I’m starting this week’s column thinking about visiting universities when I was seventeen. This was ten years ago, so I don’t remember the details. Actually, one of my core memories from these visits was slogging all the way through London to get to the University of Surrey on hot trains with my mum and thinking “I’m definitely not going here, I couldn’t live so far away from home.” Lol.
The other distinct memory I have is learning about the Erasmus programme with my dad. I think we were at the University of Sheffield (where I did end up going for a grand total of 2 months), but don’t quote me on that because, let’s be honest, most universities look the same from the inside.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the Erasmus programme is an incredibly successful and accessible exchange programme for students in the European Union. The Erasmus programme is incredibly popular in Europe and it allows university students to spend a semester or year abroad during their degree. (Yes, unfortunately Britain is no longer a part of it after Brexit, which is pretty devastating all-round, to be honest. Yes, they replaced it with the Turing Scheme, but no, it’s not the same).
There’s also Erasmus+, which is for study and internships after you’ve graduated, and that’s what I ended up doing. (Twice, because I loved it so much).
I never did Erasmus, because I didn’t end up going to a traditional university, but when I started travelling I became endlessly jealous of the Erasmus lives and stories of my friends, and I kicked myself a lot that I hadn’t taken an opportunity like that when I was younger.
Anyway, back to the story.
These lovely university lecturers and volunteer students were telling my dad and I how great the Erasmus programme was, and that you could choose to do it with pretty much any degree. No matter what you wanted to study you could take a year out to live abroad, all over Europe. The funding was great, the paperwork was minimal, and the stories were amazing. The opportunities and options were basically endless.
I was studying A levels at the time and, in a bid to help me, my dad had taken up Spanish again. He was really enthusiastic, telling me that I just HAD to go for it, and spend a year in Spain during my degree.
All I remember is feeling terrified.
It was completely beyond my reach.
Move to another country?
Nah, not for me.
Fast forward ten years and here I am, writing this from my apartment in Portugal, three years since I left the UK and hardly looked back.
If you’ve read many of my articles, you’ll know that I’ve already talked until I’m blue in the face about living abroad. You’re probably bored of this rhetoric already if you read my article from a few weeks ago about taking risks (three guesses what ‘the risk’ was…)
But whilst that lesson was about taking risks and going after your dreams in general, this one is a lot more specific. I truly believe there are things you learn from living abroad or travelling long-term that you just don’t learn any other way.
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Things You Learn When You Live Abroad
This is a delicate topic. It’s difficult to put yourself out there and say “I used to be a xenophobe”, but I guess it’s kind of true. More so for having grown up in England, but let’s put politics aside. I used to have this notion, not that people from other countries or cultures were lesser, but that they were different. That I would never be able to connect with them in the way that I can with British people.
On some, superficial levels, that’s true. Sometimes my international friends don’t get my jokes about Bananas in Pajamas or understand the nuance of the words I’m using.
But that’s it.
In every other way, we’re all the same. We’re just people. And although I may have known that before, I didn’t truly understand it in the way that I do now until I spent time living abroad.
Having a wisdom tooth removed by someone you don’t share a language with is hard (that was one of those moments I really had to trust the universe). Jumping through endless paperwork hoops to be able to stay in a country you adore is stressful. Sometimes you try to do something like you’d do it at home, only to realise you’re five steps behind everyone else because That’s Not How It Works Here.
Basically, nothing is quite as easy as it is on your home turf, where you know how everything works and if you don’t, you can just ask, because they don’t look at you like you’re dumb as shit if you don’t understand what they said first time. (Okay, that’s a bit harsh, most Portuguese people are really nice when you try to speak their language, but the same can’t be said for the majority of their immigration agents).
My tolerance for just about anything has changed dramatically over the last few years, and I think that’s a lot to do with the above. No matter how many things go wrong, no matter how many truly embarrassing mistakes you make, and no matter how many times you accidentally ask the local bakers for pau instead of pão, everything is always okay in the end. And it’s become my kind of life motto. As long as you keep trying, and you keep smiling, you get to where you’re going eventually.
Appreciation for Home
Okay, this one is a bit of a mixed bag. I’m pretty well-known for saying “I hate England” and “I’ll never move back there”. But, this is mostly due to the weather and the politics (and by extension the close-minded people you find there). (If you know me IRL, I’m sorry, and I’m not talking about you…)
I appreciate the relationship I have with my family more and more for being away from them. I miss my UK friends SO MUCH. I miss British food (Brits understand, everyone else laughs and starts saying “fish and chips” in a poor imitation of my accent), and I miss proper tea. I miss the feeling that I know everything about this place, even though I appreciate everything I am learning about other countries and cultures.
Recently in my group of friends, we’ve been taking it in turns to make dinner from our home country, which has been such a wholesome way to learn more about each other, and the perfect excuse to change all of my friends’ minds about British food ;).
Everyone misses home in a different way, but almost every one of us does.
You Learn Who You Are
It’s cheesy, but it’s true. When everyone you know has a different culture, it also means they have a different sense of what is important, what kind of clothes are smart, and what is cool. Nobody agrees on anything, so you have to learn what you think is right, instead of listening to the majority and thinking “well, that’s probably how I should feel, too”.
You have to develop your own sense of style, because nobody agrees on what is fashionable. You have to be true to your political opinions, because everyone has a different opinion based on their own experiences. You have to decide what’s truly important to you, because nobody is going to choose for you. There’s no such thing as an echo chamber when you’re an immigrant, in fact it’s quite the opposite. But it’s the best way to learn what you truly believe in.