By Hannah Wheeler, Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands
This exchange has opened me up to so many new experiences. For the first time, I am living with a group of internationals. My apartment of four holds a combination of seven nationalities and seven languages between us. The mixture of cultures and perspectives is incredible.
When you come to university in your first year you have a lot to learn about how it all works. Then, if you decide to spend a year abroad, you often have to go through that learning experience again at your host university. And because there are plenty of other things you could be (and you would probably like to be) doing instead, let me make it a bit easier for some of you. Here are four key aspects of student life and the university system in France that I learned about during my first weeks at Toulouse.
by Amber Musgrove-Benford (University of Helsinki, Finland)
One of the first things anyone will realise post arrival in Finland – whether as a tourist or to study – is that eating out is expensive.
Where once I was enjoying a hearty meal (and maybe even a drink) in the Northern Quarter for under £15, I was now in Kamppi, or Kluuvi, where prices can range from €15 to, at worst, €20 plus for food alone.
But have no fear! The following will ensure you a chance of exploring the amazing food scene in Helsinki, all whilst not making too much of a dent in your student budget.
France is full of awesome places that you can explore, food you can try and events you can attend. But living the ideal exchange experience rarely comes cheap – don’t know about you but I certainly cannot afford to buy a fresh baguette from the local bakery every single morning (yes, this stereotype about the French is actually true). Well, don’t worry, I got you 🙂 Here’s five tips for getting the most out of a stay in France, and not going broke in the process.
Hello everyone and welcome to my year-long study exchange journey in Toulouse! We will start off with the good news so far: I’ve arrived.
And I’m afraid that’s where it ends. To be fair I am somewhat to blame for all I’m about to tell you, but I hope that after reading this, you will admit that no amount of extra preparation could have helped. So let’s dive into my voyage from Brussels to Toulouse… oh, did I mention it was all by train? Well, now you know (and those of you familiar with the French TGV probably guessed as much from the title).
Making your new room feel like home is important, especially if you are going to be living there for the best part of a year. My room at the University of Bergen’s student halls seemed bare and clinical, but within a few weeks it felt like home. Here are some ideas for how to decorate your new room, whilst in a foreign country and on a tight budget.
Print photos of family and friends
Pictures of your family and friends will comfort you when you’re having a down day and missing them, and will also brighten up the bare walls. They also make a nice conversation starter with your new flatmates and friends. Whilst in the UK, I used the Free Prints app to print off a bunch, which then took up minimal space in my luggage. Don’t forget to bring some blu-tac too!
Pack your favourite duvet cover and pillowcase
I chose to pack my favourite duvet cover and pillowcase from home to add a personal and familiar touch to my room. Once I rolled it up tight, it took up surprisingly little space in my luggage. It also meant I had one less thing to buy at Ikea once I had arrived. I brought a duvet cover and pillowcase with fun colours and patterns to brighten up the room, and remind me of home. Make sure to check beforehand whether you will have a single bed or a double bed!
Seek out free stuff
There are plenty of places to find free or super cheap stuff for your room. At my accommodation, previous tenants had left the stuff they didn’t want to take home in the communal areas. Here, my flat mates found a kettle, vacuum cleaner, and a chest of drawers, amongst other things. Unfortunately, once I arrived (after my mandatory hotel quarantine) the best stuff had gone, so instead I kept an eye on the accommodation’s Facebook group, where people would post what they were giving away or selling. I managed to bag a lamp, coat hangers and a bedside table, all for free. Second hand stores and garage sales are also great places to look, as well as your host country’s most popular advertisements website (in Norway, it’s FINN).
‘Scandic’ hotels are scattered around the beautiful city of Bergen, Norway. Currently, these lodges are full of international students; all patiently waiting (for at least seven days) to be set free, and to be allowed to start a new chapter of their student experience in unfamiliar surroundings. I arrived at my quarantine hotel three days ago, shifting a massive suitcase through the reception area and up into a room where I will be spending my first ever week as an erasmus+ student.
The rooms within these hotels are spacious, with ivy green walls and grey curtains that contrast against the bright light which emanates from a large window. There is an ironing board, a hairdryer and seven different types of lighting for me to choose from. However, unlike any British ‘Travelodge’, there is no kettle- my first culture shock so far.
I’m required to spend every day here; with breakfast, lunch and dinner served straight to my door for the whole week- graciously paid for by my host university. Before arriving, I was told horror stories of what these meals would consist of and taste like. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised when I was given the breakfast of a peanut-butter jam sandwich with a passionfruit yogurt, and a carton of orange juice. Although consistently packaged in the same brown paper bag with disposable wooden knives and forks (very eco-friendly), the lunch and dinner have been different every day so far. My meals have ranged from cheese tomato wraps, to feta salads, to some sort of onion soup. As a vegetarian, I missed out on the ‘ham and cheese squeezy tube’ given to the other students, and part of me is bitterly disappointed in this fact.
Of course, quarantining has connotations to boredom and dullness. But I have tried to disassociate myself from this negative conception of isolation, preferring to view this short period of time as a chance to prep myself on understanding what the year ahead of me is going to look like. In other words, I’ve read up on my course modules and installed ‘duolingo’. To add weight to this beneficial use of my time here, I get to take unlimited walks for fresh air! Plus, there is no time cap on these strolls- something I have taken full advantage of. I have only had a glimpse of the city so far, and already I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the area. Gazing at the mismatch of colourful architecture, seen both on the seafront and down cosy lanes, is like looking at a traveller’s mood board on Pinterest.
Even though I am only really viewing Bergen through the literal lens of a hotel window, I feel like it has now sunk in that I am actually in a foreign country; with no real connections or familiar faces to turn to. There’s no way to sugar coat the feeling of uneasiness that comes with this realisation. The only way for me to feel better about it is to think about the next ten months ahead of me, and all the experiences that ultimately attach themselves to studying in a country that’s not my home. I’m scared but I’m mostly excited, and I’m glad I have this week in quarantine to think about these feelings- before I delve straight into my new life as a student in Norway.
By Hannah Wheeler, Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands
I feel that my first blog requires an honorary mention to Miss Corona. Since my acceptance to Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam back in February, Corona has always been trying to get in the way. Thankfully, she did not succeed.
I’m now three days into my self-quarantine and every second grateful to be out of the UK and at the start of my year abroad. Self-quarantine has given me the opportunity to write a blog and a great topic to start off with, considering it is relevant for many of us leaving to start our study abroad years. Here are some of the things that are helping me pass the time of quarantine…
Do something that’s fun and interactive. Packing a paint-by-numbers was my best decision. Each day you make more and more progress. Plus, the final piece can contribute to decoration. Win win. If painting isn’t your thing they try youtube dance tutorials, baking or othe things more creative. I’ve also started a daily journal to keep going throughout the year. I dont write anything important but its a nice keepsake at the end.
Not wasting the time:
Like most newly moved exchange student i also downloaded duolingo. Surprisingly, thirty minutes of it went in a flash. For once, i actually felt committed to do it. I have a great motivation as I actually live in Amsterdam now. Dutch should be a must. I’d hate to feel like an ignorant Brit abroad, not knowing how to say please and thank you even. Learning the basics is essential and what better time to do it.
Overall, I’m not much of a phone person. Luckily I have a roommate living with me so am not fully alone. However, when she’s out I find that a quick facetime with my folks or a little conversation on a group chat keeps my mood up. I may not be a social media person but I am a social person. I like company. Even if you facetime a friend and just stay on the line but carry on with your day, have little bits of chat but nothing that intense. Or plan to play an online board game with your family. Staying connected definitely helped me.
Making it more valuable:
Of course, you are gonna watch a lot of TV. Days are long and you can only fill them with so much of other things. In an effort to make my time in front of the tv screen semi beneficial, i started a docu series called ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Its an odd one. Its about why the world is like this and how we got there. To be honest though, i can’t quite tell what its arguing yet, i’m only 2/6 episodes in. It is a show that makes me give 110% attention. If you look away for a moment you’re lost. Try a show or podcast that may give a bit more back to your life than killing time maybe.
Not slacking on self care:
Now this one is basic. For me, routine keeps me focused and going. I love a to-do list. Even when I can’t leave the house, a to do list makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. I even tick off that I’ve had breakfast! – a bit sad I know.
Plan in when you want to paint or chat, or to do a quick youtube workout or yoga. Plan in when you are gonna eat a snack or make a nice dinner for yourself. Plan when you are going ot write in your journal or do some duolingo. It means that you can break the day down into smaller sections. For me this makes days not seem so never ending then.
No matter what you do, stay excited and proactive and look forward to the year ahead.
When you find yourself staring blankly at the library computer screen without coffee, fear not! The Arabica coffee cart is nestled in the courtyard of Beaupassage. Just over the road from Sciences Po, it is easy to miss. Three different entrances take you in to the courtyard. It is calm, bright and full of plants. I was lucky to find this gem in my first few days in Paris. It became ‘my place’. It is where I took my friends, lazed around, and got my emergency caffeine fixes. Once, my friend Ollie actually ran from his flat to buy me a coffee when I was in dire need and didn’t have my card on me! It will meet all your flat white and matcha latte gentrified café needs… But even better, take at least two days before lessons start, to explore random alleyways, so you can find your own Beaupassage equivalent.
2. Angelina’s – the ultimate pick me up.
The famous chocolat chaud chez Angelina’s is more like a cup of melted chocolate. Le maison de Angelina’s has been on Rue de Rivoli since 1903, but they have since opened a boutique on Rue de Bac, near Beaupassage and Sciences Po. From my father to my grandmother, my whole family regards Angelina’s as the simplest formula for sorting anything and everything out. Bad day? Get an Angelina’s. Miss home? Get an Angelina’s. Feel like university work is excruciatingly endless? You guessed it. Angelina’s. End of term? Celebrate with an Angelina’s.
3. Cheap meals – €1-3 @ Crous canteens!
You will be very thankful for Crous canteens when you have spent too much money on gentrified coffee and Angelina’s hot chocolate. These are dotted all over Paris. Sciences Po does have a Crous canteen, but it’s not always open and the options are limited. Instead walk 8 minutes from the library to Café Mabillon. For €1 (or €3 euros outside of Covid-19 times), you get an entry, main and desert. You can buy up to two meal sets a day, so you can buy one for dinner too. All you have to do is sign up for an Izly account. Simply bring your student card to the desk at Café Mab, or email email@example.com .
4. Le Marais: falafel, falafel, and more falafel.
When you think of Paris, you probably think about les croissants and croque-monsieurs. But I promise you, falafel is the new croissant. There are falafel stands all over Paris, but Le Marais is home to the best (historically, Le Marais was the Jewish district in Paris). The queues can easily go around the block. So try to head over on a weekday. Put ‘L’As de Falafel’ into google maps. If it’s not open, the vendors next door will be.
5. Vin chaud.
As early as 8am you will see men standing around drinking beer at their local bistros. It’s part of the Parisian way of life. So jump on that bandwagon. Okay… so maybe 8am is a bit excessive… but a glass of vin chaud awaits you on every Parisian corner at the end of your study day. Until you’re drinking the occasional glass between lessons with friends, you won’t feel like you’re truly living life as a Parisian.
As Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.
We first heard about the coronavirus shortly after arriving in Sweden in January. We heard distant reports of a new illness affecting East Asia, like the lockdown of Wuhan and the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. Though saddening news for those impacted, such stories made the threat of coronavirus seem distant and almost unimportant from our perspective, like a small white cumulus cloud in a sky of bedazzling blue.
Yet as Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.
What was to be begin with a trickle of stories concerning the spread of the virus became a monsoon of messages from parents, university staff and government urging for the repatriation of international students.
What were drips and drabs became a torrent of international students fleeing Sweden. They left for different reasons, for some it was the demand of their home institutions, for others it was the fear being stranded. But, one by one, students left and dutifully echoed the mantra of ‘get out whilst you still can’ to those who chose to remain.
But returning home doesn’t shrug off the shadow of coronavirus, does it?
Indeed, for many international students returning home was a step into the eye of the storm. Some countries have more cases of coronavirus and more stringent measures to enforce social distancing. Whereas Sweden is something of a pariah among the international community when it comes to Covid-19 responses. It only recently prohibited social gatherings of fifty or more and schools, shops, club and pubs remain open for business.
Nevertheless, the gaping hole left by fleeing students is irreparable. The remaining months for those remaining will be uncertain and possibly lonely. And I ,writing from a UK under lockdown, cannot help but reminisce back to brighter times.
Through the rose-tinted glasses I see through when looking back on my time abroad, one memory which stands out is my time in Lapland in late February, when coronavirus was but a dot on the horizon.
I arranged to go with three other Brits (Ben, Kirsten and Emily) through a tourist company called TimeTravels who produce an attractive itinerary of activities quintessential to Lapland. Though each of our experiences in their own way deserves a separate post, I will attempt to condense my experiences to the what I think is essential, whilst paying lip-service to the truth.
The trip began at the end of a hum-drum day in Uppsala. We met our group with whom we’d be spending the next week alongside and waited to be collected by coach to embark on the 19-hour bus journey to the Arctic Circle.
Our journey was punctuated by occasional outbursts from the group leader, Nico, an exuberant employee of TimeTravels who’s passion for adventure and lust for knowledge shone out of him like sunbeams.
He and the satisfaction of seeing the coach thermometre inch incrementally lower from 5°c to -20°c throughout the night made the time pass a little easier.
In the afternoon, the next day, we arrived at our accommodation, a ski-resort which, judging from the bustle activity that greeted us, was yet to be opened. Snow ploughs and staff shovelled snow frantically to clear paths from an astronomical amount of snow that had fallen during closed season. One employee told us that the region had experienced 3m of snow since January.
The next four days flew by. In fear of sounding repetitive, I’ll provide some photos with captions rather than exhausting descritptions.
Of all of the experiences making up this trip, only one deserves a proper description. That is our sighting of the Northern Lights. Thanks to an app, we could track the movement and visibility of the lights throughout the trip. And on one fateful night, the clouds parted.
Faint at first, from a snowy perch outside our bedrooms, we saw them stretching across the sky. They moved constantly due to solar winds which blew the charged particles and created a rippling effect.
Yet, to call it a visual experience fails to convey the experience authentically. The tendrils of an illuminous lime-light unfurling before us in the sky transcended beauty and produced simultaneous feelings of awe and cosmic insignificance. It was what Kant, Hulme and Burke would compare to the sublime. And what the Sámi People would describe as the dancing souls of ancestors.
Both interpretations touch on a feeling that we were invited to witness something ineffable, that cannot be put into language, and that inability to describe represents our impotence in nature. It is the same feeling one gets from being stranded in the middle of the ocean with mountainous waves crashing against the side of a ship. A demonstration of the power and beauty of nature and reminder of how small we are.
What will we see when the coronavirus cloud parts?
Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta. Though I was told so little about it that it seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?
Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta, Uppsala, where I’m living this semester. Though I was told so little, the prospect seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? I thought. Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?
My mind raced and I struggled to believe it. Perhaps it was an urban myth made up to taunt international students with the promise of a cuisine that had more to offer than picked herrings and meatballs. Nonetheless, when I caught wind of the rumour I was struck by insatiable curiosity and felt compelled to find out the truth.
Over the next few days, after asking the same questions many times, I found out that there was indeed a restaurant run from the comfort of a bedroom. However, the discovery of this fact was only half the battle if I were to eat there.
Making a reservation was a tricky business but eventually, through a friend of a friend, I managed to obtain the name and phone number of the restaurant. Perhaps this was due to the dubious legality of the set-up, the restaurant is not well advertised except for an obscure Facebook page which provides only a mobile number. Nevertheless, I called it to make a reservation for my flatmate Marie and me with the hope about finding out more about the identity of our host.
A man’s voice answered, he spoke quickly and abruptly as if he had been interrupted from doing something more important and curtly told me than now wasn’t a good time. Over a subsequent SMS exchange, he asked two questions; what time we’d would like to book and how spicy we’d like our food. Though the only nugget of information I gleamed from this interaction was that the food would have some level of spiciness, I was glad that my fantasy was fast becoming a reality.
With a ravenous curiosity and even deeper appetite, we approached the restaurant. As we neared, my apprehension for what we would find grew. A torrent of questions bombarded me. What sort of man would do this? Is he mentally okay? Why would I willingly go to a restaurant so ostensibly lacking food and hygiene regulations?!
It now dawned on me that my appetite for adventure had dampened my much more rational fear of the unknown. Such questions stewed in the back of my mind as we walked down a corridor that was so familiar to my own flat yet distorted unrecognisably by the potential danger that awaited us.
Even being a Hotelier at the Hotel for the Unexpected would not have prepared anyone for what awaited us behind his door. Could you imagine? What if someone had done this in Owens Park tower?
The restaurant, geometrically identical to mine and every other in Flogsta yet different in every other imaginable way, was dimly lit by single lamp nestled in the corner. Its light illuminated everything, from bookcases brimming with beer bottles to shelves stacked with CDs, vinyl’s and vintage magazines. In this archive of antiquities, lit up by a ghostly white light, stood our host, a man on the right side of 70 dressed entirely in khaki beachwear with a crop of greyish pink hair in a bun.
He was everything you’d expect and everything I deserved. He was old, Swedish and vivacious. After a short round of pleasantries, in which he refused to shake our hands and we admired his vast collection of collectibles, he spoke a little about himself. Though he never mentioned his name.
It turns out that he belonged to a group of residents who privately rented before the University bought out several blocks for student lettings. So, since 1989, he has lived here. Whilst Flogsta is little more than a half-way-house on the way to a career, mortgage and a family for most students for him it is, and has always been, a home.
It had also been, for a shorter time, an Ethiopian restaurant. Evidently, his room served as both the front-of-house and the kitchen. Amongst his collection of nostalgic knick-knacks were hotplates, saucepans and four hurriedly arranged chairs where Marie and I made ourselves comfortable.
When asked what drew him to Ethiopian food, rather than a cuisine a little closer to home, he was unapologetic about his distaste for European food. What he disliked particularly about it was the absence of spice, a crucial ingredient which he used in spades in his restaurant.
He described his introduction to spice as a sort of religious awakening. Whilst hitch-hiking in the Scottish Highlands around the time Kraftwerk’s first album came out, he stumbled upon an Indian restaurant which served him a simple vindaloo which converted him to a new cuisine. I know a lot of people re-evaluate life after eating this dish. But who knew a vindaloo could transform a worldview?
It transpired that his love for Ethiopian food came from a flatmate from 25 years ago who had taught him the recipe for injeras, a kind of sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture, traditionally made out of teff flour. It was her recipe he’d been perfecting all these years, testing on the new batches of students who heard about him, through friends of friends. A legacy which Marie and I were to become a part of.
Alongside the national dish of Ethiopia he served spiced spinach and an ambiguous-looking meat sauce. Everything was laden with a smorgasbord of spices which overwhelmed every other flavour the dish had to offer. It is only now looking back that I question if he deliberately disguised the flavours…
But reflecting on my experience, I realise that what we ate is irrelevant. He wasn’t selling dishes, but rather himself. I had gone there to satiate a curiosity about a rumour, to find out about the man behind the myth. Not to be wined and dined in a Michelin star establishment. And to that end, my appetite for adventure was gone.
Whether you are studying abroad at a different university or on placement/ interning in a different city or country, being away from your comfort zone and in a new environment will sometimes come with its own difficulties. The effect of moving away on mental health is often not spoken about before departure, and this can potentially end up completely overshadowing what should be a year of making new friends, improving language skills and learning a new way of life.
So it is important to recognise that these transitions can be challenging, and anticipating being away from home and familiar support networks can sometimes lead to worry, anxiety and stress. These emotions are to be expected, especially when you’re adapting to a new environment, culture, group of friends, education system, and sometimes even a new language in a short timeframe.
Here are a few tips to look after yourself whilst abroad and a list of some resources that are available to you if you live or study in Amsterdam more specifically.