Wheelchair user Chiara tells us about how she found herself on the Erasmus challenge, an exchange programme that transfers people all over the world. It was an adventure she never expected to be able to take part in, and is eternaly greatful she has.
One road. One road like the American ones, or the ones in Australia, where the spaces around extend to the infinite and, on the horizon, nothingness. With the chance of bumping into another soul is close to zero, there is no other option other than to keep going. To resist the temptation of giving up, knowing that from giving up nothing good can come out.
That could be the metaphor of my life. Or maybe any life. We often all get thrown, ejected and catapulted onto a road that looks as lonely and solitary as it could be, with the profiles of things around fading away.
The beauty of it all is that, even though it may seem so, that road we find ourselves treading is not ending in nowhere. In that landscape there is more to the asphalt and distant objects fading. On the contrary, while keeping on going we get surprised by the beauty of the places we end up in. We get surprised by people, situations, conversations and moments that are both unknown and wonderful.
Everything is made even more magical by our complete and utter incognizance to what is coming next. A future that we can only imagine, things we can only desire and hope for. To any given ‘now’ there is a ‘then’ that we long for. But that will stay unknown until we reach it.
Had anyone come to me 10 years ago telling me: “In 2016 you’ll be spending six months of your life in Spain, doing your Erasmus project, with a friend you will have known for only a couple of years” I would have given them one of my puzzled and grim looks that comes surprisingly naturally when looking at people from my wheelchair. And with a giggle I would have driven away.
I tend to be pretty realistic about what opportunities are open to me given my disability. However, although I am a realist about the present, I am equally a dreamer of the future and what will one day become possible.
That powerful mix of contrasting attitudes – feeling certain that I can’t do something but having pure hope that I still can – is why today, in 2016, I am in Spain, studying law (in Spanish!!). And not only that, but I am living with people from all over Europe, with Sofia, a girl from my course, whom I only met at the end of my first year of university.
Seeing life as our own personal road that we all must travel, together with the knowledge that we can’t make excuses to change route, stimulates us to come up with strategies. To invent ways to tackle apparently impossible tasks. It has happened to me many times during my ‘career’ as a young student with a disability.
My route started with the process of redefining myself: choosing what I wanted to be made a lot of things possible. Despite needing help sometimes, I am independent. Even with friends around me, each and every one of whom has, in different contexts and in different ways, helped me. From dressing me to assisting in the shower, and from pressing the buttons in the elevator to helping me get the bus.
But independence doesn’t mean never asking for help. I am equally independent when I ask a stranger in the street to pick up my keys when I drop them. Or when I ask the cashier at the supermarket to get the money for my shopping out of my purse herself.
Redefining the key concepts in my life is how I got to the point where I am now. Where I don’t even need to premeditate my next step or my next conquest, the road appears to be unraveling before my eyes.
Going to university was a natural step, thanks to my love of studying. But it was also, more than anything else, thanks to my family, where equal opportunities are always accompanied by equal responsibilities.
Just as natural was my desire to undertake the Erasmus challenge. I had seen many people going on the programme and coming back grown up, changed for the better. It made me want to pack my suitcase and get going too. Talking with friends on my course, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one dreaming of get on the road. Sofia wanted to travel too, and happened to like the same destinations I was thinking of.
With one of those ‘why not’ conversations, almost as a joke, we decided to file the paperwork to sign up. In no time, the university offices dealing with the Erasmus project were on board. They were as enthusiastic as we were and offered their full support.
And so with the same naturalness that characterised this adventure, we wrote letters explaining why leaving together was fundamental, despite the lack of precedents. It came as a complete surprise to us when the selection committee approved our request. It was for the first time was granting us the chance to leave together and study for six months in the same Spanish university.
And now here we are, dealing with the problems typical of anyone that lives far away from home: finding a house, making new friends, getting your debit card to work in foreign ATMs and Skype breaking down every two minutes. And it all feels natural and right, as it should be.
I cannot know what the future holds for me. I cannot know where my road will take me. But I know that the present, here where I am, is perfect. And a present shared with the right people makes it, if possible, even more magical. I would not change a thing.
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