International Relation(ship)s on Erasmus

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On Erasmus you find so many couples that you feel it would be more appropriate to name this study exchange programme after the god, Cupid.

Everyone knows that completing an Erasmus placement can set you up for life. Simply putting the word ‘Erasmus’ on your CV instantly gives you extra credit with prospective employers. It is shorthand for ‘a higher quality education’, ‘advanced language skills’, ‘developed intercultural skills’ and much more. But not only is Erasmus a great thing to do for your professional life, it can work wonders in your personal life too. What is almost immediately apparent to anyone on an Erasmus placement is that everyone starts pairing off into couples. It is a phenomenon we shall term ‘the Erasmus romance’.
It is not surprising really, since a large part of Erasmus is purely social. In order to acquire the language skills so valued by HR officers, you have to practise them by speaking to people. For intercultural skills, you have to interact with other people. There is also an abundance of opportunities to meet people who have come from all over the EU, and other countries too – Ivona Kolinska, head of the Erasmus Club at Charles University in Prague tells us, “We put on a film club, organise trips, gallery visits, parties – lots of different events like that”. Then there’s your student accommodation where you reside with hundreds of other students and the lecture halls at university. Despite all the parties and hobnobbing, Erasmus is a study placement. “We were in the same student accommodation; we actually met in the kitchen”, says Trinity Collage alumna Laura with a chuckle on the origins of her Erasmus romance. She did her placement in 1998/1999 at Eberhard Karls University in Tubingen, Germany, where she met a local student called Mike. “You are homesick and lonely and you need to make a new circle of friends,” she adds. Despite all the cultural differences and language barriers you can all relate to each other; “You are all sharing the same experience, so that brings you closer together,” says Susana, an alumna of Complutense University of Madrid, who did her placement at Charles University.
In the Erasmus romance you could both be foreigners; or one of you a visitor, the other a local or ex-pat; or you are both from the same place but it is only thanks to Erasmus that your paths have crossed. The international aspect is part of the attraction. “It’s something new,” Ivona explains, “something you might not find at home”. “You are engaging with cultures you hadn’t encountered before,” says Susana, “People look different, they behave differently, they think differently, they have different customs and you just want to get to know them, to learn from them”. What would seem nothing out of the ordinary back home might take on a whole new significance in the Erasmus environment; cooking one of your home country’s dishes for example might be infinitely more impressive there than it would be to a fellow citizen back home. There is the language barrier since you may not speak the same one, so you might communicate in a mutual language other than your native tongue, English for example, or the local language, or maybe just a mix of broken language and gestures. Whatever the case, struggling together gives Erasmus couples an almost telepathic connection; “He’d give me some clues and I just knew what he meant,” says Susana of her Erasmus flame, Milan from Slovakia. “We communicated in our own little language,” says David, a Czech graduate who had an Erasmus romance in Vienna with Jung-ah from South Korea.
Because of their ephemeral nature (an Erasmus placement lasts three to twelve months), there’s a very strong sense of carpe diem about these relationships; “You know from the start that it’s over before it’s begun,” Susana tells us. Since you are from different places and in the middle of your studies, you usually have to part ways at the end of term to return home and finish your degree. “At the beginning it’s great”, says David, “but by around May you start thinking about what’s coming. You’ve got one chance, but after that, it’s lost”. If you decide to stay together, be prepared for a rough ride, but one that comes with great rewards.
The idea of ‘Europeaness’ that the EC wishes to instil in its students on the Erasmus programme is wonderfully poignant during the placement, but soon becomes a major source of heartache. The regular long-distance relationship is usually bound to one country, however, Erasmus brings it to an almost continental, if not global, level. What should be a train ride to your sweetheart, Erasmus turns into a plane trip. Free phone calls included in you mobile price plan become expensive international calls. A simple light-hearted joke turns into a passive-aggressive jibe over email, where it is difficult to express the right tone. Thankfully, here are the days of low-cost airlines and VoIP technology like Skype, Viber and all the rest. Globalisation also plays its part, making it a doddle to order flowers or gifts abroad.
Of course, it can’t be long-distance forever, despite all the new ways of keeping in touch. Erasmus couples typically spend around two years apart after the placement in order to complete their studies and come up with a plan. They also need this time to see if the relationship is serious enough – something difficult to decide in just one or two semesters. “This is probably the biggest problem,” says Ivona, “They have to decide whether they want to completely change their lives by moving to be with each after only a few months of the relationship”. Flexibility is also a vital ingredient as at least one half of the couple has to move in order for both to be together. “It was easier for Mike to move to me as he had just graduated in business and could start his job search anywhere really,” Laura tells us.
In the meantime, persistence is the key with regular calls, emails and visits making a difference. This can all add up moneywise, so be sure to get a part time job and save all your tips and pennies. Finding others in your situation and consoling each other is good therapy; “My sister was also in a long-distance relationship at the time, so we were able to encourage each other,” says Laura. You can also find groups on Facebook dedicated to surviving the Erasmus experience, with discussion topics on the very subject of Erasmus romances. What’s more, be sure to surround yourself with friends who respect your situation and don’t tempt you to be unfaithful or go out with them on the pull every night. Most importantly, have trust in your partner.
It would seem that with all the complications, an Erasmus romance is best avoided. Both Susana’s and David’s Erasmus romances broke up due to the distance. Yet the rewards can be great. All the to-ing and fro-ing you do really does make you aware of what it is to be a European as you experience your partner’s culture. It’s also the best way to learn a language as when you’re together, you get to practise it all day every day. Besides, you have no choice but to become fluent if you ever want to win an argument. If you really want it to, it can work; “We got married in 2006 and our son was born in August this year”, Laura tells us. Their son was born in England, holds a British passport and is being brought up bilingually by his Irish mother and German father to speak English and German. Now if that doesn’t give him a sense of his Europeaness, well, they’ll just have to send him on Erasmus when he’s older, won’t they?!

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