This post could either be a guidebook to going through with your semester abroad or my own super condensed diary (bowties excluded) of five months spent away from my family and friends, living a whole new life in a whole new place. Either way, I want to share this experience with you and I want to have one specific point to look back to and instantly be taken back to the city of Utrecht in The Netherlands in the autumn of 2015.
Firstly, why I chose that place. To me, it was more about the programme, than the country itself, as it was important that I can study in English and take classes that excite me. When I was already there, I realised how little I had actually researched the country, the customs or the weather. My studies were indeed a lot different than what I’d done at home, so for the first time in my life, I had to put together a marketing plan, a content plan and design an in-flight magazine. Compared to the academic lectures that I was use to, it was nice to feel really excited about going to school and tackling projects before the deadline (or you know, the night before). Already I can tell that all those new skills will become very useful in then near (or far) future.
A big part of any studying abroad semester is the new people, new friends and sometimes, all the partying. I find it really frustrating that the general idea about an Erasmus semester seems to be that it’s all about beers and partying, with some clubbing and a bit of travelling thrown into the mix. It so isn’t! Maybe it’s due to the fact that I’ve been to a club very few times in my life an I don’t really enjoy the sticky floors and sweaty strangers, but to me, it was so much nicer to take the train to Amsterdam and go visit a museum or have a dinner night in with my new friends (which we did so much and ate all the hummus and I really miss these feasts!). Talking about world politics with people from at least three different continents is eye-opening, having discussions about cultural differences and social situations in Sweden, Australia or Germany made me feel instantly more intelligent.
I met so many people, some nicer than others and some of them became good friends, which I didn’t really hope or expect to happen. It’s also important to admit, that the whole exchange semester was crazy scary for me. Jumping head first into the big unknown, having to cope all on my own, with no security blanket with me whatsoever and only myself to rely on to make the most of everything. By forcing myself to be more open, to talk to people who might “not be my kind of people”, to say the first “Hi!”, I became braver in socialising, so maybe my days as the shy wallflower
are over? I’ve also realised that I’ve grown more tolerant and acceptable, which probably is the whole hidden meaning behind the programme.
That bit I was looking forward to so much! (Unlike the having to talk to strangers bit.) Museums and concerts in Estonia just don’t compare to the ones in Central Europe. Hopping on a train to see Van Gogh? Check! My favourite band who probably hasn’t even heard of Estonia performing in small Utrecht? Check! Everything is close, everything is tangible and everything is so exciting. I eventually went to three concerts – Chvrches, Satellite Stories and Twenty One Pilots – that were all gigs that wouldn’t happen in Estonia and I bought a Museumcard to practically force myself to see all the gems before I have to leave. It goes without saying that it wasn’t too difficult.
One huge goal I had for my abroad semester was to handle being on my own. I’ve always got homesick really easily and having been together with my boyfriend for over two years, it was so easy to include him in everything I do, so being alone and far from everything that I was used to, was at times, so incredibly hard. I cried more and more the closer the day of my departure came and don’t even get me started on the anxiety and hysterical crying I had in the airport when I actually had to kiss my boyfriend goodbye and hug my dad for the last time in four months. The first few days in Utrecht were just as difficult. As long as I could keep myself busy, I was fine, exploring and excited, but as soon as I had more time to think, the large cloud of loneliness was so easy to come.
Naturally I felt less alone and more comfortable in that new city, in that new situation of life, when I got closer with a few people and realised that new friends aren’t that difficult to make. September was good in that sense and so was October, but come November and the culture shock hit. We were warned about it during introduction that once the excitement wears off and the routine settles in, you get in some weird limbo of not belonging anywhere, not being home nor away and the homesickness was real. I’m not even ashamed to admit that I managed to go through three whole seasons of the Great British Bake Off in less than one month, because it felt so much safer to be home alone, with tea, waffles and Mary Berry, than out in the unknown, with a glass of beer.
What helped me immensely, was people visiting from home. Skype is the saviour of all modern exchange programmes and long-distance relationships, but nothing beats actually seeing your family or actually holding hands with your boyfriend. Again, I feel so so proud of myself for managing life on my own, and surprise-surprise, coming out of it alive and better than ever.
Being a lover of pretty houses, parks and all things hipster, I chose my destination very wisely. Every single time I decided to hop on my bike and just go somewhere, I managed to find places more gorgeous, breathtaking and so classically Dutch than the time before. To me, nothing will ever beat walking along a canal anymore. Nor will I ever be satisfied with buying overexpensive flowers from a shop, when I have bought 50 tulips or 5 euros from a Saturday flower market (by a canal, nonetheless).
Another experience was Lombok, the immigrant neighbourhood in Utrecht, which hosts the cheapest fruit stalls, which I used to visit at least weekly. The shopkeepers were always smiling, always greeting me like they remembered me and my must-have shopping list of lemons, avocado and feta cheese. Cobblestone streets, beautiful people on bikes and cheap fruit stalls of Lombok, I miss you so much!
If you want my advice on whether to go abroad or not, then you might probably guess that my answer is a big fat GO! Unless you come from a financially unstable background, in which case I suggest to work your ass off for half a year and then go. I knew that the scholarship won’t cover everything, but realising that it barely covers the rent for five months, I started to count my cappuccinos and wines a bit more carefully. Maybe it’s an excuse, but perhaps this also limited my going out and socialising (which often includes spending money on drinks or club admissions that I don’t really need). I do feel thankful to my parents for supporting me, because that allowed me to take previously mentioned shopping trips to the next part of town and also… Paris, Antwerpen, Amsterdam and more of the Netherlands.
Thinking back, I wish that I’d been a bit more active, introduced one more person to the group, taken one extra course, learnt one more word in Dutch, made one more good friend, seen one more city or gone out one more time, but none of that matters anymore. What matters is that I got to know myself a whole lot more than I expected and as trivial as it sounds, I have a somewhat new perspective on life, on my future and my goals. It’s easy to comfortably settle into your routine, but it’s really amazing what magic can happen, when you shake up that routine!