You meet new people, visit incredible places and maybe fall in love as well, while learning another language and passing exams thanks to a good scholarship. Friends and relatives are convinced that you are happy to live abroad, then you come back, and everyone believes you are happy to be home again. But is it always like this?
Most believe a study period or a research experience abroad made possible by the Erasmus Project (or of other similar exchanges) is a pink parenthesis between the words “study” and “routine”. One of those golden periods of early adulthood in which the world is yet to be discovered and talking about the future means deciding in what pleasant activities you are going to indulge next. This is what one may think, at least. But what does it really mean living abroad and then coming back home, particularly if that home is Sicily?
GOODBYE COMFORT ZONE. Since the first steps are taken to enroll in a foreign university, participating in a mobility program means first and foremost dealing with documents, deadlines, offices, multilingual e-mails and other bureaucratic sports. It will be worth it, or so you’ve been told. So, you roll up your sleeves and resist, at least until you start to deal with the cultural differences of the country that will host you. Whether microscopic or insurmountable, in fact, they require your adhesion before even buying airline tickets and a mental flexibility that most of the time you accept willingly, but that is not necessarily a pleasant traveling companion – especially if, as a good islander, you feel some resistance to getting out of your comfort/climatic/culinary/time zone.
A NEW MINDSET. The first step, however, is not necessarily traumatic for everyone. There are those who renounce leaving without even knowing in what city they would have been assigned to. There are those who had been waiting for the moment when they took that airplane for a lifetime. Whatever the case, the first day of classes is challenging for everybody: in addition to getting used to a new cultural, human and social reality, you also have to adapt to a different academic mindset. And all of this in a foreign language. Wasn’t that the reason why you decided to go there in the first place? Of course, but the frustration of when a teacher explains the topic on which you are the most knowledgeable in the world and you cannot grasp the point of their speech, or of when you are asked to rewrite a homework task to which you have been working for six days because it is linguistically inadequate, can’t be mitigated not even by your pretty lavish scholarship.
THE PINK PARENTHESIS. Nevertheless, being on Erasmus also means experiencing the scope of an interesting pink parenthesis («You must be so happy to be there, mustn’t you?» repeats whoever calls you from home). Regardless of the temporary difficulties of adaptation or of your daily existence, it is true that you feel like you’ve never lived such an intense full immersion in interculturality before: everything is so varied, unusual and stimulating, there are plenty of places yet to be discovered and your curiosity enriches all your moments of leisure. You have never seen such a concentration of life and lives around you, and challenges to be faced both on the human and on the social level are wonderful, so that your stay becomes an extraordinary «gymnasium of practiced European citizenship», to quote the politician and journalist Silvia Costa.
ALL THE OTHER PARENTHESES. Often, however, you only become aware of it when you come back. That is, when the suitcases to be unpacked and the forms to be filled all lead home. You feel enriched, grown up, changed. With several more photos and phone numbers on your smartphone, and in one case out of four with a new love, according to a survey conducted by the Erasmus Impact Study. You are so excited that you still feel close to your bed and to those streets where you used to hang out with people every day and that you are now missing so bad. And you get misunderstood to the point of not being able to settle down where you always have been, but not so much that you feel completely detached from a land that no longer hosts you («You must be so happy to be back, mustn’t you?», they keep repeating you now as a mantra). Now nostalgic and now satisfied, between a sense of guilt and a sense of escape, walking a tightrope which is impossible to break.
THE TRAVEL BUG. On the other hand, as Kellie Donnelly states on Thought Catalog, after leaving for the first time, you’ll always crave to do it again. «They call it the travel bug, but really it’s the effort to return to a place where you are surrounded by people who speak the same language as you. Not English or Spanish or Mandarin or Portuguese, but that language where others know what it’s like to leave, change, grow, experience, learn, then go home again and feel more lost in your hometown then you did in the most foreign place you visited». This is the reason why we would like to go back around the world: not because “our” place no longer satisfies us, not because our friends are not so dear, or because the person we fell in love with lives in the other part of the world and is finishing their studies there before rejoining us in the near future, but because we understood that life begins where comfort zone ends – that is at the next passport control, and that’s where you want go. Right outside your own “island”.
Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino