Erasmus Stories – Episode 4: Giulia’s Erasmus in Budapest (Hungary)
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Today we’re going to an unusual destination with Giulia, who I had the pleasure to meet on Instagram as she also promotes sustainability on her blog FeelinGreen. But today we are talking about another shared passion of ours: travelling and, specifically, the Erasmus experience. I’ll let our guest introduce herself!
My name is Giulia, I’m 26 years old and I live in Miami. If I am here today, it is thanks to my Erasmus adventure four years ago, because it was this experience that then opened the door to all the rest. I went on Erasmus to Budapest from October 2015 to January 2016, and it was certainly the best experience of my life.
1) Where did you study for your bachelor’s degree? Why did you decide to go on Erasmus?
For my bachelor’s degree I studied at the faculty of Communication in Padua, and it was thanks to Padua University that I left for the Erasmus programme. Going on Erasmus was my dream, it meant so much to me that I jumped through hoops to have everything ready from an academic standpoint. Unfortunately, that year several collaborations between universities, including the ones in Finland where I originally wanted to go, were not renewed, so there were few destinations and lots of candidates. At that point I started to fear I would not be selected. Thus, I thought to check out the destinations that the faculty of Foreign Languages offered rather than the ones listed for my faculty. Since Budapest was one of the options, I checked on the ELTE university website (Eötvös Loránd University) if there was a faculty of Communication at the university. When I found out there was, I wrote directly to the coordinator of Foreign Languages in Padua explaining my situation. She was extremely kind and replied that none of her students were interested in going to Budapest, so she kept the spot for me. All this is just to show how much I wanted to go on Erasmus!
2) Before going on Erasmus, were you a traveller?
This is a good question because I had not felt like a traveller for a long time. Indeed, when I was a teenager my mum sent me on a study trip to Ireland, however here I was surrounded by Italians, so it was more to have fun than to learn the language. I didn’t have that traveller’s spirit, even though I had travelled a bit with my parents in Europe. Towards the end of high school and the beginning of university, something started to change, but gradually. Let’s say that the interest was there, but the Erasmus programme gave me the tools to travel on my own or with other mates. Indeed, during my Erasmus I visited five countries in five months: since Hungary is in Central Europe and it’s quite cheap, it is easy to reach bordering countries. With my Erasmus friends I visited Lake Balaton in Hungary, Vienna, Bratislava, Krakow, and Prague. Just to be clear, they were not luxurious trips at all: we travelled just with a backpack and we spent the night in hostels with crowded rooms, but it was great.
3) Had you been on Hungary before?
No, it was my very first time. I had heard good things about it, but I had never been there. All that area of Europe was new to me.
4) Did you have to do a language course to learn Hungarian before leaving?
Luckily, the university courses were in English, so I didn’t have to learn Hungarian, which is believed to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. I didn’t have to do Hungarian language classes, but English ones. Once arrived in Budapest, there was the possibility of taking Hungarian classes, which many friends of mine did. However, one of my main goals was to improve my English, which was considerably basic at the time.
The strange thing was that at high school I was quite good at English, so I left thinking, “Well, at school I did just fine, it won’t be that bad!”, and instead I was awful. I had friends from all over the world and I was one of the worst. The first weeks I understood nothing, I had headaches, I just stared at people and I did not understand, I couldn’t speak… And at that point I realised that I had overestimated myself and that my level of English was a disaster. But that was also an important realisation because from then on, I improved in a short time. But the first two weeks were hard: I remember the first Erasmus meeting where the professors explained us all we had to know, and I didn’t understand. On my left there was a Greek girl, who then became one of my best friends, and I turned to her with tears in my eyes and asked her to repeat what had been said. She was super kind and helped me in everything. She was the first person I talked to and this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that still lasts today. She was my guardian angel; I genuinely think that someone sent her to help me because I had no idea of what to do.
5) Did your family support in your decision?
Yes! Actually, it was my brother that planted the seed in my mind, because he went on Erasmus to the Netherlands a few years before. When we visited him, he made me fall in love with this programme. At the time I was at the last year of high school, so I had a taste of the experience in this way. We went to a house party and then to the pub with his friends. There were people from all over the world, it was great. When I started university, I had already set the Erasmus exchange as my goal. My parents are very open-minded, and they immediately told me that this experience abroad would be good for me and my career.
6) Regarding the preparation before leaving, did you face any difficulties?
Yes, I had to face some bureaucratic issues that made me lose years of my life before, during and after the Erasmus. Finding a flat was a bit difficult. I didn’t want to arrive there and look for it in person, although in hindsight it may have been the right thing to do. Instead, I chose to rely on a letting agency for students which found me a flat a month before my departure. However, it turned out to be a catch because prices are much cheaper on site. But, obviously, you learn these things with experience.
7) How would you describe Budapest in three words?
Breath-taking, contradictory, and ever-changing.
Breath-taking because Budapest is beautiful, indeed it is called the Paris of the east.
Contradictory because, despite being a wealthy city, there is a lot of poverty in Budapest. I’ve never seen so many homeless people. The contrast between the capital and the rest of Hungary is also very strong: Hungary is mostly steppe and small towns, but then you arrive in Budapest and you end up in front of the second biggest parliament in the world.
Ever-changing because the city greatly changes aesthetically depending on the season.
8) What was the biggest cultural shock?
As an Italian, the most obvious cultural shock was food: Hungarian supermarkets sell a lot of meat, but the choice of fruit and vegetables is limited and the quality is not good. My Greek friend and I were desperate because even when we tried to cook our traditional dishes, they weren’t as tasty as at home because the ingredients weren’t the same.
9) From an academic standpoint, how was the university structured?
University is structured very differently to Italy: in Italy you have taught classes in huge lecture theatres where even hundreds of students listen to the professor; whereas in Budapest it was more similar to high school, because there were classrooms with maximum 15-20 students and lectures are much more interactive. For only one module I sat a final exam, while I had to do weekly tests for the others. Personally, I enjoyed this method because I learnt a lot thanks to these interactive lessons. I should have sat five exams, but towards the end of my stay I became ill and I could only sit four.
One of the courses I liked the most was Cross-cultural Communication, namely communication between different cultures. Every week we analysed a topic on which we had to write a short text relating it to our personal experience. It was so interesting that I still remember everything, especially because it was nice to listen to experiences by people from different nationalities. It didn’t feel like studying a theoretical subject because, in a way, you were studying yourself. For the final exam we were divided into teams and, holding coffee and biscuits, the professor asked questions as if it was a quiz show. Everyone participated and remembered all topics explained in class because we had learnt in such a pleasant way. The professor then thanked us for taking part in his module saying that he had learnt a lot from us. I was stunned, it was the first time that I heard a professor speaking like that!
Another module that I really enjoyed was Online Communication: every week we had to create little online projects to try out different platforms and then we discussed them in class. The professors were so youthful in spirit that it felt like talking to a friend. In another module we talked about immigrants’ emotions, but it looked like a yoga class.
At the beginning I struggled a bit to write essays and give presentations because my English level was not good. Luckily, my Greek friend proofread everything. But the professors also evaluated your willingness to learn and to throw yourself into activities, which allowed me to improve my English without stress and to pass all exams despite the linguistic limitations.
10) Did university organize many events for Erasmus students?
The university was very well organised, both in terms of professors and of student groups supporting the university. Since the very first day they offered numerous welcome events for Erasmus students. For example, the first week they organised a concert of traditional music and dance, and a boat trip on the Danube, which crosses the city. During the semester they did an amazing job as well; I must say they exceeded all expectations.
11) What was the most beautiful experience of your Erasmus stay?
I would say the trips, but they were all so beautiful I wouldn’t know which one to pick.
Generally, I’d say the nights out with my Erasmus friends. Although in Padua I had stopped going out partying, in Budapest I started to go out again and, even if we didn’t do anything extraordinary, I had the time of my life. I don’t know why exactly, probably due to the company… We would have had fun in the middle of the desert! In Padua I would go out partying with my life-long friends in the usual clubs, but I had never had as much fun as on Erasmus. Even if it is basically the same activity, on Erasmus there is something different.
12) What did you like most about Budapest and what the least?
Budapest is beautiful: I lived five months there, but every corner has something that amazes you. Some areas continued to astonish me like the first time. I don’t know if it was due to the fact that I was on Erasmus, the rediscovering of myself, or whatever, but I loved Budapest because it is a beautiful city. I remember a night when me and my friends were all tipsy and we ended up in front of the parliament in the middle of the night: we stood in amazement admiring the parliament. It is an incredible city; everyone should visit it.
The only negative note of my Erasmus was the cold reception by the locals. I think there is a resentment towards tourists and foreigners in general. But luckily there’s a difference between the old and the young generation: the former has lived for a long time under Russia, and Hungary is historically poor, so maybe they see the tourist as the rich guy who comes in to paint the town red; on the other hand, the young generation is more open-minded and polite and, since many university courses are in English, young people can speak it very well and it is easy to communicate.
Unfortunately, me and other friends of mine were discriminated against several times, so it is advisable to learn a bit the language, even just the basic sentences. I learnt how to say hello and thank you in Hungarian so that they did not view me as “the foreigner” at the supermarket or on the bus.
And the cold in winter… it even reached minus 15 degrees! More than anything, it was sad to see so many homeless people, so much poverty and people with problems with alcohol. This is the ugly side of Budapest that you only notice with time, the one that hurt me deeply. You see so many women on the streets, both young and elderly. I remember an old lady who was always near the supermarket and to whom I often gave something because it was unbearable to see her like that, she could have been my grandma… And young, extremely young people, homeless. It is terrible that so many Hungarians do not have a house.
13) Apart from food, what did you miss about home?
Well, obviously I missed my family and my cat. Something that I missed about Padua, and that I learnt to appreciate once I returned, was cycling. Budapest is big and has a good metro network, but I missed darting through the city centre on my bike. Nothing else, if I could, I would live forever on my Erasmus.
14) What do you miss about Budapest?
I miss the beauty of the city, to be amazed at every corner. I miss my friends, the very atmosphere of Erasmus. If I had gone to Budapest for work, I would have certainly experienced it differently. I miss Budapest’s nightlife, which is awesome: some old abandoned houses have been transformed into very peculiar bars and clubs, with all different chairs and tables and writings on the walls.
15) What did you learn during this period abroad?
Let’s say that the Erasmus programme made me rediscover myself, it made me realise who I am and what I want. Being born and bred in Padua, my world was limited to my hometown and to Italy, I couldn’t see myself in any other context. In other words, Padua was golden cage for me: it never made me miss anything, but it didn’t give me anything new either. Instead, thanks to the Erasmus exchange I realised that probably Padua didn’t give me all the tools to fully express myself. Don’t get me wrong, I love Padua and I’m always very happy to return, but I needed to start from a blank page.
It was thanks to the Erasmus that I understood that I wanted to keep studying abroad, and so I did: I went to Madrid for my master’s degree, where I met my boyfriend, with whom I moved to Pamplona, and then to Milan, and then flew to Miami, where I find myself now.
The Erasmus gave me the courage to understand and accept that it is ok not to want what everyone else is doing. It is ok that I didn’t want to do like my brother who returned to Padua, graduated and found a job there. It is ok to think outside the box, there’s nothing wrong with it. When I spoke to my friends in Padua about my choice to study abroad, they all asked me why. Instead, when you are on Erasmus you meet all these people that tell you, “Oh, I’ve been to Australia, then I’m going there and then there”, and you think, “Wow, this is what I want to do, too!”. You don’t feel like the strange one, because they never ask you “why”, but they say, “That’s so cool, go!”. I think the biggest gift of my Erasmus exchange was that it made me realise who I am.
16) What piece of advice would you give a person interested in going on Erasmus to Budapest?
Not to be fooled by the price of rent, because I fell for it, and not to be too upset if people are a bit grumpy.
My advice is go for it, don’t stay at home because it’s a city that offers you a lot.
Giulia, thank you for telling me all about your Erasmus! I’m not gonna lie, your words resonated with me and it was moving to interview you!
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All photos in this blog post were taken by Giulia.