How We Come Together: Arts and Cultural Exchange
In July 2022, I left a heatwave peaking in the high 20°C’s in Dublin for a heatwave peaking in the high 30°C’s in the south of Spain for an Erasmus+ youth exchange. Travelling with my Irish group, we met the other participants from Denmark, Lithuania, and Spain in Caravaca de la Crúz before bussing all together to the small rural town La Almudema where we would spend the coming week in. On top of what we’d explore and learn over the days to come, it just so happened that we arrived at the beginning of a community festival too, so got to enjoy some nights of communal food, music and dancing!
Most people associate the Erasmus programme with spending a semester or two in another European country during third-level studies. In which case, you might think of Erasmus+ as the lesser-known yet equally exciting sibling, aimed at a broader range of people in Europe and partner countries – you could find yourself in a room with students, people taking gap years, people already working in communities and NGOs, of all ages, and so much more. Erasmus+ offers the opportunity to travel to other European countries for shorter or longer periods to gain work experience or training with other Europeans, so you’re also connecting with different cultures, groups and people. This means these exchanges, training, and volunteer programmes can be transformative experiences which inform who you are, how you understand local and global issues faced around the world, and the role you can play in achieving a fair, sustainable, and equitable present and future for all.
Costs for travel and accommodation are typically covered partially or in full, so affordability isn’t nearly as big a barrier as one might expect. As a final note, keep in mind that Erasmus+ opportunities vary widely in topic and format, including sessions which are online, in-person, and hybrid, so if what I describe here isn’t your cup of tea, I still strongly encourage you to check out what else is out there for you!
“… I also learned about working with language barriers and being patient and open when other people are outside their comfort zone…”
My first Erasmus+ youth exchange was in the summer of 2017, also my first time in Spain, with the facilitators Diego Romera and Melissa Rivadeneira for the programme Beyond the Skin. They supported a gaggle of Irish, Italians, Danes, Romanians and Spaniards to choreograph a dance piece together about what community and solidarity meant in our lives, studies and work. We spent a week devising, then performed it on the streets of Caravaca de la Crúz. I have never been much of a dancer, so that alone was a stretch for me, but I also learned about working with language barriers and being patient and open when other people are outside their comfort zone, whether that’s when moving their body or speaking outside their native language.
After this, I had totally forgotten about Erasmus+ until late 2021 when I had a chance with Development Perspectives’s programme Change the Story, Change the World to learn about using Theatre of the Oppressed methods to explore challenges faced by groups and communities and co-create ways to take action for social change. This one had several online workshops about sustainable development and storytelling with participants from Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Greece, Romania, Italy, Wales, England and Ireland, before meeting in Gyreum Eco Lodge in Sligo for a few days in April.
“… which made the evening all the more special and reminded me of the power in arts and culture to bring people together.”
Alongside learning more about using theatre in our work and performing in The Nest in Sligo town, a highpoint for me was accidentally staying up past 3am one night learning salsa, samba, and other styles from the Italian Adriano (my hips still haven’t fully recovered from all the gyrating). He shared at the end that it was the first time he had taught dance to others outside his native tongue, which made the evening all the more special and reminded me of the power in arts and culture to bring people together. I’m still exploring the impact this experience has had on me and I’m embracing these ideas more readily in my own active global citizenship in creating and making spaces for people to create together.
So with these experiences as a backdrop, of course I jumped at the chance when a friend invited me to join their group and keep exploring theatre and movement in my work while learning from more people’s life experiences and cultures (granted, with a harder limit on what my hips could handle this time).
“… workshops digging into our senses of the self and how we interact with the people and world around us through theatre, dance, movement, drawing, and, frankly, just vibing.”
We came together for the Dare to Care youth exchange facilitated by Diego, again, and Veronika Šromová with Escuela de Teatro Terapia Gestalt y Terapias Escénicas (a Spanish organisation, though they often facilitate in English like for this exchange). The week aimed to explore self-awareness and emotional and physical well-being through “body movement, art work and emotional work” using “therapeutic and gestalt theatre techniques.” In other words, each day was filled with workshops digging into our senses of the self and how we interact with the people and world around us through theatre, dance, movement, drawing, and, frankly, just vibing. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to explain to others who haven’t experienced something similar before, and it’s also the sort of thing that you want to send everyone you care about to as soon as you get home!
While the activities each day were so varied, meaningful, and genuinely fun, what really made the week was sharing the hours and space with people with different cultures, life experiences, and ways of thinking. We shared bedrooms and spent breakfast, lunch, siesta, and evenings together, hanging out and sharing stories. On a related note, I’m going to start lobbying for an Irish Siesta – it’ll tie in well with the extended closing time for Irish nightlife.
“It can shed a new – or different – light on how you see your identity with global citizenship or other areas of your life, and how it has formed at different points.”
Describing the week in full would take a few thousand words (and some interpretive dance), so I’ll just note some highlights for me. About midway through the week, we sat on the floor and we drew out our life stories. I’m pretty used to talking about different threads of my life verbally, but there’s something about visualising moments on paper that hits differently – it’s worth trying sometime, even if just doodling along the corners of a page while pretending to listen to someone in front of you. It can shed a new – or different – light on how you see your identity with global citizenship or other areas of your life, and how it has formed at different points. This might lead to some deeper insight into why certain topics or problems are important to you, why you do what you do, and, perhaps with reflection, how you might channel your learning and action moving forward.
I also really enjoyed another activity when we worked in groups devising a 5-10min performance about self-care. I recall watching one group hop around the space with face paint and create a journey of transformation to the cadence of music like ‘I Want To Break Free’ by Queen. If you have ever sensed raw expression from a movie, a book, a play, a poem, a song, or anything else, you might relate to how deeply it can affect you. This was another reminder of the power of art to bridge people and share deep experiences like joy, pain, power, and action, which I hope music and art I make can rouse in people.
“These exchanges are among the few occasions I’ve had to see these parts of people…”
The last highlight I’ll share is from the final evening, when we played music and other literature (of course the Irish invoked classics like Saturday Night by Whigfield and GALA’s Freed from Desire). Two participants from Denmark, Laura and Laust, shared the story of the writer Tove Ditlevsen, who had a tumultuous life of substance dependence and trauma, losing her life in the 70s shortly before a musician published some of her poetry as a music album. The pair read Barndommens Gade (“Childhood Street”), reading first in Danish, then translating to English, before playing the corresponding song by Anne Linnet. It can be easy to forget that every group of people have their own histories, ancestries and artists which they carry with them. These exchanges are among the few occasions I’ve had to see these parts of people, and it stays with you when you think about the issues communities face and how we all have a role to play in achieving a fair world for everyone, together.
If you’re interested As far as I can tell, there is no website where all Erasmus+ programmes are promoted, but you can find some opportunities on the SALTO European Training Calendar and the European Youth Portal. Leargas are based in Ireland and facilitate a lot of national and international programmes like this, and through them you or a group you are part of may find more opportunities. Lastly, you can follow and contact organisations which host Erasmus+ training directly, such as those I’ve mentioned in this article. I am also familiar with Ireland-based Broader Horizons Plus who you might also reach out to (the Facebook page is a bit out of date but they’re still active). Overall, I’d recommend casting a wide net, sending some emails, and seeing what bites!
Towards the end of the programme, I caught a few participants for quick videos which we have uploaded to the STAND Instagram and TikTok. Ideas like togetherness, sharing, and personal learning all came up, and you can check them out in the YouTube video “How We Come Together” here.
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