A smile is universal. When confronted by German ticket inspectors, make your eyes wide and fill with tears and plead complete ignorance. Walk to the top of the steps even though you don’t want to because the view will be worth it.
For the Halloween break, the Strasbourgers decided that a mini tour de force of central Europe would be much better than starting to attempt any of our many university assignments. We took a combination of buses and trains all around central Europe; to Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague. All in all, the trip was not too expensive, aided by our ‘thrifty’ accommodation and food choices (which ended up perhaps just being bad choices, as I had food poisoning in Vienna, where Clíodhna and I were sharing a capsule room, no bigger than a wardrobe).
Disaster struck for the second time in three months when I twisted my ankle again. Being one of the clumsiest people I know, the combination of winding, cement stairs of a horror-themed bar and flashing red LEDs proved lethal. I thankfully landed on the other ankle and not the one that would have probably rendered me completely immobile. I made my way to a seat, while Clíodhna went off in search of painkillers on a misty, Sunday night in Prague. I watched the Freddie Krueger statue taunt me in the corner, and I wondered if a Leprechaun’s Rampage cocktail would help the situation or not. Since I am now well-versed in how to care for twisted ankles and instead of crawling on my hands and knees onto a train while being stepped on in Marseille, I am lying in my hostel bed in Prague, with Pizza Hut and a can of Coke as an ice-pack.
All of my mishaps aside, I am so glad that I got to travel to some of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Vienna and Prague were especially beautiful. It is also very interesting to witness the subtle differences between neighbouring European cultures; German trains are terrible, Austrians are a bit more chill but you still have to stand on the right-hand side of the escalator lest you get some dirty looks. Although being privileged that English is spoken is widely spoken, of course, there were moments when I had to just smile and gesticulate wildly in hopes of being understood. Yet as I said above, most people understand the language of a smile and simple politeness.
While on the seven-hour night bus back from Prague, we were stopped at the German border by the police. There is little more alarming than being poked awake by a six-foot man barking “Reisepass” at you, his revolver gleaming from his side pocket. Why do you always feel as if you’ve done something terribly wrong when confronted by police? I began to panic when they gave my passport an extra-long flip, convinced that I was going to be taken off the bus and stranded outside of Nuremberg at 2 am. Of course, none of this nightmare scenario that I had begun to imagine actually transpired, and I was not forced to begin life as a peasant in the Bavarian countryside having no way back. Further on along the bus, there was some commotion with two men being ordered off after having their passports and luggage checked. Using this as an opportunity to brush up on my
eavesdropping German skills, I inconspicuously read the wiki for the Cornish language movement (I have no idea why this was what I was googling in the middle of the night) and I figured out that one of the individuals was travelling on a fake Ukrainian passport.
While travelling around many of what were former Eastern Bloc countries, I noticed many Ukrainian flags, posters, and buildings lit up in support. Being further removed from the continent, in Ireland, it can seem as if we have pushed the conflict to the back of our minds. Further on, it must seem like an ever-looming threat; slightly removed but not completely. We passed two benefit concerts for Ukrainian refugees in Vienna and Prague, neither of which are very far from Ukraine. It strikes me when I am passing these just how fortunate I am to have never had to worry about conflict, housing, or anything more serious than an ankle sprain or insect infestations.
Arriving back in France, I thought that I would have a fresh set of eyes and a new enthusiasm for learning and Europeanism but when I was hobbling down the street on crutches and an old man asked me what had happened but interrupted me to tell me that he understands English, I almost burst into tears. I couldn’t tell if it was homesickness or frustration at my seeming lack of progress in French but when I met my parents later that evening, I felt like begging them to take me back home. Sometimes I feel incredibly spoiled for not experiencing this year as I thought I would. I am beginning to stress that I won’t fall into balance here. This further leads to the question if my primarily internationally focused degree was a waste of time if I can’t feel completely at ease abroad. This ennui of every twenty-something is another story, but it has really been put into focus for me these past few months. In a way I suppose that is another advantage of Erasmus; by having this completely new experience, I have learned that I am probably happiest at home, at least for now. I can’t say for certain how I will feel in five, or ten years’ time but lately I picture myself walking around Dublin’s grey streets, knowing exactly where I am going.
Maybe it’s my star sign, maybe it’s just homesickness. Maybe I will be writing in six months’ time, full of sadness that I am leaving Strasbourg. All I can say at this point however is that only time will tell.