< SWITCH ME >

 

Utrecht Oude Gracht en Bakkerbrug 1900
Painting: Oude Gracht en Bakkerbrug (Wikipedia); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

The (old) city of Utrecht, where E&M's author met the most diverse nationalities, from Polish to Spanish - including Dutch!

When I think about the person I was 5 years ago, it is clear to me how much things have changed. If I try to find out the reasons for this personal growth, without hesitation I would say that it's all about my travels. That was when everything started.

My horizons were widened when I left home for the first time, going to a country where I had never been before. The "excuse" was to attend one semester at Utrecht University, in The Netherlands, thanks to the alluring opportunity offered by the Erasmus programme. From a little town in central Italy, whose homogeneous population shares the same culture and traditions, to a realm of diversity. A mix of accents, beliefs, religions, values, habits, Utrecht depicted a larger framework compared to the one I was used to - perhaps too insular or attached to its Italian roots.

I had a revelation before my eyes. I got to meet Spanish, Latvian, Polish, Portuguese, Czech, Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, Hungarian, British, German, Slovakian, French, Dutch (of course!) and so many others, who I can’t even remember. I was amazed by the diversity and I felt I could learn a lot by travelling: I wanted to embrace all the cultures and feel part of a bigger mindset.

One day, while trying to hitchhike from Utrecht to Amsterdam, we ended up being offered a lift by a business-looking man. Looking at his beautiful black shinning car, I could see myself reflecting in it - it was so clean. Although we were feeling quite embarrassed during the trip due to the huge contrast with his fanciness, he told us something I will never forget. “You wanna know why I picked you up, guys? We live in such an individualistic world, people keep their stories and lives with themselves, we're afraid of sharing with others. What the fuck is wrong with this world?” he said. That quote would never leave my memory.

Once back to Italy and having finished university, I was conscious and confident enough to take the decision to move further. Again, I applied for another European programme, the Leonardo Da Vinci placement, and moved to London for an internship. There it was a real melting pot made of people from all Europe and beyond: what an amazing scenario for my desire of encounters! On the other hand, it was scary because of the multiplicity of the cultures - I didn't expect it, neither had I known how to deal with it. I remember fighting with my polish flatmate who had completely different habits than mine, or keeping forgetting the name of the Greek girl I was living with. I still cannot figure it out. It was then that I realised that the environment where I grew up had remarkably influenced my perception of the multi-cultural world, dwelling on prejudices and stereotypes.

By travelling and moving from one country to another, without realising it, I started to open up my mind till reaching a point where today I can’t go back: the feeling of being globally the same, beyond the actual borders of each countries, all of us with our stories and identities, sharing the fact of being European citizens. That’s why I decided to keep traveling and this time really in the name of Europe: I applied for the European Voluntary Service (EVS) and got accepted in Spain. Let’s move again!

The EVS experience represented the exact opportunity I wanted to develop myself as a person, in terms of being able to "speak European" and thus fit in many situations. Europe is seen by many as a dream or a myth, but they don’t go further, realising that Europe it's us today, it's a continent itself made of multiple identities. By no coincidence, the man with the black car I met in Utrecht was right: people are afraid to share, they are proud of their comfort zones, blessed with their ready-made futures. I feel there is a haunted fear of wandering and getting exposed to new cultures: people are stuck with their preconceptions that are making each country lonelier.

I have always loved travelling, but today I travel with different eyes. Now I see how for example Brusels seems like a mix of The Netherlands and France; or how Budapest could appear like Berlin; same with the south of Spain and the South of Italy, which look very similar. The truth is that every country has influenced one another. In the end, we should recognise the continuity of one state and celebrate the unity of Europe. Let's unanimously enlarge the frame and realise that in the end, we are all the same under the roof of the EU.

By embracing the consciousness of the Europeanisation, I became a better person, overcoming anachronisms. Regardless of my position, I feel there is still the need of a more modern, open and democratic approach to this topic, which is the fact the feeling that Europe's identity is something voluntary and not arbitrary. The reality is that many people do not realise the benefits we could achieve by believing in a common cause, the Europeanisation at a national level.

Presently, I keep travelling and I am proud to be one of those kids from "the Erasmus+ generation". Kudos to the European Union that has given us such opportunities, seeding the soil and making it ripe to open the mind for diversity.

 

Martina Saladino photoTHE AUTHOR

Martina Saladino is originally from Italy but she's been living in many countries, (basically she's world-based). With a degree in Media and Communication, she has worked in advertising, fashion and for the non-profit sector. Her passions vary from travelling (of course!), to going to exhibitions, buying art books and speaking foreign languages. Defining herself a "creative and digital producer", she's now a freelancer doing many things with people from all around the world.

Her portfolio can be found at http://martinasaladino.co.uk/.

Teaser photo: Public Domain (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

NEXT ISSUE 01.10.2017