By Chiara, University “Federico II”, Italy
One week from today I’m going home.
I spent 92 days in this country. In seven days I’ll be seeing my family again. Yesterday I took one of my final exams. Two days ago my roommates left our house forever.
Let it sink in: it’s Christmas in less than two weeks. I made it to week 12. Three months ago I didn’t think I would make it to week 3.
I’m pretty sure everyone feels this way at this time of the year. Blink of an eye and it’s December, the forecast says it may snow this weekend and you don’t really know where all these days went. Maybe it’s because September feels a bit like a new beginning for all of us who count the time in academic years more than in actual Gregorian years, or maybe it’s because November seems to be this enormous pile of concentrated deadlines that just make you go through every week saying ‘after this one it will finally be over’, until it’s really over. Or maybe it’s because as we grow up years become shorter in comparison with our age: when you’re five years old, one year is one fifth of your entire life. When you’re 21, it’s one twenty-first. That’s something I read online some years ago; to whoever said that on the world wide web: thanks for the countless sleepless nights this thought has given me.
Whatever the reason may be, we’ve all been there. You think you have ages to study for that exam and then you wake up and it’s in three days; you say you’ll lay down for just one second and the next moment the sun is setting and you haven’t done the laundry for the fourth day in a row. But when you’re an exchange student that feeling just gets weirder and weirder.
Stage one is that of complete astonishment. Everything is new, and bright, and scary, and beautiful. The first week seems to last like five months, there is so much to see and to do and to buy and to explore and to understand, and somehow time passes incredibly quickly nonetheless.
Stage two is falling into a new routine. You get really intense flashes of realisation, that you’re in a different country, meeting people you would have never met if you had stayed home! You should be seizing every moment, and then the flashes pass and the days go by and you really don’t know how it is possible that you feel like you’ve been here all your life and just for three days at the same time.
Stage three is realising you will have to go back home eventually, and that the moment is fast approaching.
See, when you leave for a semester abroad you know more or less what to expect. Even if you try not to get your hopes up, or not to dream too much about it, you know you’re going to grow up, and change, and evolve. When people were telling me about their Erasmus experiences, before I left, I sort of pictured it all like a bubble: in my mind, all these adventures they had had, all these friends and emotions, were carefully packed in a sort of plastic bubble and neatly stored away as a part of their emotional and cultural baggage. When you’re here for some months, it really does feel like a bubble: the routine makes you think that this is never going to end. Then the bubble bursts, and you’re still a different person with different life experiences than you had when you left, with new friends scattered across the globe and a lot less certainties that you had before.
Worst of all, at some point you realise that just as time passed for you, it passed for everyone around you too. ‘Home’ is not frozen in ice waiting for you to come back as if nothing had changed. I was quite surprised to hear that since I left, my parents decided to buy a microwave, change the kitchen furniture, the radiators, the front door, fix the car, buy a new bowl for my cat and I don’t even know what else.
On the other hand, you have changed. Maybe no major events turned your life around, but you surely did change, and those at home know very little about it – not because you didn’t want to tell them, but because you were just so far away that they couldn’t live it with you.
What no one tells you when you leave to study abroad is that then you will have to bring back all that big change with you at home.
Being here feels like a constant out-of-body, nay, out-of-country experience. Everything is new: the weather, the colour of the sky, what the buildings look like, the people you meet, the organisation of the stupidest things: you just can’t help making comparisons all the time with your home country, because that was the standard up until now. Then you start questioning the standard, and your new perspective changes everything.
From a distance (a little more than a 1000 miles away, in my case) I was able to see all the things I like about my life and country, which I always took for granted. The novelty of everything around me made me realise how much I love Italy, and how Italian (or Neapolitan) I feel. I must have bored to death everyone around me talking about our food, and our weather, and our sayings, and our language and whatnot. It’s not like I shut myself in a small Italian bubble and refused to acknowledge the outside world, though: on the contrary, all the things I’ve seen and done here made me think about how I didn’t do such things in Italy. I’ve seen more English cities in these three months than Italian cities I’ve seen in three years, I’ve talked to more people here than I’ve ever done during my entire university career back at home, and I couldn’t have been happier I did these things. (Although, I must say, Italian food still wins the race.)
In the same way, I had to take a good hard look at the things I did not like at all. Living on a deadline really makes you appreciate the time you have, and that you really don’t want to waste. At home no one is going to tell you that you’re running out of time – because there is no time running out. Here, I think I’ve spent about three days in total doing nothing but watching Netflix in bed, which amounts to 3,5% of my time here – definitely less than the time I spend doing nothing when I’m home. Every time I stopped for a day I felt bad and told myself that I would never meet those people again, nor see those places, nor have these occasions. At home, very little changes if I do something today or in a month. Of course, if that thing is the laundry, or the dishes, that does change things a bit; but I don’t think at home I would have taken a two-hour-long bus trip on a Sunday to go to another city when the day after I have a full day at uni because, well, that’s my country, and that city isn’t going anywhere. And then you come here, and you meet an Australian girl that is continents away from home and decided that since it’s probably now-or-never she should really jump on a plane and go to Rome for two days. Rome is 40 minutes away by train from my city, and I haven’t been there in two years because, you know, there is always time.
‘There is always time’ makes you not do things you want to do, and keep doing things you don’t want to. It makes you stay in friendships and relationships you don’t really want anymore, and ignore big flaws (yours and other people’s), and not appreciate enough what you have around you. Then you jump on a plane, and land in a small apartment 20 minutes away from the University of Manchester, and turn your life around. You get another perspective. You get a deadline. You start to do things.
In 92 days I’ve been to Wales to see Conwy Castle and Llandudno (thanks, International Society!), to York, Liverpool, Leeds; I’ve visited Manchester throughout (although I always find something new) and soon I’ll go to Ireland. I’ve met a dozen people who proved to be better friends in three months that the ones I’ve had for six years. I’ve had German cookies, and English pies, and Welsh fish and chips, and seen a Guy Fawkes bonfire, and visited a British Christmas market in November (which, let me tell you, is insanely early), and had lunch with a girl from South Korea, and hiked up a hill with a dozen girls from all over the world. I got an haircut, and dyed my hair purple, and went out dancing and had fancy afternoon tea. I’ve decorated a room, fixed furniture, learned how to cook properly, taken small but invaluable risks, stayed up until three in the morning to write a blog entry about how it all feels just like time travel, just like opening a window on a moment on my life and seeing it all from a distance.
I will be back here for about four weeks in January, but the challenge is now. Will I learn from my experiences? Will I turn my life around? Is it all just a dead-end rant made by a sleep-deprived girl in the middle of the night?
In a week I’m going home.
What will I do next?