Anything but usual: My Erasmus stay in Tartu

It all started at the very first exam of my master’s studies. After the end of the exam, I asked my professor for a recommendation of a good place to go to an Erasmus+ study stay – somewhere I could learn something new in my field, in media studies. He mentioned Tartu, which had already been on my shortlist of universities. I kept it in mind.

Lucie Čejková with the Tartu smart bike

My first ride on the Tartu smart bike which I fell in love with, and I used them to move around Tartu a lot. Image from a personal archive

One and a half years later, at the beginning of 2020, I began the process of preparations for Erasmus+ studies. I went through the websites and offers of many universities, but in the end, I wanted to go to Tartu so much it was the only university I signed up for in my application. It was in the middle of February, to be precise. Some disease which apparently appeared in China started to spread abroad, but at the time, I had no doubts about the rest of the year. I thought it would go as usual when a new disease appears – a cure for it arrives quickly, and it just disappears in a few weeks.

The further I got through the application and acceptance processes, the more anxious I got about it. The disease stayed, it was named COVID-19, and it was spreading around the world. It canceled the tour of the band I play in, it canceled my plans for the summer, and I feared it would cancel my dream of finally living and studying abroad for some time.

During August, the situation with COVID-19 got slightly better, and despite hearing many unpleasant predictions for the autumn, I was grateful that I could at least travel to Tartu and start my semester there with face-to-face teaching. After several canceled flights and two days of complete chaos, I took a 35-hour journey by bus from the Czech Republic to Tartu.

When I arrived at the bus station in Tartu and opened the Google Maps app to finally find my way to the dormitories, I felt like I had just finished a marathon run that I lost, because all my plans for a calm departure to Estonia failed. Nevertheless, I made it to the end, and the successful finish was the only thing that mattered. I felt exhausted but extremely happy at the same time.

Just like many others, I had to stay in self-isolation for two weeks after my arrival. Again, I felt grateful for being able to come to Estonia, so I obeyed the rules carefully. I went only to the nearest supermarkets to buy the necessary groceries, I wore a mask, and I spent days in my room. And gosh, how I missed a good cup of specialty coffee.

By the time I arrived in Tartu, it was already the second day of the new semester. In consequence, the self-isolation restricted me from attending the classes during the first two weeks of instruction. I was not sure if the professors would care. After all, it was my problem: maybe I should have arrived two weeks earlier to be able to attend the classes, right? Maybe the professors do not like Erasmus students who ask for any extras, I thought. Unsure of how their approach toward me might be, I wrote them e-mails to apologize for not being able to attend the classes personally.

At that moment, I started to understand how well the university treats its students. None of my professors had any problems with my requests nor my questions. All of them were helpful and willing to help me not fall behind from the beginning.

The kind e-mails from the professors helped me to ease one of the two main worries I had during the self-isolation. Wait, actually, there were three: let us not forget about the slight caffeine withdrawal I had.

Anyway, I was also worried about how I would meet some new people in Tartu. I was thousands of kilometers away from all the people I knew, and even though I am a social studies student (I know the theory, I should be able to talk to people, right?), I have never thought I was good at making new friends. I also do not like the big welcome parties very much, which felt like a killer combination for any possible social life I could have in Tartu. In general, I found out that I did not want to push myself to do something just because it might be a common Erasmus student behavior.

Lucie Čejková in front of the Tartu Market
In front of the Tartu Market during the ESN City Quest. Photo from a personal archive

In my small, socially awkward world, the activities organized by ESN Tartu and International House Tartu helped me to get out of my self-isolation shell. In the case of ESN, it was great to see how many activities they were able to organize for us in a safe way, regardless of the whole COVID-19 situation. Thanks to them, I was, for example, able to go to some parts of South Estonia when the autumn was still warm or to see a very good Estonian movie in the beautiful Tartu Elektriteater.

By the time I had been in Tartu for more than a month already, I had found my favorite spots there. As much as I enjoyed going to face-to-face lessons at the university buildings of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Faculty of Arts and Humanities, I also liked to go to the Delta Centre to study or work there.

University of Tartu Delta Centre
I took this photo during one of my many walks around the river. Usually, they ended at the Delta Centre, where I went very often to study or work. Image from a personal archive

In the city, I especially loved walking through the parks by the river or riding around the city on one of the electric city bikes. And probably because of the deep feeling of loss I had after the two weeks of self-isolation without specialty coffee, Karlova district, with Karlova Kohv at its heart, became one of the most loved places in Tartu for me. I used to walk there a lot, and I always tried to go through different streets to enjoy the cozy feeling of old wooden buildings around, as well as to see the variety of street art pieces all around. Then, I got the very needed hug of warm, tasty coffee, and I walked the picturesque streets back to the center of the city.

Speaking of discovering Tartu, I must return to the activities of International House Tartu that I mentioned earlier. Their Culture Crash Course was probably the best experience I had when getting to know Tartu, Estonia, and Estonians. I was very hesitant about signing up for it, because I had a lot of work to do for my classes in Tartu, and some extra time is always useful. At the same time, I really wanted to get to know the culture I was in and the people who were around. So, I registered.

Right after the first meeting of our group, I knew I had made a good decision. Thanks to the Culture Crash Course, I was able to see many places in Tartu from the perspectives of the local guides and meet people from Estonia, all of which I very much enjoyed. We did many fun activities, and I was also looking forward to our discussions on different topics, in which we were able to get to know not only Estonian but also many other cultures.

Lucie Čejková with her friends in Tartu
The goodbye meeting with my friends from semiotic classes before my departure back to the Czech Republic. Photo from a personal archive

In sum, partially because of the COVID-19 restrictions and partially because of how I am, I ended up having a small group of very good friends around. It was especially the students of master’s studies in semiotics that I had really fun with. I had two courses with them, and as there were not that many of us, we got to know each other well throughout the semester. There was a small group of us that met regularly. Almost every week, we went to grab a beer or two together to have long discussions about everything from very abstract concepts to differences in the cuisines of post-Soviet countries.

This brings me back to how the studies went during the autumn semester. As I already mentioned, the beginning of instruction was full of uncertainty for me. It was probably the same for most of the students and professors. However, I got the impression that everyone figured everything out very quickly. It helped me a lot in this new and unusual situation. Even when some of the classes were hybrid throughout the whole semester, with some students online and other students in the classroom, I did not feel any major discomfort in it.

I was lucky enough to have three classes that were taught face-to-face until almost the very end of the semester, when, due to the overall situation, only online teaching became possible. I also had two classes that took place only online, and although for most of the semester I hoped to meet my classmates and professors, the development of COVID-19 did not allow us to do so.

Nonetheless, the professors did their best to keep us interested even when we were divided by the screens. They filled the online teaching with different activities. In the end, I do not feel like I missed much, except for contact with my classmates. This part became especially difficult when we were writing analyses in groups of five people. However, in the end, we somehow managed to cope with the task, too, and even quite successfully, I would say.

So even though the studies were a bit complicated sometimes, I felt as though both the students and the professors were learning a lot as we went along. I do not think my learning experience in Tartu was any worse, regardless of the odd situation that this year brought. On the contrary, everyone made sure we learned a lot, maybe even more in certain ways than we would the ordinary way.

To finish, I have to say I simply loved my studies in Tartu. After coming back to the Czech Republic and testing negative for COVID-19 despite spending 35 hours in the bus again, this time very full of people, I can say with certainty that I do not regret anything about studying abroad during the pandemic. I am glad I did not use the option to cancel or postpone my study stay.

Tartu lives very much through the university, which is something I adore. Still, it is not crowded, and if you feel like having some time for yourself, you can just enjoy the soothing sound of the wind rustling in the trees in many of the parks Tartu has to offer. It offers you both the calmness you need in these times, as well as vibrant places to go if you want to have some safe social contact. The Estonians I met there were usually reserved at first but nice after a few words of conversation, which is something I can relate to. Very soon after I arrived at the beginning of September, Tartu grasped me, and I started to grasp Tartu. The city drew me into itself, and it quickly felt like a new home to me.

If I remember correctly, I promised myself not to make any more plans, after almost all of them fell apart just hours before leaving for Estonia. But I think I will never learn. So, what are my plans for the future? See you again soon, Tartu!

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