I have grown up adoring Europe from the very corner of it; just nearby yet outside. The earliest memory of Europe for me was the Champions’ League opening theme and the starry flag of a continent-wide football event. Over the years that theme and flag led my interest focus on the twelve stars of the European Union and everything it symbolizes. It was in one word, enchanting.
For me the idea of Europe meant different languages being spoken at the same time harmoniously. It meant all the twelve stars’ circling effect and captivating perfection that it symbolized. I had no idea about the European identity, nor did I get to hear any information as to what it would be like to be a part of it. Yet there was set the goal: Europeanization!
Having Erasmus Experience
A little more than a decade after I saw the Champions’ League games for the first time, I came across an opportunity to study abroad for a semester thanks to the EU Erasmus Exchange programme. I had just been to Athens for a Turkish Greek Society conference to contribute to the reconciliation process between Greece and Turkey. Being amazed with my first “abroad” experience, I was totally in the awe of Europe, and came back home with a big EU flag. When asked where I would want to go for my Erasmus semester, I answered Sweden among all other possible places (Athens, Amsterdam, and Uppsala). It was mainly because of the exiled Turkish intellectuals’ diaries and stories about Sweden from the 1980s and partly because of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul that I wanted to go to Sweden.
Unlike my Swedish Erasmus buddy, I had to go through a visa procedure, which went surprisingly smooth and made me feel so privileged in my home country for not taking too long to get a visa unlike my Greek embassy experience some time earlier. As a first impression the Erasmus initiative left a positive image in my eye, compared to my earlier prejudice, as embassies are the first obstacles that Turkish citizens face when craving to have an international experience.
When I moved to Sweden, I did not know what to expect. I had not learned anything about the country except for what I already knew and all I knew was that it was cold, they had salmon and my name meant “the cucumber” in Swedish. Apart from that my knowledge was mainly on how welcoming Swedish society had been to the Turkish communities since 1980 coup. For me it was a little different in the welcoming part; as I did not know where to stay in Uppsala as I immediately went there, and I could not contact my advisor in Sweden for some time I wrote to an online friend of mine to ask if I could be her guest for the first day.
As my friend asked her father about hosting a Turkish man in their house, the father’s response was a natural one for someone who does not get in contact with a stranger from far away. As the image of a man from Turkey is not the best one in many countries, he was suspicious at first; I had to try and win their welcoming spirit, and hopefully mend the false image of Turkishness for them. Some lokum and the evil eye did well for that purpose and showed me how much little presents can mean in a faraway land.
Going through all the bureaucratic procedure in Sweden, I realized that different systems are possible in the world and things are not always as they are in Turkey. One only realizes this when he/she faces a problem in a foreign country that life is possible in different forms and solution can be reached from different paths. Seeing this opened up my eyes to thinking new possibilities and looking at things from different angles.
Erasmus experience gives one space to move; moreover it gives one the chance to act freely in between different cultures, eventually contributing to the notion of “European” mentality of freedom. We, as the students of Erasmus exchange were able to act without the limits presented on us by our home cultures and we were welcomed as guests in Sweden –which meant that most of our “foreign” actions were not considered offensive as we had no prior knowledge on the culture and society. The open mindedness dominated our lives as we had to tolerate everything around in order to be tolerated. After a prolonged period, this attitude makes its way into your logic and becomes part of your personality. In the end we all had to learn to live with eachother, no matter how impossible it might have seemed in the very beginning for some of us.
The international experience is the driving force behind breaking down prejudices across Europe. I have always considered myself to be very open-minded about everything and everyone, yet I had no idea how fast I could adapt to a 110% openness, and smoothened the remaining illiberal parts in my thinking. Now I can clearly see the meaning behind all historical humanist developments throughout European history.
Through the Erasmus experience, I am sure I have also contributed to the image of “Turks abroad” to some extent. It was not easy being a Turkish citizen abroad, especially if you have arrived in Sweden on the day Hrant Dink was assassinated and many people you get to meet blames a whole nation for a murder. But in time I have managed to talk about many other issues including all the taboos of my home country and made it clear what it is like being a Turkish citizen for my friends. Some of them thought they were lies and had to see the country themselves and some others associated Turkey with permanently positive references. All in all, it has enabled the opening up of so many people from different ethnic and national backgrounds in one place, using common languages, trying to understand each other better.
The first experience as a responsible “European” and Europhile I had was “I want my FLAG back” demonstration in Uppsala. It was mainly the exchange students and a few Swedish students to bring the EU flag back into the EU agreements as the constitutional agreement did not refer to the flag.
The coming together of so many different languages in a small city in the north of Europe also meant the creation of common terms and internationalization of domestic/local words from our home cultures. The languages, cuisines, styles have all got mixed to eachother among all of us. We were the new hybrid, we were the future. This step in the future will definitely contribute to shaping of the European identity through the common vocabulary; hopefully it will not have much to do with the cuisine part though. First we will define ourselves in the new Europeanized words that do not belong to only one nation, then it will spread. When the time comes, we will remember the roots being there in the Erasmus programme.
On the way back from my exchange studies I took a slightly longer path and made a euro-trip, or European pilgrimage as some friends have put it. I visited home countries of many friends, been their guests and seen the national wonders of several countries. It was a year of enlightenment for me. When I was finally back, I could refer to myself as “European” rather than simply a Turkish citizen, born on edge of the continent. It is only after Erasmus programme that I could grasp the full mentality of Europeanness, logic of democracy and ways of achieving a consensus to take a step forward with my colleagues.
Some of the most brilliant students across Europe every year take this opportunity and attend a semester of Erasmus Exchange Programme. They sacrifice a lot from their individual lives leaving behind friends, family, spouse/partner, home, anything familiar. But in return they get new friends, new experiences, new environment to explore and new horizons to grasp. When asked why a student would not want to have his/her Erasmus semester in the neighboring country where things are more familiar, it is normal that he/she would like to experience the one as far away as possible and bring the European identity to its ideal median position. It will get established once we all listen to the other languages and find out that we are chanting the same thing in Uppsala, London, Paris, Köln, Berlin, Milano, Istanbul… only in different languages, yet the same feelings. For a more complete Europe
After single market and single currency reforms, while I was expecting a deeper integration in education and eventually a social/artistic unity in Europe, seeing in the news that Erasmus programme getting halted is a deep concern. It is worrying because it means not going forward, and stagnation means taking a step backwards at this age. Europe deserves better and Europeans deserve a more united Europe for the future; with all the prejudices reduced to minor jokes about eachother.
When faced with a crisis situation like the one we are all in since 2008, most officials tend to rely on national and domestic solutions. Yet going national -once again- does not really take Europe anywhere… In my opinion, the people who were once Erasmus students will be more influential in creating the future of Europe than any other group. They will not be bound by national borders, cultures, mentality and standards. The real problem of Europe –not being able to integrate the cultures and social codes- to live together accepting all differences, can only be overcome through policies resembling the Erasmus exchange for the students. For the first time in European history, we have a major chance to have continent wide peace & stability and these combined with the absolute open mindedness as well as cooperation, we can give actual meanings to the Nobel peace prize that EU was awarded just very recently.