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.
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.