Dispatches from Madrid: Erasmus and starting to understand Klingon

Nye Williams-Renouf 11 May 2014

When the email went out inviting students to apply for the Erasmus study abroad programme the draw of a year in Madrid proved impossible to resist. I had always wanted to live abroad. I had studied Spanish and napping after lunch is less a guilty indulgence than a social expectation.

Looking back now, it is also true that the opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time. After two years of studying law I had been reduced from the giddy heights of first year idealism to a quivering shadow of a man. Gone was my burning desire to unleash righteous punishment on the injustices that plagued our legal system, replaced by confidence only in the knowledge that I knew nothing and an unfortunate urge to revert to the foetal position at the mere whisper of Land Law legislation. A change did not seem like the worst idea in the world.

It is difficult to know quite where to begin when explaining what makes Erasmus so valuable. For one thing, regardless of where you end up, there is no question that it forces you to work outside your comfort zone – especially at first. For me personally, wrestling with the towering monstrosity that is Spanish bureaucracy proved a regular exercise in anger management. Likewise my first few months of lectures in Spanish might as well have been in Klingon for all the good they did me. On the flip side, there’s nothing that matches the sensation of satisfaction once you finally start to understand the occasional sentence or two, let alone stringing your own broken sentences together. So I am told, anyway…

Possibly the best thing about Erasmus is the number of opportunities for experiences outside the lecture theatre that it encourages you to seek out, both in your host city itself and beyond. Exploring Madrid has proven a near-unbroken adventure, from spending the early hours discovering the best jazz clubs that one of the greatest cities in the world has to offer, to forming an opinion on bull fighting first-hand (answer –nope).

If anything though, the most memorable moments I have had have come when I have taken the opportunity to travel with friends I have made in Madrid; getting spectacularly lost in Lisbon with some friends from France; spending six hours debating everything under the sun with an American exchange student, a retired Moroccan hotel concierge and a thoroughly baked British festival worker on the overnight train from Marrakech to Tangier; drinking from a waterfall on a weekend hiking trip in the Sierra de Gredos. Those are the memories I will take away from this, and what made my Erasmus year such an incredible experience.

Final thoughts? Erasmus exchanges often seem to be characterised as nothing more than a pseudo-academic excuse for a gap year. I have always thought this rather unfair; had I merely taken a year out I would have been ineligible for any funding from the EU, and would consequently have had far less fun. The last year has absolutely flown by; Erasmus is a spectacular undertaking, and my year abroad has added to my university experience in a way that I would never have gained had I stayed in Cambridge. At the same time, I am glad I will have one more year back in the bubble before real life finally beckons – if not thrilled at the prospect of heaving towers of Law tomes, then at least comforted in the knowledge that they will be matched by a steady flow of candlelit formal hall, weekend brunch and champagne tastings. A man only needs so much of the real world.