Culture & Society News Poland

In Warsaw, Erasmus students try to make the most of their exchange year despite COVID-19


Warsaw, Poland – As the Polish academic year gets in full swing, Warsaw is welcoming many foreign students who, despite the introduction of online courses, have decided to experience an exchange year abroad with the Erasmus program. Three students tell us about this choice, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic measures on their lives abroad.

If the situation related to the Covid-19 pandemic in Poland appeared to have been one of the most promising ones in Europe this summer, the drastic increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in September has pushed the Polish government to put in place new restrictions.

Since 17 October, and in addition to the measures already in place, the number of people allowed in shops has been limited, as has the number of people in theatres. One week later, bars and restaurants closed – nightclubs had already been shut down – except for take-away food and drinks. Schools have the obligation to organize online courses, which was already the case for the majority of Warsaw universities. Such measures were already being considered as early as the end of the summer.

Enjoying the Erasmus year in Warsaw at all costs

In spite of these measures, many students, mainly European, have chosen to come to Poland to live and study for an Erasmus year. This is the case of Natália, a Slovak student at the University of Warsaw, whom I met at the café “Pożegnanie z Afryką” in the old town. A 23-year-old student with an elegant suit, rather shy but curious, she already spent last semester in Warsaw and decided to repeat the experience for her second Erasmus stay. After ordering a mulled wine, she explains that it was the quality of the courses, even those given online, that motivated her choice.

Natalia, a Slovak Erasmus student in Warsaw

But Natália regrets the obvious gap between online and face-to-face courses. “Last semester I saw the switch from regular courses to online courses, and I think that some teachers handled the situation very well. But I’ve also had a couple of classes where the teacher was just sending in readings, which of course I wasn’t reading,” she admits, rolling her eyes with a knowing look. By choosing Warsaw a second time, she still hoped “that the lessons would be 50% online and 50% face-to-face.”

The situation is different for Léna, a sociology student at the Côte d’Azur University in Nice, France, who chose to do her Erasmus in Warsaw in December 2019 when the word pandemic had not even been uttered yet. When I meet her, wrapped in a long coat and a heavy scarf at “Shabby Chic”, another café in the old town where we share toast and sernik, accompanied by a pumpkin latte, she explains to me that she nevertheless decided to come to Poland to discover another culture, but also to meet new people. “I really want to meet people from all over the world, I think it’s a great gift for us, I think we should really take advantage of it […]. But I also want to meet Poles because it’s the cultural side of the experience, I want to understand their culture, their language, their codes.”

Faced with the closing of nightclubs and the inevitable Zoom courses, the student does not admit defeat: she uses the Erasmus groups on social media, but also Tandem, an application that put people who want to learn a language in touch with each other and meet peers of different backgrounds and nationalities. She tells us, with sparkling eyes, about her meeting with a Pole the day before, in the same café where we’re sitting, thanks to this application. After a sip of a latte, she also tells me that meeting in small groups of people who share the same interests can be a new way of meeting: “I think that in these times, digital technology will play an even greater role in meetings and social relationships. It’s a bit sad, but it can also bring a lot.”

Léna, a French Erasmus student in Warsaw

Not giving up on face-to-face meetings despite COVID-19 restrictions

Her stay in Poland is by no means a disappointment, since meeting new people and discovering a new culture is, according to her, the essence of any exchange abroad. She even adds that although these mediums make encounters more difficult and less natural, they’re simply another way of discovering people: “I think you have to motivate yourself to go out and meet people. There’s a lot taken away from us with online courses, this less spontaneous side of meeting others, so you have to meet people elsewhere. »

This is also what Khaled, an Egyptian student from the University of Rome who’s supposed to stay for a semester at Warsaw Polytechnic, says. Although his Afro haircut and disarming smile make him look more party-like than Natalia, he explains that he’s not a big fan of one-night encounters: “I prefer to meet people at the university, not in nightclubs… because they’re always drunk.” But the restrictions on bars and restaurants make meeting people “more difficult […] Online you can’t physically meet people,” he adds as he finishes sipping his hot chocolate.

Léna also admits that this semester in Poland will be very different from the one she spent in Mexico two years ago, which she recalls with a touch of nostalgia: “The closing of the nightclubs, I must say, is a real shame. When I was in Mexico, [the overall experience] revolved around that”. But she does not necessarily regret these evenings: “As it’s closed now, we have to spend more time with people and meet up in other places like cafés.” But when bars and cafes also shut down on 24 October, it’s a new meeting place that disappeared. Léna tries, once again, to stay positive: “There are still parks, we’re lucky to have a lot of them in Warsaw! And even if it’s going to be cold, we’ll wear gloves!”. She nevertheless admits that it will be even more complicated than before.

Khaled, an Egyptian Erasmus student in Warsaw

However, all three of them admit that the restrictions will not prevent them from participating in student parties if these are organised in flats or authorised places. Khaled says that he will of course respect the government’s measures, even if he sometimes finds them inappropriate, and in particular believes that some of them are put in place to control rather than protect the population. He mentions, for example, the wearing of face-masks in the street – when getting up to pay the bill, he actually forgets to put his mask back on, which doesn’t seem to shock anyone. The same feeling goes for Natália, for whom the measures seem ultimately to be of little use, especially considering that the Warsaw Erasmus Organisation, organised a week of integration at the end of September with student parties and nightclubbing.

Moreover, she admits with a smile that she wants to enjoy the last night before the restrictions of 17 October were put in place: “I think they’re closing tomorrow, so I’ll go tonight for the last night, and if other parties are organised, I’ll go because I’m so bored,” she concludes with a weary pout and playing with the lemon at the bottom of her glass. Léna sums up the situation as follows: “I don’t want to spend my Erasmus year psycho-analysing myself and wondering if I contracted COVID-19. If I’m sure I have it, I’ll take the necessary precautions, but I think you have to know how to make the most of the experience, […] you need to meet other people, whether it’s in a flat or during a meet-up.” She adds that she lives alone and doesn’t put anyone in danger by circumventing the measures. Natália, on the contrary, lives in a shared flat with several students, which she believes would make a potential lockdown more pleasant.

This year is bound to be special, including for Erasmus students, who may find it difficult to compare their experience with that of their predecessors, as Lena points out. Hopeful, she adds that the measures will perhaps make it possible to “spend more intimate or personal time with the other person and get to know him/her better” – and therefore that they should not in any way prevent them from enjoying their semester abroad.

Article written by Pauline Boudier and originally published by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.