Finding yourself - and the world - on Erasmus

The Erasmus exchange programme is not just about study, writes Aisling Redden

For students, one of the most tangible features of the EU is the Erasmus program. Photograph: Getty Images

For students, one of the most tangible features of the EU is the Erasmus program. Photograph: Getty Images


Last November I turned twenty years old, and in order to celebrate I invited a group of nine friends to a small Tuscan wine bar in the old city or città vecchia of Trieste. I was on an Erasmus year abroad and had been living in the small city in the north-east of Italy since September.

At my birthday gathering, we drank glasses of what we knew was good wine (we were still learning) and ate from a pl atter of cheese, grapes and prosciutto.

At the table that evening were people from seven different countries, ranging in age from nineteen to twenty-five. My birthday presents included cards with wishes in seven languages and a book on learning German and from a Russian girl, the tradition of wishing me health, happiness and longevity. I remember thinking how beautiful it was to be amidst this multicultural setting.

Four days later, Paris was attacked and 130 people were killed, sparking terror and panic across Europe. In the days after the attacks I kept returning to the evening of my birthday, wondering whether we could take for granted our open societies and mix of cultures. I thought about how the Europe I knew was unrecognisable from the Europe of the mid-twentieth century, when barriers still came between each country, built by suspicion and bitterness.

The European Union was created out of desire for a sense of unity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its motto, “United in diversity”, clearly highlights this. Within its lifetime the EU has brought about economic benefits, security for individuals - its Charter of Fundamental Rights aims to ensure all EU citizens are protected - and, in my opinion, certainly more diversity.

For students, one of the most tangible features of the EU is the Erasmus program. As the great Italian writer Umberto Eco once said, “Erasmus has given life to the first generation of young Europeans and has signalled a sexual revolution: a young Catalan meets a Flemish girl - the two fall in love, marry and become European, as do their children. Erasmus should be obligatory, and not just for students: also for taxi-drivers, plumbers and and other workers”.

Europe has changed in the months since the Paris attacks. Fear and uncertainty have filled people’s minds, and at the same time the refugee crisis remains unabated. As my generation opens its ears to talk about terror and security within our so-called Union, Eco’s words seem to me more poignant.

As far-right movements gain momentum across Europe, the danger of our communities becoming increasingly more close-minded is all too real. So, the idea of forcing students - our next leaders - out into an unknown environment, even if it may be just a short Ryanair flight away, could be an ideal method for encouraging our society to be more open to welcoming strangers on to “our land”.

In Trieste, the population is mostly well-off and white, but along the streets men from Africa sell thin books in mixtures of French and Italian and sometimes jewellery with an African flair. At times, when the rain has poured down and the infamous Bora wind has whipped around me, these men will hold out an umbrella to me, willing me to take pity on myself and them and buy one.

There is such a difference between here and Dublin where the number of homeless keeps growing. There they sit hopelessly on the streets, rejected and forgotten. Here in Trieste, the African migrants are friendly with the people who pass by, always saying “ciao!”, and in some cases good friends with those who walk past them daily and always stop to chat and maybe even invite them for a coffee.

This small yet important cultural difference makes me see my own Irish culture in a different light; the sort of friendliness and lack of self-consciousness amongst the various classes in Italy should surely be part of a modern-day society, shouldn't it?

At 20, I am still easily influenced, and still open to new beliefs and thoughts. At 20, so are all the other students across Europe. Disregarding the well-known fact that Erasmus is a very fun year, for party-goers and otherwise, the most important thing that the year provides is the independence of thought, away from the world you are used to. By pulling yourself away from the comforts of home where there are norms as to what we say and think, you realise that other people may have different philosophies in life that are equally important.

Six months on from my birthday in November my Italian has improved a lot, and my group is slightly less international, yet made up of Italians from across the country, from Rome to Bari, Rimini to Torino. When we get together, the others are ever more curious about Ireland and the other countries I’ve been to. The conversation centres around the places we dream of travelling to, the languages we want to learn and the cultures we’d love to be part of.

Despite the continuing uncertainty in Europe, I realise that the curiosity that we have as humans will prevail to ensure that our borders stay open long in to the future. Yet it is us students who must make the effort of broadening our horizon, both literally and metaphorically, and so, welcome the wonderful exchange of ideas and values.