During an exchange semester you will not only get to know people who actually live there – the so-called locals – but also others who are staying there temporarily just because it is fun. You might reject it first (like I did) but at the end of the day you, as an Erasmus student, belong to the latter group. This text will be about the differences between the locals and the exchange students. Also, I will discuss the feeling of getting stuck in between those two groups.
In the first semester I never really wanted to join in any activities with the other Erasmus students because both the activities and the people seemed stupid to me. Going to Cinque Terre in a bus only to walk on a predefined stretch of a road and take pictures – what on earth could be more touristy and superficial? Instead I wanted to live the real Italian lifestyle, get to know the locals and drink caffè all the time. I wanted to live and study there, just like at home, and not have some sort of extended never-ending vacation with other rootless young internationals. With this in mind, my main focus after my arrival in Florence was set on the acquisition of hobbies like finding a decent swimming pool, a not-too-distant climbing gym and a running route. Also I researched the timetables of the vegetable and cheese markets, tried out different supermarkets and got to know the surrounding bakeries and restaurants. As the semester started, I spent much time trying to understand how things worked at the new university and read all the course information available. I got up and went to bed early, so I would have all the energy and time I needed to do the things I wanted to. To put it in a nutshell, I tried to acquire an everyday routine in order to feel safe and at home. I tried to become a local.
Eventually my fellow Bernese exchange student Antoine successfully talked me into joining a “welcome event” of one of the many student-organised Erasmus groups. To put it shortly, it was quite terrible. We met in the most international and non-Italian bar imaginable, with air-conditioning, stainless steel everywhere and barkeepers who do not even try to communicate in Italian. The food was limp, the conversations sluggish and the people bored. At least the drinks were acceptable (though expensive). After this experience, I decided to never go to an organised Erasmus event ever again – a promise which I held until the end of the year. But then came the Corona virus and suddenly it got very hard to get in contact with Italian people. Everybody minimized their social contacts and went on to only see their closest friends and family. The museums were closed before I had the chance to visit them and the organised Erasmus events were cancelled (thank God!). So somehow only the Erasmus students were left out – at least so it seemed – and so they started seeing each other in the city parks from time to time, just to have someone to talk to. Since they only met outside in the open, I figured it was okay to join them. And to my great surprise it turned out to be quite fun! Not being bound to the timetable or place of an Erasmus organisation but to be able to play frisbee, talk to different people and listen to some good music made getting to know the others a lot easier than before.
So what is it that defines an Erasmus student?
Firstly it is the special living situation that s:he is in. Having left its natural habitat, an Erasmus student is out there in the wide wild world. S:he doesn’t know anyone and is therefore somehow afraid but also excited about the new opportunities. Who is s:he, who does s:he want to be? Many Erasmus students feel rootless and therefore try to find people in a similar situation, of the same species. This explains the herd phenomenon which appears during an exchange semester. If the other individuals share a common background (e.g. same nationality, same language, same taste in music) the herd development is even accelerated. Furthermore, exchange students have a lot of time. This is due to several reasons. A: They take only few courses during their exchange semester and B: They do not take their courses very seriously during their exchange semester and C: They did not study the language before and therefore understand few of the course contents anyways.
So if Erasmus students do not study, what are they doing with all their spare time? Well, since they do not have a daily routine because everything is new and unfamiliar, they basically just get up late. Then they wait until some other Erasmus students come up with a plan and eventually join them sometimes in the afternoon. This mostly ends in drinking a fair amount of supermarket-brand beer and getting beastly drunk on some piazza. Repeat that until the weekend when there is an organised trip to Cinque Terre. You get the idea.
So how would an Erasmus student even meet a local? Admittedly it is kind of difficult since very few locals share this unsteady lifestyle. For me personally, my hobbies made some acquaintances possible. Whilst hiking with the Italian alpine club, singing in the university choir and practicing karate I finally got to know some locals. I got to improve my Italian and drink lots of caffè. My exchange year seemed to be just like my dream of italian dolce vita. But as the Corona pandemic advanced, the frailty of my local-like state was revealed. Without the choir lessons and hiking trips I was on ground zero again. This was somewhat disappointing and during that time I felt quite lost. I had tried to develop roots but then the soil had dried up suddenly and rejected them.
So there I was, left alone by my new found Italian acquaintances. To make things worse I had not maintained contact with the other Erasmus students after that terrible evening in the stainless steel bar. I had trapped myself with my decisions and now I was stuck in between the two groups. Some lonely days followed, during which I phoned a lot with friends and family from home. My motivation for the exchange year had faded as the energy of the first weeks seemed to have vanished with the appearance of the virus. But then Antoine came up to me again and proposed meeting some other Erasmus students in the park. The rest you already know.
So in a way my plans turned upside down. I did after all join the group of rootless young internationals and I enjoyed it too. It was fun to be part of the Erasmus herd even if it was a little awkward and embarrassing at times. But the interesting thing is that this change in my peer group did not hinder me from integrating more and more Italian culture into my life. As the Corona pandemic slowed down and life became more normal, I got to meet my Italian acquaintances again and we became actual friends. So what am I trying to tell you with all this? It is normal to feel lost sometimes during an exchange year. You lose your surroundings, the people you love and the things you like to do. You might have strong expectations and be disappointed if things do not turn out the way you would have liked them to. But that is okay! There are other people in the same situation as you are. If they seem weird, maybe that is because they are just as unsure as you are. You do not really have to choose between Erasmus students and locals. During a whole semester you will have plenty of opportunity to get in touch with both. So do not let go of your ideal to integrate with the local population, but relax a little. Keep calm and drink a caffè – and everything might just be fine.