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Caitlin and friends on a day-trip to the beautiful nearby town of Najac
Caitlin and friends on a day-trip to the beautiful nearby town of Najac

As a student who has always loved languages, I knew long before I started University that my degree would entail a Year Abroad. When I looked at Birmingham as a prospective student, the Modern Languages programme was fresh and enticing, and it allowed me to study not only Spanish and French, but also beginners German. Best of all, it offered the opportunity to go to all three places in one year. Choosing between so many beautiful cities in these three countries was such a challenge, but here is how I decided to organise my year:

  • Semester One: Toulouse, France
  • Semester Two: Heidelberg, Germany
  • Summer: An Intensive Spanish-language course in Alcalá, Madrid, which is fully funded by UoB in terms of both tuition and accommodation for four weeks.

Despite its administrative and logistical challenges, this split Year-Abroad is proving to be a once-in-a-lifetime whirlwind of a year with new places, people, and experiences everywhere I turn. It is no doubt that Brexit’s aftermath was seriously felt by this year’s study abroad cohort. In short, it was a huge bureaucratic hurdle for students who wanted to spend a semester or longer in an EU country. After appointments in London where I had to provide biometrics and certain documents (such as bank statements, University acceptance letters and proof of accommodation), I picked up my passport with a new visa at the end of August, hugely relieved and ready to begin my three-part year abroad. First stop: London-Heathrow -> Toulouse.

The Garonne at sunset, near Le Pont Vieux
The Garonne at sunset, near Le Pont Vieux

Toulouse is a beautiful, bustling metropolis in South-West France; a cosmopolitan yet historic circle of metro lines, canals, and pink buildings, sliced directly in half by the sweeping Garonne River. Deemed ‘La Ville Rose’ due to its dominant red-brick architecture, the city is a series of pinks and browns and warm orange, sharp against the clear blue skies. It has a long-lasting effect on anyone who visits and during the four and a half months I studied there it provided me with many unforgettable memories.

My favourite way to start a day in Toulouse would be to visit our local boulangerie. Its mouth-watering smells of butter and fresh bread travelled across the canal over the bridge to the student accommodation where myself and a lot of my friends lived for the semester, and they were enough to convince anyone to go and peer at what they had on offer. Amongst treats of croissants and brioches, a little sign that read ‘Chocolatine, 1.10’ always stood tall and proud, and for me, there was never any other choice. People might ask, what is a chocolatine? Others may use the name ‘pain au chocolat’ to describe the iconic French pastry, but if you were to use that in Toulouse, it would be the ultimate betrayal! I loved this little quirk of Toulouse; it constituted part of its unique identity that its citizens were fiercely proud of.

A vintage print of a chocolatine in one of Caitlin's favourite cafés in Toulouse. It reads 'On dit Chocolatine et pas autrement'. 'We say chocolatine and nothing else'.
A vintage print of a chocolatine in one of Caitlin's favourite cafés in Toulouse. It reads 'On dit Chocolatine et pas autrement'. 'We say chocolatine and nothing else'.

With a chocolatine in hand, I would begin the commute to my classes at Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. There, I studied topics ranging from French Literature to translation to Spanish and German too. Taking a class in my fourth language (German) that was taught in my third language (French) was tough but highly rewarding. A benefit of choosing to study rather than work during each stage of my Year-Abroad was that I could keep up my other languages through modules that my host Universities offered. A particular favourite class of mine was ‘Traduction Littéraire’ in which we would work together as a class to translate an extract from an English fictive novel, such as The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984, into accurate and coherent French.

University life was exciting and fast-paced, with many events and trips organised by its International Student’s Association, such as a boat party on the Garonne, bar crawls, karaoke nights where we could sing along to French guilty pleasures, and visits to other cities. Toulouse was situated perfectly for venturing to other places. In total, me and my friends travelled to 10 other places including Carcassonne, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Lourdes, and Paris. Whether my weeks were filled exploring other French cities or experiencing everything Toulouse had to offer such as its museums, shops, football matches, restaurants, river or even in my case singing in the Saint-Sernin Basilica choir, France was a cultural explosion of the very best things in life; good people, pretty places, and tasty food. I definitely did live la vie en rose in La Ville Rose itself.

A Toulouse FC football match. They won 5-1!
A Toulouse FC football match. They won 5-1!

Fast-forward to present-day, it is March 2022 and I have not long arrived in Heidelberg; a picturesque, historic University town south of Frankfurt. Nestled in between mountains and spread across the Neckar River, it is often described as fairy-tale-like. Without the hustle and bustle of a big city but still offering a vibrant student atmosphere and nightlife, life seems to go at a more relaxed pace here. I was lucky to find a cosy flat-share in the Altstadt (Old Town) amongst idyllic side streets and traditional houses, only a two minute-walk away from the mains square, University Campus, and handfuls of snug cafés and authentic restaurants.

Having only moved here two weeks ago, I am excited to see what this semester brings, to both improve my German and continue to develop my French when speaking to other Erasmus students. There will undoubtedly be so many contrasts to France, but the beauty of studying in multiple cities is that I can enjoy and learn from such vastly different places, and expand my network of friends from all over the world. As a languages student, I could not ask for anything more. My adventure continues into August too, with a summer of sun, tapas, and sangría in Spain on the horizon before I start fourth-year. Looking back on what I have experienced already and looking forward at what is still to come, I feel so incredibly lucky and know I will cherish this short period of my life forever.

A view of Heidelberg from the Philosophenweg (an up-hill trail up to a beautiful viewing point)
A view of Heidelberg from the Philosophenweg (an up-hill trail up to a beautiful viewing point)