How often should you travel during an exchange in Europe? To many, the answer seems obvious: you should travel as much as you can. There are many interesting cities to visit and they are all in such close proximity to each other. I spent more than a year in Germany on exchange at the University of Heidelberg, and I met many students who wanted to fill their passport with stamps as fast as possible. At first, I was the same, but as I spent more time in Germany – and began to feel at home there – I started to think differently. What if exchange in Europe isn’t about conquering the continent? What if there are lessons to be learnt simply by staying put?
As Australians, we live on an isolated continent. We must travel by plane for several hours to get to any other country, so it is tempting to visit seemingly exotic and interesting places whilst studying abroad. But at the same time, we should ask ourselves, what are we missing out on as a result? On exchange in Europe the Australian student faces a dilemma: do I travel and experience new things as often as I can, leaving behind the city I live in, or do I stay mostly in the one place, integrate myself totally into local life? In my experience, it is worth spending more time in the city and country where you study. After my year abroad I’ve become an advocate of an immersed exchange rather than a dispersed exchange.
Towards the end of my time in Germany I was often asked how many countries I had visited. To me it didn’t seem strange that I hadn’t tried to visit as many as possible. For the most part I had only travelled when an interesting opportunity presented itself and when I had proper holidays. Most people expected me to list fifteen or so different countries; after all, I had been in Europe for more than twelve months. To their disappointment however, I could only ever say that I had been to a handful of places, and they seemed to think this somehow detracted from my overall experience; as if exchange was synonymous with city-hopping. During my time in Germany I tried my best to live and study like a German student, because I wanted an immersive experience.
When in Rome, you do as the Romans do, so I observed how the students of Heidelberg spent their free time, and behaved accordingly. The typical student did not skip classes to fly to Santorini or Sicily on the weekend. The students in Heidelberg study hard during the week and play even harder on the weekend in the many bars throughout the old town. And if the weather is especially nice, they travel by bike to visit medieval villages and castles in the forest around the city, often stopping to have a beer. Heidelberg is a city rich in history, there are ruined monasteries and castles, and the city itself has one of the best-preserved baroque city centres of any town in Germany. If I had left the city every weekend to visit somewhere else in Europe I would never have experienced the city to this extent.
It may not sound as exotic as a weekend in the Greek islands, but I found it so much more rewarding to live like this for twelve months rather than trying to travel across Europe in bucket list fashion. I always noticed that the students who did this never really settled into Heidelberg, never got to know the traditions of the oldest university town in Germany, and moreover, were always frantically trying to finish assignments. By the end of my time in Heidelberg I had developed a deep connection to the city and its history and I felt a real sense of belonging. Many believe that is enriching to go off to Europe and visit all the sights, take all the classic selfies and come back being able to boast that you visited twenty or so countries during your exchange. However, if you do this at the expense of becoming a proper exchange student, then your travel is superficial, not enriching.
As Monash students, we can spend a maximum of two semesters on exchange, and city hopping in Europe can always be done at a later stage. I’d like to emphasise that you can always be a tourist in Europe, but you’re only an exchange student once in your undergraduate life. Contiki tour-style travel is a hollow way to do an exchange. Your Instagram account might look fantastic at the end of twelve months, but you don’t know how it truly is to live and study in another county. Of course, I am not advocating that everyone goes cold turkey, so to speak, and not travel at all during exchange. I just recommend a sensible number of trips; don’t overload it and put pressure on yourself to traverse the entire continent. Discover what the city you live in has to offer, you might be surprised and find many rewarding experiences, especially if it’s a student town.
Exchange will always be a personal experience; it will always be slightly different for everyone. I certainly had the best time by travelling somewhat conservatively and staying in Heidelberg. I saw a jazz concert in a cellar, I hiked in the forested hills around the city and I had a picnic with friends in the gardens of a ruined castle, and it was all made more special because I had a connection to Heidelberg. I wasn’t just a visitor; I was a real resident of the city. The most rewarding exchange is not one where you take the most selfies in front of the most landmarks, it’s the one where you become engaged and feel at home in a new place. We should evaluate our exchanges not by the breadth of travel, but by the depth of immersion, because when it comes to Europe, quality trumps quantity.