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5th March 2024

My year abroad, the visa process, and getting lost in translation

Preparing for your year abroad can feel daunting, but with a little preparation and a willingness to get things wrong at first, there’ll be plenty to look forward to
My year abroad, the visa process, and getting lost in translation
Credit: Johan Mouchet @ Unsplash

Words by Lucy Markham

Like many other students studying a joint languages degree, I began looking into placement options around the start of my second year. I study History and Spanish and decided to choose Spain. This was partly because of the flight expenses, and partly because I wanted to be able to come home for Christmas and mini breaks to see people. The second semester is an important term for second-year language students, and I want to share some things I wish I had known before setting off.

When it comes to making new friends, it’s the same as a long Freshers Week really, only in another language. For me, it wasn’t a Freshers in the sense of being hammered in 42s and randomly turning up to Oak parties completely uninvited. Instead, it was a fresh start meeting lots of new people and getting to terms with a different place – entirely on my own. As the majority of students are from that country, it can feel quite exclusive seeing pre-made friendship groups and not understanding certain slang being chucked about. Still, it is important to remember that there are lots of other Erasmus students in the same position. It took a while to get used to my lessons and the timetable, and the international office gave us some time to drop and swap classes after trying them out until mid-October.

This was lucky, as I had chosen a random 4th-year module on ‘Ancient Tithes and the impact of Medieval warfare in Almeria’, taught to a handful of graduate students who were just as confused as me as to why I was enrolled. I switched to take up German and I’m really enjoying it now. I would recommend taking an A1 beginners class in another language as that is where lots of other Erasmus students end up and it is a great opportunity to gain a useful skill during your time of enrolment.

Having studied a language I understood the rules of conjugation and sentence structure quite quickly, and the class incorporates both Spanish and German which is very useful. I have made friends from all over Europe, using Spanish as our common language, and it is a real relief to chat with them about their experiences and not feel like the odd one out. Most of us live in the same student area and are on the same Erasmus Whatsapp groups so we stay in the loop with events, which I found to be a great ice-breaker for new friendships. My visa process took longer than expected so I missed my induction days, but do make sure to attend them as they usually give out important advice and phone numbers.

The visa process is complicated and does take time. Try and research where you want to go as soon as possible and weigh up options when they are released. The beginning of the application process clashes with end-of-year exams, but it is so important to have an idea of which country, which region, and how long the application process takes. For me, it took about 3 months to get everything together. This was down to the time expectancy for an appointment in the consulate, the processing of documents, and general delays as lots of students have to use summer to fill in the paperwork. There are many things to consider if you are looking at a year-long placement somewhere in Europe.

Spain asked for police background checks, medical records, letters from doctors, various application forms, acceptance letters, and proof of accommodation,  all of which had to be translated and apostilled before going to the consulate to get the physical visa. Keep in mind that some documents can take much longer than others, and the visa itself takes about 4 weeks to come back. I know this sounds very stressful, but it is so much easier if you allow yourself more time and research the process before getting tied up with it much later on. The visa office keeps your passport which means you can’t travel, so I had to miss the beginning of term to fly out. After exams, make sure to get started and put together a folder that contains everything they might ask for. If they spot one spelling mistake it can throw you back a couple of weeks in the process. I’ve heard it’s different for countries outside of Europe and split-year placements have a quicker turnaround, but you have to apply twice.

I was very caught up in all of this over the summer – a mixture of nerves and excitement meant that I didn’t particularly think about the reality of leaving. I remember in one of my year abroad meetings, an advisor told us that we would feel homesick and stressed at times, but I had a very romanticised image of a year abroad in my mind – ‘Club Tropicana’ by Wham! On repeat. Although I’ve had many gloriously sunny beach days and fun nights out, he was right. It is a big decision to move abroad and it all seems so fast-paced and overwhelming to begin with. You have a lot of sudden responsibility and independence, even in situations where you wish someone could take the wheel a bit. I’ve had to register in police offices, chase up my foreign identity number, start up a new phone contract, navigate various foreign airports, sign a housing contract and explain to a man in a dodgy phone shop that the SIM they had just sold me had been hacked by a bot sending out exceptionally flirty spam messages in Arabic to my class Whatsapp group chats day and night. My classmate asked me to double-check the number I had given her, and it turned out I had been sharing a Whatsapp account with someone who previously owned it – sending hundreds of outrageous texts in multiple languages with hundreds of peach emojis to everyone in my class. The guy in the phone shop essentially replied saying “These things happen “. Safe to say I avoid that group chat at all costs.

Lots of different scenarios pop up where you have to go off script with the language and improvise. Unfortunately, you can’t just nervously laugh off a speedy, confusing conversation. But, my best piece of advice would be to not put too much pressure on yourself to get everything right. You will definitely have a few weird slip-ups and mishear what people have said, but it’s just something that you have to accept when applying for a year abroad. The accent where I am is much more confusing than in other cities nearby, and for the first couple of weeks, I thought I was being a total idiot until I was told that it’s a much tougher dialect with lots of abbreviations and pronunciation variations. Sometimes Spanish people can’t understand my lecturer and ask him to repeat – he does annoyingly whisper too “for dramatic effect”.

You will eventually become more accustomed to the way things are said, but there is no point in feeling embarrassed or as if you’re letting yourself down. It requires a lot of brain power to speak and listen in another language all day and it can get quite tiring sometimes, so there’s no use in adding another layer of stress. I was once shamed by a man wearing a karate outfit for only speaking two languages, telling me he could speak any language at all, including “italics”! To this day I am not sure what he was on about. Another time, a really old man surrounded by cats told me life is all about “peace and love” and trapped me into the longest song I have ever heard about submarines. Random conversations do emerge, and sometimes it turns out they’re the ones saying nonsense.

Explaining that I am vegetarian is never that straightforward because of the cultural difference and it has made for some quite stressful evenings out. My boyfriend and I went for dinner and the waiter said they only had two vegetarian dishes – an improvised, expensive pumpkin pasta or tiny fish “that I will barely notice”. Meat and fish are huge parts of the Spanish diet (as well as in many other European countries) so download the Happy Cow app and research the supermarkets to make things a bit easier when you arrive.

The year abroad can seem quite daunting; there are homesick days and memorable moments, but the most important thing is to just take it step-by-step. Stay organised and use the year to practice the language and see cool places – it’s a much more convenient way of travelling and internal flights are much cheaper from city to city. I have been here for nearly 4 months, and I have visited Malaga to see the Christmas lights in the city centre, Granada to see the Moorish architecture, and Gibraltar to see the monkeys on the mountain. My flatmates and I are looking to book trips to Madrid and Valencia after the January exams, and it is such an exciting thing to do without having to splash too much cash. Erasmus students are all in the same situation, and things will eventually make more sense. You will settle in, get to know the area and set up a new routine, it just takes quite a bit of getting used to and a lot of pretending to love reggaeton.

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