Erasmus: Declassified

Jennifer Brereton’s honest account of the trials and tribulations she encountered


Before I left for my year abroad, in a little corner of my mind, I naively rejected the belief that Erasmus wasn’t going to be a typical college year. Naturally, it was going to be a little different, I thought to myself, but what I had in mind was Trinity with some pasta sauce and sunshine mixed in.

College to me had always been almost one hundred per cent an academically centred pursuit. Books and hours in the library with a dash of limited independence and real life. However, after a year abroad, you can mark my words when I say that Erasmus is anything but.

Perhaps you can identify with what I’m failing to articulate; if you’ve been on Erasmus, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, then feel free to have a little laugh at how I spent the last year of my life as I endeavour to explain.

A not-so-auspicious start

I left Bally-go-Backwards, Co. Cows, for Italy in September of last year. Armed with my Erasmus handbook, a suitcase so big you could ride it into battle and stern warnings from my grandmother about the “eye-talians”, I left Ireland for the first time in over ten years.

Sitting at the (wrong) boarding gate (twice) as I awaited the first of several Ryanair flights that I would take that year, my mind started to reel and self-doubt went into overdrive as I considered the gargantuan undertaking that I had signed myself up for.

In hindsight, if I had in fact known what I had signed myself up for, I would have scurried back to security, told them I was carrying contraband and begged them not to let me on the plane. There were daily occurrences where I thought to myself that Trinity’s Erasmus handbook is the most elaborate lie since the good folk at Lapland sold us the Santa Claus spiel.

I convinced myself many times that the best I could hope for was to stumble through the year making poor life choices, set to the sound of reggaeton music and the pitter-patter of falling tears.

It turns out that Erasmus is much more than the initial scramble to find a suitable roof to put over your head and making linguistic blunders, while giving the locals a good giggle.

The trials and tribulations of Erasmus are bountiful. Take the social scene, for example, which was already difficult to navigate in the first place but now with an added new foreign dynamic. Add to this a completely new university experience in a foreign language.

Finding yourself sitting in a lecture feeling positively dim and believing that you have no option but to make a deal with the devil for a blind Italian’s ears just to understand enough to pass the year becomes commonplace. Mind you, I had plenty of experience feeling the same way sitting in the Ed Burke. All of this is to be expected, you could argue.

Yet the reality of Erasmus is that for every challenge you can prepare for, it will throw ten new ones at you.

Trials and tribulations

There was the time I ended up in A&E with a poorly friend on the advice of a doctor that I can only describe as a wicken that swindled us out of fifteen euro, an experience that afforded me some quite specific medical vocabulary and getting the glad eye from a very unprofessional doctor.

There was the time in the supermarket when I was hauled up to the checkout after someone recognised me and remembered I spoke English, to sort out a row between a tourist that alleged they were overcharged for soup and an irate Italian shopkeeper.

There was the time that we turned off the power in the whole apartment building, when we used the oven and washing machine at the same time. There were the many, many headache-inducing administrative nightmares that persist even after you finish your exams and think that you’ve washed your hands of Erasmus.

Then there’s the catcalling. Beautiful they may be, what our Italian brethren possess in looks, they lack in subtlety and charm. God doesn’t give with both hands unfortunately.

There’s the initial language barrier with everyone from your roommates to your landlord, and the many hand signals that ensue. There was the time at a street party that a man old enough to be my father approached me and swore blind that he knew me.

As I began to assure him that it was a case of mistaken identity, he started reeling off my address and regular running routes before he was hauled away by friends, shouting that all he wanted to do was “say hello in person.”

My very own stalker, a true “Dear Diary” moment. There were the many confused looks when it would emerge that Irish is a very real language and isn’t “just like Elvish or something”, and not to mention the equally perplexed looks of professors at my babbling take on their language and lack of a dunce hat.

Lesson 101 of Erasmus is how to dust yourself off. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Aside from my arteries which are now entirely composed of penne, I have a very official looking assortment of documentation and other important things to show for it.

I’d like to think that I have a less naive head on my shoulders and a touch more resilience about me. The entire experience is a taste of how it feels to both flounder and fly at once, how to just about have it together and pick up the pieces when you inevitably hit a bump.

It’s about learning to laugh at yourself and the ridiculous messes you unknowingly wander into. Instead of a syllabus and reading list, it’s a crash course in how to get on with things (and people) and quit sweating the small stuff. Ultimately, that’s what Erasmus is: it’s a little bit of life with a side of books.