By Flavio Spadavecchia, Go Abroad Ambassador spending a semester abroad at the University of Liège
Here I am, writing this from what will be my new home for the next five months. This will be a slightly different kind of post, a more personal one. I want to take you with me and give you a little taste of what it’s like to find yourself in a completely new place where you quite literally don’t know anyone yet. I’ll also try to sprinkle in some tips that I’ve noticed can be helpful during the first weeks.
I had a general idea of how to get to Liège from Charleroi airport and it was really easy once I asked the information centre, at the airport. I was welcomed by a slight breeze and snow everywhere. I think that the idea of living in a new country only really dawns on you only once you’re already there. You get to look for the first time at the new city and imagine what your exchange semester will be like. The temperature difference was quite shocking for me, coming from Southern Italy, but I grew a thick skin from living in windy Aberdeen.
The first thing you’ll probably want to do is get to your accommodation or hotel, if you haven’t found one yet. I had already found mine, but – of course – I didn’t get a chance to take a look at it in person. It’s important that you tell the landlord right away if you find anything broken, or they might make you pay for it at the end, if they think it was your fault. The first days are also the time to decide if you want to stay there or would rather find something better. As you can imagine, this is not always feasible, depending on what contract you signed. In my case, the apartment is functional and I am not planning on moving. It was a lot older than I had imagined, but it is reasonable for what I’m paying and its central position. For the first week, I only met one other flatmate (we’re five in total), who is another Erasmus student. I’ve learned that the relationship among flatmates is not necessarily the same as what I experienced in Aberdeen. You might find them to be less interested in hanging out with you than you might think, but that’s okay: you’ll meet people in other ways. I do think it’s important, however, to get together and figure out a plan for cleaning, chores, buying toilet paper and so on.
I know you already want to try all of the delicious local food, but don’t forget why you’re here: to attend university! Your host institution will most likely have orientation sessions or days to help you get settled and explain what you need to do. I have to admit, the Erasmus Student Network, here in Liège, is really well organised and their welcome day was a success. They went over how classes registration works and even how to sort out rubbish, in Belgium. They gave us a tour of the city and even got us free tickets for a film at the theatre.
The next Monday, I went to the Erasmus office to sort out the paperwork and get in touch with my local coordinator. They’re there to help me figure out which classes I should take. I haven’t had any actual problems, so far, but I have to admit – having worked with it and as a regular student, bureaucracy in Aberdeen works really well. I went to a class, here, last Friday at 8 am, only to find the classroom empty: the course had been cancelled because not enough people signed up for it, but I was not informed. Sometimes it can be a good idea to get in touch the professors who teach that class to ask information about the course and if it’s a right fit for you.
Probably one of things that worry the most exchange students is the uncertainty of making friends during your time abroad. Let me tell you: that is not something you should stress over! Think about your first weeks of university back in Aberdeen: you most likely didn’t know anyone, and since it was the same for every fresher, it’s generally not hard to meet new people. If the ESN or university organises events like parties, dinners or anything else, definitely do go there! It’s a great chance to meet people and make friends. Don’t forget that everyone is on the same boat and are most likely also looking for friends. It also doesn’t mean you have to become best buds with the first people you meet. During the welcome day, I sat down for lunch at a random table with other Erasmus students and it didn’t really click, we didn’t have much of a conversation. Later the same day, I started hanging out with other people that I still see today, so you will always find students with whom you get along.
Now, you can probably guess that making friends from your own country is by far the easiest and most common option. Whether it be for the language, familiarity and so on, we are naturally drawn to people who share similar experiences to us and there’s nothing wrong with that. Keep in mind, however, that you’re in this new country to meet new people who might have different experiences and cultures than you, so don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and put yourself out there: that’s a big part of exchange programmes, after all. Just be yourself, get a drink, and meet as many people as you can.
For the first time, I noticed something new about me. I found myself talking about Aberdeen and Scotland a lot more than I thought. I would make references to clubs, pubs or even supermarkets in Aberdeen. I would compare the lifestyle with my new friends, sometimes more than what I would compare about Italy. I am not Scottish, but I found that now, Scotland – after not even three years – is already, undeniably, a part of me. It has shaped my experiences and changed me, even if in subtle ways. I am really proud to represent the University of Aberdeen abroad and I know Liège will also become a small part of me, by the end of the semester.
If you have any questions about my exchange here or in Akita, feel free to leave a comment. I’m also there if you need someone to talk to or if you want to share your experience abroad. You can also always get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if you need any type of support.