"So how was your exchange?"
I give a moderately humble head-bob, nod, smile, and answer - yeah, it was good.
This is a question every student is asked by dozens. I can't speak for the others, but it really stumps me. For even if it were a 3 hour movie, I'd barely manage a crisp answer. How can I even begin to answer for an experience that lasted 3 months?
Fortunately, I do have a slightly more sophisticated answer than 'It was good'.
And so it begins.
The student exchange program was one of the reasons I wanted to be an MBA student, and helped me decide which college to go to. Of course you ask the same question in an interview to an aspiring MBA or even the so called successful one, they'll go: "I'm a natural at managing. Even when I was a baby I made other babies arrange their toys the way I wanted, as that way I could look at the big picture."
The only significant preparation I've seen an exchange student before going to Europe is dream. Oh sure attempts will be made at planning - "We'll do Eastern, then France, then Italy." Like they are household chores waiting to be done. In the end all you are left with is a tiny bucket list of things, and a head full of dreams.
You know how sometimes when too many good thoughts occur altogether, we sense an anticlimactic end? Like you’re expected to pay tax for all your happiness? The time taken to reach that threshold differs with people's estimate of their self-worth, but eventually you get there. Things seem to be so good you can't believe it. Sometime before my flight, I reached that point as well, which led me to ask my friends about their experiences.
"Don't worry, Kishore, it’ll be amazing!"
"Is every exchange experience that great?"
"Every one of them?"
"But there's gotta be one that's shitty, right?"
"No. You'll see what I mean pretty soon."
Without question, the experience overall has defied every expectation. My intention is to give an honest account of this unraveling - the good, the bad, and the ugly. It would be delusional to say that I see silver unicorns galloping across rainbows when I look back at my time abroad.
Otherwise, my narration will be no different from most Facebook feeds; an endless chain of bright moments, masking darker times.
Secondly, reviewing and rating every place I went to like I’m the prodigal son of TripAdvisor isn’t really a priority. There are certain moments and times though, that stand out. It could be for many a reason; the place, my state of mind, the road I walked, the woman I met.
Europe is an experience that is unique to each traveler, though they may walk similar paths. I have never known two separately brewed cups of tea to taste the same despite following one recipe.
Even a long, sleepless, and tiring flight couldn’t dampen our spirits in the slightest, as we gazed wide-eyed at the streets of Copenhagen after landing.
During the first week’s stay in Copenhagen – you know, the city where I was supposed to study but didn’t because I’m an exchange student – one day outshines. This was the day I went to Malmo, a city in southern Sweden.
Everything felt surreal initially. We were utterly overwhelmed by the feeling: Oh my God, I’m in Europe! It was just me and a friend from college, walking all over the city, relishing pizza and beer on the streets, and what not. Discovering new items in the kitchen of our rented apartment was like finding treasure, and even doing the dishes was done ungrudgingly.
But the day we were joined by other friends, and the two became a group, it went downhill faster than my graduation grades. Individually, they are all good company, and good friends of mine. Not so much as a group. Though being an introvert induces group aversion, the problem isn’t all groups – it was this one, for whom all salvation is obtained by drink and smoke. (I drink too, this isn't about saintliness) If you would ask them about Maslow’s hierarchy, they are likely to say “let’s grab a beer, get self-actualized, and then roll. It’ll be awesome.”
I had heard about Malmo in some obscure conversation. There were no specifics as such that intrigued me about it, except that it was just half an hour away from Copenhagen. That’s when two impulses took over me – the first was to cross international borders, the second was to travel alone.
I have never really traveled alone before this. Spending hours on Bandstand and Marine Drive with a camera capturing crows and sunsets barely counts. But the idea always had some appeal in my head. Often I wanted to get away from work and daily life into the woods and mountains on my own. And I wasn’t alien to living that way – I shop alone, go to movies alone, sometimes even drink alone. It isn’t a big deal, unless the waiter at a restaurant remarks – ‘Table for one, sir? Just one?’
My parents can recall how this isn’t an instinct I suddenly developed. Apparently I used to wander off away from home for a couple of blocks, when I was yay high. It’s difficult to say what has held me back since. But the stage was finally set. Here lay the canvas, waiting for me to paint my life on it. All one needs is a Eurail Pass - the holy grail of all exchange students – and a heart that’s willing to explore.
So while my company was exploring higher realms of the universe one fine evening, it was hence decided that I’m going to Malmo next morning.