France might be one of the better places for meeting the French, but it also works a treat for making friends from outside the Hexagone. When I left Paris in 1999 after studying there for a year, I did so with an address book spanning the breadth of the European continent. It didn't involve me cultivating a winning personality; it was just one of the unexpected benefits of enrolling in the Erasmus programme.
This year the popular initiative, launched in 1987 to encourage students to do part of their studies in another EU country, celebrates its 25th anniversary. It was appropriately named after Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, who embraced life-long learning and was no stranger to living abroad himself.
I signed up to the programme in 1998 eager for a chance to live in the City of Light and wring some use out of my high school French. Through a friend I managed to find a poky but liveable flat in the swanky 16th arrondissement, just a convenient stroll from the Eiffel tower. I quickly made many friends, not only from among the French students, but also with the other Erasmus students who were as keen as I was to sample what Paris had to offer. Many a night finished in Bar de Bastille as it was one of the few bars that would stay open until the first metro started riding again after 6am. It also proved invaluable to me as regards to improving my French. Shortly after arriving it was clear that the French had not picked up their language from the same books as I had as everyone insisted in speaking at break-neck speeds using words not covered by le Petit Robert. However, I quickly made great progress.
And I have been far from the only one to discover the advantages of the Erasmus programme. From a modest 3,244 students in its first year, it quickly blossomed by 2006 to more than 150,000, representing nearly one per cent of the total student population in Europe. Today more than 2.2 million students from 31 different countries have already participated and this number continues to grow each year.
Erasmus not only offers the chance of an unforgettable experience as depicted in the French film l'Auberge espagnole, but also the opportunity to give a much-valued boost to your CV. Employers appreciate what an Erasmus stay says about the language and life skills of an applicant. A-levels French might show you have studied the language of Molière, an Erasmus stay proves you can use it. It also demonstrates you know how to fend for yourself outside your comfort zone.
My Erasmus year certainly helped me to broaden my horizons. At the end of it, I didn't want the experience to end and after I graduated I went on to do another degree abroad and work in three different countries. It's probably no coincidence that I now work at the Parliament with colleagues from 27 different countries as the stimulating variety of cultures and languages reminds me of the good times I enjoyed as an Erasmus student.