We’ve covered some of Northern Europe, Western Europe, and Southern Europe. But we haven’t explored any areas of Central or Eastern Europe just yet. Well to our luck, we’ve got Rik’s story to share with you today! Rik, 22 years old, is currently doing his pre-master in European Studies at the Maastricht University. But, back in the fall of 2017, during his bachelors, he did an exchange at the University of Primorska in Portorož, Slovenia. “I decided to go to Slovenia, because I wanted to really step out of my comfort zone,” he says. “During the selection procedure I had to pick three destinations. Everyone from my school wanted to go to Scandinavia, me included. But after soaking up all the information about Slovenia, which was another option on the list, I had become incredibly enthusiastic. The town was located right by the sea, only a half hour drive from Italy, and 10 minutes from Croatia. It looked stunning”.
Six months later
My Erasmus exchange was truly life changing for me. Before I went on exchange, I still lived at my parents’ place and didn’t really take part in Breda’s student life. My exchange made me grow into a different person, in a positive sense. It made me realise the most that there’s much more than just living in the Netherlands. I had to step out of my comfort zone, arrange everything myself in a foreign country where I did not speak the language. My exchange shaped my vision, beliefs and interests that are all still part of my life today. Both universities were incredibly supportive with helping during the entire process. They helped with the Learning Agreement, assisted in the course selection and arranging a residence permit, answered any questions I had and I was even able to meet a lecturer from Slovenia during his visit to Breda. This was very much appreciated. Overall, I had a very smooth and pleasant experience with all the necessary paperwork.
Arranging housing in a foreign country where you do not speak the language and have to go with your gut feelings, was tricky. It was the first time I’d live on my own. Therefore, I decided to go with a safe option, which was to rent a room in the student hotel provided by the university. When I first arrived, I remember thinking it looked quite shady. It was located in an industrial area and was quite far from the city centre. But the moment I entered, the host welcomed me friendly, and it was really clean. The host told me that there were a lot of international students staying there, most from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, so I was already more relieved. I had a private room with my own bathroom, kitchen and even a balcony! The next day my friend and I had breakfast on that balcony and ended up talking with the neighbour, an exchange student from Mallorca, Spain. Since that moment, we’ve become close friends and we would always go to university together, on trips, and clubbing. I believe going on exchange is incredibly valuable because it enriches your life and you’ll gain so much from that experience. Spending abroad not only teaches you all the intellectual or practical skills, but you also gain social skills you didn’t have before. You learn how to make new friends from all over the world, you learn to live in a different country to your home, and you become much more aware that you are part of something bigger. Going abroad enables you to undertake things you wouldn’t do back in your home environment.
Traveling around the Balkan
The biggest culture shock I encountered was during my travels around the Balkan. I was traveling with four others, all from different countries, in a Spanish car to Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We definitely got some funny looks from the police during the border controls. There are some differences between Central Europe and Western Europe. Infrastructure, electricity, and the internet, some very common things for us heret, turned out to be non-existent in many areas. That was interesting to see.The biggest obstacle I faced, however, was living on my own. Obviously I took part in the household at my parents before, but then I was completely independent. It was difficult for me to find routine in all of this. But, to all the others out there that have a similar background, no worries, you get used to it and in all honesty, the freedom you have is amazing. When it comes to the language in Slovenia, it’s definitely not an easy one. The part of Slovenia where I did my exchange was bilingual – Slovenian and Italian. I did not speak any Slovenian upon arrival but the basics like ‘thank you’, ‘good morning’, ‘two beers please’, you’ll be able to learn. However, I did get to practice my Italian skills a bit and other than that many spoke English as it is a touristic area, so I was able to make my way!
One of my favourite memories is a trip I took to Turin to visit a football game of Juventus. In the entire Erasmus period, my friends and I were looking to attend a football match in either Slovenia or Italy. All of a sudden, this match popped up, and we immediately decided to go. Exams and classes had already finished, and Turin was only five hours by car, so we just went! We had booked an AirBnB in the city centre as we didn’t want to drive back in the middle of the night. Before heading to the stadium we explored the city a bit and had some dinner. Once we entered the stadium and saw the pitch, we looked at each other and I remember that I couldn’t believe that we were really visiting a Juventus match. The match itself wasn’t that memorable, but they did win though. And funny enough, I met up again with these same friends in Iceland about 1,5 year ago where we went to go see another match of Juventus. It’s become kind of a tradition, I’d like to say!
As a group of tourism exchange students in Slovenia, we were always looking for possibilities to explore the surroundings. The course at school also offered enough possibilities to go and explore the country. For example, we went to the Postojna Caves with one course, and with another we went to the salt pans and an ecological farm where they had olive tasting. As soon as we had the weekend or a day or two off, we were going to Lake Bled, Ljubljana, Skocjan caves or we went to go eat sushi in Triëste. The only thing in Slovenia is that public transport is not as developed as in the Netherlands. So, you do really need a car to get somewhere. Every time we went to the capital to go clubbing or for the best Asian food ever at Da Bu Da, we went by Prevo, which is like BlaBlaCar but Slovenian and much more affordable. Outside of Slovenia there was also a lot to see. Major cities like Vienna, Bratislava, Venice, Budapest, Split and Sarajevo were between two to seven hours away from our university town. I highly recommend to go on a roadtrip through the Balkans and experience it as it is. The people were incredibly hospitable, the landscapes are astonishing, and the food is delicious. Must do when you’re there!
Family away from home
This picture in particular shows my Erasmus family and how close we were as friends. It was halfway through November, the tourists had stopped coming to Portorož, the summer season had officially ended. During the week it was a ghost town as it was only a coastal resort town with less than 3000 inhabitants. Because all of our favourite spots were closed for the season, we had parties at our own places. This picture is taken during a birthday of two of our exchange friends. We were invited for a BBQ and some drinks, which was one of the best nights I’ve had there.
My classes were specifically designed for Erasmus students. It was the first time the university offered a bachelor program in English. This means that I was always together in class with the other international students. It was a pity that I didn’t have many classes together with Slovenians, but it made sense to me. Our Erasmus group was a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Finnish, Icelandic, Portuguese, Chilean, and Ukrainian students. We were with fifteen in total, always had dinner together or went out to go do something. We also had some Slovenian roommates that were part of our group! As it was everyone’s first time studying abroad, it was easy to connect with one another. Up until today I still have contact with them regularly. I’ve also been to Finland, Poland, Iceland, Belgium, and back to Slovenia to visit my friends after exchange!
When I compare the level of education to that of the Netherlands, it did feel sometimes like I was on a five month holiday rather than on an exchange program. I usually had classes from Monday till Thursday and then only two to three hours a day. It was very manageable and I even took an extra course. I’d usually have a coffee together with some friends at the university before class. Around 13:00, we’d be done with class and we’d go have some lunch at News Café with our student discounts. We’d usually be there for a while. As classes weren’t the most challenging part of the exchange, we would always organise things to do besides them. I’d regularly go watch basketball with someone, we’d go to the cinema or organise things at home. Slovenia is also very affordable. Rent, groceries, pub prices, they’re all relatively cheap. I was able to do everything I wanted without worrying about financials. Also, something Slovenia does is offer students subsidized meals, with the famous Studentski boni. This allowed students to have a two-course meal for just 3 to 5 euros, and sometimes even for free.
A self-development boost
I regret nothing, I got everything out of my exchange period. If you’re thinking about going on exchange, don’t think twice about it. If you want to go, go. Going on exchange is really life changing in the best way possible. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, you’ll meet others from all over the world, and the experience in general is a blast. It boosts your self-development and you become much more aware of who you are, leading to an enhanced self-confidence and esteem. I think it is a good thing to embrace this opportunity with an open mind. Things won't always go as planned or expected but you will always have people that can help you out with anything. If you’re thinking about going on exchange in Slovenia, you really have to explore the country! It’s often called the hidden gem of Europe, and I can confirm that it is. Here’s some places that you cannot miss: Piran (1), Bohinj (2), The emerald coloured Soca river (3), and Ljubljana (4).
Once you explore the wilderness of the north of Slovenia, the laid back coastal life in Piran and Portorož, the modern, vibrant and medieval city of Ljubljana, and of course meet your Erasmus family, you’ll fall in love with the country just as hard as I did. I was the last person of the Erasmus group to leave Slovenia, which was quite a sad experience. Unfortunately, Erasmus can’t last forever, but surrounding myself with others in the ESN network, kept that spark alive. My exchange inspired me to do something back for incoming international students in the Netherlands. I wanted to make them feel welcome in Breda, so I joined ESN Breda. It’s now three years later and I am still active within ESN.
Hvala lepa, Slovenija <3
As Rik described in his story, there’s so much to gain from going on exchange. If you’re thinking about heading into the direction of the hidden gem, Slovenia, feel free to contact Rik if you have any questions related to his experience, going abroad there, etc. Thank you Rik for taking us on your incredible journey of 2017, leaving us inspired yet again to never forget to explore the unknown.