Marina originally came to Estonia for an Erasmus exchange semester during her undergrad studies, but loved it so much that is now back again for her PhD at Estonian University of Life Sciences. This post is for everyone that is finishing their studies in Estonia and planning on returning home.
Coming back home from abroad is always hard. We’ve made new friends, tasted new food, had so many new experiences, and now we are supposed to go back to our normal lives? This is especially the case after being abroad for a longer period of time, like an Erasmus semester (or several years of degree studies). The period of adjusting back to regular life in the home country is also known as the post-Erasmus-blues.
How can we make this time easier? I mean, not everyone is like me and goes straight back to Estonia to live there from now on, although I highly recommend it. Here are some more practical tips:
Bring the tastes, scents, and sounds with you
Ask for that Estonian bread recipe and learn how to make it yourself. Bring a jar of your favorite Estonian honey or jam. Yes, get another one of those scented candles you used all semester long, and smell the scent also at home. This will give you a sense of familiarity in your now unfamiliar old home. Keep cooking the dishes you ate during your time in Estonia.
Did you discover a local band while here? Consider supporting them and yourself by buying their album as an actual copy and getting their signatures at a concert. I also have a Spotify playlist that I call “kuud Eestis” (months in Estonia) that includes all the songs that I discovered here – the first Estonian song I ever heard, that one song that my Pilates teacher always played for the warm-up, the song me and my best friend had the most epic dance battle to, the song that I heard while making a new friend in an Estonian restaurant, and so on. Every time I listen to this playlist, every single song has a story.
Home-made Estonian white bread. Photo: Marina
Choose your souvenirs wisely
There is no point in buying a suitcase full of memorabilia. Fridge magnets? Boring. I’m not saying you should avoid souvenir stores, but do think before you shop. The best thing I ever bought from a souvenir store was a coaster made from juniper wood. When I put my hot cup of tea on it, my room starts smelling like Estonia. Whenever I wear a certain pair of gloves, I remember my first trip to Viljandi and how I found the gloves in a tiny store there. And I still love the dress I found in Tartu’s Humana store, not because it is uniquely Estonian, but because it reminds me of going to the theater in Estonia for the first time. Buy souvenirs that are practical. Every time you use them, they will bring back memories of your time abroad. They will be more than just clutter.
Continue the experience
Like I said, not everybody wants to move abroad permanently. You may also not be the kind of person to go to another country for another Erasmus experience. But there are other ways to continue learning in an international environment. Working with international students at your home university, for example, be it as an exchange coordinator, as a volunteer for organizing events for international students, offering advice as a tutor… there are many ways!
It's important to keep exploring. Photo: Marina
One of the main things we do while we are abroad is explore the new country and culture. We don’t feel weird going to a restaurant or bar alone. We see a new place every weekend. We go on trips with friends. After I had been to every single museum in Tartu (well, alright, I have not been to the toy museum, I have to admit that), I realized that I had not been to a single museum in my hometown. Why not? I guess because your hometown doesn’t run away. But trust me, those five or six years of studying fly by faster than we think! So as soon as I got back to my home university, I started exploring the city and the area around. Went to museums. Tried out new restaurants. Went on weekend trips with friends. Turns out, there are also lots of different cultures at the home university, and the home country can also be exciting and show some unexpected features!
Take time to adjust
This is so important. Coming home from a vacation by plane and going straight to work the next day is stressful and destroys the relaxation you built that week. Your exchange semester was much longer than a week, and you have way more experiences to process! Try to schedule your return so that you have a week or even longer before school or work duties call again. Take the time to unpack, review your wardrobe, rearrange your room (or whatever you feel you need after living in a different room for a couple of months), hang all the new pictures, and talk about everything with your friends and family. Don’t rush. Allow yourself to be sad or confused (or both).
Did you know that culture shock actually happens twice? Photo: Marina
The actual readjustment of course takes even longer than a week. Did you know that culture shock happens twice? When you arrive at another country, and again when you get back to your home country, as you have adjusted to a different culture. You may view some things differently now, you may appreciate or dislike aspects of your own culture, which you didn't before. You will go through the five stages of culture shock again. In the honeymoon stage, you will remember all the good things about your home and be glad to be back to this comfort. In the distress or disintegration state you will see the things that you liked more about Estonia, and you might feel isolated because of your different experiences. Then you will become reintegrated, feel all the emotions and try to change things. But from there it will get easier. You will accept the differences between the cultures and see the values of both, and eventually take the best of both worlds.
Understand that the freedom is in you
The most important thing that I learned during my Erasmus changed my mindset completely. I used to be a person who studied until deep into the night and stressed about exams weeks in advance. But an Erasmus-semester feels lighter somehow. You suddenly feel that you are allowed to go to parties all the time (ok, maybe not during a pandemic…), go on trips almost every weekend, and spend more time with friends than with textbooks. I have never danced so much and tried out so many new sports than during my Erasmus. And you know what? I still got good grades, I still met all my deadlines. Turns out, mental health is just as important as studying — what a surprise! The real skill is to take that discovery home. To understand that this feeling of freedom is not because you are abroad, but because you actually are free. When you are feeling good, studying will be easier also at your home university. When you spend time outdoors with friends, you will find the balance between studying and socializing. The important thing is that you spend your free time not in front of a screen, but actually doing things that relax your brain and boost your endorphins. There are so many things to see and do wherever you are. Life at home is not boring compared to life in Estonia.
Sunset in Tartu, Estonia. Photo: Marina
That said… life in Estonia is still the best, and so many of us come back, for internships, for PhD studies, for work. Some people plan to come here for only a few months and end up staying. Estonia just works its magic.
How will you overcome the post-Erasmus-blues?