I am sitting in a coffee shop off the main square in Strasbourg. Myself and my roommate Clíodhna have been exiled from our apartment as it is currently undergoing its second round of treatment for a particularly nasty bed-bug infestation. I still look like a smallpox victim. There are two girls beside me, one is consistently calling the other ‘Girl!’ and it’s getting on my nerves. I am doing more eavesdropping than actual work now. I want to take a nap, but my safe haven, my bed is inaccessible until eight o’clock.
So far, my Erasmus year is going less than ideally. I twisted my ankle getting on the train here, leaving me to spend my first night in Strasbourg limping to the hospital and fairly limited in my mobility for the first few days. Also, French cars will not wait for you to cross the pedestrian crossing even if you are on crutches. I also cannot complain about being lonely once I got here as I soon discovered a week in that there was an extended family of bed bugs, or punaises de lit, living in my mattress. After a week of haggling with my letting agent that they would indeed provide treatment for the infestation and a week of living in a hotel room, the process of eradicating them began, hence today’s setting.
I thought that I would find adjusting to life abroad easier than the rest of the Erasmus cohort, as I have lived away from home for the past two years, but even though France is a mere two-hour flight away, sometimes it feels like Dublin is an entire world away. The main difference that I have discovered is that practically everywhere is closed on Sundays. I never realised how much I relied on having a coffee and a walk around the shops as entertainment and as a genuine pastime of mine. Maybe I’ll start going to mass again? Secondly, I am going to be absolutely rolling home. I will have morphed into a giant pain au chocolat by the time my year is over. The language barrier has been especially difficult to overcome. While I was aware that it would indeed be a shock to be totally immersed in the French language, I don’t think I expected it to be as lonely as it turned out to be. Navigating day-to-day life in a language that I do not fully understand is a bit like being submerged underwater; I am hearing words being spoken at me, but I cannot fully decipher them.
This melancholy and mild homesickness has allowed me to feel me as I am the main character in a main character in a slightly clichéd American film about the Irish immigrating to the new world. I am Saoirse Ronan, albeit I have AirPods in, staring at the selection of breakfast cereals in Carrefour. I suppose only time will tell but I do not know if I could live anywhere other than Ireland. There’s such a warmth to be found in the people everywhere that you go and a light-heartedness that I miss here.
I have spoken so much Irish since arriving; I will forever advocate for the promotion of an Ghaeilge but that aside, it has served as my Erasmus group’s secret language for deciding if the boy who sat next to us was actually good-looking or not, will we just skip the next class and go to Starbucks, does anyone actually understand what this lecture is about? Irish has also served as a lovely anchoring to home. Even though I may be failing miserably to get what I want to say across here, I know that I am at least proficient in two already and if I could do that, I will get the hang of French.
Food has been my comfort here. My days seem to rotate around getting bread and a croissant in the morning, then a cappuccino for the arduously long two-hour lectures, and a green matcha tea late at night. French people really enjoy food and there is a culture that has built up around it, hence the lunch break from twelve to two and the outside dining even in the chilling September air. I have never enjoyed cooking and my friends and family at home will recount many instances of setting frying pans on fire and the time I converted three friends back to eating meat due to a particularly bad take on a tofu recipe. However here, the ritual of cutting up vegetables, and using recipes from home ties me back to my mother teaching me how to cook for the first time, reminds me to ask my best friend back in Dublin what they would recommend I make with half a chili and a stale packet of noodles. Strasbourg is a cold city, but in the kitchen at night there is a lovely, warming connection to everybody that I love back home.
My roommate situation is slightly odd. I am living with four others, one of whom sings gospel music at 5 in the morning, the other I thought was dead as I had not seen her for two weeks, an American girl I keep accidentally offending, and Clíodhna, my honest-to-god rock. I have lived with characters before but having had the luxury of sharing a house with my best friends back in Dublin since the summer of first year, it was a shock to the system to remember that not everyone cleans their dishes frequently and that there will always be a slightly uncomfortable dynamic at first with strangers.
All of this aside, I cannot complain too much. My Erasmus group is great and we all get along. We have been fortunate enough to be put in contact with the people working for the chair of the Council of Europe, who is Ireland this year. We are centrally located and granted that you book your tickets in time, much of central Europe is very accessible to us. Even though our lectures are incredibly confusing, I cannot figure out how to open my bank account and each day is quite overwhelming, I am very lucky to have a great support network around me.
Written by Emma Whitney