Somewhere to belong

Zürich’s Kunsthaus museum, November 2011. I was tired, and not particularly enthused about the artworks. A friend and I decided to hand back our audio-tour headsets and have a wander round outside before our 6pm rendezvous with the rest of our group. But we never made it outside, because we got caught up in a nearly hour-long conversation with the guy at the counter for the headsets.

The conversation ranged over Switzerland, mixed-race babies, London, studying, Australia and drinking, amongst other things. But the subject that stuck with me most was the issue of moving countries, and trying to find a place that fits. For all three of us, that meant somewhere we could feel both belonging and excitement, comfort and challenge, familiarity and variety, and none of us felt we had quite hit on that magic combination just yet.

For the Swiss, an actor and arty type, Switzerland is charming, but too conservative. Too small and reserved to appreciate innovative theatre, recognition in Switzerland is more likely to come once acclaim has first been gained abroad; somewhere bigger and more liberal. This guy spoke French, English, German, Swiss German and Italian (I think that’s all), and had lived in the States and England.

So though he came back to Switzerland in the end, and it is still his “home”, I got the impression that it felt like a bit of a misfit for him. I’d say I feel “at home” in many ways here in Switzerland, but even the familiar things still feel foreign to me – probably because I am always functioning in a foreign language. It’s not a bad feeling, but it doesn’t make for the homeliest vibe. And if I were to continue living here after the vast majority of my exchange friends had left, I don’t suppose I’d feel very much at home any more; I guess it’s my friends who made Lausanne feel like home.

My friend had studied at a foreign university and whilst there went on three different exchanges in three different countries (including, naturally, Switzerland). I myself have moved “home” (in the physical sense) every year for the past four years, starting at three different universities in that time. With so much locational shifting inevitably comes mental adjustments, and the attempt to create “home” in each new place. Indeed, the very concept of what constitutes “home” can begin to blur.

What does “home” mean to you? Is it the house where you grew up, or the town, or the country? Is it even a physical place at all, or does it move with the people who matter most to you? Is it merely a state of mind, a sense of belonging, which can be found anywhere? Did you choose a home for yourself, or was it chosen for you, and either way, do you love your home, or resent it? Do you even feel like you have a “home”, or are you in fact still searching…?

Football Fever

Euro 2012 is in full swing, and where better to follow it than the very heart of Europe itself here in Suisse? It’s all anyone is talking about, all we spend our evenings watching, and it’s all the more fun here because my fellow exchange buddies are from all over Europe. I have also suddenly come over exceedingly and unexpectedly patriotic. If I were in England I would doubtless not give two hoots about the football but now that I’m in a foreign country and I am the only English person in the vicinity, I need to represent! Funny how that happens…

The atmosphere is fantastic. The weather here in Lausanne has recovered from a recent miserable bout of clouds and rain to give way to blue skies and sweltering sunshine. Switzerland did not qualify for the Euro, so support for various countries feels (in typical, democratic Swiss fashion) fairly evenly spread. It’s very easy to get caught up in the ambience and find yourself getting emotional and shouting along with the other spectators, cheering and swearing in a variety of languages.

It’s not only England that I am supporting, either. I think I’ve already mentioned my steadily increasing German credentials thanks to the sheer quantity of Germans whom I have befriended here, so of course Germany also has my support. In addition, Greece’s victory against Russia last night was a welcome pleasure thanks to a Greek I am fond of here.

So it’s nice to have more than one team to support in favour of those people you care about, but the flipside to this will fast become apparent come next round. What if Greece plays Germany? I have already been grilled with regard to this possible outcome as to which team I would give my support… Torn loyalties, anyone? If England were to face Germany, that would be a most amusing but rather out-numbering (for me) experience, though hopefully not too personal… It’s sheer politics!

I don’t pretend to know the first thing about football (though I do know the offside rule, a’ight?), but I do know that it is a hell of a lot of fun bringing all us different Europeans together to have a beer (or three) and enjoy a bit of healthy rivalry. It’s been funny watching some of the gentlest people I have met here become impassioned and vociferous before the television screens; I guess competition and patriotism can do that. I don’t have an England football strip or flag, but I’ll be showing the love on Tuesday, and tonight, it’s all about Deutschland.

Living like you’re on exchange

Now, in an attempt to skirt around all the clichés and hackneyed phrases that tell one to make the most of life (oh dear, I just did it), I’ve invented my own expression: live life like you’re on exchange. What does it mean?

Exchange life is a bit like normal student life, but jacked up. It’s like looking at everything through a camera lens for which the focus has been substantially sharpened…well, that is if you’ve made the most of your exchange in any case. Everything is more vivid, concentrated, heightened; when the end is always in sight, and there is something (or someone!) you want, there is absolutely no time to waste.

As a result exchange students arrive ready set to seize every opportunity that presents itself to experience something new or embark on a new adventure. And generally the further afield they have come from, the more crazy and jam-packed their schedules. Friends from America, Australia and Asia are the ones who are off every single weekend, taking advantage of their precious time in Europe while they can. Last weekend, a group of friends went on a road trip that encompassed 14 cities in 4 countries in 3 days (!)

This got me thinking about the people with whom I have the most fun, who have really enriched my experiences, from whom I have learnt the most and become a better person for knowing… and I realised that being on exchange didn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. It doesn’t matter where I am; my best friends (ya’ll know who you are) are the ones who make everyday and every place feel like Lausanne. I admire them for their innate positivity, ingrained decency…and their talent for squeezing out every tiny last drop from life. With them, everything gains an intensity that makes even the ordinary anything but.

Because it’s not just the place that makes the experience (though it certainly does help, especially a place as beautiful as here), but the people. It doesn’t matter if you’re not on exchange; you need to surround yourself with people who function at the same intensity as you. On exchange it just becomes more evident more quickly with whom you are going to enjoy your time to the max, and who is not a very good match.

So though I do not suggest always being quite as spontaneous and naughty as we exchange students often are, I definitely think we should all take away a bit of this exchange student spirit with us back to our homelands. We can’t afford to get comfortable or lazy on exchange… and neither can we in life in general. I know my friends will be living it large whenever and wherever they are in the world, and why shouldn’t we all?