Year Abroad: The Ultimate Unknown

Words by Jemima Skala
Art by Ana Ovilo
This article is part of the ‘UNKNOWN’ series. Next piece to be published on the 6th December.

The unknown. That dreaded open space that stretches out before you, a horrendously blank canvas that you are painfully aware that you must paint with your experiences, whatever they turn out to be.

I have faced the unknown before. I have travelled to unfamiliar places, not sure what would await me in each country but excited for what was to come. I travelled with friends, exploring each city according to our interests and our intrepid sense of adventure. Like most people, I moved out at the age of 18 to go to university in a city that was not my own and was hundreds of miles away. University was an oxymoronic familiarly unknown experience even before I started: the student experience is present in so many aspects of our popular culture that even before arriving, I knew what to expect but not how it would present itself to me. I have started many a new job, familiar with the conventions of working life but not exactly how they applied to my present situation.

In each of these instances, there was some sort of framework that I was familiar with that I could then use to acquaint myself with whatever this new experience would present to me. As I prepared to move to rural France to undertake my compulsory year abroad, it became more and more clear that these frameworks would simply not apply to any aspect of this unknown. This time, everything I knew would be thrown out of the window.

It seems fairly obvious to point out, but it took a while to sink in. All of the cultural conventions that I had become used to in England would be of absolutely no use here. I was starting from the very beginning again. I had climbed all of these ladders only to be sent sliding right back down to square one by that one long snake.

My whole year abroad experience prior to actually leaving had been one long trail of unknowns. First off was the application process. My application to teach English abroad wasn’t confirmed until several months after applying, and even then, I had to wait another few months before finding out exactly where I had been placed. When I did find out, it turned out I had been placed in rural Normandy when I had applied to Montpellier. Then there was a long hot stressful summer of waiting on emails from my supervisors to answer my frantic questions about accommodation, what documents I would need to bring with me, whether I needed to bring any teaching materials, what the town itself was like…

All that before even arriving. My first week in France, the unknown hit me like a ton of bricks. How the motherfuck was I supposed to carve out a life in this town when I could barely speak the language? How could I hold down this job I had been given when I didn’t know how the school system worked? And so I plunged into this new way of doing things, no safety net to catch me if I stumbled. That first week, the unknown terrified me. I cried every day of that week, wishing more than anything that there would be something, anything, familiar to grasp onto to make this a bit more bearable.

And so the first week passed, and the unknown had the upper hand on me. But as each day went by, and I did more and more things and got myself out into this brave new world a bit more, the unknown shrank in size. With each new thing I discovered, I could add it to my bank of knowledge of Things That I Knew about this new country. By the end of my second week, my list of Things That I Didn’t Know had shrunk considerably in size and the unknown was less of a big hulking monster and more of a shadow that I occasionally glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. Not quite as scary, still present, but manageable.

As time goes by and I settle in more and more, the unknown still rears its head from time to time but I’m far more equipped to deal with it. I have developed ways of controlling the things that I can and letting the rest take care of itself. For example, exercise has become so much more to me than just a way of staying healthy. It’s a control mechanism that allows me to grasp hold of a tangible aspect of my life that I am in charge of. As long as I exercise, I have control. Cooking, writing and reading have all become far more than pastimes for me. They are my small methods of controlling my perception of this new world and fitting the unknown around it. They are my little victories in a world of big change. So yes, so far my experience of the unknown has been scary, but I endeavour every day to make the unknown known, and so slay my own dragon during my year abroad.

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