‘Of Snow, Beer And Apples’ – Ayush Agarwal’s SEP Experience
One thing that was clear even before I started my MBA at IIFT was my resolve to go to Europe through the Student Exchange Program. I was offered an opportunity to study in IESEG Institute of Management in Lille in the months of January, February and March. Lille is a beautiful town located in northern France, right next to Belgium.
I reached Paris on the late evening of 29th December and my first “Developed World” experience was taking a high speed train, the French call it the TGV, from Paris to Lille. About 50 minutes into the journey I woke up from my nap and heard the announcement that the train is about to reach Lille. I was bewildered. Lille is about 260 Kilometers away from Paris and the train, with its top speed of about 320 Kmph, took just over 50 minutes to complete the journey. We took a swish Merc S-Class from the train station to reach a beautiful cozy house rented through our seniors’ reference.
Over the next 87 days, I travelled to 45 cities in 14 countries. I explored hills, mountains, forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes and beaches. I saw ancient ruins, medieval palaces and modern skyscrapers. I travelled in trains for hundreds of hours, had more than 100 types of beers and ate several different cuisines. Most importantly I met people from different geographies and cultures and made countless new friends.
Let’s start with the “Student” part of it. My exchange batch consisted of people from over 90 countries. I had modular courses, each course a week long, with the final exams on Fridays. I had to opt for a minimum of 4 courses and spent around 25 days in Lille completing my duties as a student. During this time, I explored Lille, got a taste of the French culture, the extremely fussy language, the general reluctance to understand English and the world famous wine and cuisine.
Now let’s move to my favorite part. The “Travels”.
With its matchless connectivity via road, rail and air, Europe is a traveler’s paradise. I brought a Eurail Global Pass from an Indian travel firm. The pass provided me access to the rail network in over 28 countries and is of immense value for anyone looking to travel as much as I did. All major cities are 4-8 hours away from each other in a serial fashion and you can travel more than half of Europe in a full day’s train travel. The best part about using a Eurail pass is that one can travel in most trains without any reservation and no prior booking is required. This means you can plan your travels on the go.
Most of my travel was solo. I did not want to compromise on my choices of cities and locations. And I did not want to stay in my comfort zone by travelling in a group of friends. I wanted to talk to local people, to other travelers and at times to my own self (what better place to self-reflect than an empty natural park). Hence, I decided to travel alone. I booked youth hostels via mobile apps (Hostelworld is a great app) most of the time. Youth hostels are a great place to find crazy people from around the world who share the same passion for travelling. I also relied on a few friends who were studying or working at convenient locations in Europe for free food and shelter.
Though I was carrying a phone, I did not buy a SIM card during the entire three months. Not that it was expensive or difficult to get one, but I wanted to limit my communication with my conventional world, specially email and social networking. I wanted to read books in trains and not spend hours on Whatsapp. I wanted to spend my time on my thoughts, not on Facebook timelines. I did not want to walk on beautiful thousand year old streets with my eyes hooked on to my screen for directions. I wanted to get lost on turns and corners and ask people for directions using gestures of all sorts. Sometimes it got scary and cold and sometimes I got desperate. But then the satisfaction I got when I finally found the way to my hostel or to a warm cozy pub serving chilled beer was priceless. Free Wi-Fi is easily available across Europe in cafes, hotels, hostels and places of public transport so one can easily get important things done without being constantly connected.
Let’s talk a little about other basic human needs besides shelter and Wi-Fi and discuss food and beer. Europeans have a fixation with cold breakfasts which is strange as it is already freezing cold in winters. Majority of the buffets that I devoured in youth hostels were cold. And in majority of them, the main items were cheese slices, baguettes, bread slices (toaster if you are lucky) and a lot of salami slices. Cereals, milk and apples are available for vegetarians almost throughout. Every place I stayed had a kitchen which made great sense as restaurants are really expensive. Get your stuff from the nearest supermarket, assemble a quick meal and gulp it all down with beer. My food choices were not very fancy. Sandwiches and apples while you are on the move. Pasta when you have a kitchen, reheated frozen pizzas when you have a kitchen with a microwave. I did try a lot of local cuisine too, mostly the famous street food as restaurants are really expensive. Trust me, fine dining can cost you as much as three days of your entire travel budget in places such as Switzerland and Sweden.
Sometimes when I see my entire trip in hindsight, I often ask myself if it was about beautiful European cities or about beer. Every major city in Europe has at least three local beers which are excellent. Then there are some which are famous all over a country. And then some are famous all over a region. Even big supermarket chains have some of their own brands. Beer, milk, juices, energy drinks, carbonated beverages and even mineral water, all lie in the same price range making the decision easier from the consumer perspective. The Bavarian region of Germany has beer halls and beer gardens where you can get it in one litre mugs and sit on long tables with locals and tourists who will make sure you don’t feel alone. There is a famous café in Brussels, Belgium by the name of Delirium Café, which stocks more than 2000 different brands of beer from all around the world. The menu is as thick as a telephone directory. For me the single most important factor that differentiated Europe was that beer was available and was allowed in all public places. In Streets, coffee shops, movie theatres, trains and buses, you can have beer just like you have water. And the best thing about this golden liquid is its ability to help you strike a conversation. You meet people from far and wide over beer.
You get exposed to people from all around the world over a super short time frame. Allow me to illustrate. For three nights I was in Prague, the capital of Czech Republic and the cultural centre of Eastern Europe. On the first night, I just wandered on the beautiful streets admiring the architecture and trying some local delicacies.
The second night, I had absinthe shots in a club with a cyber-security expert from London, an environmentalist from Alaska and a police trainer from Buenos Aires. We discussed how cars and girls change as one travels from Japan to Peru. I was planning to spend the third night in my youth hostel quietly, all thanks to the previous “extra” eventful night. Then in the kitchen, I met a bartender from Texas, a Chinese guy from Hong Kong doing masters in architecture from Vienna and a mysterious Canadian guy and we discussed global political ideologies and the Trump-USA fiasco over hot chocolate. These are just some of the many such chance meetings that happened during my time in Europe.
Travelers are generally open minded, accommodating and not insecure about their origins so the information you gain about one’s country and culture over such casual discussions is invaluable. You realize that it really is global when you meet a bunch of Japanese guys fluent in Sanskrit in a Croatian cafe, drink Belgian beer and eat Mexican quesadillas.
Saint Augustine, whose writings influenced western philosophy once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” I studied with people from Latin America and Korea in the same class. I found Buddhist monks in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. I shopped from a Pakistani store in the Jewish quarters of Budapest. I cooked chicken curry and pulao for some guys from main land China. The world is a small jovial place if you want it to be.
Europe is going through the Syrian immigration crisis and is under the constant threat of terror attacks. Still at no point in time in my entire journey, I felt any distress. Give everyone a genuine smile and chances are, they’ll smile right back at you. My travels, first made me speechless and now, a storyteller. Hope my experiences help you when you go on your own journey.
One last tip, get a good rain and snow proof jacket. And a sturdy pair of shoes. Happy tripping.
About the Author:
Ayush Agarwal is a Full Time student of MBA (IB) Student of 2015-17 Batch.