By Chiara, University “Federico II”, Italy
As a child, I loved to travel at night. I loved to get up when it was dark outside and watch as the sky turned light blue then gray then pink and gold. It felt like an adventure, and as if my excitement couldn’t be contained by a normal night’s sleep.
This kind of travels were rare, but I still woke up before dawn on some other special occasions; I remember doing this on my tenth birthday, and before school trips, and after my last high school exam. Watching the sun go up would make me feel so calm and peaceful and at the same time impatient to see what the new day would bring me.
Sometimes I would not even go to sleep: I would stay awake all night until the sun rose. Some of these nights are the best memories I have in my life, moments in which time seemed to stop and the night stretch on forever, then bursting in the blinding light of a new day. I call these moments my ‘last nights on Earth’, maybe because it feels like leaving something behind, maybe because it feels like beginning anew again. Tonight is both.
It’s three in the morning; in one hour I will go to the airport with one of my best friends, who is leaving Manchester forever. Well, I say forever. She already knows she’s coming back here in a couple of months, but even if no one of us has said out loud we all know it will never be the same again.
Tonight is last night on Erasmus life.
My last night will actually be in two days, but this is undeniably the beginning of the end. Time is stretching endlessly and going so fast it makes me dizzy. My friend leaving is the sign we’ve run out of time.
I have heard so many people talk about Erasmus that it now feels like some sort of legend, even though I’m living its last moments right now. It will be surreal to go home and say that I went abroad for five months, that I did my Erasmus. I did, and it’s over. My experience will become a story, too. I will be asked over and over how that was, and if I liked it, and if I miss it, and if I would recommend it. The truth is, I don’t know where to start to even think about it.
The first thing I would want to talk about is my friends. I was so lucky to meet so many amazing people from all over the world, and to feel inspired or made curious by each of them. Some I will never see again, some I’m already planning to visit this summer. Some are the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.
Despite the fact that we’ve been reassuring each other all the time of the fact that we’re going to meet again soon, and visit each other across Europe, we have spent the entirety of the last week saying goodbye while avoiding to acknowledge the fact that we’re truly saying goodbye. We tried to make the best out of the time we still had, and now in three hours this amazing girl who spent an entire evening comforting me when I was feeling sad will leave for Germany and I won’t see her for months.
What we were all trying so hard not to say is that it’s never going to be the same. When we will meet again in some other place of this crazy world, we will all have gotten on with our lives, experienced new things, have something else to do. We are not going to be able to walk to each other’s place, grab a cup of coffee together while studying at the Learning Commons, ride the same bus back home and be sure we’ll meet the day after. Life has caught on with us.
And yet the reason why I can’t seem to find a way to describe in a coherent way what Erasmus meant to me is because it was life. It wasn’t some sealed off experience I had over five months, it was part of me, a new device with which I could read my life up until that moment, something that is going to shape how I behave and what experiences I will have from now on. It can’t be over, because my life is not over at all.
And yet, we are all going home. And it feels like the end of an era. The end of the world.
‘Home’ itself has lost its certainty. For a person like me, who has always lived in the same house from birth, who had never lived alone before coming here to Manchester, ‘home’ was just one single place in the world, something I could describe by heart, find with my eyes closed. It was a fixed point, and now it’s not.
When I went back to Italy for Christmas, I left most of my things here in Manchester. Of course, it didn’t make sense to bring everything back and forth. (Who knows how I will manage to pack five months of my life in only three suitcases). So I left my things here, and went back to the place where I grew up, the place I’d missed so much, and suddenly I didn’t feel home. I felt like I was on holiday in a place I know very well, but is not really mine. For a couple hours I felt out of place in my living room, with pictures of me and my sister as babies staring at me; I didn’t know where to sit, what to do.
Over the next few days, I readjusted to my life as it was before I left. Nevertheless, the feeling of not being in the right place persisted: I didn’t have the sweater I was looking for, because it was in Manchester. The nightstand was on the left side of the bed, but I was now accustomed to having it on the right. The cars were coming from the wrong side of the road (wasn’t that in Manchester? What is the right side of the road anyway?). It was nice to see my family and my friends, and I felt terrible leaving them all over again; but the moment I came back to Manchester, I felt right again. Because, let’s be honest, nothing would have been the same in another city. Sure, the friends I’ve met – the friends I love – would have been special in any other place in the world, too; and I could have loved another place, too. But Manchester made my stay here special, because this city is special.
At first it was just an image in my mind, a dream I had had, a project I worked on for months, but unreal; then it became a concrete part of my life, with its red bricks and its million bees and the people buzzing around its roads.
Then I got to learn its rainy days; coming from such a sunny country, I thought the ‘weather shock’ would make me miserable for a while, but I was lucky enough to arrive in the only five days’ window of sunny weather I’ve seen in five months. But then I loved its rainy days. I loved how English people don’t seem to mind to own an umbrella, or to wear a jacket, for the matter. I loved the grey sky, which was never still, but always changing with the shape of each cloud. I loved how the colours of the city changed with the weather, not becoming duller but brighter, warmer; I loved the yellow of the bricks of the Whitworth Building, and the green of the grass of Platts Field Park, and the peculiar shade of light blue which covered the streets like a halo. I loved to find out that some people call the city ‘Rain-chester’.
I learned the streets, slowly but steadily. I learned how to get to the University, how to navigate the Northern Quarter, how not to get lost in Piccadilly Gardens. I learned every tiny corner I could, and found continuous surprises. I found bees where I would have never thought, and art in unexpected places. Every time I left the house I learned something new; I tried to memorise which shop came after which shop on Curry Mile, which bus stop was closer to the place I needed to reach, how to get to my classes and to my friends’ houses. The day I was able to give directions to someone, I felt insanely proud of myself. I felt part of the beehive that is Manchester, too.
Manchester has this thing, this peculiarity to make you feel home no matter what. It’s a cosy city, because everything is at walking distance if you try hard enough, and it’s not chaotic (but just enough unsettling); it’s the perfect city if you’re looking for an adventure – any kind of adventure, really. It allows you to meet hundreds of people, to practise dozens of language, to come into contact with people coming from all over the world. It never feels too small, or suffocating. It becomes your garden, your playground. As you see construction sites pop up everywhere, and buildings being built from nowhere, you build too, you lay the foundations of your future life – either in Manchester or abroad. The city opens your mind, and broadens your horizons. You end up wanting to do more, and see more, and learn more, more, more.
I did, or I like to think I did. I changed so much over the last few months, I had no idea I had it in me. I’ve done things I never thought I would, and seen things I will never forget, and had just so, so much fun. Maybe the best thing of Manchester is that it gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. No one knows you there, everything is brand new, and you can be brand new too: no one will ever tell you you’re ‘not the type’ to do this, or that it’s ‘not really you’ doing that. In this city, you do you.
But above all, and to the extent of my personal experience, this city welcomes you with arms wide open. From day one I was told where I could find help if I needed it, and left free to roam the campus with a map and my will to explore; I met nice people who helped me when I had problems, and I was constantly reminded – by professors, by signs in the library or the Learning Commons, by people at the airport wearing purple shirts, by office staff, by anyone who stopped by to listen to me – that I was not alone in this. In Manchester, you may come alone, but you don’t stay alone for long. Eventually the city will get to you, and you will find yourself in a huge group of friends speaking several languages at the same time without even realising it. That’s what happened to me. That’s what I have to say goodbye to.
I’m sorry if this sounds overly dramatic, but it really does feel like the end of the world.