“Two words, nine letters”

25 January 2019

Orlando Whitehead studies Modern Languages (French with English) and is currently on a work placement abroad in Lille as an English language teaching assistant. Have a look at how he is finding life abroad!

Orlando blog 1

"Two words, nine letters.” As if to highlight Lille’s heterogeneous heritage my favourite expression has been smuggled into France by Dutch cyclists I’ve befriended. To them it is a droll remark of impatience directed at a tardy companion only too aware of the riddle’s response: “Takes long” (Duurt lang in Dutch). Yet when transfused into the daily jargon of an Erasmus student, it serves to remind me that fitting into a new culture is a process that can’t be rushed. Now before you point to the obvious – that I am supposed to be spending the better part of a year improving my French; it seems entirely appropriate that in a long-established cultural melting-pot just 20km from the Belgian border, my linguistic immersion be influenced by the foreign tongues that have defined this city through the ages.

Lille Street

Consider Wasquehal. The word couldn’t have looked more foreign when an email from the collège where I now teach told me I would be staying there until the apartment for language assistants was ready. And when I returned to that dreary Wasquehal bedsit beside the Brussels-bound motorway after my first day’s work, I was struck by my own strangeness: I was now a displaced foreigner in a not-so-distant land. I had put so much effort into finding this work placement, and had been so relieved when it was confirmed hours within UCL deadlines, that I hadn’t spared a thought for how I would have to readjust to living in a totally different environment. When confronted with unknown situations I tend to rely on intuition and improvisation (no doubt acquired during extensive solo hitch-hiking expeditions across the continent). But the year abroad is not an extended holiday. Having a job and a place to stay is enough to subsist but are hardly satisfying by themselves. In this sudden moment of solitude I became acutely conscious of the friendships and quotidian comforts I had left behind in London.

This sense of isolation is undoubtedly familiar to all year abroad students who find themselves removed from the reassuring network that has gradually grown around them whilst living in England. And although I had not anticipated the impact that moving a few hundred kilometres away would have on me, I don’t think that any amount of preparation could prevent the sense of loneliness that marked my first weeks in Lille. As with anything worthwhile, when it comes to learning languages, finding friends, and feeling comfortable in a foreign place: Duurt lang. But although there is no quick fix for integrating oneself into another society, it is necessary to begin somewhere. Exactly where that is will vary from person to person but will surely always involve a search for some sort of community. My initial investigations of the vegan scene in Lille have been fruitful (the people are nice even if the food has been unexceptional), and the local library is fantastic although not the ideal location to strike up conversation… I should also point out that I am not studying in a French university and so don’t have that immediate connection to other students. That said, after a few blond beers (watch out, they really pack a punch) in one of the many estaminets (a northern bar) frequented by the students, conversation starts to flow and alma maters cease to matter.


But where do the Dutch cyclists fit into all this? It probably goes without saying that whether studying or on a work placement; these prearranged elements of the year abroad more or less take care of themselves. They have been organised before arrival and simply happen. Unfortunately the same is not true for making friends. This requires a far greater effort that often seems one-sided – of course it is more difficult for an outsider to integrate into a social scene where everyone else already knows each other. However, shared interests are unfailing sparks to kindle closer relationships. This might mean hanging out in the local record store, volunteering with a charity, or in my case, competing in cycling races. I was worried that when I moved abroad I would no longer have time for this activity. On the contrary, it has been through cycling that I have made my closest friends abroad. Whether from Holland, Spain, Italy, or France, this pursuit has introduced me to a group of people eager to share one another’s company. And although many of my new mates don’t live in the same city as me, it has been a pleasure to venture beyond Lille and in turn welcome them to a town that is slowly becoming my own. Besides, the year abroad is a chance to cross the boundaries and borderlines that govern everyday life in order to realise the multicultural possibilities that learning a foreign language entails.

By Orlando Whitehead