3 July 2013

Coming home

Image taken from Google Images.

My year abroad dragged and crept along at times and there were occasions where I wanted nothing more than to come home and see my friends, family and boyfriend and curl up on the settee with the rain battering the windows (trust me, you will miss it at some point). But, looking back, my year abroad went relatively quickly. I remember setting foot on my plane(s) to France so distinctly that it seems like only yesterday and the memory of saying goodbye to my Mam at Edinburgh airport for over three months will always remain vivid in my mind. If you're interested at all, I typed out an entry from my private journal (it was quite hard for me to post it) detailing my thoughts right before I left England on subjects such as saying goodbye to people you know and what you might be like at the end of your year abroad etc. etc.

Looking back, it all seems a bit overly-dramatic. I worked myself up into such a frenzy wondering what would happen on my year abroad to change me or whether it would be as big and scary an experience as my imagination had made it out to be. The answer is: no, it wasn't. It really is a hell of a lot easier than you initially think. If you're waiting to embark on your year abroad, I know this small paragraph will do nothing to ease the pre-departure nerves because this is probably the biggest thing you've done in your life to date, but if I speak honestly, it really is a piece of cake. Obviously there will be times when you'll be fed up and will want to come home and see family and friends, but other than that it's an absolute breeze.

So, in the post I mentioned above, I asked a question which went something like "Who will I be at the end of my year abroad?" and wrote something along the lines of waiting until the experience was over and finding out when I come home. I'm now at home (and have been for a couple of weeks), so who have I become/what has changed me? I haven't really thought about it yet because I've been celebrating my homecoming by seeing family, drinking with friends, eating lots of rubbish, being out and about at different events and generally just enjoying myself because I love being at home.

But now that I've had time to think about it, I don't think I've really changed at all. Obviously I've become more confident in myself and independent and I feel like I can tackle any problem now, but other than that I see no real change (which isn't a bad thing). I think mainly I've realised a lot of things, some of them being:
  • I'm a home bird (as my friend Emily described me one day)
  • The grass isn't always greener on the other side (i.e. I love my home city, Newcastle, a lot)
  • My friends are the most fantastic group of people I could ever ask to know (from home and from abroad)
  • My family needs me just as much as I need my family
  • I love my boyfriend more than I even thought possible (a soppy one for you there)
I'm not sure what other people are taking away from their year abroad, but I think for me the biggest thing is that being apart from the people and place I love has taught me not to take them for granted. Before I went to live in France and Spain I didn't realise just how important all these things were to me until I couldn't access them so easily. Like I said above, I actually looked forward to visiting the drizzly, windy isle I call home and eating lots of roast dinners and watching trash television. Being abroad gave me a chance to miss all of that.

I don't want this post to be misconstrued, however. I really did enjoy being abroad. It opened my eyes to a lot of things (about the world and about myself) and I met some fantastic people who I'll be staying in touch with for a long time to come and who have also been like a family to me. I've even made better friends with people that I barely knew at my own university because I live so far away from it, which is a good enough outcome on its own.

I think living abroad has also given me a very small dose of wanderlust (still absolutely nothing compared to my friends Rebecca and Jack!) and now when I see new places in magazines or on my friends' instagram feeds (whether it be London or Hong Kong) I feel an inner desire to be there and explore it. Two of my closest friends are leaving to go to Australia this time next year, so that will give me something to work towards since I've always wanted to see that side of the world.

So that's it! That's the end of my year abroad and (possibly) the end of this blog. I'll still be updating this with tips'n'tricks for new Erasmus students and personal trips I'll be taking with family, friends and my boyfriend, but seeing as I have other ventures on the horizon (moving into a new flat, starting my final year of university, personal projects and events to attend), this blog will be put on the back burner for a while.

I am, however, thinking of starting myself a lifestyle blog in the coming future when I can turn my life around, so stay tuned as I will certainly let all of my readers know if I decide to move across the internet.

Peace and love and peace out.

8 June 2013

Money Matters

Another huge factor (other than those such as accommodation and long-distance relationships) to take into account when embarking on your year abroad is money. It's a crying shame that we're a slave to it (then you die - The Verve, 1997) and have to rely on it to live and be recognised as a human being, but that's another post for another blog for another day and unfortunately it is an issue that you have to consider before you jet off as free as a bird that was brought up in a capitalist society.
Cha-ching! So, on to the advice. First of all, I would like to dedicate a whole section of this blog post to Student Finance because they are just such a, let's say, poignant part of any student's life that I think they deserve that honour.

We all dread that time of year where, after you've started your online application, you have to spend the next few months calling backwards and forwards to check which piece of paperwork student finance have lost or not processed at that given moment and explain to them how your current situation does indeed affect the amount of money you should be receiving the following September (all stuff that they should know and be trained on really, but I think Student Finance England just pulls in any old numpty off the street and says "'Ere mate, you wan'a job?")

Anyway, I have a lot of gripes about Student Finance as a company as I'm sure we all do and I would love to moan on about them for ages, but that would probably just make you angry and not want to deal with the situation accordingly because you'd just slam the phone down repeatedly screaming "IDIOTS" at them over and over.

  1. Start early - This comes a bit late for Erasmus students 2013/14, but start in February or March to give you enough time to deal with Student Finance's classic bullshittery.
  2. Try all avenues - if you aren't normally income-assessed, ask to be income-assessed because you may receive more money due to being abroad. Try everything - you can change back at any time during your application.
  3. Take photocopies of all evidence - they're notoriously bad for losing things in their sorting office (which I imagine to be ran by a group of chimpanzees) so you might need to send the same thing a few times. Be prepared and be sure to send everything with your customer reference number and a letter explaining what is enclosed.
  4. Keep notes of everything - this is more for your own peace of mind. Write a list of questions you want to ask before calling Student Finance so you don't have to keep calling again and again about the same thing. Write the responses down. If you really want to, take the name of each person you talk to and the date that you spoke to them as well.
  5. Acquire a statement letter written by your university - you might not need one depending on your course, but, even though I am studying two languages therefore it was imperative that I go abroad, Student Finance still wouldn't believe me, without this magical all-knowing letter, that I needed more money for this academic year. Have it written on university headed paper, with name(s) of the place(s) you'll be staying in and roughly for how long. Get it signed by your year abroad coordinator and send it off. 
  6. Wait - It takes Student Finance quite a while to get through all the things they receive so give them a couple of weeks after each document you send/phone call you make to ensure you're giving them enough time to sort it out (this is why I say start it early).
  7. The Resolve Team - if it were possible to put this point in big, sparkly silver lettering, I would do it, because this is a heavenly hidden feature of Student Finance. If you feel like you are getting nowhere with your application or if it comes to late-August and it still hasn't been finalised (like mine wasn't), ask to be put through to the Resolve Team. It means your application will be made priority because of your situation and it should be put through quicker.
Although this makes up a big chunk of your year abroad funding, do not rely it when you arrive at your destination. I don't know how it functions for work placements or teaching assistantships, but when studying abroad you need to get paperwork signed and send it to your home university before they even start processing it, so it's not reliable enough for you to be blasé about your finances and think "I'll just buy another 10 bottles of champagne to celebrate moving here - it's fine, my Erasmus grant will be through soon!"

Try to budget your first couple of months without it (maybe up until December because it can arrive late) and then budget the rest of your year taking the Erasmus grant into account. If you're spending your year abroad in two separate places (one during each semester), you'll have to be a little bit more creative and spend a bit more time looking at your finances like I did, but it does help to hammer out a plan and restrict your spending at first.

Since we're all clever clogs here, you already know you shouldn't be relying on your Student Finance (or Erasmus grant) to get you through the whole year. You have to take some savings to set yourself up or even just for a little bit of security for emergencies. I was lucky to have a birthday (my 21st no less) two months before I left for France so my family very kindly gave me money for that, but I would suggest saving as soon as you know you're going abroad. Again, this probably comes a bit too late for those of you who are going out 2013/14, but the freshies amongst you will have a head start for the next round.

As for actually managing my money in bank accounts etc. I just used my English bank card in France as well as during the first couple of months of being in Spain which I would not recommend at all because the charges are incredible. I must have spend well over €100 this year just on transaction charges (which could have been a weekend away somewhere!) Tell your bank explicitly that you will be going abroad and let them know where (so that you can use your card in emergencies and during the first couple of weeks before you've set yourself up properly, without any hassle or false alarms for fraud), but I would highly recommend opening a foreign bank account as soon as possible. Not only does it make it easier on the wallet because there will be no charges for using your card, but you also get to practice being a stand-up French/Spanish/German citizen as well, win win! Alternatively, some people I know procured travel money cards from the post office or from their banks (which their parents could top up if needs be), so weigh up your options before you leave and see what would suit your situation best.

Other advice I would offer before you disappear into the European abyss would be to set up internet banking and put another (trustworthy) name on your account such as one of your parents, or both, so that if anything goes wrong or you need to speak to your bank about something, they also have the authority to manage your finances from home and you don't have to pay extortionate fees to call from overseas. Also be sure to speak to your bank to see what the maximum overdraft is on your student account and whether or not they can offer you a student credit card. This being said, I would only recommend the credit card option if you know you will exercise great restraint with it. I have one and have only used it for travel purchases (planes, trains etc.) and have pushed myself to try and pay £30-£50 off each month, so it has helped me a lot.

Again, as I always state in my posts, the advice and situations provided here are based entirely off my own experiences, so make sure you consider my suggestions in terms of your own financial situation. Basically, just be savvy with your money; budget, set your rent and other important spending aside, make sure you have a back-up plan and don't take your bank card out on nights out. 

If anybody has any suggestions they would like to add to this post (I'm looking at my Mam since she's a bank manager - not one of the big, nasty steal-all-your-money ones, but one that works hard to make sure her family and your family are fed and warm) or questions to ask, then please feel free to hit the comment button at the bottom.

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