Erasmus Report: Padova, Italy
Even if you don’t yet speak another language, it’s never too late to do Erasmus! When I arrived at Warwick, I had never heard of the Erasmus programme. Apart from the phrase "mi piace la cucina italiana" (I love Italian food) I didn’t speak a word of Italian. Then, in an early lecture in MS.02, a student who’d done Erasmus gave a presentation as to why you should do Erasmus. After hearing this, I was hooked: it was only a matter of deciding where to go. Hopefully I can persuade you to do the Erasmus year too!
Learning a language is difficult, at times frustrating. But all of the trouble is more than worth it. Before Erasmus, I didn’t speak a word of Italian. After exams, hitch-hiking around Umbria, I found myself chatting about fuel-prices (“too expensive”), the economic crisis and the Catholic Church (I ended up being dropped off by an important church instead of my intended destination!) with complete strangers – weird Italian accents to boot. The best part of my Erasmus - the most gratifying part – was learning Italian. Back in England, I miss Italian already.
There are four things that I can’t recommend strongly enough. First, if you haven’t already, sign yourself up to one of Warwick’s language courses. Straight away. You can go out there without knowing any Italian, but it’ll give you a massive head-start when you get there.
Second, do an Erasmus Intensive Language Course (EILC). The EILC is a month of 5-6 hours a day of language teaching, especially for Erasmus students. I did mine in Siena, in September. It was incredible. 5-6 hours a day was a lot of study, but every day we had the whole afternoon (and evening!) to be a tourist in Siena. Think of a month-long holiday (obviously with the continental “café culture”), in a foreign country, in the sun, with people from all over Europe and you’re on the right track.
Third, most universities offer a “tandem programme”, in which you’re partnered with a native-speaker from the university and meet to talk in your respective languages. Not only does this give you someone who’s prepared for a bit of miscommunication (not that this matters with Italians!), but it’s also a great way to meet more Italians, and to get out of the Erasmus circle.
Finally, when you choose your accommodation, chuck yourself in the deep end: live with Italians. Refuse to speak English with them outside of life-or-death situations. At first you’ll be almost entirely dependent on non-lingual communication; gesticulating wildly and making facial expressions that would put a pantomime actor to shame. But before you know it, you’ll be chatting away with your flatmates, thinking “3 months ago I couldn’t do this”. Whatever you do, don’t live with someone of your own nationality. You’ll be able to do that for the rest of your life.
Language aside, living in a different country is a wonderfully new experience. From the morning ritual of shopping at the vibrant fruit and vegetable market, to queuing for an eternity in the post office to pay bills, or going to your local enoteca for delicious €2 per litre prosecco, and every bar serving coffee that’s worth drinking, the atmosphere is completely different. You can’t really put it into words. Wandering around the city it’s impossible not to feel the difference: the lilt of a foreign language in the street, antique Italian architecture everywhere (frescoes splashed across ceilings). Even the sunlight is a different colour.
The Italian culture is justifiably famous. The music is terrible. The people are fantastically friendly. I found myself invited to a family meal by the builder working in my neighbouring apartment, because I offered him a coffee. When my flip-flops broke at the beach in Sicily, a shopkeeper offered to lend me his shoes (sadly they were too small - Italians have tiny feet). These things don’t happen in England.
Padova is a moderate-sized city. There aren’t many foreign faces. I think that’s a good thing. It’s very beautiful, surrounded by the old city walls and canals. Large areas of the city are pedestrianised. 25% of the population are students. Everyone travels by bike (I’m not condoning it, but stolen bikes are €10-20 in the park giardini d’arena close to the station). Bikes are easy-come, easy-go: it’s worth buying a good bike-lock. Venice is a half-hour train journey away. Padova’s on the train-line to Rome and Venice Marco Polo airport is big, so it’s very well-connected. The best gelateria is La Romana, on Corso Milano. It's worth finding.
In the centre of the city there are three squares next to each other. In the evenings – Wednesday especially – they're flooded with people enjoying a glass of wine or a spritz: a dangerous cocktail of prosecco and either Aperol or Campari. It's the local drink of choice - a bit of an acquired taste, but very cheap and very strong. Sipping on a drink in the buzzing piazza at midnight, when it's still too hot to even consider a jumper, you'll never want to come back to predrinking in a squalid cold student lounge. (Sadly you'll probably have to). Unlike England, everyone comes out in the evening – from students to pensioners.
Live with Italians. Try to find a flat before you arrive. I went without finding a flat first, but ended up sleeping on a couch for a week while I was searching for an apartment. It’s convenient but more expensive to live in the centre of the city. If you’re looking for somewhere further out, go for the south of the city, such as the Forcellini district. A lot of students live around there. Distance doesn’t matter too much, because everyone has bikes. The area north of the train station (north of the Scrovegni chapel in fact) isn’t very nice. If you don’t want to search for an apartment or a house, there’s university accommodation. Beware: from some of these (for instance, the "Colombo" residence) it’s around 20-minute cycle ride along a main road to the city. Double-check which “residence” you apply to/are allocated before you sign the contract.
I found studying at Padova fairly difficult: courses are longer than at Warwick and the teaching styles subtly different. Some lectures were in Italian. I had to do quite a lot of extra work to catch up on pre-requisite material that we hadn’t covered at Warwick. But lecturers are friendly and approachable so ask them for any help you need. Exam registration is a nightmare: get help the first time you try (it’s Italy: expect bureaucracy.) Unlike at Warwick, lectures stop from 1.00 till 3.00 every day – just enough to go to one of the excellent and cheap cafeterias (mensa) – where a big 3-course meal costs about €4 – and take a siesta afterwards!
A highlight of my university experience – weird as it sounds - was the student-run libraries. “Occupied” (i.e. without official uni permission), they’re entirely student-run, with a strong socialist agenda, interesting, friendly people and a community feel, not to mention a great coffee machine! Hunt them down if that sounds like your kind of thing.
I can’t recommend Erasmus strongly enough. You’re given an Erasmus grant (mine was around £3500) and uni-fees are waived for the year. You’re practically paid to go abroad. You’ll meet interesting people from across the world.
Living in a different country for a year makes you re-evaluate and (for some things!) re-appreciate your own cultural habits and values. At first, speaking to people in a language you don’t understand is scary. But you’ll end up enjoying it. It’s impossible not to grow in confidence after mastering a different language. I certainly feel as though I’ve swapped some English timidity and diffidence for a good amount of Italian easy-going openness.
Having spent a year in Italy, I can’t imagine not doing Erasmus. It’s easily been my best year of uni so far; probably the best year of my life.
What are you waiting for?!