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Post-Erasmus syndrome: SOS distress

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Andrew Burgess


Erasmus = a riotous life abroad of non-stop parties and lovemaking. But once they’ve returned, the majority of students experience a low period, a mixture of nostalgia and apathy. Is this the end of innocence?

'The former Erasmus student knows that when they return, their homes feel less glamorous, their towns colder, their universities seem like dumps, the television still shabby and their friends lousy.' These are the remarks of Fiorella de Nicola, an Italian student who has devoted her sociology thesis to the 'Anthropology of the Erasmus student'. Her conclusions, which she identifies as the 'post-Erasmus syndrome,' are eloquent. Once the ‘good-times’ come to an end, the majority of students return back to their parental home and to their boring daily lives either depressed or disappointed.

'The year abroad is filled with so many emotions, new friendships, constant discoveries and the feeling of being a little ‘special’,' explains Aurélie, a student from Orleans who spent her year at the University in Newcastle. 'At home, life becomes very simple again and a little empty because all the new things are one of the components of the Erasmus experience.' Juliane, who went to study modern languages in Glasgow, adds: 'you head back home afterwards and you realise that everything is exactly the same as it was when you left. Yet inside us, everything has changed.'

In 2007, the best-known university exchange programme within the EU blew out 20 candles on its metaphorical birthday cake: a real success story. More than a million students have undertaken courses equivalent to their degrees in partner universities in all four corners of the continent. The only shadow cast over the success of the programme is the absence of statistics and official recognition of the return back to reality of the students, which is frequently chaotic: suddenly unfamiliar with their new environment, finding it difficult to share their experiences with others, idealising the foreign lifestyle, retreating back into their shell…

This turbulent phase of coming back down to earth after the dolce vita mixed with vodka and fiestas, could even lead to depression in the most serious cases.

Diagnosis: post-Erasmus syndrome

'Erasmus, it’s like a rite of passage,' explains Christophe Allanic, a clinical psychologist and expert in cases of exile. 'You leave your hometown and then your parents, to find yourself in the unknown amongst others fathers / friends, it’s a challenge.' A test, which once overcomed, should not mean the thought of returning home becomes forgotten. 'It is easier to leave than it is to go back,' Allanic warns.

'It is true that the student who lives in a small village and has not left their parents before will find themselves more depressed than the others,' Domenico, 28, the president of the 'PlanetErasmus' association says. 'Rejoining the nest once having discovered their wings, that’s the worst.' And that’s not mentioning the ‘Tiramisu, Tortilla and Quiche lorraine’ evenings, the drunken discussions between the Poles and Italians or the housemates like those in 2003's famous Erasmus film by French director Cedric Klapisch L’Auberge Espagnole’!

'You must reaccustom yourself back to normality,' adds Mina, 21. In other words, giving up the excuse of having a charming accent, the sense of feeling ‘different’ and resign yourself to being ‘French’ like everyone else and no longer a rare and exotic creature.

'Tell us all about your Erasmus year!'

The student left alone with his experiences can start to feel like a foreigner in their own country and can find it impossible to share those experiences with their familiar environment. 'How do you sum up an experience so rich in various phases thrown together at random?' asks Pauline, 21, who spent her year abroad in Ireland.

Some students are now turning their attentions to the 'former Erasmus student' associations that host ‘international parties’ or even embark on Euro-couple adventures. Why? In the hope of artificially recreating a second 'golden age.'

Agnieszka Elzbieta Dabek, secretary and local active member of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), recognises this. 'Many former participants offer to help our association voluntarily in order to give advice or organise cosmopolitan evenings out. It is a matter of keeping the Erasmus flame burning.' Domenico thinks that this sharing of a common feeling between former and new Erasmus students is ‘illusory’. 'It encloses many foreigners into a group amongst themselves instead of opening them up to the local culture.'

Erasmus, the beginning

This 'process of mourning (between depression and idealisation) is perfectly normal,' according to Allanic; as long as it does not last longer than a few weeks. The blues you get on returning is only marking the coming into adulthood and the loss of an ideal world. 'If everything had been carefully considered and put into place to encourage the mobility of young Europeans, it would be about focussing a little bit of the interest on the coming back part,' he says.

Universities should take greater responsibility for the return of their students and support them in this transition - 'without which this experience could turn into a disaster. Because ultimately, is it not the adults’ job to help children become great?'

Translated from Syndrome post-Erasmus : SOS détresse