She arrived by car from Flemish-speaking Belgium, he took a ten-day scenic route by bicycle from Fribourg in Switzerland. Their destination was Bordeaux on the French Atlantic coast to participate in the Erasmus study exchange programme.
It was autumn 1995 and France was in the grip of a series of general strikes. The streets echoed with chants of ‘Juppé, tu dois céder’ (Juppé, you must give in), demonstrators calling on Prime Minister Alain Juppé to abandon his controversial reforms.
Around 50 new Erasmus arrivals had assembled for an information meeting when trainee teacher Patrick Furter first saw his future wife.
“I was sitting in this lecture hall, all the Erasmus students were there, and she was the last to arrive. She was late and there were two doors and at first she tried to get in the wrong door. She was dressed very colourfully, different to the others.”
As part of the support system for the Erasmus students from abroad, the university had arranged local families to help the newcomers integrate. Lena Vandergeten took a room on the Bordeaux University campus while Patrick found a place in the city, but they were given the same support family and met whenever their host mother invited them for meals or excursions.
By accident or design, the host mother played cupid. Once she invited them both to the opera but at the last minute pulled out herself, leaving the two young people on their first date together. That was January. By March, life apart was unimaginable for Lena and Patrick.
Seventeen years on, the couple live in Fribourg in western Switzerland with their four children. Patrick teaches in a local secondary school and Lena works as a physiotherapist. They no longer speak French or English together, as they did at the beginning; Swiss German and Flemish are the family languages.
The memories of Bordeaux are happy ones. “For me it was really a year when everything changed and it was a very good atmosphere, a very moving, rich atmosphere,” Patrick recalls.
It was a time of discovering other cultures, forging friendships and having fun. Of course there was some studying too although for Lena the course work in France didn’t correspond well to her studies back in Brussels and a good part of her time was wasted academically.
“This was before Bologna [the harmonisation of the European university degree structures] and there were completely different themes covered. My professor in Brussels was also overwhelmed by the situation,” she said.
Patrick, originally from German-speaking Lucerne but enrolled at Fribourg University, was more fortunate. Studying exclusively through French helped him achieve a breakthrough in speaking the language, which he now teaches in a school near Fribourg.
“I also attended a course in Bordeaux on teaching German as a foreign language and I found this really helpful later in my teaching work.”
Birds of a feather
The young people on Erasmus in Bordeaux were thrown together and had to lean on each other. “There was lots of really deep emotions that year. One friend, Alison, lost her grandmother and we were all crying about it,” Lena said.
“You have homesickness too, this strange feeling of ‘what am I doing here?’ But we had such a good group of seven or eight students. We got really close.”
In the student accommodation, the Belgian was the only one on her floor with a kettle. “I had the English girls coming to make tea and the Africans coming to make couscous.” She even tried to observe Ramadan with her Moroccan neighbour but only lasted three days.
There was a tendency for the foreign students to stick together. In Lena and Patrick’s group there were several other nationalities – German, English, Irish, Moroccan – but not French.
“During the day we were at the university but then every evening, and I mean every evening, there was a party,” Lena remembers.
We can only guess what the 16th century scholar Erasmus would make of this study-partying ratio. One quote attributed to him reads: “Reflection is a flower of the mind, giving out wholesome fragrance; but revelry is the same flower, when rank and running to seed.”
Back in Sint-Truiden, Belgium, Lena’s parents were also a bit disapproving of Patrick at first, partly because he wore an earring and partly because their daughter was planning to break off her studies, at least temporarily, to move to Switzerland to be with him.
“My parents said you go and do that but we won’t pay anything more.”
Not that Lena had ever expected to have such a serious relationship during her year abroad. “I was thinking if I fall in love here it will be a little adventure but afterwards we will go back home.”
But as is often the case things turned out quite differently to expectations. When Patrick returned to Switzerland in February, the only issue was how the two could be reunited again as quickly as possible.
Lena visited Fribourg in the snow in March and thought it was “like a fairy tale”. Patrick also spent time in Belgium but the final decision was that Lena would make the move to his town in May 1996. The couple never looked back.
Spirit of adventure
Their Erasmus experience had a special legacy for Lena and Patrick, one that hasn’t faded with time.
“We always said we would do something again with the family, in the spirit of Erasmus,” Patrick explained. And they did. In 2008, Patrick got a place on a teachers’ exchange programme and the family upped sticks and moved to a remote part of Canada for a year.
They enrolled their children in the local schools in the small town of Barrhead, Alberta, and had a memorable time, making friends, learning English and getting to know a very different culture.
The highly popular and most successful European university mobility programme is celebrating 25 years.
When the programme was launched in 1987, some 3,000 students from 11 countries took part.
Five years later Switzerland participated in Erasmus for the first time, with 350 students.
Currently more than 2,000 Swiss students spend one or two semesters at a guest university in Europe every year.
In total almost 30,000 Swiss students have lived abroad under Erasmus with all the academic, career and personal development benefits entailed.