Erasmus & Me: 10 Years On

It’s been ten years now since I finished my Erasmus exchange semester, and like for many people, the exchange is something that I knew at the time was an extraordinary experience and something I still look back on now as the greatest single period in my life thus far. I spent five months, from the end of January 2005 to the end of that June, living and studying in Tilburg, which is a small town of around 200,000 people in the south of the Netherlands, not too far from the Belgian border. The town itself is nothing special, merely a regional hub which contains a decent university and all that you would expect from a no-nonsense northern European town: bars, bicycles, everything closed on Sundays, and everything built around a train station. The Erasmus program however made it special by grouping around 100 international exchange students from all over the world together, and giving them the freedom to party, travel, make friendships and gain new experiences, all the while helping each other make sense of the new and alien culture they were all experiencing together: a sleepy Dutch town (or wherever you spent your Erasmus exchange). It doesn’t sound like much, but my categorisation of the experience as life-changing is not uncommon at all, and regularly throughout this year I have attempted to sit down to try and find something worthwhile to write about the legacy of my Erasmus experience, ten years on. The other day, while attempting such a brainstorming session, I realised that though I had always thought of the experience as life-changing in an abstract (and pretentious) sense, I had never fully grasped just how much the Erasmus programme had literally changed my life.

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First things first, and with 10 years of hindsight, I realise now that while my Erasmus experience may have been a whirlwind of new experiences, cultures and people, it was in reality a very carefully controlled whirlwind. At the time, back in 2005, it literally felt like I was dropped out of nowhere into a completely different society and had to fend for myself. The real story was that in an Erasmus exchange, and especially at the beginning, you basically have someone holding your hand the entire way. I arrived in Tilburg and already had a place to stay for the semester, arranged weeks before by the university and its dedicated Erasmus Student Network (ESN), a group of student volunteers who were there simply to help in any matters related to integrating into Dutch society. I will add here that though the Dutch have their own language and are therefore not native English speakers, the level of English spoken by the average person on the street rivals that of any English speaking country in the world, so language was rarely an issue. ESN also organised parties and events to help us all meet other exchange students and thus facilitated in the making of new friends and experiences, which would have been much more difficult without their mediation.

The people you meet and the friends you make are what frame your experiences, and therefore they are the main part of what can make the Erasmus program so rewarding, as it seems like you are meeting people from all over the world, from all backgrounds and all cultures. Again, with ten years of hindsight, my view of this has shifted somewhat. I met many amazing people on Erasmus, and I have travelled and visited many of them since, and remain very good friends with a few to this day, yet to imagine that we all come from different cultures and backgrounds is a complete fantasy. The Erasmus exchange program seemed very inclusive, yet the entry barriers made it really a very exclusive event. Firstly, it was a university program, so in order to qualify each participant must have spent at least two years in higher education. Secondly there were significant costs involved in travelling to and living in a different country for a number of months. The entry fee for an Erasmus exchange is an education, and a not-insignificant amount of disposable income. This entry fee significantly limits the type of people who you can meet while on an Erasmus exchange program, to such an extent that I would go so far as to say that really you can only possibly meet people with a very similar upbringing to yourself, but simply born in a different country. The people you meet may have slightly different customs and cultures to you, yet otherwise the socio-economic class differential is quite small. The ability to participate in an Erasmus exchange puts you in a certain, small, traveling, upper-middle class elite such that now, 10 years later, when I meet an educated Turkish person abroad, I know that we have at least a second-degree common acquaintance. Again, I am not saying that the people you meet on Erasmus are not amazing, I am saying that it was a much more controlled experience than it seemed at the time.

This critical view of the Erasmus program is one that has been weighing on me the past year or so: this idea of it at the time being so transformative, yet in hindsight seemed merely like a group of similar people playing in a sandbox while thinking they were freely roaming the desert. There were amazing experiences, yes, and lifelong friends made, yet was it really so life changing? I mentioned the sandbox allegory above because this is the image that really made clear what the Erasmus program had actually done for me, and how it had truly benefitted me so much that I can really say that my Erasmus experience changed my life. Erasmus programs are sandboxes; they are small, controlled areas of an alien environment where those of similar standing can interact and make sense of that alien environment, on their own terms, and with careful guidance if necessary. The alien environment in this case is a country with a vastly different culture and language, and you get through it by interpreting it with the help of very similar people to yourself who are experiencing the same thing, and if this fails you have the actual aliens (the ESN!) to fall back on.

Before I went on my Erasmus exchange, I had never even entertained the idea of living in a non-English speaking country. The furthest points my imagination could take me to were a move to London or the USA. I literally could not conceive of a way to live in a society where I did not speak the language – it had never even crossed my mind. Barely a year after my Erasmus exchange ended, I was living on the other side of the world in Taiwan. A year after that, I went back to the Netherlands to complete a Master’s Degree. The next year I interned in Barcelona. The next year I lived in northern Italy. The next year I moved to Vienna. I am fluent in no language but English, my mother tongue, yet since I finished my Erasmus exchange ten years ago, I have spent less than two years in total in an English speaking country, with six months being the longest continuous period. Erasmus may have been a sandbox, but for me it was a sandbox where I learned that my world was not limited to the places where I could speak the language, and my entire decade since then has been driven by this lesson, a lesson that I am not sure would have been learned without my Erasmus experience of playing around in the sandbox of a provincial Dutch town, where everyone speaks Dutch, but perfect English if I needed to ask them a question. My Erasmus friends and I did just fine navigating our way around Tilburg, mostly without the ESN, and this made me confident in knowing I could move anywhere in the world without fear. This, as well as the great friends I made, is the lasting legacy of my Erasmus exchange, as I sit here writing this in Vienna ten years later, admitting that the experience literally changed my life.

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Remake, Recycle, Relaunch, Repeat.

I recently read a review of Jurassic World wherein the reviewer calls it the most self-loathing blockbuster ever made. After seeing the movie over the weekend, I can’t help but agree that it absolutely hates itself. The movie finds us in a world where since Jurassic Park III in 2001, the dinosaur-themed theme park has received a new owner, and has been opened to the public for several years. The staff of the theme park (Jurassic World) realise that in order to keep visitors coming, they need to create new, scarier dinosaurs periodically, using genetic engineering to keep constant positive buzz spinning around the brand. In the movie, the staff of Jurassic World have completely safeguarded the dinosaurs we all know and love, such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptors, and these reptiles are introduced as nothing more than larger, more exotic zoo animals. The plot of the movie surrounds the escape of the ‘Indominous Rex’, a genetically engineered hybrid dinosaur dreamed up by the marketing department of the theme park brand, and even given its stupid name by a focus group so that it is easy to pronounce. The movie chronicles the exploits of the movies human stars in stopping the hybrid dinosaur killing everyone in sight.

The issue here is that it is obvious that the movie Jurassic World was created in exactly the same way its in-world theme park Jurassic World staff created their new dinosaur. Jurassic Park was 22 years ago, and since then there have been two sequels, showing most of what different Hollywood production teams had imagined dinosaurs could offer to the cinema-going public. In the meantime blockbusters have evolved with the ADHD generation, so much so that children would probably be bored with the pacing of the original Jurassic Park. In the modern era of Unlimited Fast and the Furious chases and 50 superheroes turning up in the latest Avengers movie, people being chased by a few dinosaurs just wasn’t going to be enough. The producers sat in a room and thought of what they could do, which led them to the idea of the hybrid Indominous Rex, an unnatural literal monster that they all agreed was the logical step in the franchise, yet they couldn’t quite accept the depths the franchise had plunged to in order to survive in the current blockbuster environment. So they made a movie about attempting to destroy this monstrous creation that they (and also their fictional protaganists) hoped would revive their flagging brand. It obviously doesn’t work in the movie, yet in the real world, the Indominus Rex did the job, as Jurassic World will be the biggest movie of the year (if we exclude Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is released in December). The movie itself is very enjoyable, a textbook example of how to make an entertaining summer movie, yet the nagging thought that the very expensive movie you are watching hates itself is something that is worth (over)thinking about.

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The simple answer is that we did this, we are the ones that force movie studios into the bigger, better, stronger, faster mould year after year. By we, I mean we the people of the internet, the people who illegally download movies off torrent sites instead of paying €10+ to see them in the theatre, and/or €5+ to watch them at home by renting it a few months after the movie has left the cinemas. Hollywood studios say they lose millions of dollars every year to illegal downloading, so it might seem counterintuitive to argue that the reason big summer movies must constantly become bigger and more expensive is that their producers are losing money. Yet this is exactly how Hollywood has responded to the threat of illegal downloading to their profits: instead of reigning in budgets and downsizing production scales, they decided to go the opposite way completely. The model currently employed by the big Hollywood studios to guarantee customers paying to see their movies is quite originally known as the Blockbuster Model. In this model, budgets sore, special effects scenes multiply, A-list actors are drawn in to feature in movies they would not have considered a decade ago, and marketing costs pretty much match the production budgets of each $150m movie. This all might still sound like a counterintuitive response to a threat on their profits, but with this increased scale, they are creating more than a movie, they are attempting to create an event, something that people in a major urban environment just can’t get away from.

The idea of a big Hollywood summer movie being an event is nothing new. Jaws, back in 1975, lays claim to being the first summer blockbuster and also the first event movie. Back in summer 1975, you just had to see Jaws, or else you weren’t on the same cultural wavelength as your peers. The difference here is that Jaws was actually good, and while some modern blockbusters may be good, this is probably a special case. In order to get us to the cinema in the summer these days, movies must create a product that will not be as good if watched at home on an illegal download, which is one of the reasons 3D has become so ubiquitous in big movies these days. Computer generated special effects, and 3D, never look as good on TV or computer, so the event that movies these days are selling us is really just an enhanced audio-visual experience. Although I must admit, I may have enjoyed a downloaded Jurassic World with Korean hardcoded subtitles just as much as I would have enjoyed the 3D spectacle in IMAX. Who knows?

So it goes with the Fast and the Furious franchise, the Transformers saga, the “computer animated movies about cute talking animals with big eyes who like hip hop” franchises, and also the multitude of megafranchises that are coming our way over the next five years. A summer movie can’t just be a standalone movie anymore, it has to be part of a bigger picture, a continuation of another event movie from a few years ago, or a franchise from a decade or two ago looking to catch its previous audience as well as the younger generation. This year so far has been the year of franchises relaunched, as Jurassic Park, Terminator, Mad Max, Star Wars and The Fantastic Four have all attempted to or are about to attempt to regain some relevance in the modern blockbuster environment. All have gone for the blockbuster method of throwing cash at the production in order to convince us that the movie is worth seeing. Some have done this better than others. Mad Max: Fury Road cost well over $150m to make, and I would be very surprised if a focus group was involved at any point in the making of that movie, and this franchise relaunch stands out for that fact.

The future of the blockbuster is more of the marketing approved Indominous Rex type blockbuster however, a genetically modified unnatural hybrid of past things that proved popular, coupled with a few focus group tested innovations thrown in just to make it relatively interesting. The problem will come when there is nothing left to relaunch however, as with Jurassic World the current phase of Hollywood recycling has already reached the mid-1990s, and I can’t think of any franchise from after then that a) is worthy of relaunch and b) hasn’t been recycled already (X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman: all of these franchises have been recycled over the past 15 years). To put it philosophically, the question is whether the Hollywood system is best represented by the ouroboros, the infinite snake deity that eats its own tail forever, or if it is best represented by the human centipede, where all the waste passed down through the system must be ejected at some stage, and something fresh must then be fed to the beast so the process of derivation should start again. At the moment, it looks like Hollywood has attached the end part of this human centipede to it’s beginning, and I think we can all visualise pretty well how entertaining that is going to be. The fact that movies like Jurassic World are now referencing the fact that they have to do this may be humorous, yet it doesn’t stop the fact they are still a large part of this never ending Hollywood system of remakes, relaunches and recycling that doesn’t look like ending any time soon.