pool party and even a ski trip to the Pyrenees. There were also a lot of nights out thrown in with various themes. It was a real culture shock, however, to learn that French nights out started several hours later than Cardiff ones, which is never a positive change for anyone like me who requires 8 hours sleep each night in order to be a fully-functioning member of society. As a result, 11pm pre-drinks took some adapting to, not to mention the awkwardness of then having to get the commuter’s metro back home at 7 o’clock the next morning.
Believe it or not, I actually did some work while I was away. Lots and lots of it. It was actually only when I arrived at the university and sat in my very first lecture (8am on a Saturday morning for some ungodly reason) that I realised how intense the year was going to be. It turns out that the Law School I attended functioned on a basis of culling the students with each passing year, so the final years were only those who really had what it took to make it in a legal career. Sat in the lecture hall that morning, surrounded by statues and in awe of the Renaissance art above the whiteboard, we were told that only half the people there that morning would be back the following September. This was not great news for the British students who could just about order a glass of wine at a restaurant. To add insult to injury, participation in class actually made up part of our grades.
We faced constant issues with French administration and struggled almost helplessly to keep on top of the workload whilst also enjoying our lives. Whether or not the work we put in was really proportionate to the 10% of our actual degree grade we attained on the year abroad I’ll never know.
Don’t get me wrong though, I had an amazing time. I visited Paris twice, Bordeaux, Donostia-San Sebastián, Barcelona, Marseille, and several other smaller places which was part of the attraction of Toulouse in the first place. It was incredibly well connected in terms of public transport with other major cities and two hours on a bus could get you to the beach or to a ski resort in the heart of the mountains.
I learned so much about myself during the last year and made friends from other countries that I will never forget. As long as you are willing to put yourself out there and fully relish this once in a lifetime opportunity, being in another country does wonders, as you grow from a teenager into an adult, providing you with skills that will carry you through the next steps of life when you leave University.