Erasmus Stories - Episode 1: Margherita's Erasmus in Galway, Ireland
Aggiornamento: 12 mag 2020
For the first episode of Erasmus Stories, our guest is Margherita who took part in the Erasmus programme and flew from Genoa to Galway, in Ireland. I’ll give the floor to Margherita to tell you something about herself…
Hi everyone, my name is Margherita and I participated in the Erasmus programme while I was in the last year of my bachelor’s degree in Interlingual Mediation at the University of Genoa (Italy). In my case, the Erasmus exchange was the final experience of my academic studies. I arrived in Galway on 10th August 2016 and I attended the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI) for one semester.
1) Did you choose Galway or did Galway choose you?
Galway was my first choice. I wanted to go to Ireland because I had never visited the country before, but I’ve always been fascinated by it. I could choose between Galway and Cork: looking at the photos on the internet, I liked Galway more: its colourful little houses, the sea, the harbour… Moreover, it’s a strategic point to reach many places, like Connemara, the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher.
2) Were you nervous about leaving or were you excited?
No, I must say that I wasn’t nervous at all. Probably, it helped that my boyfriend accompanied me on my journey to Galway, so I didn’t feel completely alone at the beginning. He helped me out in searching for accommodation and settling in the first days. He then returned to Genoa and I still hadn’t found accommodation, so things got a bit tougher, but I tried to keep myself busy by exploring the city.
3) Since I have first-hand experience of the housing crisis in Ireland, I wanted to ask you: was it difficult to find a house?
It was the first big challenge of the Erasmus experience. As I said, I arrived in Ireland on 10th August and I focused on looking for a house, hoping to be settled by the 1st September, that is before the beginning of lectures. At first, I went to an office that specifically dealt with helping Erasmus students to find accommodation. They offered me a room in a house where a family lived, but to be honest I preferred living with other students. In the end, I found a shared house where I stayed only one month, because I didn’t get on well with my housemates. Moreover, it was very far away from university and I couldn’t be bothered to cycle in the rain every day. Luckily, at an Erasmus party I met Alba, a Spanish girl who I became friends with, and she invited me to move into her house since there was a spare room. So yes, looking for accommodation was a bumpy ride, but with a bit of luck it all went well in the end.
4) What was the biggest cultural shock?
I was certainly shocked by how much young people drink, including girls. The drinking culture is very different from Italy. Generally, in Italy we drink for the pleasure of drinking, for tasting a good wine or a beer, while in Ireland most people have fun by getting drunk. While I drank one or two beers, the average between Irish pubgoers was about ten pints of Guinness. I think Irish and Italians have fun in different ways. I understand that the weather plays a huge part in shaping people’s habits, because in Ireland the weather is very rainy and cold, so everyone goes to the pub. After all, Irish pubs are amazing: there is always a festive atmosphere, live music… it’s easy to go with the flow and have a tipple.
5) Talking about studying, how was your semester at NUI?
Overall, I sat four exams, which have been recognised by my home university in Genoa. In Galway I changed all the modules I had listed on my learning agreement, but I’m very satisfied with my choices because I only attended modules I was interested in. For example, I attended a brilliant course of Art and Performance on an Irish theatrical play. Writing so many essays really helped me improve my written skills in English.
I was very impressed by NUI; I have a good memory of my studies there. If the Irish weather made me feel a bit down at times, my lectures at university lifted my spirits. The atmosphere and the facilities were amazing: you entered the campus and thought, “Oh, it’s beautiful!”. However, in my opinion, one semester is not enough to evaluate the university and the city, so let’s say I feel a sense of incompleteness.
(The learning agreement is a document that Erasmus students must complete before leaving. It contains a list of modules that the student would be interested in taking during their Erasmus exchange.)
6) Did you join any society while you were there?
Yes, a beautiful aspect of Irish universities are societies: these are student associations based on shared interests. At NUI there was an endless list of societies, but I had to hold my horses, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the time to study.
I signed up to the French society to maintain my French level: once a week, they organised an activity to practice French, such as watching a movie. To exercise a bit, I enrolled in the Zumba society where I had so much fun. But I have to admit that sometimes laziness took over and I stayed at home. I also attended the Orchestra Society, but I’m sorry to say that it was a bit disappointing. It wasn’t their fault, but there was a massive disparity in the number of instruments: I was the only one playing the trumpet, while there were about ten girls playing the flute. To make up for it, I enrolled in the Galway marching band where I had a great time: the atmosphere was amazing, they welcomed me with open arms. Halfway through the rehearsals, we had tea and biscuits together in the kitchen. It was a wonderful experience from a human standpoint, but the music programme was a bit limited compared to the one I usually do with my marching band in Genoa.
But the icing on the cake was the hiking society: I took part in five hiking trips, but the first one was traumatizing. I don’t remember exactly where we went, but we were walking up a hill. It was an extraordinary day, not even a cloud in the sky, so we were all excited to go on an adventure. We started to climb the hill: instead of zigzagging up the hill, our two hiking guides hit the ground and started to hike straight up. Although I was quiet fit, I was struggling to keep up with them, while some other girls were left behind by the group entirely. In particular, a German girl at the very back of the group started crying because she could not do it anymore, poor girl, but the hiking guides didn’t seem willing to wait for her. It is true that at the beginning they had warned us that it was going to be tiring, but no one expected it to be so tough.
When we reached the hilltop, we stopped to have lunch. I started to eat my sandwich under an amazing blue sky and finished it with grey clouds over my head. To keep it short: a storm that I cannot even describe broke. Now I laugh about it, but in that moment, I was really scared. The rain hit so hard that my skin hurt; the fog covered everything and you couldn’t see anything; the wind blew so strongly that at some point one of the hiking guides, a skinny girl, was thrown two metres away. The cows’ fences were knocked over and we started to crawl. Looking at the guides’ faces, I realised that they were seriously worried. While I was crawling, a gust of wind made my glasses fly away (which were new, by the way). I tried to look for them, but, obviously, there was no way I could find them again. Due to the wind, I had to shout to the hiking instructors, “I LOST MY GLASSES!” and they replied, “DO NOT LOOK FOR THEM, WE HAVE TO GO!”. I had to surrender, and I felt like crying. The downhill was terrible. Every two steps, we slipped in mud, and someone even sprained their ankle. Since I had lost my glasses, I walked down arm in arm with one of the guides.
Finally arrived at the bottom of the hill, I spent two hours on the bus without the possibility of changing my muddy clothes. I was chilled to the bone in a way I’d never been before. One of the best sensations of my life was the boiling shower I had at home: I felt reborn. It’s an anecdote I’ll definitely tell my grandchildren.
7) Did NUI organise many events for Erasmus students?
Yes, they organised many events and parties, like the Silent Disco where I met my Spanish housemate. I took part in these activities especially at the beginning to meet other Erasmus students. On campus there was a pub where Erasmus students used to get together. It was very nice, it reminded me of “The Three Broomsticks” in Harry Potter.
8) What was the best experience of your Erasmus?
The Cliffs of Moher were breath-taking. I experienced the Cliffs both with bad weather, which made the atmosphere super romantic, and with the sun. Amazing in both cases.
The Aran Islands have a special place in my heart. I visited them several times: with a friend of mine, with my boyfriend, and with my family. I cycled around the biggest island, Inis Mór. I have a nice memory of a little restaurant where I ate an excellent Guinness stew.
9) Regarding food, how did you find Irish cuisine?
I’d like to specify that Irish cuisine has nothing to do with the English one. The quality of meat, fish and milk is excellent, it’s a pity they are not very creative when it comes to food. But their typical dishes are exquisite, especially the seafood chowder.
The only thing that I really can’t stand is cheddar, a cheese very common in Ireland and the UK. I had my first encounter with cheddar as soon as I landed in Dublin. It was around lunchtime and my bus to Galway was expected to arrive a few hours later. So, I went to the bar to eat something and I saw a sandwich with tuna and shredded carrots. I thought, “Oh, that’s great, let’s start this Erasmus with some healthy food: tuna and carrots, what else can I ask for?” and I should have been suspicious! I bit it. You know when you expect a flavour and instead it’s something completely different? I expected the fresh and crunchy taste of carrots and instead it was shredded cheddar. I was duped: the cheddar was so orange that I mistook it for carrots!
10) How would you describe Galway?
Galway itself is a quiet town, but the main street, High Street, is always full of street artists, especially dancers and musicians; I would spend hours watching them. I have a nice memory of a small shop where I bought a Claddagh ring, a typical Irish ring, and I chatted a bit with the shop assistant, who was very nice.
The thing that I liked the least about Galway was the weather, which was incredibly hostile at times. Related to the weather, I missed the lack of alternatives to the pub to spend my free time, because it was the only place to go when it was cold and rainy.
11) Was it easy to make friendships?
It was very easy to bond with other Erasmus students, especially with other Italians and Spanish. On the other hand, it was difficult to make Irish friends. This is probably the only thing I would change about my stay there. If I could turn back time, I would try to make the first move, even if I would look foolish. Irish people are very friendly at the pub, they may even offer you a beer, but when you try to get to know them better, they clam up. Perhaps five months is too little to be integrated.
12) Did you miss home? What did you miss about Italy?
Yes, of course, I missed lots of things about home: friends, family and yes, even my nice bedroom, since in Galway I had to share it with another girl.
I had some dark moments, partially due to the weather. I think it’s normal because Erasmus is the first big experience away from home, and above all, abroad. You know, more than the sadness to be away from home and from my dear ones, the thing that frightened me the most was the idea of returning and having to face certain things that had been temporally put on hold due to the Erasmus exchange. For example, I knew I would have to re-do two exams that I hadn’t passed at my home university. I was still in Galway and I was already nervous about the exams that were waiting for me, so this kind of ruined my last weeks there. Moreover, in Galway I realised I was not satisfied at all with my bachelor’s degree and I was even considering changing my degree when I returned to Genoa. At the end, I bit the bullet and I finished the course I had started. But yes, I had a bit of an existential crisis.
13) Now that the Erasmus experience has been over for some years, do you miss Ireland?
Oh yes, lately I do. I follow a Facebook page called This is Galway and, when I see the amazing photos they post, I have a bit of what we call in Italian “Mal d’Irlanda”, that is “Nostalgia of Ireland”. To me, this nostalgia is about the Irish landscapes, which are something cathartic, so wild and barren. I miss the stillness: going out and seeing only two sheep on the road. The cultural and musical aspects are also very important; although I don’t like getting drunk, Irish pubs are magical places. You enter and see these wooden pubs with people singing, laughing, joking, dancing… for sure it boosts your mood. I miss it a lot.
14) What piece of advice would you give to someone interested in doing their Erasmus programme in Galway?
Well, I’ll certainly advise them to immediately start looking for accommodation. Besides, I think it’s better to spend a bit more, but to live in a welcoming house because otherwise your entire Erasmus experience may be negatively affected.
Secondly, I’d recommend trying to bond with locals, even if it is difficult. Having an Irish friend means discovering Ireland with different eyes. In hindsight, I would commit to get to know more locals. If I think about it, this is an aspect of the experience that I missed.
I would really like to return to Galway on holiday, because I really miss those places. If I had the possibility, I would go tomorrow to have a tour of the Aran Islands.
Margherita, thank you very much for answering my questions! I hope that this interview was useful to those of you who are about to leave for their Erasmus programme or that it has simply taken you to Ireland with your imagination.
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All photos in this blog post were taken by Margherita.