As a language student, I was required to spend a compulsory Year Abroad in a country where my language was spoken. Because of my aversion to spending a year on a beach in the south of France or in Paris, I ended up in the Alps – specifically, in Switzerland.
So in October 2005, I packed up my dad’s little car full of everything I would need to study abroad for a year and we set off for my new home in Neuchâtel in western Switzerland to start my studies at the Institute of French Language & Culture, a language school originally intended for Swiss German, Italian or Romansch speakers, now attended by students from all over the world.
I skated by. I attended my grammar classes every day at 8am, I did ok in my orthography classes (a class higher than my two best friends, and still one of my proudest achievements), I gave presentations on the subject of my choice to my classmates, I sat and stared blankly during History & Civilisation and never realised the teacher was talking about the Industrial Revolution right up until the final exam – an oral exam, taken with the next student sitting at the back of the room to prepare for their upcoming exam.
What I did in my spare time was travel. We were finished with classes by lunchtime on at least two days and I don’t think we had any classes at all on Fridays. That left me with quite a bit of time on my hands. I had two best friends and sometimes we’d all go out together but more often, they wanted to just hang out together or study sometimes, and I soon learnt that if I wanted to go to places, it might be for the best if I went on my own.
I visited my first spa, the Centre Thermal at Yverdon-les-Bains at the south end of Lake Neuchâtel. I went up the Matterhorn cablecar on a really cold winter day. I took the train around the deepest wildest corners of south-west Switzerland. I went to Zürich, Geneva, Basel, Luzern. I accidentally went into the library at St Gallen without paying. I flew in a helicopter at a Balloon Festival.
I did so much. My French may not have improved as much as it should have done but my confidence did, and my ability to travel alone and my ability to cope when things went wrong, which they rarely did, because Switzerland has a stereotype of being efficient for a reason, but there was a problem with the train on the way home from Spiez one evening and I did get on completely the wrong train three or four times in my attempt to get to Bregenz.
Seven months into my first job, my Rangers played “where do I want to be in five years?” and made me realise that my life went work-sleep-Rangers-work-sleep-work-sleep and that was sad. That night, I booked a plane ticket to Helsinki – simply because easyJet didn’t go from London to Norway at the time – and three weeks later I was off on what I came to call my gap year. Although there was no “gap” about it – I worked full time and stretched my holiday allowance and salary to breaking point in order to travel as much as I could.
I started travelling alone because who was going to come to Finland in November to stay in a hostel on three weeks’ notice but since then, I’ve come to depend on it. I can’t imagine taking someone else with me. Stopping for full meals because the other person can’t eat a picnic on the go? Sharing a teeny-weeny room with someone else? Not having complete control over where I go and when? No, I’m very much more comfortable with travelling solo. It works for me.