I don’t think I will ever get a chance to experience something as wonderful as my exchange experience. I know it sounds clichéd but I made the most amazing friends that I know will last for years to come. I was so nervous when I first got to Portugal as I have never been the most outgoing person and didn’t speak the language. But it wasn’t anywhere near as terrifying as I thought it would be, within the first week I knew my way around campus, had made great friends, and was becoming familiar with basic phrases.
My first week in Portugal was their version of O Week for Exchange, or as they call them – Erasmus, students. It helped us learn more about the country and see some of the sights while also getting to know the other Erasmus students. I don’t think any of us really got a chance to stop in that first week! We went to Obidos Beach and the area of Porto, we went to the Castles at Sintra and got tours of Lisbon. Every night had a different event, whether it was a dance, a dinner, or a city tour they kept us entertained and helped us get to know each other. Catolica School of Business and Economics also did campus tours and welcome sessions which told the Erasmus students about how the university operated, the sights to see, and the cultural differences we may encounter in Portugal. Through this first week I gained a close group of friends who I got closer with throughout my exchange stay. I also got to know my housemate Carla and learned about the country. It was a new and odd experience to have a variety of friends from all over Europe, from Lithuania, to Germany, to Norway; in fact, I was the only native English speaker in my group!
By week two we were settling into classes and starting to experience the Portuguese education system. I quickly learnt that, though there subjects are smaller, doing six subjects makes it very easy to lose track of assessment and study. I was so used to worrying about four subjects sometimes I forgot to do homework for the other two. The work level was about the same as it is at QUT but like with QUT, if you worked hard you had some time to spare and my friends and I made the most of that time. I got to travel around Portugal, go camping in the mountains, visit the famous beaches of Algarve and go to traditional street dances! I got to spend a weekend in Barcelona, Christmas is France (which was cool even if it didn’t snow), visit Venice and meet friends in Switzerland. It is amazing to discover that it is so very cheap to travel once you get into Europe.
That was a big difference with Australia, Portugal, by comparison, is very cheap to live in. In fact, the only time I got any type of culture or price shock was when I came back to Australia as I had very quickly adjusted to the lower cost of living in Portugal. I remember on my first day back in Australia I was absolutely shocked that they wanted $4.20 for a bottle of water at the airport when in Portugal the most you would spend on water was €0.80. It was quite enjoyable as it meant the money I had saved for travelling and leisure went further than I thought it would. It was cheaper to buy groceries and pay rent and go to concerts.
Most Memorable Moment
More than anything I think my most memorable experience on Exchange was New Year’s Eve. Most of my friends and I had realised that we wouldn’t have any family, or any of our old friends to celebrate with. So we decided to make our own family night. Every single person made a dish, either mains or dessert, that they loved. We had everything from spicy curry to stew to pizza to apple strudel and quiche. We found who’s apartment had the biggest table and then all 13 of the Erasmus students who spent New Year’s Eve in Portugal sat down together and had dinner. It was such a cheerful atmosphere, there was far too much food, not enough chairs, and everyone was happy. At 23:30 we headed up to Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, the highest point in Lisbon, to watch the fireworks. It was already packed with people and everyone was smiling and laughing and having fun. It was such a great night and I never wanted it to end. We stayed out until well into the morning talking and watching the sky lighten, it is a beautiful memory that I will cherish forever
I am sad it is over but I have learnt so much, become far more confident, I learnt how to travel alone and how to make friends wherever I went. In fact, I lied there, I did have help. My help came in the shape of a bear, his name? Alfred Albert Bear. This poor bear has been stuffed into cars and bags and suitcases, he has sat in dirt, been rained upon and he is covered in badges. He has gone to hundreds of cities and started hundreds of conversations. He has been my loyal companion and main focus for my camera while I have travelled. I have made friends simply because they wanted to know why I was holding the bear and I will be forever grateful to my scruffy ice-breaker.
Exchange was a whole new experience and I gained new memories as well as a ridiculously large number of pen pals. If I could I would do it again in a heartbeat with my trusty bear in my bag the whole way.