The myth of Erasmus

Seine by night

Now that I’m back in Finland with my family and high school friends, a lot of people are asking if Scotland or France feels more homelike. What I’ve consistently told is that in Scotland it’s been easier to feel like a member of the community, rather than simply an observer and an exchange student; that I’ve fit in better in Edinburgh. How so? Here’s a few thoughts on why, accompanied by some remarks about what I call ‘the myth of Erasmus’.

“J’ai du mal à comprendre…”

The language barrier was to be expected. I get mistaken for a Brit both when I speak English and when I speak French – unfortunately, that only helps you blend in when you’re in the UK. It’s a rollercoaster: at one moment you feel proud of yourself for having read a book chapter for your class without much trouble at all, the next you fail miserably at appearing like a normal human being when a Carrefour cashier tries to make small talk with you.

Overall, there’s progress of course. In 2015 when I listened to François Hollande’s speech at the Charlemagne Prize ceremony in Aachen, I had a lot of difficulty following. On 11 November this year, when Emmanuel Macron spoke at the Armistice festivities, listening was mostly effortless.

That’s the ‘myth of Erasmus’ in action. You expect things to be normal and easy after a while, and for every day to be better than the previous one. In reality, you realise that you haven’t learned much in the last week or two, and that linguistic humiliations are still not quite over. Few people work as hard on the language as they vowed on their day of departure.

“I’m on Erasmus, I’m not supposed to feel lonely”

The second part of the myth is about Erasmus being the magical time in your life, a time when you make new friends des quatre coins du monde, attend social events and visit photogenic, hidden corners of your host city. For some, constant romance with excitingly exotic Erasmus beauties or hunks is high on the list, too.

When it comes to language learning, the ideal outcome (at least for me personally) involves ‘blending in’. In terms of social life, however, the image allows you to be unashamedly foreign, a long-term tourist who lives in an international bubble. Maybe that’s also why I haven’t banked too much on the Erasmus year in this regard. After all, there’s international experiences to gain in Edinburgh and in JEF, too, and the excitingly exotic Erasmus beauties don’t necessarily need to be from Paris either. When living abroad isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there’s less pressure.

Nevertheless, in terms of Erasmus social life I’ve admittedly experienced a bit of disappointment. At the start of the semester I slightly missed the boat: I didn’t attend the paid welcome programme, and right before classes started I was out of town. When classes started, I didn’t talk with enough many people, didn’t get added to those multinational group chats that I know must exist somewhere, and so on.

As a result, I almost exclusively spent time with Parisians who couldn’t truly, for understandable reasons, treat me as a peer. The resulting feeling of loneliness made me ask what went wrong: an Erasmus student isn’t supposed to feel lonely!

“C’est pas grave”

From my discussions with other people doing Erasmus in different places, I know I’m not the only person who experiences disappointment about their student exchange. Maybe the best advice is to expect less. Personally I believe that I was subconsciously pursuing two contradictory objectives – blending in, and living in an international bubble –, all the while maintaining my JEF engagement outside Paris. You can’t have everything.

The time of your life doesn’t necessarily come when you most feverishly expect it. And even if the norm dictates that your Erasmus exchange should be one of those times, it’s not the end of the world if your Erasmus is only “good”, rather than “outstanding” or “splendid”. Maybe a “good” or even a “challenging” experience is the one that helps you better grow as an individual.

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