‘Where have you been to travel?’
‘Well… France, of course. Spain, Holland…’
‘Erm… Ireland, the USA, Canada.’
‘Ooooh… so you have money!’
Picture the scene. A three-thirty start for not even the last class of the day, the drag of Monday, a bunch of uninterested eighteen year olds who are only studying English because their curriculum requires them to do so. The last comment was followed by a scathing glare, as if I live in a castle build of fifty-euro notes and I deliberately wanted to show this off.
Travelling is a strange thing, with a strange culture surrounding it. As a child, not every summer was spent abroad, and many family holidays were spent on the English and Welsh coasts. I was very lucky at high school: I went to a state school that had international links and, likely because I was a teacher’s pet, I was often picked to represent my school abroad. I’m now in France, as you well know, and next month I’ll visit three new countries. I’m only twenty yet have already been to more countries than my grandparents ever had. The idea that I must be rich to have been abroad is was a strange concept to me – hostels, budget airlines and long coach journeys are my good friends – but I suppose it’s not an unfair criticism. Travelling is a privilege, and an increasingly modern one at that.
A quick search on the university’s website extolls the benefits of studying abroad. The year abroad, whether for a language degree or otherwise, is described as ‘inspiring, confidence-boosting and even life-changing’. Of course it can be; I don’t doubt that. We shouldn’t, however, paint it as something entirely necessary to your degree, nor travel as necessary to existence. You don’t automatically become a better person because you can stick more pins on a map. If anything, at times, my confidence has taken a nose dive – after spending seven years in the safety of a classroom, it’s terrifying being in a Real French Place. You can do activities in your local community – volunteering, or joining a society – to develop those same skills, and that can equally change your life. There’s nothing to stop you from blooming into a sunflower of a human on home soil.
Why do we travel, anyway? There are obvious reasons – better weather, change of scene, opportunities in other cities/countries otherwise inaccessible. Whether a day trip or a gap year, there are endless advantages. There are endless barriers, too. Before you Instagram a quote about ‘those who don’t travel only read one page’ or something similar, think about why people don’t travel. Some might genuinely not want to, and have no desire to leave home. That’s fine and their decision. The people who’d love to do so but are unable – whether that’s finance, health, or other circumstances – are no lesser than you. Your friend who spends their summers working instead of in Thailand isn’t boring. Your classmate who has caring responsibilities alongside their degree isn’t weak for forgoing a semester abroad. It’s a great opportunity – of course – but a privilege not afforded to all.
God bless Ryanair, and all, but travelling isn’t the cheapest thing. Passports, potential visas for further afield (shoutout to Freedom of Movement while it lasts), time off work, insurance… the idea that you can simply book the next flight is incredibly naïve. Most of my students have grown up in a place rich with culture, isolated from big airports, and, for some, living in towns without a train station. It’d be beyond insensitive for me, the Big City Lady, to come in and tell them their lives are immediately poorer for having not left their country.
(I’m pretty sure Glasgow University and the British Council expect you to come home with a reaffirmed appreciation for the wider world. Soz, again.)
I hope I’m not coming off as the world’s biggest fun sponge, here. The first few weeks back haven’t been the easiest: seeing friends regroup in Glasgow for the new semester; returning to mornings starting before the sun has risen; missing real diluting juice and bread that doesn’t go stale after ten minutes. We have no choice but to keep going, though, abroad or otherwise.
It’s brilliant if your year abroad is the best year of your life, but it’s also okay if it’s not even the best year of your degree. You’re almost certainly not alone in thinking so.