a couple of years ago when I was still a student I was offered to participate in an Erasmus Programme (a European Union Students Exchange Programme). Since it was not very popular at my Faculty, I could choose every single country and city I could think of. My University works with best Schools in Europe, and I was very close to picking Delft in the Netherlands, but because I am undoubtedly stupid I decided to pick a little town in the middle of nowhere in Portugal.
I can imagine your thoughts now: she went to beautiful Portugal to lay on the beach all day long and eat all this amazing food. Well yes. If only the city I lived in had any comfortable connection with any respectable beach and if only the Erasmus Committee did bother to read my application data.
Wonderful beach in Nazare where I spent most of my weekends.
If you don’t have any experience with Erasmus I can tell you that before you are qualified to go you have to fill in numerous questionnaires and mark boxes for truly everything. Do you want to study in English? Yes √ Do you want to get your student’s buddy? Yes √ Do you need help in arranging accommodation? Yes √ Want to guess? Exactly – they didn’t help me in any of these.
Even though my school usually started at 7 pm and finished at 11:30 pm – yes, I wrote it correctly, PM! – even though I had to study Electrical Engineering in Portuguese, which I didn’t know at that time, even if there were no radiators in my apartment and I was freezing to death in winter, it was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life!
Drying fish on a beach in Nazare.
Let me start from the beginning. I went to Leiria in September 2014. I didn’t know absolutely anyone else on Erasmus there, I didn’t know the city and couldn’t speak Portuguese. At first I felt depressed really. The weather was amazing but I didn’t have any friends to have fun with, the University did not give me my student’s buddy so I had no one to talk to really, up until… I decided to put myself there and literally searched for other people, both online and in real life. Whenever I heard English I was immediately joining conversations – of strangers, yes – and socializing with them. Suddenly I met so many people I had friends everywhere – some of these friendships survived until now, some didn’t – and I was living the life I always wanted – sightseeing, studying and partying.
What surprised me?
Since all students on Erasmus get paid scholarships I was thrilled to try the Portuguese cuisine. I met many Portuguese people who told me very interesting stories and facts about their country. I tried their beer, their seafood, I attended concerts, even football games. What surprised me? How open people are. How easy it is to communicate even if you don’t know a single word of their language and they don’t speak English. How common it is to drink and drive there (terrifying really!) and how you can a perfectly cooled beer even in the smallest village.
Amazing berbigao in Nazare. Best. Food. Ever.
I also learned a lot, not only about Engineering and Portuguese language, but also about myself and how I perceived the world.
I met people from literally every country in the European Union, we mixed our cultures frequently. Many times I organized dinners for over 30 people! I learned the importance of eating with your family, – Portuguese people always eat in such big groups! I was surprised at first how easy it was for them to invite me to dinner. Like I was a member of their family really and my strict, northern upbringing was truly shocked. – of rest during long work days – only place in the entire world where restaurants are closed from 12:00 till 3:00 pm so that the stuff can rest – and how to live peacefully and in acceptance of people, that are simply different from me.
The beautiful Porto.
I also helped many of my friends and family visit Portugal as well. My mom, my siblings and best friend all visited me and we had a blast.
What is my advice?
I think the most important thing, if you consider going for an Erasmus Programme, is that you should never close yourself for new friendships just because you go with someone you already know. I witnessed many people staying in these rather closed groups of friends and never really experiencing their adventure fully. I met people who have never even tried amazing Portuguese dishes because they were constantly claiming food is expensive. I met people who claimed that going out is for stupid people. If you want to go for an Erasmus don’t be any of these people. Stay open and curious.
Stunning monastery in Batalha.
In order to prepare better for such experience I think it’s most suitable to plan ahead. Erasmus Community organizes many trips and activities which might be great to attend, but sometimes you just need a schedule to not miss out on anything. Of course if you would like to go to Portugal I can gladly help you with that – maybe in a little hectic way, but hey! No judging! – So e-mail me if you want some info.
What’s the most important thing to remember?
I think: improvise and be spontaneous. I was very reserved at first and then, after couple of months I was greeting strangers with a kiss on the cheek, I was hitchhiking frequently including driving in a truck transporting onion, and did many more crazy things!
I spent an entire year in Portugal, visiting many cities like Porto, Lisbon, Guimaraes, Obidos, Peniche and many others. I loved it so much, that even this year I am planning to go back with my boyfriend Floret, to check out the southern part of the country – Algarve. I didn’t have a chance to visit when I lived there, but right now it’s the spot I am hoping to see this August.
And did you go for an exchange programme? Let me know in the comments!