Four things I wasn’t expecting about Canada

I have been in Canada for two weeks now, in a small university town called Guelph. (Pronounced Gwelf: It sounds a bit like the feeling of making mud pies as a kid.)
I’d like to think that I’m a pretty organized person. I spent hours upon hours researching when I first got accepted onto the study abroad program. Perhaps part of the fun however, and certainly the things you learn the most from, are the surprises you can’t predict.
That’s why I’ve decided to discuss some of the not-so-obvious shocks I’ve had since arriving.

Flying over Labrador (… I think)

Immigration
The crowd control barriers are endless at Toronto airport, and there was a confusing moment where I had to pick up a ticket and then turn around and go backwards before proceeding.
I’m a pretty anxious person, and in my mind, I imagined being ushered into a small grey room with a desk, and then grilled about my return flights, my funds, the few countries I’ve visited in my life and my political swing.
In reality, the process was much less scary, but took way longer.
It’s worth reading up on the restrictions on what you can bring into the country before travelling. This way you can avoid panicking about being deported for bringing in an egg sandwich, like I did (Spoiler alert: they didn’t care about the sandwich).

Jet-lag
The day I traveled to Canada, I woke up at 8 in the morning. My seven-hour flight left at 12.30. Immigration took ages, and then I had to wait four hours in the airport for one of the university organized buses. By the time I got out of the terminal it was dark, and by the time I got to bed that night I’d spent over 20 hours awake.
It doesn’t sound that bad right?
It wasn’t half as bad as I thought it was going to be.
Until I woke up at three the next morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.
And I’ve been told it’s worse travelling in the other direction. Ugh!

Sunburn
I’m pretty pale, but I still didn’t expect to burn in my first week in Canada.
While I haven’t needed my big fluffy coat yet, I’ve been surprised how many different temperatures I’ve had to deal with in the past week.
The temperature the first few days was around 25 degrees outside. A decent British summer day, but nothing to get too excited about. You might be surprised to learn however, that Guelph is just slightly further south than Toulouse in the south of France, meaning that it receives the same amount of sun. It just doesn’t get as hot because of winds coming down from the arctic. This means the sun is much stronger you expect it to be. Locals even warned me that you can get burned from the sun reflecting off the snow in winter!

Toilets
Why is the seat so low down?!?
Why is there a gap between the door and the cubicle frame?!?
Why is there a foot of space between the bottom of the cubicle and the floor?!?
Why do they flush unexpectedly while you’re sitting on them?!?

Bienvenue au Canada

Phil Tugnait, Univesity of Calgary, Canada

Before embarking on my year away in Canada, I was met by a flurry of excitement, a touch of nervousness and an echo of the same question from family and friends, “Do you know it gets very cold out there?”. This led me to looking forward to my departure date even more as I would finally hear this familiar phrase for the final time.

Leaving the comfort of Oxford Road and jetting off to a faraway land, coated with mountains and maple syrup made me glad that I had elected to leave the bustling city of Manchester for a year and experience something completely new and different.

I arrived a couple of days before move-in day which meant I had plenty of time to sort things out before campus started to get busy. I am living in residence on campus in a flat of 4 and I have already found a great group of global friends ranging from Australia to Switzerland. One of the great perks of being on exchange is the variety of different people you can meet and connect with, which was made easier by living on campus.

My first week in Calgary started with an orientation day spearheaded by a ‘pep rally’. This ceremony pits all the faculties against each other by making as much noise as possible with their own chants. Being in the engineering faculty, which is one of the biggest, made it more fun and already made me feel like I was part of a community at the university. There was also a very heavy focus on how important the indigenous communities were in Canada, especially in Calgary as they were the first people to inhabit the city. This was an interesting side to the culture that I had not experienced before and it was very interesting to see the respect and care that the university held for these communities.

Orientation ‘pep rally’

The next day I had my first skate session on the Olympic oval hosting some of the fastest ice in the world. Having never skated before, it made the experience more enjoyable for my friends who were in stitches of laughter watching me slip and slide around the ice. This was followed by a hike to the Bow river which runs all the way through Calgary, providing some lovely scenery. It is amazing to have clear water flowing such a short walk from campus and is surrounded by the peaceful Edworthy Park. After walking through the park, the setting and wildlife made me feel like I had truly arrived in Canada.

Olympic Oval

The opening week also presented an event called Kick Off, which is the first varsity football game for the uni. This is a large event where everyone gathered to support the Dinos, which is the name of the university team and was a great opportunity to raid the bookstore for some supporting merchandise. The stadium was a short walk from campus and has a capacity of around 35,000 which makes it the fifth largest in Canada. The game had a great atmosphere and presented a great spectacle as the Dinos won the game 24-10.

After orientation was finished, we decided to head off campus into downtown. It takes around 25 minutes on the C-train which is a tram style train that takes you straight into central Calgary and is free for students. The first thing to notice was the huge skyscrapers that towered over the streets in the centre. The roads were also in a block style structure which makes them easy to navigate and leads to an absence of roundabouts. We headed towards Chinatown where we had a tasty dinner followed by a lesson in how to tip in Canada. A common tip would be around 15-20% of the bill as if no tip is given the staff will be paying this portion out of their own pocket. This was an important to learn as it seems to be taken as a given rather than a choice in the UK.

Edworthy Park

The weather was a surprising aspect of my opening week as I was unprepared for a warm wave of temperatures in the high 20’s. This was time to appreciate the city without a blanket of snow before the cold temperatures arrive.

Cholula: a new chapter

To begin, a few photos of the place I can now call home: Cholula. It is truly a beautiful place to live. On every turn there is street-art, brightly coloured buildings and taquerias. However; don’t be fooled by the weather in the photos. It’ll be cool when you wake up, boiling by midday, ominously cloudy late afternoon, stormy in the evening and then the skies may clear by the time you go to bed. What to wear: everything.

Casa Roja: My new home

1. The terrace at night. 2. My 14 housemates and I with our landlord, Luis, at his birthday meal.

I am living in a 15- person student house about a half hour walk from uni, and I am so lucky to have such a big ‘mexican’ family here. Although we are actually very international: French, German, Mexican, English and Spanish, so communication can sometimes be a challenge. But it’s nothing that a bit of translating, googling or if it comes to it, mime, can’t solve. We’ve already been on a trip away together to Oaxaca, as we’d had a whole 3 days of uni so we definitely needed a holiday…

1. Hierve el Agua (boiling water). 2. A bumpy ride down from the former

A few bumps in the road:

As expected, I experienced some anxiety and homesickness coming up to and during the first few days of living here. Although you could feel very overwhelmed in the first couple of days, it helps to remind yourself that you will settle in, in time, and that everyone feels the same way.

An emotional goodbye: I promise that my parents weren’t actually that pleased to be rid of me for the year.

Despite now feeling very settled and content with my life here, I have had other small hurdles to overcome also. Firstly, it takes a few days to not jump out of your skin every time cannons are fired from the churches on the hilltops the multiple times at any hour day or night. But soon that just becomes part of the soundscape of life here, along with the barking of stray dogs and the ‘do you want the gas’ song. Moreover, the fixtures in my bathroom have had to be repaired 4 times. Luckily my landlord has been really prompt, responding instantly and getting my fixtures fixed the same day on every occasion: we love Luis. Also, on our trip to Oaxaca, the bottled water provided in our AirBnB turned out to be contaminated with mosquito larvae, meaning we then had to take medication. But at least I’m trying new things…

There are also some cultural differences to be aware of, for instance tipping in restaurants and toilets seems to be the norm here, student or not. Moreover, I would advise any Spain-Spanish speakers coming to Mexico to look up some of the words and phrases that aren’t the same here, for instance if you ask someone if you could have intimate relations with the bus it might raise a few eyebrows (‘coger’ does not mean ‘to take’ here..).

Overall, I’ve loved my time here so far and am really excited for the year ahead.

Start of something new

Thulase Sivapooranan The University of Maryland, USA

Tuesday 20th of August 18:30

Moving-in Day

I was standing in front of numerous tall, looming crimson-bricked and white-pillared buildings, both my small hands occupied: one holding onto a suitcase the size of me and the other clutching my phone with a mere 5% charge. No one was around; I did not know where to go; I was hours late to check-in at my accommodation! Did it get worse? Yes. Booming claps of thunder echoed from above and a heavy downpour of rain followed.  There were booming bursts of thunder and it suddenly started to rain heavily. I never felt so isolated; I just wanted to cry with the clouds.

Eventually, I saw a figure in the distance, so I ran towards them, quite slowly (because I had to drag this heavy suitcase with me too).

“Hi ! I’m Tee, could you help me, please? I am an exchange student! I just landed! I don’t know where to get my keys from! Do you know where I can get them from?” I panted.

“Yes, sure! Don’t worry, I got you “said Josh calmly ( a junior home student  at The University of Maryland ), and  took hold of my oversized suitcase kindly.

He helped me move in, and then we went to the closest sushi restaurant to have dinner. We probably spent an hour at least, talking about Maryland, America, Manchester, our hobbies, ourselves. In that moment, I was overjoyed- I had an enigmatic smile painted on my face. I just made my first friend abroad, and I got a gut feeling that I was going to love it here.

Wednesday 21st of August 09:00

First day of Orientation

“Welcome to the University of Maryland! We are very happy to see you here. Our first session will start shortly, for the time being feel free to interact–“

I turned my head to see who was next to me and I smiled at them and introduced myself.  It finally got to me that I was not in Manchester anymore; I realised that I was back at square one. New campus. New people. New everything. But as the day went by, I felt more welcomed and less overwhelmed. The orientation sessions were very informative; the staff were very welcoming, and all the exchange students were just as excited and nervous as I was.

Thursday 22nd of August

Most of the orientation sessions were as expected, including: how the US healthcare system works, Academic integrity and a Washington DC trip with all the exchange students. But, the safety and security session …oh boy, it gave me the heebie jeebies! UMD’s police department came in to give us the talk, and half an hour in they gave us a short “active shooting training” session. RUN. HIDE. FIGHT was the motto. It became very clear to me that I was going to be living in a high gun to people ratio country for the next four months. I need to be vigilant.

Friday 22nd of August

Last day of Orientation and I learnt a lot about the American Culture and History of Maryland. It’s good to see how far Maryland has come from the very severe racial segregation which was not too long ago, to now one of the most diverse states. (UMD is one of the most multicultural universities in the US too!)

We ended the day with a massive BBQ dinner outside the basketball courts! The atmosphere was amazing- full on High School Musical vibes. Just as I thought I would have time in the weekend to catch up with my family and friends back at home… one of my new friends popped the question “should we go to New York this weekend, seeing as we don’t have class homework to worry about yet?” And the next thing I knew, at 11pm Friday evening, the four of us were on a coach to New York!! As born and raised in London and Manchester, it is safe to say that New York is something else! I will be sharing my experience via my vlog and Instagram posts!

It’s only been a week since I have moved to the States, and I have to say that I am loving it so far! If you’re planning on coming to America, here’s two things that I’ve learnt so far:

  1. Take advantage of your British accent, the Americans love it!
  2. Plan to be spontaneous tomorrow –make the most of your time here.

‘How was America?’

A brief reflection on my time abroad:

Studying abroad in America has taught me many things. It has taught me that no matter how many American TV shows you watch on Netflix; you will still get an insane shock at the difference between our two cultures. It has taught me that having an English accent can get you very many privileges in the US (even if you’re from Birmingham).  And it has taught me that Britain is a very, very tiny country.

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The thing that I will most take away from my time abroad is the friendships that I have made from people all across the globe; friendships which will hopefully last a lifetime. I now have plans to visit friends from Australia, somewhere I have always wanted to visit and am excited to embark on a new travelling adventure.

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I am not sure that studying abroad has changed me in the dramatic and cliché way that I thought it would. Upon my return to England it felt as If I had never left, I slipped back into British life with extreme ease, picked up my friendships where they had left off and started drinking tea again. America began to feel like a strange dream or a past life. However, I would say that my six months across the Atlantic has definitely noticeably improved my confidence. Being thrown into the deep end, completely alone has forced me to speak up more and to try not to hide behind other people– especially in classes were my participation counted towards 30% of my grade. I think it has also helped me to become better at dealing with stress – dislocating your elbow on the other side of the world with no mother to provide you with comfort and thousands of pounds worth of medical bills being thrown at you is very, very stressful. And, after 20 years of evading exercise, the fear of American food making me obese, finally forced me to join the gym. Aside from that though, I would say that I am still the same old Liv.

RUTGERS

I have been asked so many times over the months since my return, ‘How was America?’ and I always struggle to answer. The question is so weighted. How can I reduce six months of my life down to a single sentence answer.  How was America? I usually pause for a long moment and then just say ‘Weird’. I then normally follow this by stating that it was ‘an interesting life experience’ and then waffle on for about five minutes about how cool Texas was or how insane it is that the drinking age is 21, whilst the person who asked – and probably expected me to say something like ‘ it was good’ becomes increasingly bewildered by my random response. I don’t think that I have fully been able to process my time studying abroad yet. It would take me a month to properly answer that question. Maybe in a few years’ time when I have had the time to reflect properly on my experience, I will be able to categorise my feelings in a way that allows me to give a response to that question that doesn’t end up in a ten minute rant about the fact that their cheese tastes like plastic. However, until then, in order to evade me going into meltdown, I would advise people to ask me a more specific question than, ‘ How was America?’

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Returning home and thoughts for my final year

It’s taken a few months to readjust to life since returning home, partly due to the time difference but mainly due to the lack of independence since moving back with my parents. Although the grass is always greener on the other side, with home cooked meals and a clean house being two things that are greatly missed as a student, I’ve always greatly enjoyed the freedoms of student life particularly after living 5000 miles from home.

London life is so vastly different from Vancouver’s slow-paced and outdoorsy lifestyle which I found suited me well. It’s taken a while to remember the things I love about suburban life in West London and not wince at the cost of transport every time I hop on a train. However, after catching up with close friends and heading up to Manchester to hear all the stories I’d missed while away, I’ve noticed how the year abroad has benefitted me in terms of my motivation and positive outlook on life. After living somewhere where mountaineering sports and coastal walks were a regular part of my free time, I’ve found myself prioritising daytime activities over nights out (potentially a sign of old-age) which has helped me to cope better with work-related stress and anxiety.

As the summer flies by I’m having mixed emotions about returning to uni. While the prospect of the final year work-load is daunting, I can’t wait to be properly reunited with my uni family and also with those Manchester students I’ve become close with in Vancouver. Given the regular assessment at UBC, I feel I’ve developed a stronger work ethic and an ability to manage multiple deadlines which has equipped me well for fourth year. Furthermore, the ethos at UBC to become an active member of the community has inspired me to get involved with student volunteering groups and, in turn, utilise student resources to build my CV and career prospects.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my year abroad and can safely say it has benefitted me in ways I cannot begin to list. I’ve found writing these blogs a helpful way to summarise the highlights of the year and am sure I’ll take pleasure reading back on them in years to come. I hope that after speaking to UBC students about UoM more positions become available to go on exchange to Vancouver as it’s such an inspiring city that provides an ideal environment for student life.

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Preparation is key

Why preparing financially, logistically and mentally is crucial before going abroad.

By Sally Lord, North Carolina State University

It has been one year since I embarked on my journey to the US and so after some reflection, I thought I would share some tips on how to prepare to go abroad. There are so many things you have to think about before you leave like visas, accommodation, what to pack, which courses to take, which flight to take – the list feels endless! However, I would say that there are three key ways, in which you must prepare for your trip, and that is financially, logistically and probably most importantly mentally.

Preparing Financially

So it might seem obvious that of course you will have to think about your finances before you go abroad, especially if you want to fit some travelling into your budget. However, as much as I tried to budget before I went abroad, I had no idea of half the things I would end up spending my money on. First of all, I had no idea of the sheer volume of ubers I would end up taking, which are not cheap! However, there isn’t much you can do to avoid this because the public transport is non-existent and the distances are so large that if you tried to walk it would take you half the night. An uber costs between $7-$15 dollars, depending on where you want to go, which doesn’t sound much but adds up when you are taking a few a week and people forget to pay you back. It is also a cost that I don’t have in Manchester, since the buses run frequently, and so I hadn’t anticipated it. Secondly, were there were sooooo many travel plans! A lot of the exchange students I was living with, were only there for one semester and so obviously they wanted to make the most of their limited time, by travelling a lot. However, what I failed to realise at the time was that they only had to make their money stretch one semester, whilst I had to make my budget last a year. So, in fear of missing out I tried to keep up with their travel plans and ended up spending way too much money in the first semester. I had a great time, and visited a lot of great places but it meant that during the second semester I had to be much more careful about my spending. So be weary of that; keep in mind how long your budget needs to last and try to stick to it a bit better than I did. Thirdly, don’t expect things to be priced the same as in the UK. Again this might seem obvious, but I was caught out by the extreme prices of some items, which are relatively cheap in the UK, like deodorant. I would never have thought that a can of deodorant could be as expensive as $8 when it is only £1 in the UK. However, it isn’t all that bad because it balances out, with some things being much cheaper than they are at home. I think the most important point though is be flexible and wait until you have got to your host country to make a final budget. It will be so much easier to have a budget you can stick too once you have sussed out the prices of things. So make a rough budget before and then a better one after you’ve been there a couple of weeks, and always remember how long you are going for!

Preparing Logistically

I think the most important thing to say about logistics is UNDERPACK!!! I cannot express enough how important I think it is to not pack too much. I packed way too much. I was going for a year and so I took so many things but, guess what, I ended up buying so many things too! So when the time came to pack up my room, I had about an extra suitcase worth of stuff, and no extra suitcase to put it in. You will amass so much stuff during your time abroad, so take as little as possible. I took two big suitcases and a backpack and I wish I had only taken one big suitcase. Yes, you might not have absolutely everything you need, but how much stuff do you really need. I would say pack once, then take out half your stuff and pack again. You are still going to have a great year if you take three jumpers instead of six, plus you’ll have more room to bring things home.

Preparing Mentally

I think this is definitely the hardest way in which you will have to prepare for your time abroad. You have to come to terms with the fact that you will be away for an extended period of time and that things might be different when you come home. The world keeps on moving and whilst you might be worried about missing out on things at home, you will be having new adventures of your own. You have to get used to the fact that you won’t be able to stay completely up-to-date with your life at home, but that doesn’t matter. Home will always be there, it is always a place that you can come back to. Your year abroad, on the other hand, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you probably won’t be able to have so easily again. So you need to prepare yourself for how to deal with your new ‘dual life’. I would say the best thing to do is leave home behind, as much as that is possible. Tell your friends and family that you will aim to keep them updated but that you won’t be able to talk 24/7 because you’ll be too busy. It is very tiring trying to keep up to date with your life at home, whilst also living a whole new life, half way across the world.  Also you want to have the best experience possible and if you are constantly in contact with your life at home, you won’t be able to fully immerse yourself in this new life. I know the idea of cutting off regular contact with home and flying half way around the world, with little idea of what to expect, is daunting but that’s why it is key to prepare. Prepare yourself  with the idea that you won’t be coming home for a while and work out a communication plan with your friends and family. This will make it much easier to get your head around going away and will let you live your new life, without constantly worrying about keeping up with your friends at home, since you’ve told them you’ll be going off grid for a while!

 

Life in the Six

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Living in Toronto has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Its a diverse city with an abundance of culture, food, nightlife, attractions and hidden treasures, but it has also been a second home to me. Because of this, I want to not only talk about what makes life in the Six fantastic for anyone, but also what made Toronto special for me during my time there.

Location

I cannot communicate just how important where you live in Toronto is to your experience of it – living near wonderful restaurants, bars and public transport links makes all the difference when strolling outside means facing -40c and 20 inches of snow on the ground in the depths of the Canadian winter around early February!

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Walking to class in January and February often looked like this!

I lived in a shared apartment in a student housing building that also happened to double up as an Estonian cultural centre (I really can’t explain that one) in Downtown Toronto on Bloor-Spadina. Firstly it was what I, or indeed I think anyone, would call ‘a steal’ in terms of rent for Downtown or the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) – around $500 cheaper or more than the average per month – while secondly being on an intersection such as Bloor-Spadina placed me right in the heart of ‘The Annex’, a bustling student area of the city – similar to Fallowfield in Manchester.

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Bloor Street hosts hot dog stands (on the right) alongside a world famous shoe muesuem (on the left), whats not to love?

Bloor Street itself has also been dubbed Toronto’s ‘Cultural Corridor’ due to the sheer volume of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and niche artisan and ‘thrift’ stores, all designed for a student population on a budget in an otherwise expensive city. Also boosting the profile of Bloor-Spadina is its proximity to not one, but two Toronto Subway (TTC) stations, making it an ideal base to explore and navigate the city from as well shielding you from some of its pricier and wintery elements.

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I think I took this photo of the St. George campus as it was the first time no snow or ice had been on the ground since I’d been there as Winter turned to Spring!

Alongside all of this, and of course most importantly, my apartment building lay a short 5-10 minute walk from the University of Toronto (U of T) main Robarts Library and the downtown St. George Campus, although the exact time this journey took during much of my time in Toronto depended on the strength of the wind and the level of snow being blown in my eyes, ears and any other crevice of my body the weather found its way into.

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Robarts Library, where I’ll admit I spent more than one night typing away under the shadow of a deadline!

However for daily commutes, late night study sessions and last minute ‘I just woke up and class is in five minutes’ sprints to campus, living on Bloor-Spadina was ideal, allowing me to mostly move around the city on foot if I wanted to, a rarity in Canada and even in some parts of Toronto, liberating me to leave the Uber bills to nights out and days where the winter cold got the better of me.

Things you should, could and definitely will do

As I’ve already partially mentioned, my location in Toronto meant I was close to so much in the Six and I think that now qualifies me as a expert as to the ins and outs of what, as a student there, you should, could and definitely will do if you end up hopping over the Atlantic for exchange at U of T.

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The quirky wall murals and street art of Queen Street.

Bloor, as well as surrounding streets such as Queen, King, College, Harbord and Dundas West host a fantastic array of cheap eateries, attractions and spots for a memorable night out. My recommendation for an all out 24 hour tour of Toronto would be to start by going for breakfast or brunch at The Federal on Dundas West, before browsing various art, craft and music stores on Queen Street, hopping onto College in order to allow yourself to fall into the fantastic, hippie-style chaos of Kensington Market.

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The Federal – A breakfast and brunch heaven.

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The wonderfully bizzare entrance posts to Kensington Market.

Proceed then to pop into Papa Ceo’s on Harbord for a gloriously delicious and highly affordable Pizza experience for lunch, friendly staff thrown in, heading afterwards as the sun dips in the sky to the intimate and quirky ‘Red Room’ bar on Spadina to enjoy your favorite tipple (not neccessarily alcoholic!), finally finishing your whirlwind of a day by going long into the night within the confines of CODA on Bloor-Bathurst, or alternatively getting a good nights sleep.

Sports

So people that know me well, or indeed to any extent at all will gasp at the title of this section. Sports is usually my last port of call in life, understandbly if you’ve ever seen me play/attempt to play pretty much anything, however in Toronto you can’t help but be sucked into the reality that sports is a way of life, and I’m not just talking about Hockey!

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My first Varsity game at U of T, which fittingly we lost.

Firstly at U of T we have ‘Varsity’ level sports, where Universities from across Canada and the USA come to see what they’ve got against Toronto’s ‘Varsity Blues’, with games being free for current U of T students and heavily discounted for visiting family and friends; I attended Hockey and Basketball Varsity events during my time in Toronto but Swimming (Competitive and Sychronised), Water Polo, and I’m sure a million and one other events were also crammed into a single semester at U of T!

Varsity events are fantastic way to integrate yourself into life at U of T and into that of Toronto itself as the University, along with its younger downtown rival Ryerson University, go a long way to giving Downtown Toronto a student-heavy and busy atmosphere, dominating the cultural and demographic environment and forming a major component of life in the Six.

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I genuinely have no idea why I’m trying to be a pirate in this photo from a Blue Jays game?

Alongside Varisty sports at U of T, be sure to check out sports within Toronto itself; A Maple Leafs hockey game is obviously the golden ticket, but unfortunately it is quite literally that and so didn’t fit into my student budget. However, you can go see the MLB Toronto Blue Jays play baseball at the Rogers Centre (the big stadium next to the CN Tower) from March onwards for $15 for the cheapest tickets, which are some of the best if you ask me!

Things to look out for

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Signposts on the Toronto Islands pier act as instagramable attractions rather than giving actual directions!

To conclude I want to mention a pair of things I particularly loved about Toronto that you might not think or even hear of on a typical tourist whirl around the city.

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Be at the back of the ferry to the Toronto Islands to glimpse the postcard view of the skyline!

Firstly, make sure to head over to the Toronto Islands about a 1km off the city shoreline in Lake Ontario; an oasis of calm in a busy metropolis and a great place to take a leisurely walk or cycle looking across the water to the USA or back towards the Toronto skyline, especially once Spring has sprung, catching a 5 minute ferry from Front Street.

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By the time we’d looped around the rink for an hour, my rookie skater friend was already better than me?!

Secondly head on over to the Bentway overpass just back from Front Street to ‘Skate the 8’! Skate round a figure of eight ice rink completely for free, skate hire included, in January or February – great fun whether you’re a Robin Cousins style skate pro or taking to the ice for the first time, as my friend in the middle of the photo above was!

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I loved my life in the Six, and I encourage anyone who goes to embrace this wonderful, albeit often cold city and the University of Toronto within it with both hands. I hope this can be a small guide for when you do go, from one part-time Torontonian to another.

Final reflections: post-year abroad survival

What a year.

Mexico has brought me intense happiness, challenges, new understandings, questioning, all among its colours, smells, music, arts, joy, volcanoes, beaches, deserts and jungles. But it hasn’t all been rosy! I have been tested in friendships and relationships, in Mexico and the UK to push my mental strength to its limit – and been pushed possibly most of all by my return to the UK. 

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Guanajuato

It’s been said before, I’ll say it again. Reverse culture shock is worse. Coming “home” is an odd sensation: things are the same but different. Also: what is home? You’ve changed but many things, many people and many places are mostly the same. This can be hard to get to grips with, and doesn’t really seem to get easier the more it happens. But there are definitely ways to deal with it, and work towards adapting. The main point that I have realised over the last 3 weeks is that: it’s okay not to be okay. In my case I have felt lost, sad, confused, anxious, ungrounded – but also happy, fulfilled and excited for the future: it’s a very turbulent time, which when you think about it a little bit more is very reasonable, considering the huge amount of change, upheaval, learning, growing and living that has happened in the last year. Frankly, if I felt great, then I would be more worried. So give yourself credit! And embrace the sadness, nostalgia or melancholy that you may have, because there is an awful lot of processing, reflecting and learning to be done, and it’s definitely not an easy nor a quick process. 

With that in mind, be kind to yourself. Listen to your mind, embrace the difficulty, sadness, happiness, all the emotions. You have every right to feel however you do (and maybe you feel completely fine, and things were harder when away – that’s cool too!). But what you feel is valid and there is a reason you feel it. So be kind, take your time, talk it out with friends, family, your partner – and you can start to work through it. It will take time. You’ll get there. You’ll get through it.

But it wasn’t my first choice?

How to overcome any initial disappointment and realise you are still going to have a great year!

By Sally Lord, North Carolina State University.

There is always a mix of anticipation, excitement and maybe some ‘fear of the unknown’ in the lead up to the day, on which, you will depart to your new home. This is normal, we are all nervous when we embark on something new. But if you are heading off to somewhere you hadn’t first planned to, perhaps you might be feeling these nerves a little bit more strongly. Most people, when they apply to study abroad, think really hard about what to put for their top three choices or maybe top five but think a lot less about the other remaining choices. That’s why when the day comes, and you find out you’ve been selected to study abroad but NOT at one of your top choices, you might feel a little disheartened. It might be that you haven’t done much research about this university, or it is in a place that is not well-known or maybe it is somewhere that doesn’t have the most positive reputation, like the southern states of the America, for example. However, panic not! I am here to tell you that wherever you have been assigned, and however deflated you might have felt when you found out – you are still going to have the BEST YEAR EVER!

My top choices were all in Canada and I ended up in North Carolina, a state that, firstly, most people don’t know where it is and secondly, when you tell them its in the South of the US they don’t seem to have much good to say. I was initially a bit upset when I found out that I hadn’t got into a Canadian university but after accepting it, I started to research North Carolina and was very pleasantly surprised with what I learnt about it. It was not a state that I had ever had reason to research before and since it is not a particular tourist destination, I didn’t know much about it. But having spent a year there, I think this is what makes it so special and such a great place to really immerse in American culture. 

I think the main benefit of studying somewhere, that you don’t know much about, is that you really won’t know what to expect. This is so good because you won’t have any preconceived ideas, to compare to the reality of what it is actually like; you can just live the reality! Rather than becoming hung-up on comparing your expectations with what its really like, you can just dive right into getting to know the new culture. Furthermore, having little knowledge of the place, where you will be living, will encourage you to learn as much about it as possible, through meeting new people, trying new things, tasting new foods etc. etc.. And this is the whole point of studying abroad, to learn about a new culture, something which I think will seem even more appealing when you don’t know anything about the place to begin with! It will be a much more educational experience if your initial knowledge of the place is zero. There are also likely to be a lot less international influences, if the place is less well-known, and so you will end up getting a more authentic representation of what your host country is actually like.

Secondly, if your exchange location is somewhere unfamiliar to you, the chances are that it isn’t a place that you have thought about visiting. This means that your exchange really will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because you will be visiting a place that you might not have had the idea or opportunity to visit otherwise. It will be a chance to travel and experience things that you may never of heard of, but which may become some of the best places you have ever visited. I know that I had never imagined visiting North Carolina but now I can’t wait to go back and explore the parts of it I didn’t get a chance to visit. I didn’t imagine I’d be spending Christmas in the Smokey Mountains or Easter on the beach near Wilmington but I wouldn’t change either experience. Some of the best beauties in the world are the lesser known ones and going somewhere off the tourist track will mean that you will be able to discover your own special places, in your new home.

So, don’t despair if you don’t get your first choice, you will find a home in wherever you end up. It will all be new and exciting, and there will be so many things to discover! I even bet that by the time you leave, you will be thinking to yourself, why didn’t I put that place as my first choice?

 

Post-exchange travel

Many partner universities finish their semesters earlier than Manchester – in my case, the start of May, so I took advantage of this to travel around Mexico and Central America – having 2 months’ more travelling to what my friends teased me was already a year of holiday/travelling! 

As soon as I finished my assignments, I made the most of the luxury of not having any exams at the end of the semester, and booked a flight for a solo adventure in El Salvador. Having said goodbye to my pals and my home for the last year, Cholula, I made my way over into Central America. El Salvador has a really bad rep internationally because of high homicide rates, and very problematic gang violence, however this tends to be restricted to certain areas and El Salvador is generally a safe place to travel. I can vouch for this, having travelled solo around El Salvador for 10 days, and staying with amazing people through Couchsurfing the whole time, seeing beautiful landscapes filled with lakes, volcanoes, jungle, waterfalls, beaches, and above all, possibly the kindest people of all the countries I’ve travelled to so far! 

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Cerro Verde as seen from the top of Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador

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Mural in Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

I then made my way across the border in a chicken bus into Guatemala to meet a friend from the UK, to travel all the way from the El Salvador border up to the Mexican border. Along the way, I climbed Volcán Acatenango (brutal) to watch Volcán del Fuego erupt during the night, visited the amazing diverse villages around Lake Atitlán, exploring candle-lit caves and naturally turquoise limestone pools at Semuc Champey, and toucan- and spider monkey-spotting around the Mayan site of Tikal. I left Guatemala with a heavy heart, knowing that I’ll certainly be back as soon as I possibly can to keep exploring more of its beautiful country and vibrant indigenous cultures. 

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Sunrise seen from the summit of Volcán Acatenango

Crossing the border back into Mexico, I felt like I was coming home, though the journey was something of an intense one: I ended up travelling with a caravan of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala midway through their journey across Central America, just starting their crossing from one end of México up to the other, most aiming to cross into the United States. It is important not to understate the enormity of this journey that often takes months, and the difficult political situations that make it not a decision, but a necessity, for many people to leave their homes, families and countries to make this long journey in the hopes of a life elsewhere. 

I returned back to México to meet another friend from the UK to explore the mountains and beaches of the state of Oaxaca, and then the cenotes, ruins and beaches of the Yucatán peninsula while in 40 degree heat. From there, I met up with three of my closest friends from UDLAP to go to Cuba for 10 days, for lots of music, dancing, a few mojitos, cigars, lots of rice and beans and plenty of fun, while learning lots about the complex political situation (which I cannot understate). 

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Coloured streets of Trinidad

From Cuba, I returned to Mexico City to have one final day of eating as much food as I could possibly manage, saying a teary goodbye to my best friend, and hopping onto a flight back to the UK. I won’t lie, I wasn’t looking forward to coming back to the UK as Mexico means so much to me, and is a beautiful country with amazing people, food and places, and has been the setting for possibly the best year of my life. That said, two months of travelling made the transition to UK life somewhat easier, as I came to terms with the impending return to the English ‘summer’ and the idea of having to look at my bank account! Of course, travelling might not be for you, for whatever reason, but being abroad is an awesome opportunity to take advantage of. Perhaps solo travel is something you haven’t tried yet? Go away for a weekend during the semester as a first step. Intimidated in hostels? Couchsurfing is an awesome way to meet people, stay with locals and learn about local life in ways that you can’t in hostels. Scared by language? Start learning the basics before you go – such as with TV programmes, and we all know there are plenty of apps out there. The point is: make the most of being wherever in the world you are, because it’s not every day that travel is so easy.