The Erasmus Experience: A Reflection.
“Yours are the only shoes made to walk your journey”
These were the wise words of Charles F. Glassman and such are the words on which I now reflect in light of my life-changing Erasmus experience.
I cast my mind back to late last August when the packing process and the goodbyes finally began. Suddenly Erasmus large before me – a mountain to be climbed, a challenge to be met. I cried. Quite a lot in fact, not because I feared a new life in France but because I wasn’t entirely sure I could leave the one I had here: my friends, my uni, the city of Cork whose streets I had walked with such surety for so long. The thought of leaving them near broke my heart, not made much easier by my friend Oisín (whose own year abroad had been spent in Germany). The inarguable poster boy for the Erasmus experience, he would gush at any given opportunity about how it was the best thing in life ever. Eternally prepared to reiterate its benefits, to impart some wisdom or a humorous anecdote from that time, he had advised me – with an air of rather infuriating flippancy – to simply ‘forget Ireland’ for that year. A self-confessed diehard patriot – to the extent that I considered my tricolour a ‘travel essential’ – this did not seem at all likely. Fast forward 9 months and I hold much the same opinion – this time with regards my time spent in France. Saint Etienne and the people I met there have touched my life so profoundly as to say: forgetting is simply just not an option.
I’ve wound up in the apartment of complete strangers and a cat named Biggie and felt very much at home. I have danced until dawn with a perfect nobody then sat with him on a park bench to watch the city awaken and stretch its limbs. I have climbed to the top of the tallest tree and kissed a man there in the twilight, sat high above the city on a lazy Sunday and basked in the warmth of sunshine and friendship. I have sang Molly Malone with French men who knew the lyrics and wondered at the extent to which we, as a nation, are loved the world over. Spontaneous snowball fights at midnight and dancing on tables or atop bars with my peers. Strolling along cobbled streets in the early morning rain and simply not caring whether or not I got drenched, revisiting our childhoods in a darkened playground. It is such memories as these – and a million more – that will always stay with me, in addition to friendships that will endure time and distance alike.
I could portray Erasmus as being universally positive, could paint over the cracks with a plethora of good memories. However, to do this – to make the insinuation that it was completely fault free – would be to lie to my readers and to myself. To deny the existence of tough moments – amidst what was a whirlwind of wonderful ones – would be to insult one’s intelligence, something which I have no intention of doing. Whilst I imagine Erasmus to be a very personal experience, there is one thing on which all of the Irish came to agree: France was the means through which we developed a greater appreciation of home. Irish milk and Cadbury’s chocolate (my own personal stash of which met a sudden death shortly after I arrived). Colloquialisms I had taken for granted and the abundance of accents, North and South of our beautiful island. For a glass to break in a bar and for it to be greeted with cheers and rapturous applause. Perhaps the last sounds ridiculous but it was such simple things as these that I missed whilst away. There were three or four days on which I just wanted out, following a tough class test or when under the weather. There were days on which I couldn’t bear the confinement of my apartment, when I loathed waking up to the sound of construction work or when a poor quality Skype call with my friends back home didn’t seem like enough. There were moments I missed my dad’s home cooking and when my meagre heater made me ache for the blazing fire I was used to. Sure, there were downs, but is that not the nature of life itself?
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge I met – at least culturally – was the street harassment from which seemingly no woman was exempt. Followed home from the supermarket on my first evening. Having an altogether threatening looking man actually run through the shopping centre after me just weeks later. Grabbed on the way to the pub with friends one night, as a result of which I was forced to resort to mild violence. At each of those moments, as my heart and mind raced, I was filled with an acute resentment of the city, the country in which I now lived. I hated the men who could not see the harm in their cat calls, their leers, their solicitations of sex at 2pm on what director Baz Luhrman would term ‘some idle Tuesday’ or any other day of the week. I hated the government for having departed from their mantra (that of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’), for what I saw as their failure to handle such a blatant rape culture. I hated that my personal liberty was essentially being denied me, that I – as a woman – could not walk alone at night for fear of what were very real risks to my safety. As the year progressed, I quickly became used to it. I invested in a key ring which had been specifically designed to injure a prospective attacker, subconsciously carried it between my fingers as I walked home. I armed myself verbally with an endless supply of catty comebacks – allowed them to roll off my tongue as easily as my own name or age. In short, I adapted and I got the hell on with things. Should I have had to? Absolutely not, but then again, neither should our people have to suffer at the hands of greedy and/or incompetent politicians.
Erasmus, despite these minor negative aspects, is an awful lot more than an international programme. It is more than improving your language skills, much more than the initial endless paperwork and the lengthy lectures you may struggle to understand. Erasmus really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, running deeper than the town or the city you now live in. Erasmus is the culture by which you are suddenly surrounded – their music and food, the jokes you don’t get. Erasmus is the people that you meet in that year, the crazy nights out and the lazy nights in, the romantic dalliances which taught you more about yourself than you ever thought possible. It is the stories you won’t ever share with your parents and the ones you will tell at dinner parties, years from now, for some the joy of perhaps finally learning how to cook or use a washing machine – albeit with a couple of disasters hiccups along the way.
To put it quite simply, Erasmus is incredible and to those prospective students who are struggling to make a decision, allow me to leave you with this: “The biggest risk is to take (none)” (John Marsden).
Dedicated, with love and thanks, to all those who made my Erasmus year so special – I miss ye!
Photos c/o thepienews.com, utazom.com, traveladventureeverywhere.blogspot.com