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All abroad for the best year of your life

For some, a year off between school and university or starting work is the chance to have a really big adventure. But you don't have to cross whole continents for it, as Serena Kutchinsky explains
THE words "Gap Year" usually conjure up images of intrepid students teaching English in Ethiopia or sweeping leaves from a rain-forest floor. But in my 12-month break, I spent five months studying French at the Sorbonne, and the rest studying how to make lattes with the Seattle Coffee Company.

My stay in Paris was one of the best times of my life, and despite the sneers of better travelled friends, I would never trade in my experience for theirs. Rather than leaping from country to country, I got toknow Paris nearly as well as my home-town. Never again will I search the back streets for accordionists or onion-sellers. During my five months there, I was pestered by pigeons and pursued by sex-starved Gauls. Paris became more than just the capital of fine food and fashion - it was home.

Of course, there was a down side. Our residence was not centrally located; in fact, it was at the end of the Metro line. The concrete carbuncle masquerading as a government-run hostel for international students, was one of the most depressing buildings I've ever lived in. The staff were unhelpful, mumbling "boeuf" at every problem, and the food not worth commenting on. But I never regretted not staying with a host family. The people I met in the hostel have become good friends - we kept each other sane through those first nights of homesickness, and last nightmare days of exams.

At the Sorbonne, high standards are expected of foreign students, and they do not take kindly to prolonged periods of absence. One girl had to leave after turning up to only two weeks of classes in two months. My hopes of a five-month holiday were shattered as we were assigned grammar and phonetics classes (two hours a day) together with lectures on French culture. We soon fell into a routine of going to our classes (hangovers permitting), meeting for coffee in the afternoons, and rushing to catch "'appy 'our" in Paris's trendy, overpriced bars in the evenings. When we arrived we were cheered to discover that Paris has 85 Irish pubs, including the infamous Frog and Rosbif and Kitty O' Shea's, all crawling with expats. But homesickness aside, we were soon immersing ourselves in French, not pseudo-English, culture. My only lasting weakness was Marks & Spencer's sandwiches.

Somehow, we always found the energy to get the most out of Paris's exhilarating night life. One night, we even dared a visit to the incredibly select night-club, Les Bains Douches. Tottering along in our high heels and tight dresses, we almost looked the part (if you ignored the fact that it was pouring with rain and everyone else seemed to be arriving in taxis and chauffeur-driven limousines). Once inside, we soon fell victim to groping Gallic hands, which eventually led to my smacking one admirer in the face. Leaving him speechless, we ran upstairs to the VIP room, and spent the rest of the evening happily drinking champagne and celebrity watching. Although this incident makes me laugh now, it highlights what I found to be the appalling attitude of men in Paris. We were treated like objects and constantly preyed upon. It was the first time in my life that I began to appreciate the English reserve.

But every experience has its highs and lows, and I will always know that I did just the right thing with my gap year.