If the popular statistic is correct, Nantes has only a handful more French people than London. But as I doubted Edinburgh would’ve been best pleased with me doing an exchange at UCL, I opted to spend my year in Jules Verne’s hometown. Once capital of Brittany, Nantes has evolved from a medieval dukes’ hangout, to a shipbuilding hub (think Liverpool with better food) to a whacky, cosmopolitan modern city. Modern and historic mix happily here: LU’s biscuit factory now boasts a bar, where patrons bring roller-skates and/or their cat. By the river, the Banana Hangar is now a nightclub but keeps its old title, a reminder of Nantes’ slave trade involvement. Next door, engineers/steampunk fanatics have built the city’s biggest tourist attraction (and, I admit, what put Nantes top of my somewhat rushed Erasmus form): a giant robotic elephant, inspired by Verne. I thought it couldn’t be as good as it sounded. I was wrong.
Mechanical pachyderms aside, I’ve been amazed by this city’s human inhabitants too: it seems the Nantais haven’t heard about France’s antisocial reputation. Dare I say it, they’re quite friendly. I was warned I wouldn’t be given the time of day; I’ve often found the opposite. From bank staff smiling patiently as I wade through my vocabulary, to the family who put me up for the night to save me a 20 minute journey, people have been kind to me when they needn’t have. Classmates chat when their British counterparts would offer a brief nod, and my shopping gets delayed by pensioners starting conversation in Monoprix. It’s been amusing listening to French ideas about the British, too. Oddly, I’m often described not as “britannique”, but “anglo-saxon”. I’m unsure whether this implies I (a) give off sexy, Game of Thrones-esque northern vibes, or (b) have the complexion of a sun-deprived, plague-infested medieval peasant. My current diet of viennoiserie suggests the latter. Still, if the amount of Sherlock graffiti I’ve seen is anything to go by, the French love a bit of British. Even if they call us “les roast beefs”.
The hardest adjustment has been studying here. Enormous classes and the absence of critical debate mean my philosophy classes don’t feel like a group of equals swapping and sharing ideas – something I’ve come to love at Edinburgh. The lack of sports clubs and societies means making friends is harder than it should be, and so little investment in resources and buildings (imagine having all your lectures in a David Hume Tower toilet) makes me realise I’ve been spoilt rotten as an Edinburgh student.
But I’m grateful my degree has sent me abroad when I otherwise wouldn’t have gone. As naff as it sounds, on a foreign language exchange even tiny things become big achievements. One day, you get exactly what you ordered in a café and feel a small victory. The next, you’re glowing when you manage to answer a question on Rousseau, and your tutor gives you a look acknowledging that you’re contributing more to the classroom than CO2. I’ve worked at a film festival, taught an audience of Nantais how to Strip the Willow, volunteered with UNICEF, and travelled: a few years ago I thought moving from Glasgow to Edinburgh was an adventure of Tolkien proportions; now I hop to Barcelona and Amsterdam without batting an eyelid.
But it’s also a year for learning to be kind to yourself when you feel you should’ve achieved more. There have been plenty of nights where we Erasmus-ers couldn’t face going to prendre un verre outside a café with the locals, and instead we’ve traipsed across town to the Irish pub to smell Bulmers, hear English and pretend we’re back at Teviot. Those evenings it’s important to remember that craving home so much your fingers twitch isn’t a weakness, but a significant, essential, good part of who you are. You’ll never be home, Nantes, but thanks for trying.