2022 marks the 35th anniversary of the Erasmus+ programme being launched in Europe; a programme that has allowed young people to live in different countries around the world and experience other cultures for themselves.
In February of this year, I received the opportunity to undertake a semester on Erasmus in Bologna, Italy. These six months allowed me to learn about living in Italy as well as meeting other people from various cultures, but it also taught me a lot about Ireland and how it is viewed internationally. There was, of course, the belief that we all partake in drinking from sundown until sunup, and that there are leprechauns running around the fields somewhere, but I was surprised at how far our reputation for friendliness had travelled across the ocean. Even our Uachtarán, Michael D. Higgins, had found international fame as ‘the small, cute Irish man’, as I learned a video of President Higgins and his dogs had gone viral on French TikTok.
My Google search results were filled with images of spice bags and chicken fillet rolls that I shared while explaining Irish cuisine, and I spent many nights out trying to enunciate the word ‘sláinte’ for my international friends to cheer when we were saluting. The role of Irish tour guide also became part of my repertoire, as I repeated that yes, Ireland has its own national language, and no, we are not part of the United Kingdom.
Being away from home also gave me space to better understand the problems Ireland faces. In Italy, I spent on two weeks of groceries what I would for one in Ireland. My rent for a roomy, double bedroom was only two thirds of what some of my friends were paying back home for single rooms – and mine also included all household bills. Examinations in my host university were better organised than at home: there was no set timetable as in Ireland. Instead, students are given a choice of different timeslots and days on which to undertake their exam, and repeat examinations come at no additional cost. Because of this, the pressure I felt on the day was far less and I was able to perform to the best of my ability without the worry of a two-hundred-euro fee if I failed.
Linnea Ljungberg, a student from Sweden, also experienced a learning curve during her semester abroad. She explained that before her Erasmus experience she was curious about life in Italy, but her time away from Sweden also gave her a broader perspective on the world.
“I feel like the whole Erasmus experience gave me, well, I got so curious about Italy, about living abroad,” she explained. “I also thought a lot about how Sweden is perceived and what do I think of Sweden in contrast to other countries; comparing countries and comparing politics – that was a big part of it.
“I felt like the most important thing was all of these different perspectives, those you got from people that you met but also ones that could connect to ones you had from your own country. I feel like it made a huge impact on what I want to do in the future and what I want to do professionally. I want to keep that international view in the future, and of Sweden.”
According to Erasmus+ 2020 Annual Report, over 640 thousand people took part in the programme, studying, training and volunteering abroad – a staggering figure when taking into consideration all the events of that year. For me, it signifies how strongly people believe in the opportunity to learn about other cultures, to meet people from around the world and learn more about themselves in the process. There is a saying that the grass is always greener on the other side, and while this can be true, maybe a visit to the other side is necessary to help you see the true reflection of home even clearer.