1972 – 1973 was the third year of my BA Dual Hons French and German at the University of Sheffield, which actually meant a year abroad half in France, half in Germany. So, I enrolled at the universities of Rennes and Stuttgart.
Stranger on the shore
France was tricky. I had to enrol with the police before I could enrol with the university. The police wouldn’t let me enrol with them until I was registered at the university. So, there were a lot of temporary forms and treks across town.
“It’s a pity you English don’t come into Europe. You would avoid all of this fuss then,” said the friendliest of the officials I had to deal with.
Er, excuse me. We’re coming in in January. Sort of.
Sure enough late January I received a letter from the police. My residential permit was ready. Only, I wouldn’t need it because now the UK was part of Europe. Cheers. I left France anyway at the end of February.
A fellow student felt ill and took advantage of a free medical for all students just before Christmas. There was some concern and she was referred to other doctors. She almost blew her travel insurance to establish that she had meningitis and she had to be flown back to the UK. No EHIC in those days.
At home in Germany
Germany was much easier. All foreigners even from other Common Market countries had to have a chest X-Ray. There was a worry about TB. People from Common Market Countries didn’t have to pay nor did we have to a make an appointment or queue. I arrived at the centre and was ushered like royalty to the front.
When I looked for accommodation later and the elderly sisters from whom I wanted to rent a room picked up a foreign accent they hesitated. “Where are you from?” they asked tentatively.
“England,” I replied.
They sighed with relief. “So you are a real European,” they said. “You are most welcome.”
More than an economic agreement
Yes it all started then in many other ways as well.
I’d had a good upbringing in languages anyway. From the bubble gum cards that taught you a few words to begin with, through O-levels and actually starting my German A-Level before I took my O-level to working in small groups in A-levels. By the time I went to Sheffield I was fluent and widely read in both languages. I was passionate about them.
However, it all went up to another level when I actually went to live in those countries. I began to see a different point of view and I found different ways of doing things.
In France they put all of the foreigners together. It was kindly meant but it caused us to speak creolised French. So, I joined a choir, started playing basketball and learnt Breton. In Germany I was pushed more into the thick of it and shared an apartment with a German girl. I joined a chess club and swam a lot.
I can no longer distinguish what I learnt then or what I’ve learnt since. Four spring to mind now.
1. They’re apologising for the tram running two minutes late and it’s snowing this heavily (That was definitely Stuttgart, March 1973).
2. They allow students to go up to the next level even if they haven’t passed the year? (Most school systems except the British insist on student passing the year before that go up to the next one)
3. Two four course meal a day. What’s not to love? (France- even at the university restaurant – and yes, French families do manage it)
4. They have the heating on all the time? Well, if it’s cold it’s cold. Doesn’t it actually cost as much to keep having it go on and off? What do you think the thermostat’s for? (Yes it’s a peculiar British habit, this having the heating coming on twice a day. When our children were very small we went “continental” and had it on day and night. The bills were no different. We only have it off at night in our current house because it gets too hot when we’re in bed.)
More come to mind as I write. I’m not saying here that the European way is the better, just that it’s an alternative and some of it rubbed off on me. That is the point of all exchange, of all connection isn’t it?
When I came back to the UK, the UK had moved on too.. I was no longer only British.
I still have the friends I made back then.