Isanya Köhne

New school year, new beginnings. But what about memories? As announced earlier this week we are starting with a new project on the blog: ‘exchange your story’, where people who went on exchange share their stories. As ESN The Netherlands, we are here as a guide to the Netherlands, but we also like to contribute to mobility abroad. Therefore, each week we will be bringing one or two unique stories to the surface of people that went abroad for their studies. We’re kicking this campaign off with no one less than the brilliant brain behind it, Ivona.

24 years old and currently finalising her Masters’ degree in Business Communication and Digital Media at Tilburg University, Ivona did an exchange programme during her bachelors back in 2016/2017. Her country of choice: Spain. ‘I decided to do my minor at Loyola Andalucia in Seville, Spain. I chose this university because I had to study in French or Spanish, and I preferred the latter. The Spanish are very warm-hearted and kind people, which I discovered throughout some of my Spanish friends at home’. Let’s see what her experience was like.

‘No pasa nada’

That’s the sentence that best describes my exchange. Quickly translated it means ‘everything is okay’. The entire mentality in Seville is ‘no pasa nada’. If you were to bump into someone by accident on the street? No pasa nada. If your Spanish isn’t the best and the store clerk doesn’t speak English, but you’re trying to explain that you want to buy something specific? No pasa nada. People are just extremely relaxed. I came from the Netherlands, being more strict on timing and I remember getting stressed that things would go wrong. Having experienced living in Seville, made me realise that not everything needs to go perfect and that taking your time isn’t a sin. I’m proud to say I took this habit back home because I’m a stern believer that some things we can’t control and certain experiences just go into a certain direction.

My experience with the procedure of going on exchange was fairly easy. I had to send in a motivation and pick a top 3 of destinations. A month later I got word back which one it was going to be. Then it was my time to find a place. Finding housing is a bit of a funny story. I became a member of ‘Erasmus Students in Seville 2016/2017’ and not too long after a guy texted me asking if I was interested in living in his apartment together with 5 other exchange students as he believed I’d be a good fit for the house. Obviously I was a bit hesitant in the beginning, as we all know stories of people getting scammed online, so I asked him to provide me with some contacts of people that lived there previously. I spoke to some Dutch girls and they confirmed that it was all safe and a good place to live in, as it was an actual house, not an apartment. After a lot of thinking, I gave in and it was an amazing idea. To this day I’m happy I said yes, because of living in that house, I met my roommates who till this day are close friends.

A week in my life there looked a bit like the following: From Monday till Thursday I’d have university, so I spent those days at school. On Tuesdays, ESN Sevilla organised beer pong nights, where I’d go to hang out. On Thursdays, I would always go to the weekly party in my favourite club Hoyo. Fridays and the weekends were either for studying or travel. My week was perfectly balanced with having fun, but also enough time to study and travel. That way I really got to explore Spain. When it comes to communicating with the locals, I had to make my way in Spanish. It went fine, I knew the basics, and as time passed, I got better at speaking Spanish. The Spanish are incredibly friendly, and even if they might not speak English very well, they will always try to help you. I do suggest learning the language a bit if you decide to go for a longer period of time! I didn’t really experience a culture shock either. The only thing that I’d say was a shock is that it took me two months to realise that people from Andalusia, Sevilla’s region, don’t pronounce the ‘S’ when speaking Spanish. It’s safe to say that after realising that my Spanish skills skyrocketed!

Other than the Spanish, it was also incredibly easy to connect with other international students. As I mentioned before, most of my roommates were internationals. One was an ESN coordinator for ESN Sevilla and on my second day, he brought me to a small ESN event where I got the chance to meet other international students that came to Seville. In the days, weeks, and months after, I went to plenty of ESN events and met people from all over the world with whom I still speak to till this day. Everyone I met was super open-minded and willing to build a friendship. I think that’s the magic of being an exchange student; we’re all on the same journey, just our starting points differ.

Downtown Sevici

My fondest memory is that of a particular Friday, I believe the third week of my exchange. I hadn't seen the entire city yet by that point and I thought it was a great idea to go and explore it in 40 degrees. So I grabbed my camera, took the famous Sevici, a rental bike in Seville, and made my way downtown. First, I went to Plaza de España and I remember going through the gates and seeing the huge square with fountains, the many colours, small boats in the canal, and the many balconies. Women were dancing flamenco, men were playing the guitar and everyone seemed so happy. The whole scenario blew my mind. After staying for some minutes, I proceeded to the centre through the quarter of Santa Cruz to Las Setas. I remember everyone so relaxed, nipping their beers and eating tapas, and I realised then, how lucky I was to be living in this city. If there’s anything you must do or try when you’re in Seville, is going to Las Setas (the Mushroom). It’s the biggest wooden structure in the world. You can go up and enjoy the view of the city. I recommend going in the late afternoon and watch the sunset from up there. The orange glow on top of that city is nothing like anything before. After, you should head to Levis Bar, a tapas restaurant that’s extremely good. They have different kinds of tapas, but the camembert frito, which is fried camembert with cranberry sauce, is by far my favourite.

The one thing I wish I knew before going on exchange is to bring a second phone, just in case you lose yours or it gets stolen. From all my friends that I made in Seville, about 40% of them either lost it, broke it, or got it stolen. My phone had been stolen when I was in Portugal and then I had to return to Seville via Blablacar. I didn’t know the license plate nor did I have a watch to check the time. I felt quite lost at that moment. Luckily, I noticed another girl waiting for what seemed to be the same car and we waited together. I got home safe to Seville. However a 7-hour drive without my little pocket computer was quite the challenge. But oh well, now I laugh at the story, but bringing a second phone is always my tip to anyone that goes on exchange.

Recollecting memories

I went back after four months to visit my friends that were still there and I also went back during La Feria de Abril in 2019. I was already in love with Seville, but returning during La Feria made me fall even harder for this city. During this event, a square a bit out of the centre is transformed into a huge fair with casetas, which are tents. In these casetas, the Spanish gather with their families and friends, eat the best food and party all night long. To get into a caseta, you need to be invited, so unfortunately you cannot enter all of them. There are public ones, but they are by far not as fun as the private casetas. My friends and I managed to get into a private one and had an amazing night dancing to Spanish music and enjoying rebujitos. The best part about this event is that the women get dressed in the traditional Flamenco dresses and men get dressed like Caballeros, and then the men take their beautiful woman on a horse to the fair. It’s amazing to see everyone dressed up and how the city gets coloured by the people. I hope I can go again in 2021 because I would love to see these colours again.

University of life

My mom once described an exchange as the university of life, and I think it couldn’t be described any better. During our studies we learn specific knowledge and skills, but there is so much more to learn besides that. For example, during my exchange, I improved my Spanish tremendously, as I was forced to use it daily. My Spanish skills wouldn’t be as good as they are now if I never went on exchange to Spain. I also learned so much about other cultures, and how to approach or work with people with different backgrounds. But most importantly, I think going on exchange is valuable as you REALLY get out of your comfort zone, especially when you go alone. I went alone without knowing anyone, and it’s like writing an entirely new book, not knowing how the chapters will go, who the characters are or how the story will end. You only know you are the main character and decide how you’d like to write it. My exchange definitely encouraged me to jump into the unknown more often, to grab the opportunities that come along your path and taught me lessons I wouldn't get taught anywere else. In the end, those opportunities  gave me the best experiences, memories, and even friendships.

The biggest obstacle I faced during my exchange was mastering the language. In the beginning, I couldn’t speak it very well, I was at an A2 level. The teachers spoke fast and students didn’t speak English that well, so it was definitely a struggle as one of the only exchange students in the classes. It’s something that became a little easier during the span of your exchange, but it’s definitely something I struggled with through the entire experience. If you’re thinking of going on exchange, don’t doubt it, just go. You’re still young, have the energy and the time. This is an opportunity of a lifetime, and you will make memories and friendships that no one can take away from you. 

Without my exchange, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. When I got back to the Netherlands, I got inspired by my exchange to learn more about Digital Marketing and I knew I wanted to join ESN in the Netherlands to still feel that international vibe. So I did. I joined ESN in 2018 and now, two years later, I’m still very much involved. And I am doing my masters' in Communication. So you can definetly conclude that my exchange put my life in a different direction. I'm glad it happened this way, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

A huge thank you to Ivona for sharing her stories about her exchange in the wonderful boasting Seville, Spain. If you have any questions about Seville as an exchange destination, don’t hesitate to contact her. She says she is happy to help you with your decision! And for those who would like to share their experience abroad as well, you know where to find us.