I recall a message, some months ago; it was by one of those of you who write to me from time to time for information about Pavia. He asked me: “Stefano, what are the difficulties I might face, moving to Pavia?”. I gave him a short reply on the spot, but since then the idea of writing a second, more complete reply has been bugging me. Nonetheless, I postponed the moment when I would write this article. Partly I did this because the exam session came and studying took over most of my free time, but mostly it’s because writing this article supposes that the next one will be about a subject that scares me very much – the comeback.
Before I start with the proper post, I have two premises:
1 – I will not deal with the practical aspects (like finding a house, getting an insurance…); it’s just so much different from country to country that it’s not worth it.
2 – I am not a homesick kind of person. I have little attachment to the city where I was born, and I don’t feel the need to stay at any cost with my family and childhood friends; don’t be amazed if I don’t mention this aspect of moving abroad.
You may think that the moment when you leave your country coincides with the one in which you drive to the airport to take your plane. Wrong. It all starts much, much earlier; way before you book that flight which is going to take you up and away, and even before signing the contract of the place you’re going to live in. It all starts when you see on paper, black on white, that you’ve been selected to go.
For me it was when the rankings of the Erasmus program for this year were published, for some of you will be when the results of the IMAT come out. I had decided to leave years ago, but the moment when I saw the official proclamation everything became inexorably real.
From that moment onwards, trust me, it will be a cornucopia of emotions: the expectation when you start navigating the city on Google Maps to find the location of that fancy apartment you just found; the boredom, waiting for those few months to pass quickly, and at the same time the nostalgia that creeps in when you think “it will be the last time I’ll have the occasion of doing this before I leave”; the laughs you’ll have with your friends when you ask them out for one last, bittersweet talk; the fear of just not being up to it, because it is too much too soon and you’ve never done anything like this before and there are so many things you can’t do.
Then one day you go out for a pizza, grab a gelato on the way home (that was me: so Italian, I know), go to sleep and wake up with your luggage way readier than you are. Just a few hours later you’ve said goodbye to your family and you’ve landed someplace where possibly they don’t speak your language; in spite of it all you’re tough and smart and you’ve studied that darned language, so you approach someone and ask him in broken French for directions even if you’ve watched the route at least ten times last night (yup, I’m still talking about me). The guy replies and, even if he tells you “Sorry, I have no idea, ask someone else”, the fact that you understood what he said gives you enough self-confidence to move on your own. You reach your new house, enter, and it falls upon you that you’re now living in a new country.
Congratulations! You’ve made it… at least for what concerns the simplest part. Now it’s time to build a life there. I wasn’t this lucky, but maybe you already know how to do the housework: dusting, cleaning, doing the dishes, the laundry… The bright side is the little time it will take to learn to do all these things; the slightly less fortunate aspect is that you’ll have to do them over and over and over and this will take time from your studies. Some people find chores relaxing, but let me tell you: lucky them, I hate it.
Now that you know how to live in a clean and proper house, forcibly you’ll have wrapped your head around the whole “shopping for groceries” thing; I say “forcibly” because for all this at least a couple of weeks will have passed, and you’d have starved to death by now if you hadn’t.
Anyhow you’ll probably have reached the moment when you must start whatever sort of work/class you’ve come here for, and that’s another challenge. You’ll have to deal with a society which doesn’t work in the same way; you’ll be among your peers and will have plenty of room for confrontation between the system you have at home and the one that is here. Nevertheless, you’ll have to be the compliant one and adapt, while for your colleagues and classmates everything will be what it always has been.
To give an example that could be useful: healthcare. After moving to Brussels, it took several months for me to understand how the Belgian healthcare system works, and I still can’t say that I figured it out completely. Last month I did a 4-weeks rotation in the ER (my second one already); one day I had an Italian patient, a student on an Erasmus like me, but who had been here for only a few weeks. Apart from the fact that I diagnosed him with an eardrum perforation that he didn’t have – I suck at ENT – at the end of the day he was asking me what he was supposed to do for the payment of the hospital stay and the reservation of the follow-up visit. I was clueless and I admitted it with a bit of shame.
Eventually you’re going to conquer your new workplace and have everyone look up to you because of your insane skills; every day you’ll go back and forth from your nice and tidy apartment to class or the hospital, and you’ll say “wow, I made it” with a feeling of self-accomplishment, except for…
There’s that tickling sensation in your guts that you’ve been feeling for a while, but recently has been getting stronger and stronger until a time comes when it’s nagging at your insides and then, then you realize you feel a bit lonely here. Sure you’ve already met countless new people, going to the odd party and traveling during the weekends, but it’s not enough: you could meet new people at home too, so what you’re missing is that mutual understanding that you feel only when with someone who shares your interests and ideas.
But let’s stop here for a second. This is so straightforward that I didn’t dedicate it a single grain of thought before moving: do you have any idea how difficult it is to express your thoughts clearly to someone if either one of the two is not speaking his/her mother tongue (or even just a language in which he/she is fluent)? The conversation is generally much more stale as it is limited to things and events rather than ideas and opinions.
I’m sort of a shy person, I admit it, but I always did my best to talk in French with others; it still took me several months before I could keep up with a casual conversation with people my age on a night out, be it because of the slang, the speed, the variety of topics, or just the music making everything more difficult. I remember one Saturday night during the last exam session; I was with a couple of Spanish friends who don’t speak French and were only able to communicate in a not-too-polished English (they were studying here in English, so it was enough for them). We were talking about this very subject, and one of the two told me at some point that, when having a conversation in another language, she was “just not the same person”.
So you see, when you decide you’ll move abroad you’ll have to start facing several hardships. Worry not though: as time passes it will become more and more natural; I’m not only referring to the language, but to the concept of “living in a new country” in general. It will become less “new”, to finally be simply “different”; it will start feeling like “your” country all the same. For some people, this process takes just a couple of months, for others a whole year; for some, it just doesn’t take place, and they have to start considering that this city is not the one for them.
Your adventure, or at least the novelty of it, will end at some point; either you will leave, or your friends will, or things will change and you may never see them again. In the same way you could end up moving to another part of town and not see the same places every day, like the house you’ve lived in for several months, or that bar you used to go to on a Saturday night.
But no matter how it turns out for you, at the end of it all, you will have acquired an array of new skills, experiences and ideas that will stay with you for the rest of your life. The only thing that you may never lose, when everything else fades away, is yourself. And look at you, you’ve been building on yourself brick by brick from day one: no way that is going to disappear.