A photo of students in Greece
Photo: Marianna Zorbas

'It's Definitely More Sober' – This Was Not the Year to Study Abroad

An Erasmus exchange is supposed to be about new friends, flings and European travel. The global pandemic had other ideas.
January 21, 2021, 12:27pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.

Crazy parties, new friends, low budget airlines, flings and some studying – that’s how most who have done it would describe the “Erasmus experience”. Since the 1980s, the European education programme has allowed students all over the continent to study for a semester or two at a different university. If you’ve ever heard a guy with very tiny glasses explain how he “studied Proust for a year in Milan”, he was probably on an Erasmus piss-up. But what happens when your study abroad dream clashes with a global pandemic?

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"The coronavirus is, if not the biggest, one of the biggest difficulties we have faced as an organisation,” said Emmanouella Paravalou, president of Erasmus Student Network Greece. “On the one hand, because no one was prepared for what problems the Erasmus students would face, and on the other hand, because many of those issues were beyond our means to solve."

Greece has always been a popular destination for Erasmus students, thanks to its mix of great beaches, ancient history and godly weather. But things were very different for the students who arrived here this year.

The country went into full lockdown in March – anyone who wanted to leave the house had to text a government hotline to ask for permission. This ended in May, but Greece had changed. Once a nation that welcomed 2.8 million visitors a year, tourism was now down 70 percent, and there were reports of eerily deserted towns and islands. As of November, Greece is back in lockdown, with a ban on all non-essential travel that is not expected to be reviewed until January.

We interviewed some Erasmus students who arrived in Greece – ready to learn, flirt and explore – and are now living through one of the strangest years in modern history.

“If I hadn’t built online relationships, I would probably forget I’m even on an exchange programme”

A photo of Marianne on a bridge in Greece.

Marianne, on a rare day of exploring.

I decided to do Erasmus in Greece, because I love the country and I speak the language – I am half-Greek. When I was planning it in the spring, Greece had prevented the spread of the virus pretty well. I was more confident about the situation here than in France, where it seemed out of control.

When I first arrived, we managed to organise trips and socialise with other students. In those two months, we really discovered the city. But now we’re back in lockdown. I have been trying to keep myself busy: doing my online lessons, exercising and going for walks in the park nearby. In the evenings, I video call my friends or watch movies. But if I hadn’t built online relationships with other Greek and Erasmus students, I would probably forget I’m even on an exchange programme. I was lucky to start this before the lockdown, but an entire semester of Erasmus in the world as it is right now would defy its fundamental goal, which is to discover another country and learn its culture. Marianne, 21, from France – studying agriculture in Athens.

“I think it’s actually helped me mature as a human being”

A photo of Metin on a football pitch.

Metin hanging out in Thessaloniki.

I started my Erasmus in February. I had no expectations from it, other than just living abroad. I wanted to live somewhere by the sea, with lots of nature. COVID-19 has definitely changed the classic Erasmus experience, but I’ve still managed to explore the country in between lockdowns. From the islands to the countryside, I have fallen in love with the language and culture here. I’ve made loads of friends too, Greek and international. I don’t feel like I have missed out on anything.

What can you really gain in the middle of a pandemic? Myself and so many other students were all in the same boat, living in a foreign country during one of the greatest challenges that humanity has ever experienced. I think it’s actually helped me mature as a human being. Yeah, I wish I had more comfort and freedom, but when I think of the medical staff or volunteers trying to support us in the midst of this, then I don’t feel like complaining. Metin, 22, from Germany – studying law in Thessaloniki.

“Doing Erasmus in the midst of a pandemic is definitely more sober and less crazy, but it’s still unique”

A photo of Sara with her camera.

Sara, out photographing the Greek countryside.

I was going to go to Lima, Peru, in March, with an Italian public service programme. But that was postponed and then canceled due to COVID-19, so I started looking for another opportunity. I decided to do an Erasmus internship in Greece.

I arrived in Patras at the end of September and lived the experience to the fullest in the first month. I met wonderful people, ate great food and went on a mind-blowing trip around Delphi, Galaxidi and Arachova. Now, we’re back in lockdown, and I miss being with people and the countryside. Still, I’ve never regretted my choice.

I’ve learned that I have to accept the uncertainty of life – things don’t always go to plan. There is always a plan B, but that only appears when you start looking at reality from a different perspective. I am learning a lot about myself, realising what makes me happy, and how to maintain a sense of inner peace and acceptance.

Doing Erasmus in the midst of a pandemic is definitely more sober and less crazy, but it’s still unique. I think what I'm gaining now is definitely more valuable and powerful than what I'm missing out on because of the lockdown. Sara Albo, 26, from Italy – Erasmus volunteer in Patras.