From Erasmus Student to Lisbon Tour Guide: An Interview with Elena Bicu

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Lisbon tour guide Elena Bicu moved from Romania to Lisbon for her Erasmus but loved it so much that she decided to make Lisbon her permanent home. In this interview we look at how she almost didn’t end up in Lisbon, what it was like being a student there, and what her post-student life is like now. 

So, tell me a little bit about yourself

I’m Elena. I’m originally from Romania and I moved to Portugal about six years ago. I came here to do a study abroad program called Erasmus. I was supposed to stay here one semester with my scholarship but I was very happy with my studies. I felt like they were much more practical than what I had back home and I decided to prolong my scholarship and make it one year. That was the last year of my Masters, so as soon as I finished my studies I went back to Romania, defended my Masters Thesis, and then came back to Portugal. 

The reason that I came back to Portugal was that I was so happy with the way I was treated here that I decided that I wanted to give something back to Portugal, so I came back and started volunteering. 

In my second year in Portugal, I worked with kids in a foster care institution. While volunteering I had quite a bit of free time and I was looking for ways to fill it, and then I found a local tour company that was looking for guides. I tried my luck and got a freelance position and basically never stopped. 

I became a tour guide and it became my biggest passion. 

What made you pick Lisbon?

I came to Portugal by mistake but it was the best mistake I’ve made in my entire life. My original plan was to study in Spain in Valencia because I knew Spanish and I wanted to go to a university where I would be able to understand my classes and take advantage of everything. 

In the year I applied for my Erasmus, back in 2014, the EU changed the program from Erasmus to Erasmus Plus and the University of Valencia didn’t renew this contract. So, I had to reconsider my options. 

It had to be a country where I could support myself with a scholarship of around €400 or €500 per month so, even though I thought I could potentially go to France, I had to reconsider my options. That’s how Portugal came to play. 

I have to admit I was very ignorant about Portugal at the time. I knew they spoke Portuguese, and I started researching Portugal on the university website. I knew Spanish at the time, and I was able to understand around 80% of what was written on the university website. And I thought “wow, this is easy.” I’m going to go there. 

When I arrived here it was a big surprise. Written and spoken Portuguese are quite different. The difference is even bigger between spoken Portuguese and spoken Spanish.

I didn’t understand much when I arrived but I had a positive attitude and a positive mindset that I had this. 

It actually wasn’t hard to learn the language. It is a latin language, and I have a background of other latin languages. 

And how did you learn Portuguese?

I am very passionate about languages. I love grammar so when I was in school, I loved Romanian grammar, English grammar, French grammar. That was the way into the language. When I arrived here that’s how I started. 

My professors all spoke very clearly and there was a visual element to the presentations as well, so I was able to read and connect with what I was hearing. 

In the first semester I took a Portuguese class and then I kept learning. All of my classes were in Portuguese, and even though I was hanging out with the Erasmus club, I was still immersing myself in Portuguese. 

In the second year, I was working with the kids in the foster care institution and so I started learning more basic things like the words for things in the kitchen. Being surrounded by the kids everyday definitely helped. 

The NGO I was volunteering for also provided classes once per week, so they gave us some Portuguese books including books on Portuguese grammar that went from beginners until B2. 

That’s always the way I learn a language: the grammar gives me structure to the language and then I pick up the vocabulary by being immersed in the local culture. 

What was student life like in Lisbon?

That was so long ago! The student life was amazing. For me, it was the first time I lived abroad. I felt an immense freedom and got involved in everything that was going on. 

There were two Erasmus associations, Erasmus Life Lisboa and ESN, and they organised lots of events such as trips to the Algarve or to Sintra, intercultural nights in the Bairro Alto, and lots more. There was something happening almost every night. 

The University of Lisbon was nice too. Erasmus experience do vary a lot, and there were other students that weren’t as satisfied with their studies but my experience was very positive – both the Erasmus experience and my interactions with the university and my professors. 

What were the cultural differences between Romania and Portugal?

The most striking thing was that people were extremely relaxed. Everyone was so peaceful and so nice. 

I remember the first night that I was there, I went to an outdoor jazz event and got lost on the way home. I asked this girl for directions, and she actually took me by my hand and went out of her way to take me to my door. That was so nice. Over the years I’ve experienced the same attitude. 

How easy was it to stay in Lisbon once you decided to stay?

In terms of jobs, it was very easy. It’s true that I didn’t have very high hopes, and I don’t know if I was lucky, but things worked out very well for me.  

How do you think Lisbon has changed since you first came?

Lisbon is growing in popularity and there are even more international people coming to Lisbon. At the time, I probably didn’t know of the other things that were going on in the city as I was so connected to Erasmus life so it’s hard to compare. But I think there are definitely different types of people, like entrepreneurs and digital nomads coming to Lisbon. 

I also see the city becoming greener and there are more spaces for people to walk. 

What are some of the things that you both like and dislike about living in Lisbon?

I love Lisbon. It’s my home of choice. Even when I go to Romania, I feel like coming back to Lisbon is coming home. I like to say that I have Romanian blood and a Portuguese soul. 

I love the light. I love that people are so relaxed and that they know how to slow down and enjoy life. I love the food. I love that it’s so simple and so delicious. I love that it’s multicultural and that you have access to so many different kinds of people. 

What I don’t like…Sometimes I feel it’s too laid-back. When you go to the supermarket it’s so slow and it feels like people don’t consider that you’re waiting. I guess it comes with the good and the bad and I think the positive outweighs the bad. 

I don’t like dealing with public institutions, but I guess it would be the same in my own country as well. But it’s very frustrating. Because I left Romania right after finishing my studies, I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with Romanian institutions the way I have with Portuguese institutions. But the bureaucracy is very frustrating. 

Another thing that I don’t like is that – and this happened today – I went to get a coffee, and the person working there saw that I was a foreigner and charged me more. This is despite the fact that I speak Portuguese. I’ve been three times to the same place, and three times I’ve been given three different prices. I don’t care about the fifty cents, but I do care if people are being dishonest. 

I don’t think this happens with all small businesses, but it does happen. 

What are your plans for the future in Portugal?

I opened my own tour company, Elena Bicu Travels, and created different tourist services such as with Airbnb, but now with this Covid situation I’m reassessing myself and my skills. I’m looking for new ways in which I can learn and serve the world, perhaps in a way that’s not tourism-related. 

Long term I see myself living in Lisbon, but right now I’m looking at all possible opportunities. 

Elena Bicu is a tour guide based in Lisbon and the founder of Elena Bicu Travels, a tour company that offers group and personal tours of Lisbon.

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