The Erasmus Experience
By this point, I would think that most of you have made your minds up about whether or not you want to do an Erasmus year. For those of you who haven’t, I would strongly recommend it! The Erasmus year means differently to each person, for some they may be looking to boost their CV, master a new language, or simply to have a break for university life for a year. Whatever the reason, I’m going to try and show you from my experiences how to make the most out of the Erasmus year. It may just convince the doubters that an Erasmus year will almost definitely be the right choice.
One of the first decisions I had to make on arriving in Sevilla was where to live. Unlike many other students, I had left all arrangements for when I actually was in Spain, as opposed to finding a place to stay beforehand. This decision was partly due to the fact that I was working almost solidly from the end of exams until the start of the year, but in hindsight I wouldn’t change a thing. For the first few nights, I simply stayed in a youth hostel while I searched for a place to stay.
What part of the city to stay in?
The first thing you want to do, is familiarise yourself with your new home. Find a city plan, or look on google maps to get an idea with where everything is, then have a little explore. Sevilla is a reasonably small city, the main residential areas suitable for students all had good connections to the centre and the faculty buildings, and most were within walking distance.
Once you know where the main centre is, university buildings, good areas to go out etc. you need to consider what the most important aspects are.
For example, I chose to live very close to my faculty buildings. This meant I had a easy time getting into classes. Going out into the centre would usually require a bus there/taxi on the return, but this wasn’t ever really an issue. In the same area, there was a good selection of bars and shops (the area had a large student population, a good thing to look out for).
Some people would probably prefer to live closer to the centre, which makes it easier to go out, more shops around. So already you need to be asking yourself what you want from the year.
Do you want to stay with locals, or other internationals?
For me, this was the biggest question I had to ask myself. My level of Spanish wasn’t extremely strong. I was confident in my Spanish, but perhaps living with locals would be a bit too intense.
In the end, I decided to try and live with local students. In my opinion, this was one of the best decisions I made. This can be done in the same way as at any university. Simply look adverts which have been posted up on the faculty buildings, take some numbers, ring some people and have a look at different places.
I may have just been lucky, very quickly I found a great flat sharing with a couple of students, who were both extremely friendly (and patient with my Spanish!). Although from the people I know, most people who ended up living with locals had a great experience.
However, it depends on the individual. This depends on one of the key decisions for what you want from the year:
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not trying to tell you how to socialise, but more giving you a few important things to think about. As I mentioned in the previous section, an important part of your Erasmus life is to consider which groups you of people you want to meet.
I think this is something which comes so naturally to us when we are in our own countries, that we don’t really need to put much thought into it. The people we choose to surround ourselves with makes a huge difference. So I’m going to outline the various different groups you may want to try and meet, and the ways to do so.
This is probably the most intimidating group of people to try and socialise with. If you are shy, or even just a bit uncomfortable speaking the language of the country you are in, it can seem like a big ask to make some good permanent connections with the locals. The benefits are obvious and numerous: learning the language; local knowledge; and learning about the local culture to name just a few. In my opinion, these are key elements of having a truly memorable Erasmus year.
From the outset, this was always my main motivation for wanting to spend some time in Spain, and as such I decided that living with Spanish students would be the best way to immerse myself in the local culture. Having housemates greatly helped to ease me into speaking Spanish, and even more so with meeting new people. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t amazingly confident with my level of Spanish, and the regional (Andalucian) accent is a very difficult accent to pick up on. However, my housemates were patient and helpful, making sure to slow down and enunciate to help me understand. As time went on, they could speak more naturally with me. They then introduced me to their friends and coursemates, and as such I very quickly had a large group of Spanish friends to socialise with.
So I would obviously recommend greatly that you might look to live with locals.
There are indeed other ways to meet locals, of course. Joining clubs, meeting through university (I’ll expand on this is the next part), or simply meeting on a night out with any other of your friendship groups.
Something I would like to emphasize, is how important it is to make local friends. Getting stuck into the culture was extremely important for me, but it’s not necessarily a priority for others. However, I found it was always useful to have local people around to ask about certain aspects of Spanish life that I may be uncertain about. Standard parts of day to day life that seem natural to them, as it does to us in our own country, can sometimes be quite confusing for people arriving. Whether it’s the system for paying bills (for example, in Spain quite often you can’t pay online, but have to go to the bank to pay gas/electric bill), or what to do if you lose your wallet and need to go the police; being able to have someone who may have experienced it before or at least knows what to do can be a great relief.
This section obviously overlaps with “Locals”, but I feel it is an important distinction to make. In a similar motive to before, getting to know people on your course will become very important to get to know about the system of exams, homework and general lessons in another country.
I found that there was a lot less support for students in Spain than in UK, so for exam timetabling and homework I was often confused and had to hunt down the answers by myself. I definitely feel that I made a mistake by not making the effort to get to know people on my course, as it would have solved a lot of those problems.
Up until now, it may seem like the impression that I’m putting across is that socialising with other Erasmus is the worst thing in the world. This is definitely not the case. Meeting other Erasmus students is one of the most enjoyable parts of the time spent there. Getting to know different students from all over the world is an amazing experience.
Another important reason to get to know other Erasmus students, is that they’re going through the same thing you are. They are more likely to share your desire to go to new places, in your city, around the country, on day/weekend/week trips to exciting places.
However, I do feel that there is a (justified) common opinion that Erasmus students tend to be very close within their groups and as such don’t socialise much with local students. For the reasons I’ve been into before, I think this is a massive error on their part.
In my opinion (and I stress, this is just one persons opinion) you should strive to have a good balance between local friends and Erasmus friends. Bringing the two groups together was also really great; the sharing and exchange of cultures was exceptionally entertaining.
Probably the main thing I want to emphasize in this topic, is travelling. An Erasmus year is a great base to explore your target country. If you have met people at your target university who are from various different parts of the country, I’m sure they would be delighted to show you their home cities. Obviously this is a huge advantage when visiting a new place. You get the local knowledge, and also they are more likely to have friends living in the same city, so you can have a really good time there.
However, even if you haven’t met anyone to show you around a new place, simply being in the same country makes it a great place to start a trip.
On the topic of ‘activities’. I would recommend anyone on Erasmus to really get involved with the local culture by partaking in typical activities of the region you are in. I really regret not taking Flamenco guitar lessons when I was in Sevilla, as it really is such a core part of Sevillan culture, that it seems a shame that I could make the most of it.
As mentioned earlier, clubs and societies can be a great way to meet new people, either from the city or fellow Erasmus students.
Learn to cook local dishes! This may seem like a strange piece of advice, but my reasoning is that supermarkets wont necessarily sell the things you are used to cooking. Whether that’s instant noodles, or a proper full English breakfast, either you wont find the ingredients or they will be much more expensive. Instead of paying extra for the things you are used to cooking, have a look at local cuisine, and usually you will be able to cook very nice things for much cheaper. A simple example of this is chorizo in Spain. Typically an expensive “luxury” item to use in England, over in Spain it’s common and reasonably cheap. On the other hand, beef tends to be more expensive in Sevilla. Change your eating habits to suit the area you are in.
Walk, explore, find new places, ask people where good places to go are. Learn the city inside out. It’s a really nice feeling when you have knowledge of lots of different areas of the place. It also definitely helps to make it feel like your home.
Work extra hard to keep in contact with your friends from home. For some of you, this may be your first time out of the country for extended periods of time. While you will be having an amazing time in your respective countries, take the time to keep in contact with friends at home. Hopefully that doesn’t sound too condescending, as this is speaking from experience.
Buy a cheap phone and sim card. If you actually want people to ring you up and invite you to things, this is essential. In the long run it will be a lot cheaper if everyone has them.
Talk! A lot of people can be quite worried about being embarrassed and end up not speaking as much of the language as they could. It’s extremely easy as an Erasmus student to surround yourself with English speaking people (quite often, English can be the one common language in a big group of different nationalities). I really think it would be a shame to waste such a unique chance to really improve a language.
The main point I wanted to get across in this report, was to work out exactly what you want from your Erasmus year, and make sure that you do yourself justice. Try to put yourself in a “why not” mentality, and I’m sure that you will find lots of great opportunities to really have a great experience.