On Exchange; or What Really Happens.

Oh la la

I’m not sure how you picture an exchange, if you’ve never been on one. I’m not even sure that I had a picture in my mind when I upped and left Auckland at the end of last year. The Exchange Office’s propaganda promised “international experiences” and “new friends;” and the walls in their office were crowded with pictures of people in exotic locales smiling maniacally for the camera.

At the final meeting there were murmurings that things mightn’t all be roses and sunshine, and that we should prepare for “culture shock” – but I paid them little heed. I’d been overseas before and knew what was to come, more or less: crazy nights, hot girls and little responsibility getting in the way.

But things don’t always pan out how you envision them. The bare truth was that studying abroad was hard, at least for me. I found the introductory interactions clichéd and forced, as our brainwashed Dutch mentors over-emphasized how connected we all were, despite our disparate backgrounds. We made a human pyramid and took group photos in bars, but still I didn’t feel connected.[1] I felt stupid and was sure others must feel the same.

It’s hard to gauge others’ reactions in a social situation where everyone is new, language is a barrier and you’re drunk out of your tree; and the initial months were a lonely exercise in substance abuse. And I think this is the same for a lot of people. You’re miles from home, have more time on your hands than you know what to do with, and are forced to socialise with the random allocation of internationals in your hostel, classes and the cheesy orientation groups.

Alcohol is the glue that holds it together and as Avicii[2] blasts and you slug another shot of alcoholic flavoured sugar down, it’s easy to wonder why the fuck you bother. It certainly wasn’t for the education, with semi-fluent lecturers catering to the common denominator while anyone from an English speaking country coasted through. It felt like we were there just to get loose, friends and class be damned.

I had little in common with my housemates and the larger interactions were a cluster-fuck of butchered English and drunken shouting: how was I meant to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Fortunately I wasn’t alone in feeling this. As the semester wore on I finally cut through the bullshit and Twilight-reading losers to the good cunts: the people who had a sense of perspective, and dare I say it, taste. This isn’t to say that the partying stopped; it just had more purpose. These were dudes who would push you into hedonism: that unhinged state of mind where the only certainty is solidarity and more beer. And perhaps that was what it was all about. We were all from different countries, with different friends and hobbies; well, sort of. And look how connected we all were!

I played my part too and, in the absence of deadlines or places to be, we chased the dragon: getting a buzz on four times a week, minimum. So it was no surprise to find myself heading out on a Tuesday, tipsy at 7.30, feeling the effects of Jack Herrer[3] and Domelsch Pilsner as we cycled along the canals to a gig at Ekko.[4]

The gig, which I’ve described in greater detail elsewhere,[5] came to an early conclusion at 11 but we were far from done. Outside the sun had only just set and reality struck like an anvil. It was still early; there was plenty more mischief to be had.

We ended up at that most unspeakable of clubs, Poema, where International Night was in full swing and the queue of Dutch (no VIP entry for them) stretched out the door. In short, Poema was a mess. It always is. My brain relies on old experiences to fill in the gaps in my memory. Shots at the bar, flirting but loads more drunk, beer after beer and general debauchery reigns supreme.

I fill an empty beer class with water in the bathroom and try to grab a hold of myself. Pull it together you scag. It’s nearly half past three and you have to get up and print an assignment for hand in before lunchtime. One more drink.

At the bar Hamish tells me he hasn’t even started his. He is shitfaced drunk, we all are, and he is so fucked that he can’t help but laugh as we ridicule his claims that he will knock it out in the morning. This is the attitude to exchange we’ve been looking for: complete nonchalance, laughing in the face of deadlines.

Eventually, I don’t know when or why, I decide to leave and in the crisp air of another Utrecht night realise that I am more sideways than I thought. The bike’s creaky momentum is seductive and I struggle against the desire to shut my eyes. At first I risk brief periods but then ambivalence kicks in and I’m coasting, eyes wide shut in the lane, loving the feel of wind against my face.

BANG. I’m stumbling, on my feet instead of the bike. Reality knocks and my addled brain struggles for a reference. Where the fuck am I? I stagger into a standing position and pull my bike up, checking my elbows for blood. Not much, good, oh fuck – my jeans are split down the side and the car I’ve hit has had its revenge. I lick the blood off my hands and kick the shattered remains of the wing mirror out of my way. There is a guy watching and his exhale of “hofadommerr”[6] confirms the spectacle of my high-speed collision. Before he can comment further I am on my bike again, cycling home as fast as I can, the paranoia and guilt swilling round the sodden matter that is my brain.

That poor bastard, he’ll be outside in a few hours no doubt, ready for another day at his desk. What has he done to deserve a dent and no wing mirror? I have no justification so push the responsibility away – chalk it up to night and the vicious ghouls that hide deep in the bottom of the bottle. He’s probably an asshole, I some karmic agent, sent to extract revenge in the form of minor vandalism.

Viewed in isolation this night might seem extreme, worrying even. Who is this psychopathic boozehound, so set on self-destruction that he can’t even make the most of a cultural experience?

Well, here lies the kicker – this alcohol tinged period was a cultural experience in itself, and I learned a lot from it. I’m sure we all did, in our own way.

Debauchery mightn’t be pretty but it is a damn effective distracter when you need one. And, however sad it sounds, I did need one. There is redemption to be had in madness, and a big night will do wonders to make you forget the feelings of nihilism that lurk miles from home and all its familiarity. In lieu of other similarities the mythos of the night gave us a point of reference, shared experience, and solidarity.

Hamish never did finish that assignment. He didn’t care; he was on exchange, and it wasn’t meant to be the real world.


[1] At least I wasn’t forced to suffer through a peace retreat that culminated in the release of doves – yes, doves. The responsibility for this falls on UC Berkeley – but it’s hardly surprising American unis are more garish than their European counterparts…

[2] Or some other over-hyped trashy pop anthem. If you like this shit, then maybe you should go, for the music alone.

[3] A potent strain of Cannabis Sativa, available over the counter in wonderful, advanced Holland.

[4] A small live venue in central Utrecht.

[5] The full run-down can be found here.

[6] Dutch, expletitive: “What the fuck!” (Or something like that. And yup I’ve written it phonetically so good luck googling it).

The original of this was published in Craccum (the University of Auckland’s student magazine). If you prefer reading in the font your twelve year old sister used on her science fair, you can cop the original here.

2 thoughts on “On Exchange; or What Really Happens.

  1. I think you might be extrapolating your experience to others a bit much. I’m Australian, went to Germany, so not a hugely different set-up. I, like you, found the erasmus parties boring booze-ups where I was trying to make friends with people that I would never have bothered befriending at home. But with a bit of effort I, and others, found the select few cool people from the exchange crew. Then armed with somebody to go to things with we headed out and made friends with the non-erasmus city. Harder to make friends with locals, and if your not in a capital city there might not be many expats. But there was definitely a bunch of people from my co-hort who found diverse crews for themselves and engaged with the city on more than drinking.

  2. Yeah that’s a good point. There’s certainly much more to exchange than drinking and making friends – and Holland (where I was) had a whole heap to offer beyond this. I guess this was just me trying to rationalize a semester of hard drinking and a bit more homesickness that I anticipated when I left… I certainly wasn’t trying to sum up exchanges for everyone, but always keen to hear from others who relate.

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