On a rather ordinary appearing day in September, I exit the terminal of Nikola Tesla airport, near Belgrade, Serbia. It is + 31 C, and I am wearing my hiking boots with woolen socks. A local friend has come to pick me up with his dad’s car. I scramble for a seatbelt that doesn’t exist, and mumble something about making a law about having seatbelts in cars, to which my friend cheerfully replies: ”Oh, it is a law”. As we drive to Novi Sad, in a car that is in Finnish standards un-drivable, through small villages with dirty unclothed children petting scruffy stray dogs, only one thought frantically blinks in my head: I will not survive here. The culture shock is evident.
Thankfully, when we arrive to Novi Sad, the environment is drastically different. Wide streets lined with colourful and unique buildings and people that look well of and seem friendly and warm, countless of restaurants and coffee places tucked away in small idyllic pedestrian streets, with huge terraces that have brightly coloured chairs. One would never believe, that two places so fundamentally different exist merely tens of kilometres away from each other.
Still, the culture gap remains huge. A certain disregard for rules and regulations as well as for deadlines and times, that is apparent in nearly everything here, remains shocking to this Finn, who considers herself law abiding, punctual and conscientious even in Finnish standards. In fact I have stopped using the word time all together, because in Serbia, specific times do not exist, only time frames, which are also merely for guidance. Although this kind of care freeness would probably be relaxing for some, for me it has meant a lack of security and stability, which especially at first was very unnerving and stressful. To say that this experience has made me come out of my comfort zone would be a gross understatement. In fact I feel more like I have been forcefully pushed into a rocket and sent speeding a 100 miles per second away from my comfort zone. However, a part of me thinks that maybe I needed this. Although I still think some structure is necessary and healthy to have in life, I am starting to notice that maybe I don’t have to plan everything: after all, so many unexpected things happen here every day, and I’ve survived them, and often times even enjoyed them.
Despite my difficulties, I don’t regret coming, because while this has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, it has also been one of the best. Although it would sound very mature and progressive to say things like “these challenges have enabled personal growth” or “experiencing life in such a different culture has manifested into great appreciation of things that I have taken for granted” and although these statements are completely true, I would be lying if I claimed that these things alone make me think that coming here was a good decision. Instead, the best part by far has been being a part of the community of exchange students here. Yes I am here in Novi Sad, but with my new friends, I am also in a mountain village in Italy, in the upbeat outskirts of Munich, my toes tucked into the warm sand of a beach in Greece. It is a cultural emersion that leaves you yearning for more. I truly believe that there is no other experience like going to an exchange. Even if you travel around and meet people, even if you stay in the big dorm rooms of hostels to socialize or have lots of international friends, it won’t be the same. You’ll never get a chance to meet so many people from your age group from so many places and form lasting friendships with them. There is an atmosphere of mutual acceptance, that fills you with confidence in the world, because you notice that no matter where people are from, at the end of the day, they are just the same as you are.
Among my international friends I am feeling more confident and more genuinely myself than perhaps ever before. My intense emotionality, passionate reactivity and surprising talkativeness, that in Finland gets me labelled as overemotional and unpredictable (in a bad way) are here described as interesting bubbliness, which people constantly enforce by openly saying how much they like my personality. This experience has made me realise just how much I’ve been holding myself back and toning myself down in Finland, and how big a relief it is when I can just open up and let it all go. And even though I am going to return to Finland, I don’t intend to return to my toned down self, even though my personality might sometimes be a bit too much for Finland.
My experience here will last for a while more and during that time I aim to breath in the world and breath out the fears and constraints within myself, because I know that the universe will carry me through and keep making this Erasmus+ experience a life changing one, in this beautiful city, among these beautiful people.