3: Changing Course

After spending the summer holidays at home in Birmingham and working as a typist for a local firm – ironic, I know – I moved into the Halls of Residence in Wolverhampton for my 2nd first year: my first year on the degree course.

During my 1st first year, on the secretarial course, I had joined the hockey team. I’m not a great fan of sports, but I enjoyed engaging in sport as a way of staying fit. I also liked meeting other people with a specific purpose in mind, rather than going to some random social event where you had to engage in small talk.

On my return to Wolverhampton, it seemed that everyone I knew on the hockey team had either graduated, or they were on their third year of the language degree course (their “year abroad”) – so I offered to run the team and recruit some new players. We attracted lots of new blood – including a couple of county players. The only problem was that they were furiously competitive and hell-bent on winning – which took all the fun out of it for me.

I was more interested in the enjoyment of playing the game and the interaction with the other players – regardless of whether we won or lost. I didn’t need someone shouting abuse when someone missed the ball. So, after a few games, I left the team – handing over the captaincy to someone better qualified.

* * *

When I was on the secretarial course, I had started going out with a student in his final year of a business course. He had since moved to London, so our weekends together were divided between Wolverhampton and London.

1977 – view of the River Thames in London, looking towards St Paul’s Cathedral from the Royal Festival Hall. The skyline has changed a lot since then.

My boyfriend had kept in contact with former students who continued to live in Wolverhampton, whereas everyone I had met on the secretarial course had disappeared into the mist – so it was handy to be part of a pre-existing circle of friends. I also made a few friends on my degree course – although my boyfriend encouraged me to focus on studying rather than getting distracted by socialising.

To further encourage my studies, he habitually sent me clippings from The Guardian, to educate me in current affairs. I have never liked being told what to read or what to think. Without telling him, I threw away the clippings – unread – and instead bought copies of a less highbrow newspaper, just for the “Peanuts / Snoopy” cartoon on the back page.

He also urged me to stop wasting time arranging the books on my shelf – even though I tried to explain that it was actually a time-saving system, because I knew where every book was located without having to look. Every time he visited, he would take out a couple of books and return them to a different location, randomly. After each visit I would quickly re-organise my bookshelf, so that order was restored and I could focus my energy on more important tasks.

Despite these acts of rebellion, I was very aware that I needed to knuckle down, as this could be my last chance as a student – if I failed my first year exams, I would have seemingly wasted two years and made no progress. The stress I felt manifested itself as almost constant stomach cramps, so bad that my doctor sent me for tests at the hospital – which were inconclusive.

Happily, I passed my first year exams relatively easily and was told that, if I stayed on track, I would be awarded a 2:2 grade – and if I worked hard, I might achieve a 2:1.

Whilst I’ve never been afraid of good honest work, I always consider whether the benefits of “hard” work merit the extra effort, if it means missing out on other experiences – especially where an improved outcome is not guaranteed…

* * *

julia -1978-teignmouth-seaside
1978 – being followed by a stray dog during a day trip to the seaside with Mary and Julie

At the start of my second year on the degree course, I put my name down for a council flat, located over a butcher’s shop in a suburb of Wolverhampton, which my boyfriend had shared with friends in his final year. It was cold and scruffy – but it held some happy memories of friendship, and I was keen to add to those memories.

I immediately contacted Mary – a student I had played hockey with 2 years before – and asked if she would like to flat share. Mary knew a lot of the same people as I did, and we had kept in touch the previous year, while she was on her year abroad.

The flat had 3 bedrooms, so we needed a third person to split the rent. Fortunately Mary overheard Julie, who was also in her final year of the language course, saying she had nowhere to live. So that was that sorted. Although we hardly knew each other at the start of the academic year, Mary, Julie and I spent a most enjoyable year together – and we stayed in touch for many years to come.

* * *

The second year of the Modern Languages degree course was considered by many to be an easy ride. We did have exams at the end of the year – but the results would not affect the continuation of our studies.

We had to choose a third language, related to one of our primary languages – and, as I was studying French and German, my potential choices were Italian or Dutch. I had a feeling that I would learn Italian anyway, at some time in the future – so I opted for Dutch.

Even if the exams didn’t count, I would have preferred to be better prepared for them. In our Dutch classes, we covered topics such as “Jan and Piet go to the station” or “A Day in the Life of a Bottle – by Hans Christian Andersen” – neither of which adequately prepared us for the topic of the aural exam: Psychological Warfare.

I don’t remember having any grammar or text books for the Dutch course, either, because we were translating everything from Dutch into German, or German into Dutch – rather than to and from English – and suitable books were perhaps not easy to come by in the UK. So, to prepare myself for the written exams, I bought a Teach Yourself book to get a better grasp of Dutch.

Our tutor was clearly knowledgeable about the Dutch language – but he certainly wasn’t chosen for his pleasant manners. In one class, he picked on a student who was struggling with a translation.

“You DO speak German, don’t you?” he bellowed.

I shouted at him for being so insensitive – we were all struggling, and picking on one person didn’t help. My outburst shocked him into silence, and he never picked on anyone in our class again.

Without me realising it, the incident had reminded me of the teacher who bullied me in my final year at school – excluding me from her class on the pretext that I was wearing the wrong coloured socks. The real reason was that, despite my excellent language ability, I was struggling to grasp what was required in the literature classes – so I was no longer her star pupil.

When I shouted at my Dutch tutor, perhaps it was because I wished that my classmates at school – or one of the teachers I had consulted when I was 18 – had stood up for me in the same way.

* * *

In the final term of my second year, preparations were underway to organise placements for my year abroad. The preparations weren’t going smoothly, though, and I was getting nervous, as my future was seemingly out of my hands.

My boyfriend and I had got engaged earlier in the year, a couple of months before my 21st birthday, and I confided in him that I was seriously thinking about not going abroad, unless the organisers got things sorted out pretty soon.

“If you don’t go abroad, we can get married a year earlier,” my fiancé proposed.

I instantly felt sick to my stomach – a clear sign that this was a bad idea. In the years since, I’ve learned to pay attention to this feeling – and it’s saved me from many a mistake.

1978 – in Heidelberg on our round-trip of Germany

Fortunately, the preparations for my year abroad came together quickly after that: I was to spend 5 months at the university in Essen, Germany, and 5 months at the university in Poitiers, France. In both cases, I would be the only student on that particular placement – which meant that I wouldn’t get distracted by talking to anyone in English.

My fiancé said he would drive me to Essen, to drop off my luggage at the Halls of Residence, and after that we would spend two weeks touring Germany together. He would not, however, lend me his SLR camera again – as he had done when I spent 3 months in Stuttgart – because he felt it would distract me from my studies.

As far as I was concerned, my main purpose on my year abroad was to become fluent in German and French – a goal best achieved by conversing with as many people as possible. And even though my camera was not as fancy as his, I intended to take lots of photographs.


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