Back to Reality

It was never going to be easy dragging ourselves back to our home universities after exchange for that much-dreaded fourth, and final, year. Flicking through photos of that magical year abroad, it’s hard to believe that just three months ago I had a balcony view over the Alps all of my own and that Lake Léman, glittering under the summer sunlight, was a short metro ride away.

Now, with the interminable rain and grey skies of England hanging over us, Continue reading

How to have a long-distance lurve

Going on exchange has in turn shattered my faith in long-distance relationships and strengthened my conviction that love will conquer all… But before we get into that, what exchange has first and foremost changed is my perception of what constitutes a “long distance”. Before, when my university experience was limited to the borders of my own country, I thought something like London to Manchester was a long distance. Pah! That’s less than 200 miles. Today, I scoff at any distance within a country as small as England.

I now know of couples who are separated by many, many more miles. Try Europe to Continue reading

Loving like you’re on exchange

There’s just no denying it, hooking up while studying abroad is for many an exchange student about as high up, if not higher, on the list of priorities as practicing a foreign language. Or at least forms as much a part of the exchange program as anything else. (Now, having done more or less two “exchanges” in one year, trust me, I have eyes and ears, I know…) The time is nigh to grapple with that messy thing, that force that has the power to hoist you up to the dizzying echelons of sky-scraping happiness and also dash your helpless self mercilessly upon the rocks of deepest despair. I am talking, of course, about love. Continue reading

Unpacking a hoard of memories

Isn’t it funny how one small, insignificant object (a scrap of paper carelessly scrawled upon; a forgotten ticket stub) can catch you unawares and plunge you suddenly back in time to a place, a person, a moment, a feeling?

I know it’s been a month and a half since I moved out of my little room overlooking Lausanne and left Switzerland with (significantly) more than just one tear in my eye, but I’ve only just started to Continue reading

Ten months on, and I can speak French now…

My my it’s been a while since my first-ever post on this blog, back in August when I was a tender ERASMUS uninitiate. Back when I had no confidence in my French abilities, no skiing ability and no idea of the wonderful people whom I would meet. Now, after ten months of the Swiss experience, I can more or less speak French fluently, have made some life-changing friends…but sadly still Continue reading

The absolute Worst Thing about going on exchange…

…is having to leave at the end.

In my last few days, I began to find the whole exchange experience rather cruel; and the better the time you had, so the cruelness increases proportionately. You are thrown into this mad, intense environment. You make great friends in an instant, romances effloresce overnight, you have a few months or weeks (or in one case, mere days) to really let these relationships flourish and then OH WAIT, you’ve all got to go home now. You may meet some really wonderful people but making plans for the future sometimes feels depressingly futile. Let’s face the cold reality of it: Continue reading

Why travelling is the best cure for a broken heart

Or maybe the second best, because we all know that the first best is time.

I write this on the bank of Lake Lugano, my toes dipped into the cool water while a rather threatening-looking family of black ducks hovers alarmingly nearby. Ticino is in all respects a slice of Italy in Switzerland; I feel as far from Lausanne as if I were in a different country.

Travelling takes you completely out of your familiar surroundings and everything that reminds you of what is causing you pain; I guess recently I’ve been needing that. Much as I love Lausanne, it seems like every corner I turn these days triggers memories of those who are no longer by my side. This trip to Ticino could not have been more perfectly timed as I attempt to reconcile myself to recent, particularly painful, separations and prepare myself for yet more, before my own departure. Swiss scenery, achingly beautiful, is a fine balm for an aching heart, and the balmy Ticino weather soothes. In addition, we’re camping, so no electricity, plus my phone died, so it really is complete isolation.

It’s also been an opportunity to spend some last quality moments with a good friend I made here, who is travelling with me. The choice of travelling companion, should you have one, is important, too. She is calm and genial but highly practical and no-nonsense. Spending the entire trip moaning about my feelings just won’t wash, but neither is conversation paramount; I am free to get lost in my own thoughts and memories as we speed over the rails through the beguiling Swiss landscape.

To de-place yourself from your usual environment, to see other parts of the world and learn how others live, to remove yourself from your own little world of woe, is the perfect diversion. Not to say that thoughts of people and events won’t still haunt you wherever you go, but the feelings become attenuated. Hell, the whole effect may be entirely palliative, not to mention temporary… but I like to think not. Travelling changes you, and refreshes the spirit. Three gaping absences and each new departure tears a little more; travelling allows me to, if not mend the tears, at least be distracted from the pain.

Exchange cannot last forever. You can only hope you’ll see some people again, even as you move on down the road.

One final moment of magic…

We all know that ERASMUS is intense, things are in constant flux and relationships materialise at the drop of a hat, etc. etc., but I think I’ve just made a friend who blew it up to a whole new level. Over the course of exactly seven days, his last in Switzerland, some kind of magic alchemy happened and I suddenly find myself in the midst of a separation as unexpected for it’s sadness as its suddenness.

Whence did this friendship suddenly blossom? Well, both parties having recently experienced the “loss” of someone close, in our mutual grief and lacerating loneliness, we found one another… In all seriousness, though, circumstances have changed of late, the end is all too nigh, people are leaving at an alarming rate and we who rest are clinging to our final moments together.

Friendships take time to mature but it’s like this one got a queue-jump. How is it possible to bond so rapidly with someone? A whole load of D&Ms (Deep and Meaningful conversations), that’s how. I’m always going on about alchimie (chemistry), shared values, kindness, mutual intrigue, etc. and here we have it in bucket loads. Knowing we had so little time left was no deterrent, in fact made us more determined, to talk one another’s ears off every moment we could.

Had circumstances been different, would we even have become friends? A fortnight ago, I would have been vaguely indifferent. Now, the thought doesn’t bear thinking of; the irony being that we’ve both been here the same amount of time, met about three months ago, but somehow missed one another. He has been my saviour in what would have been an otherwise unbearable week (since England got kicked out of the Euros, everything went to shit…!); a warm and reassuring presence. So though he’s made the last few days incandesce, he’s also just added another farewell to make the ever-looming end of my sojourn even more painful; but then I prefer to see it more as a bitter-sweet “see you later”.

Isn’t it funny how things can turn in the blink of an eye? In general, I mean. And how all these ties, whether they last or not, will probably have ripple effects for the rest of your life. How one random encounter at a tandem soirée can literally light up your life. How bothering with a simple salut can make the difference between distant neighbour and warm friendship. How a little (too much) alcohol can set off a sequence of events that would entirely transform everything. How a random decision right toward the end to go watch the football together could lead to something beautiful.

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.