Yesterday I watched L’Auberge Espagnole again, for the first time in probably six or seven years. It’s odd how some things never age while simultaneously getting really old — I’m talking to you, 90s-era shapeless mom jeans and you, too, Audrey Tautou’s ugly sandals. And yet, despite its inevitable aging, we all have those movies that mean more to us, our group of friends, or even our generation, than any song or book.
For those of you who didn’t spend your teenage years watching this movie at every house party, sleepover, and Spanish (or French) class, it’s the story of a French student who is told that he should go to finish his degree in Spain because jobs are being created to compete with the rise of the Spanish market. He thus decides to try an Erasmus program (essentially study abroad for us Europeans). So the uptight and confused Xavier leaves for Barcelona and there, he discovers life — bare, intense, joyful life. He shares an apartment (and only one refrigerator) with people from all corners of Europe, discovering that the chaos inside of him also exists in real life, between all of these people living together, partying together, and being European together.
For most young French people, but also generally European 20-somethings, that movie was, and still is, an anthem. Yet what struck me most notably after all this time is how different the Erasmus experience is now from what it used to be.
When Xavier leaves for Barcelona, his girlfriend thinks it’s the end of the world — but wait, isn’t Barcelona, like, 49€ away with Easyjet? He and the other Erasmus students have trouble making the Catalan teacher understand that they need the class to be taught in Castilian Spanish — Didn’t they teach in English at the time? He looks for an apartment actually calling people from a payphone — stop right there, a what? Couldn’t he find a room on Craigslist three months before? When did the Internet actually start being a thing?
So halfway through the movie (ok, more like at the first image of an actual payphone), I began wondering, are the things in life we now consider improvements really just the contrary? There used to be so much adventure, so much risk, in going to live in another country, even if it was only an hour away by plane. There used to be real immersion, because it was too expensive to go back for a weekend. There used to be no Skype — and with that, no ease in leaving. There was no real investment to the distance.
They have made leaving so easy now it’s crazy to realize that not everyone is doing it. What does leaving even mean now? You don’t leave anything behind, you just keep it there for later, like a priceless, hidden jar of Nutella at the back of your cabinet. You don’t go two weeks without talking to (and seeing) your mom, your cat, your friends. I’m not saying this isn’t better in many ways, but what has become of the pure, free, breathtaking sensation of leaving? Remember Hercules’ big “Go the Distance” moment? Don’t we want that in some way? Europe is never too far from another part of Europe, sure. Yes, Erasmus has brought Europeans closer, brought the cultural distance down. But I wonder, can’t distance be a good thing?
I see people now who are trying desperately to get back to that pure, journey-in-the-middle-of-night departure. Europe is too close, Moscow and Stockholm are just like Marseille and Bristol, when you really think about it. They have bars, universities, students who speak English, and everywhere there is Skype, Easyjet and smartphones. No, let’s go further instead. Hanoi is the new Barcelona, Shanghai the new Prague. Just a backpack and perhaps a cybercafé, but never any studying. Our post-May ’68 parents had told us we would get a job we love, and when that didn’t happen, we just decided to leave. Our generation knows the low cost of mobility. We leave for a taste of something else and end up craving the same moldy cheeses we grew up with. The more we leave, the more we come back. Erasmus was adventure, it was random — you depended on the exchanges your university had available. Instead, now, we go elsewhere. Finally, we can say our destination defines us, just as our hometown does. Maybe even more, because we chose it.