Going on exchange while the Coronavirus is spreading in the world isn’t a fun thing. I did not want to start the blog with the virus, however, without all the troubles prior to the beginning of my semester abroad, the story will not be completed.
After taking the final exam at Manchester, I took a flight the next day back to China, planning to stay home for seven days during Chinese New Year and then embark on a journey to Australia. However, it was at that time that the Coronavirus outbreak started in China. On the 1stof February, after I checked in at the airport and started shopping in the duty-free area, my friends texted me that Scott Morrison has set a travel ban for visitors from China. “Are you kidding me?” I walked to the airport departure board and saw flights to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane… all cancelled!
As you can imagine what happened next, the airport turned into a huge mess. People queuing for luggage, staff unloading and distributing them to the passengers. Each individual was wearing a mask, pushing through the crowd to get their luggage. I felt like even a healthy person could get sick or be affected under that circumstance. I finally got home with all my luggage, tired like a horse.
It was a Saturday night, I sent emails to anyone who I thought may help. I kept telling myself to calm down, wait at least until Monday to see what they will reply. However, I also worried that with one more day of hesitation, Britain will shut their door. Friends at uni texted me: “Hey, Ziqi. You can still come back to Manchester. Don’t have to gap.” Was this it? Were all my efforts for exchange ended up in this way? It was one of the most difficult weeks in my life. I was desperate: checked news, checked email boxes, texted Australian oversea students in China…
After struggling for one week, I weighted different options and decided to go to Thailand with two other girls for 14 days of isolation. It was my third time going to Thailand. Upon leaving there, I promised myself to never visit Thailand again.
Hope is an important thing. Once there is hope, you will feel much better. In the flat we rented, we cooked, watched movies, chatted, and counted the 14 days down. It is true that plans can never keep up with changes. Just as I first planned to get to ANU campus early and mix up with all other students, I have now undergone an unexpected two-week vacation and missed O-week.
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?
One of the great things about living in Singapore is the travel opportunities, and getting to go away on weekends. Last term me and my friends went to watch the lantern festival in Pingxi and spent the weekend in Taiwan, here’s how we did it.
Day 1: Taipei
So the flight to Taiwan takes around 4 hours, depending on which flight you get, so after arriving we made our way to our hostel. To get to the hostel we took the MRT, in the airport you can buy both phone sims and travel cards. The Taiwan metro card is also a key chain, and they’re very cute, for example mine is a Snoopy key chain! The first thing we noticed was the change in temperature, as we visited in February the temperature was around 16 degrees Celsius, which is quite a change from the 33 degrees we had gotten used to. We spent the afternoon going around the old town in Taipei and visiting some of its beautiful temples. This was all free and the photos were beautiful! We made our way to the walking street for dinner and shopping. The main thing worth noting is looking up, most shops and restaurants are upstairs rather than at street level. There’s lots of cool and quirky bars and restaurants for example, ours was underwater themed and had swings!
Day 2: The Festival
The festival is held in Pingxi / Shifen which is not in Taipei. Instead we decided to first visit Jiufen and then go to Shifen. To get there we were able to take a bus direct from Taipei. Jiufen is an old town in the mountains, with great views of the coastline and lots of market stalls and things to buy. If you have time it’s definitely worth staying for lunch and watching the view. From here we went to The Lantern Festival. The transport to the festival is fairly organised, as you’re able to get a bus or a train. Once you get there you can buy dinner and drinks from the stalls and have a look around. It gets busy very quickly, and the transport back does end before midnight – so it’s worth checking times and giving yourself enough time to be there (for reference we spent just over two hours at the festival). You also have the option of buying a lantern with your friends, you can decorate it and set it off with the others. Whilst there we got very lucky as a local resident offered us tickets to set off a lantern inside the venue which is where the main lantern releases happen. This was just by pure chance what we were able to do this but if you get the chance I would really recommend it, as it was a very special experience.
Day 3: Taipei
On our final day we spent time going around Taipei some more. We visited the Chiang Kai – Shek memorial which was beautiful, there is also a changing of the guards ceremony which is very elaborate and cool to watch. Whilst it was the start of cherry blossom season we didn’t have time to get out of the city to find any, but the people who did really recommended it! Another recommended activity is Taipei 101, however because of the time of year we were not able to go outside to see the view. An alternative to paying for the view is to climb Elephant Mountain, which is beautiful for sunrise and sunset.
We only spent three days in Taiwan, but it’s definitely somewhere I would go back to! It’s a great mix of city life and culture.
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.
In my experience, study abroad can sometimes feel like living in a different world, (especially at SFU, which is so different to UoM), in which you feel like everything back home has paused, and you’re sprung into this new life- one which you never would have encountered without the study abroad programme at Manchester. In that sense, it’s easy to keep breezing along and riding the wave, but I wanna make sure I’m savouring every experience- even the seemingly mundane moments- I encounter here. I’m over half way through my 2nd semester at SFU, and in light of the limited time I have left here in Vancouver, I wanted to look back at the spring term and all the special moments that have made a lasting impression on me.
Returning to snowy Vancouver
It was weird going back home for Christmas for 3 weeks- there were things I started to appreciate about England that I hadn’t ever really noticed. My hometown looked like an idyllic toy-town with tiny winding roads (compared to the contrast of Vancouver’s wide, airy grid-system) and it felt great to be able to order a casual pint of beer at the bar (They’re all about table service and formality over here…) and hear Brits chatting spiel in the background- the bar culture in Vancouver isn’t as lively, but I would say the beer is better (They love a weird craft beer out here).
Anyway, I was feeling a bit nervous about returning to Canada- I think because I knew that this would be the last time I’d be coming back, and we’d no longer be able to use the excuse of ‘it’s calm we’ve got another semester’. I didn’t know what the spring term was gonna bring- especially having lost some great friends (Aussies, Kiwis, Germans etc) who returned to their home universities at Christmas. Thankfully, I can say that this semester has been amazing- with the frequent skiing as the main factor in that. I had been itching to get on the slopes throughout semester 1, so you can imagine how good it felt to start using our season passes and own [very battered] skis.
Within the first few days of being back at SFU, Vancouver lived up to its reputation of being a cold, snowy, Canadian city- though one that defo doesn’t know how to function with snow. So for a couple of days, Vancouver kinda shut down and travelling around was slow (got stuck in the cold a few times). But this didn’t stop me and my bestie from home (she flew all the way from Brighton!!!) getting out (see pics below).
Trips to Whistler
One of the major reasons why I chose Vancouver as my study abroad destination was because of its great outdoors and access to world-class skiing. Within Vancouver itself, there are 3 mountain ski resorts (Grouse, Seymour and Cypress) which are small, family-oriented resorts that offer day and night skiing. So far I’ve only been to one of these; Mt Seymour, for an evening of night skiing. Unfortunately, it was super foggy and the vis was bad (which was worsened by my dark, reflective goggles- look good but so impractical haha), but I’ve heard that on clear days you can see over the whole city. I intend on doing a ‘ride night’ with the ski club here, since they offer discounted evening passes to these resorts.
Though Vancouver itself boasts lots of options for skiing, Whistler (2 hour coach drive away) was the real-deal, and the £450 student season pass made this so worth it, baring in mind a day-pass costs upwards of £100. During the first few weeks of the semester- when uni commitments were low- we tried to get up to Whistler once a week, using Whistler Rides and Skylynx coaches to do day trips. Though this was tiring- having to wake up at 5am to catch the coach from downtown and returning to campus around 9pm- days spent in Whistler always fill me with gratitude, and offer a mental reset, a good cure for home sickness/stress etc.
My highlights of Whistler so far are spending the reading week there with 3 other exchange friends, staying in the H.I hostel and being able to apres and party without rushing for a coach back to the city (Whistler is known for having decent nightlife, where only Friday and Saturday nights are dead??). There’s no shortage of Aussies in Whistler either, which can only be a good thing right? All 4 days spent skiing over the reading break treated us to blue skies and sunshine (though very icy), and we were lucky enough to go inside an Ice cave near the top of Whistler mountain. See pics below for my highlights so far.
Midterms & what’s next…
Coming back to reality after reading break in Whistler was weird. As much as I love the city-life aspect of Vancouver, I sometimes find the SFU campus (located 40 min bus ride from downtown) a little isolating and boring. However, sometimes all it takes is a little reminder of the beauty surrounding me, and I head over to the mountain park view point (I’ve taken endless pics of the views from up here- it’s defo my favourite spot) or drag myself off campus to go to a yoga class at KarmaTeachers (a beautiful studio that offers free or by-donation yoga). After all, the stereotypical Vancouverite lives n breathes yoga, hiking and Lululemon- so I might as well try and milk that before heading back to Manchester.
I had a couple of midterm exams after reading break, which I tried not to stress too much about… hopefully that’s all good. Last semester I joined student-led activist club ‘Ban the Bottle’ as their new events coordinator, and I’m so excited to have organized my first event for them last week. The main goal of our club is to literally, ban the [plastic] bottles on campus, urging people to utilise the water refill stations located all around campus. After lots of back-and-forth communication, we successfully hosted an event screening of the beautiful documentary ‘The Heart of the Fraser’, which deals with the issue of environmental degradation the Fraser river, a declining salmon population and the associated issues with operating industry and agriculture on the river’s floodplains. The screening was followed by a Q&A panel discussion with the film’s director, professor Ken Ashely (who was very involved with the project and film) and the Pacific Water Research Centre’s (PWRC) executive director Zafar Adeel. We also gave out free ‘Ban the Bottle’ reusable bottles to everyone in the audience, as well as popcorn and logo stickers for promotion.
We’re super happy to have confirmed with the SFU facilities team that plastic bottles will be removed from all shops and vending machines on campus in Summer. The next event to plan will be a celebratory social/party at the end of semester, hopefully with the announcement of an exact date. See pics from the screening event below (credit to Ryan De Jong).
Right now my focus is on making the most of every last day in this beautiful city, as well as saving money for travelling- hopefully through California and Mexico- at the end of the semester!
So it’s been over a year since I was in Brisbane, Australia – over a year of sarcastic ‘sO yOu WeNt tO AuStRaLiA?! You never mentioned that!’ and of answering the questions of prospective Aussie travellers. I’ve noticed a trend in the questions i’ve been asked so I thought i’d write a somewhat practical blog telling the story of my fears and big questions, and some tips on day-to-day life as a student in Brisbane. I hope that this shows the big stresses of studying abroad aren’t really as big as they seem!
Kangaroo Point, Brisbane
Tangalooma wrecks beach
What about the BUGS??!!
Thought i’d mention this first. It’s Australia right? And yeah, it’s all true, they still have dinosaurs over there, and there’s flying spiders as big as your face buzzing about ready to eat you alive as soon as you step out of your house.
Nah just kidding, but I was pretty on edge when I first arrived. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I was greeted by Jonathan, a beast of a spider sitting in a web right outside my ground floor window. I also remember checking under my covers and pillow every night for the first 2 weeks in the hope there was nothing under there to ambush me. Turns out mutant insects don’t exist, and giant spiders, especially when you live in the city, are pretty rare.
The worst experience I had with the Aussie bugs was during a road trip down the east coast. We decided to visit a hidden spot on the edge of a tropical forest where there was a rope swing and a big pool of water. It was so sick, but the only problem was the plague of horse-flies surrounding the water, and as soon as they caught wind of you they would swarm. The only way to escape them was dive under water or run for your life.
Getting away from the airport…
Don’t forget to book an airport pick up!! UQ and many other universities provide them depending on what uni you are going to, so book one a week or so in advance. I was silly and forgot to do this, but was saved by Jonno, a contact I was lucky to have in Brisbane.
Getting around in Brisbane
For a normal day of university or just exploring the city, having a ‘GO card’ is absolutely necessary in Brisbane. They are super easy to pick up, any Coles, newsagent or 7/11 (a small shop similar to Co-op but cheaper, and can be found on nearly every street) does them. All you have to do is beep them on their beeper on a bus/ferry at the start and end of every journey. Top them up by just handing them in at the 7/11 till or online at translink.com.au. I used to live in West End, so to get to UQ i’d take a bus and then a ferry across the river, which took me straight to campus. Also, I would be so lost in the world without google maps. Keep your phone and that trusty app always!
Food + shops
The two big supermarkets in Brisbane are Woolworths (yeah it still exists?!) and Coles. There is a sort of rivalry between the supermarkets, and most Aussies decide to be either a ‘woolys’ or Coles shopper. Both are similar in price. I used Coles, because they were closest to me, and they used to do these really cool mini plastic vegemite toys if you spent over $40 in a shop.
Speaking of money…
I used ‘Transferwise’ to convert my English £ to Australian $. There’s an app which is super easy to use, you simply type what amount of money you want to convert, it shows you the rate at which it will convert and then sends you the money within a day or so.
I set up a bank account with Commonwealth bank, which are also really easy to use and have an online banking app. There are Commonwealth banks scattered all around Brisbane.
What time did you have to travel?
If you’re organised and do work in weekdays, that leaves weekends free for travel, which is the most common strategy for study abroad students it seems. You also get a break in the middle of the semester of a week or 2. Many students also travel after their exams, which is probably the longest and most stress free time which is definitely worth taking advantage of!
Study abroad is full of random things to get stressed about. It seems like there’s so many things to keep on top of, especially before you leave! And yet, from my experience, the worries are certainly not as big and bad as they all seem. The important thing is to keep an open mind and HAVE FUN 🙂
Reflecting on my time in Sweden after half a year back in the UK, I can notice a few differences between the two. Some are obvious, and some are far more subtle.
The first thing that I found strange when going about my day to day back in the UK was the language difference. This may seem obvious, but I had got used to either zoning out among a background chatter of Swedish, or tuning in to try and passively learn a few words. The difference on public transport or in a busy space is quite clear when you are forced to listen to everyone’s conversation!
The more welcome changes included the usual home comforts, firstly, of course, a very welcome decrease in the price of a beer! However although I loved to moan about the fierce cold in Sweden, I find myself missing those dry, crisp freezing mornings when cycling into uni through soggy, grey Manchester. It is always nice to reacquaint with old friends, however I do miss the vibrant diversity of my multinational friendship group in Sweden, and try to stay in touch as much as I can.
A notable change in workload has welcomed me back to final year university life, making me very glad I was able to enjoy a much less challenging year before stepping into the fire. One of the best things to come out of this was the time to reflect and formulate ideas for my dissertation. I am writing this on an urban development in Copenhagen, and living in close proximity for a whole year gave me the chance to visit and learn more about it, making final year a lot less stressful. I also get to tell myself that through visiting Copenhagen vicariously every day, I never really left!
The Holmene urban island development – the focus of my dissertation. ( I wish I was on this island in Copenhagen rather than in the library! )
To summarise and finalise this blog, the year abroad experience was not only a great thing during my stay in Sweden, it also continues to offer more to my life as I reflect on my academic and personal life back in the UK. I would urge anyone reading this, or considering the Erasmus programme to go for it! Before it’s too late!
All that talk of how cold it is in Canada doesn’t actually prepare you for how cold it is in Canada when you first arrive.
The slush that seeped into my shoes when I walked around the city for the first time wasn’t exactly the welcome I had expected, nor the teeny tiny steps that I had to take to avoid slipping on the ice. They told me that it’d be cold but I hadn’t thought that I’d lose all feeling in my hands and feet when I went ice skating one bitterly cold weekend. Or that I’d trudge through a snowstorm and end up with ice in my hair and on my glasses.
And yet, despite the snow up to my knees and the falling down on my morning walks to my biweekly classes that commence at 8:30am, I still appreciate Montreal in all of its crazy, beautiful, temperamental weather.
At first, it’s the snow blanketing the city, and the first snowfall where I stood out in the streets with my tongue out, fully aware that I looked completely crazy to the locals. Then it’s the pure, simple joy of just making footprints in the snow. Then it’s finally the Uber ride in the aftermath of a snowstorm, where the city is sparkling from fresh snow and all of a sudden my breath is taken away by the sight of Montreal at night. We drove by a park where a happy couple bathed in the gentle yellow light, and they were twirling, twirling until they were out of sight. Sure the cold weather bites hard, but it does give back. I do think that would be the night when I fell in love with you, Montreal.
That weekend of ice skating, despite my lack of foresight and forgetting to wear thermals in -14 degree weather (please don’t be like me!), was one of the most memorable weekends I’ve had so far. Being raised in Singapore, where the heat doesn’t quit, ice rinks bring to mind indoor rinks in malls, not outdoor forests boasting 12km of skating goodness. Forest Perdue, known rightfully as the enchanted forest, truly takes your mind away from the city, and even if you’re not a good skater, you’ll probably be pretty decent after hours of practice! We ended the day by being shuttled back to the city in those little yellow buses that you see in the movies. What the movies don’t tell you though, is that these buses don’t have very good heating. Brr!
So maybe all that cold isn’t too bad after all, if it results in gems like the enchanted forest.
In my first week here, a pair of Swedish students gave the University of Uppsala a glowing endorsement. They told me that Uppsala, with 40,000 strong student population, was a University ‘run by students, for students’
In my first week here, a pair of Swedish students gave the University of Uppsala a glowing endorsement. They told me that Uppsala, with 40,000 strong student population, was a University ‘run by students, for students’.
After an agonising process of scrutinising this claim, I must say, begrudgingly, it would be misleading to characterise the Univerity of Uppsala as anything other than a sort of student-utopia with the phrase ‘run by students, for students’ it’s unofficial motto.
In this University town, that is close enough to Stockholm to visit at the drop of a hat, it is clear to me that the student always comes first. In the two subsections that follow I will show how when it comes to student-wellbeing Sweden has got it right.
The postulations of the snus-taking Swedes have particular resonance when it comes to Uppsala’s social life.
In place of having societies, Uppsala University has student-run nations instead which, in exchange for a small fee, offer an eclectic range of sporting, musical and artistic pursuits. The nations are different sizes, from the towering and impersonal Stockholms nation and Västmanlands-Dala nation to the smaller yet friendlier Kalmar nation of which I’m a member. Although students stopped being required by law to join a nation in 2010, joining a nation offers myriad benefits. Not least, day-to-day entrance to nation bars, cafes and restaurants which are heavily discounted and weekly club nights. Being a member of a nation grants access to any nation-run activity across campus and allows international students to participate in the fabled Gasques which are traditional dinner parties culminating in Swedish hymns and dances.
Though the nations were created as homes-away-from-home for students coming from different parts of Sweden historically, their exclusivity has broken down with age. Now they have become a quintessential part of Swedish university culture which attracts thousands of international students each year. Indeed, students breathe the life and soul into the nation’s by working as part of the administrative or catering team where they can accrue points which can be used to apply for free residence at the nations. Though work at the nations is usually on a volunteer basis, consistent contritution to the nation opens the door for student to friendships and housing opportunities in their final year.
Naturally, the larger nations offer a greater range of events job opportunities and scholarship prospects as the recipients of most funding, nonetheless for the home-sick mancunian, the smaller ‘alternative’ nations have the most to offer in the way of concerts, jazz-nights and music sharing meet-ups.
As you’d expect the club nights in a small Swedish city are a far-cry from the broad palate offered in Manchester, most of the nation’s club nights feature the same dance-floor filling tracks you’d expect to hear on Capital FM. Nonethless, there is a indefinable charm to the way students flock to the clubs, in freezing cold or blistering wind, on any day of the week when they’d probably have a much more enjoyable time listening to the radio at home. Perhaps, it is the student-run ethos of the club nights which inspires students to come out in droves?
Student accomodation in Uppsala adds another dimension to the social life at the finger tips of students. By far the largest and most popular student area is Flogsta, a suburb that is the same distance from campus as Fallowfield is from the SU. The complex itself is a thriving community of students who live in twelve person flats in seven storey blocks. Though aesthetically they are strikingly similar to Owens Park Tower, these flats are all self-catered, come equipped with an ensuite and cost a little over 4300 SEK (£327) a month with heating included. The fact that these flats are not owned outright by the University means that the building-complex also plays host to families who rent privately from the landlord.
The international presence in Flogsta is overwhelming and each flat is a petri-dish of cultures and nationalities. In my own, there are undergrads and postgrads from Mozambique, Germany and Japan to name a few. The heterogeneity of the accomodation offers the opportunity to educate yourself about the different cultures, try different cuisines and make contacts all over the globe.
The mix of cultures, absence of any security presence and size of the student population creates wild possibilities which I hope to go into greater detail about in later posts. But, perhaps the most apt example of the solidarity and freedom of expression found in Uppsala is the Flogsta scream, everyday at 10pm students in the Flogsta flats join in arms to scream from their windows and balconies to allieviate the pressure of academic life, which, conveniently, I will discuss now.
Freedom is as much of a factor in the academic arena as it is in the social arena of Uppsala University. Each department is devolved and has complete control over its syllabus. The autonomy of departments extends to the architectural design of the university, with each department having its own building with cafes, libraries and study spaces for students. Last year, 29% of the University’s profits of $75 million USD were reinvested into the improvement of undergrad and postgrad courses taught in each department. Clearly, the upkeep of the academic environment is high up on the university’s list of priorities.
For Humanities, Arts and Languages, the course structure is vastly different from Manchester. As oppose to studying three modules per semester, students undertake generally a module each month or two comprising 7.5 or 15 credits. And attend one to three 2-hour lectures a week plus the occasional non-compusory seminar. Though this system is not without its qualms, it nonetheless allows for very independent learning which affords students the time adjust to Sweden and time to join in at the Nations.
Student well-being is also at the heart of the University examination system since students can retake exams if they fail or miss the first exam they can retake without penalty. Though this system trades off the competitive edge UK University students attain by having one proper shot at a good grade, it mitigates the liklihood a student is having an ‘off’ day when exam season rolls around. Perhaps this is only possible due to the simplistic grading system used in Uppsala consisting of Pass/Fail and Pass with Distinction. Swedish exams are traditionally an hour or two longer than UK exams too, which gives students room to breath in a claustrophobic exam hall
The academic life of any student in Uppsala would not be complete without a second-hand bike. Uppsala certainly does not break the mold of the Netherlands and Scandanavian cycling culture. The ubiquity of cycling lanes and bike racks throughout the city makes buying a bike seem like a prequisite for fully embracing the student life. Bikes are easy and affordable to buy from one of the many second-hand bike shops in Uppsala or the Flogsta facebook page between 600-1000 SEK. And even easier to maintain as most cycling shops offer free repairs and servicing.
In light of these points, it is clear that the centrality of student well-being to Uppsala University is as clear as the Swedish sky.
…A brief account of my journey to Middle Earth (aka. New Zealand, aka. land of beautiful mountains)…
Most study abroad students, it seems, save at least a few weeks post-exams (after the official study abroad period) to travel. And why not! Having travelled so far to a place like Australia, NZ was temptation too great to resist.
One of my best friends from primary school, Joel, lived in Wellington at the time I studied abroad, so before i’d even left for Australia we planned a grand tour of NZ south island for the weeks after my time at UQ had finished. We arranged the trip with a company called kiwi tours, and before I knew it UQ exams had finished and I was flying out to Wellington to see Joel again. It was pretty crazy to re-unite – I hadn’t seen him for 3 years! We hung out for a bit in Wellington then took the ferry to south island to start the trip. At the beginning it wasn’t all fun, because transitioning from lovely sunny Australia at the near height of summer to the mild NZ temperature of 15 degrees was terrible. I remember curling up in the corner of the ferry wearing 4 jumpers and my woolly hat, just shivering all the way to south island.
We started in a little coastal town called Picton where we boarded the kiwi tours coach, which travelled clockwise around the coast of the island for 2 weeks. In a nutshell the trip was mostly jumping between hostels in coastal towns and cities. At each stop there would be loads of different things to do. To name a few, me and Joel ended up surfing on the west coast, kayaking in big glacial lakes, bungie jumping the world famous Nevis bungie jump, went mountain biking and partied with loads of other backpackers we met along the way. Bye bye leftover money 🙂
One of the most notable sights on the trip was Milford Sound, a famous fiord on the west coast of south island with the most incredible views. If you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in New Zealand, this is a sight you shouldn’t miss (Also, if you didn’t already know, most of the Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand, and i’m a massive Tolkien nerd. I was insanely excited to visit places like the southern alps, aka. misty mountains in the LotR flms, which were just as notable as Milford Sound).
Hostel living was tough but rewarding. You have to cook your own dinners in most hostels, meaning a quick shop at the nearest supermarket at each stop. The diet was mostly pasta and snacks like crackers. At one point we came across a fruit market which sold Joel a massive 8kg sack of apples for 7 dollars, so that kept us going for a bit too. The sleeping situation in hostels also takes some getting used to. You could be sharing a dorm with 4 people in one place and 20 people in the next, and alarms will be blaring from 4 am. But it’s all worth it because you meet some amazing characters in these places, and the freedom of hostel living is what backpacker culture relies on.
After the 2 weeks exploring the south we travelled back to where Joel was based on north island, Palmerston north. I stayed with the family Joel was living with, who graciously hosted this random smelly English backpacker for a week. It just so happened that during my stay there, the family were hosting a wedding ceremony! It was an honour to be a part of the wedding, which involved features of Māori culture, elements of which are still deeply rooted in the life of many New Zealanders and which remains a deeply loved cultural heritage.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore much of north island before my return trip to the UK, but it’s on my future travel plans list! The north island is known to be the more culturally rich of the two islands, whereas south island is where most of the famous natural sites and mountain ranges are. If you visit I would recommend spending at least 2 weeks on each island to experience the minimal amount of what there is to see in NZ. For such a small country, it is so rich in new experiences. So if you have time post-studies, don’t rush off back home if you don’t have to! Experience the country you’re in and anything else you want to see nearby without the stress of university.
I’m well into my second semester at SFU, and haven’t reflected in a while. I’m starting to feel like this is my permanent life now- I’m in the swing of things and I know how things work around here… I’m no longer hyper-aware of my British accent and don’t jump at the sound of a Canadian one anymore haha. Things seem to be going very fast, so I wanted to pause and look back at some of the academic/general uni-life differences between SFU and UoM – hopefully this will be useful to future exchange students and will give you a little heads up as to what to expect!
‘School’, ‘Class’ and ‘Prof’ – the lingo is just like in the movies
This threw me off quite a bit at the start, but these words get thrown around a lot. Apparently, Canadians don’t distinguish between ‘school’ and ‘uni’- it’s all just ‘school’, which I would say is somewhat reflected in the general atmosphere on campus. SFU does feel a little more like school and I’m not sure why…
When chatting to your Canadian classmates about which ‘classes’ you’re taking, be prepared to blurt out the full course-code, otherwise they’ll throw you a puzzled look. For instance, rather than talking about my “Geographies of Consumption”class, it would be referred to as GEOG325. Sounds kinda weird but everyone seems to know every possible course code out there- quite impressive, really.
Unlike the percentage and class system used at UoM, SFU uses a letter grading system- from A+ to D, which is then calculated to a Grade Point Average (GPA). Sometimes, assignments will get marked as a percentage and then translated to a letter grade- they definitely use the full scale a lot more than at UoM. In the UoM Geography department anyway, a 70 constitutes a first-class grade which anyone would be chuffed with. But at SFU, a 70 is a bit mehh- that took some adjusting to.
Little and often
Prior to moving to Vancouver, I had heard that the Canadian university system favoured more assignments/assessment with less weight. I initially thought the workload might be too hard to keep up with, but I’ve actually found it pretty manageable.
In the case of Geography, a typical class might devote 10% of its grade to tutorial participation, which usually consists of the submission of weekly discussion questions – this is a sneaky attempt to make sure you do your readings ahead of time, and it works. Then, you might have to write a couple of papers/essays amounting to perhaps 15% each, deliver a presentation and sit a midterm and final exam. I’ve actually really enjoyed the diversity in assignments- a combination of group-work (doing things like presenting at an urban planning expo and participating in a mock council meeting) as well as personal research and reflection. Though the workload is arguably higher than UoM, I would say its definitely easier.
Your grade is kinda negotiable& extensions are a thing
This sounds like some kind of twisted cliché of a student trying to coerce their prof into boosting their grade, but it’s actually a pretty reasonable policy. Since my year abroad is just pass/fail, I haven’t had to question any of my grades, but some professors do welcome students to challenge them if they feel they met the criteria for a higher grade. At SFU, you are really encouraged to take charge of your education and to make the most of the resources available to you.
Also, I’ve found that some of my profs have more lax rules on deadlines. Understanding the pressures of student-life, they encourage you to consult with them if you have any concerns regarding deadlines- granting you an extension if they see fit.
Participation, discussion and debate is really encouraged
Though I’m not a shy person, the larger class sizes of lectures at UoM would often discourage me from putting my hand up and contributing- I guess it’s the fear of blabbering out something completely nonsensical. So when I had my first lecture at SFU, I was horrified that the lecturer wanted us to stand up and deliver a welcoming speech about who we are, ‘fun fact’ and all. However, I was so shocked at how calm and comfortable the Canadian students were with introducing themselves and speaking their minds. Honestly, sometimes it sounds like they are reading straight out of a text book- so annoyingly eloquent. Gradually though, I’ve become comfortable with offering up ideas- aided by the talkative 2-HOUR tutorial sessions, which I feel allow me the freedom to be messy and open with my thoughts.
Going to uni for the ‘uni experience’ isn’t a thing
The UK is notorious for it’s party-centric university experience, where social life is often a priority for students. At SFU, many of my classmates still live in their family home in Vancouver, or balance a full-time job with their studies. By consequence, they seem to place more importance on their studies. To cater for this, there is more flexibility in schedules, meaning some classes are as early as 8.30am and finish as late as 9.30pm!! SFU doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a party uni (no fear- the good nights exist with a bit of digging), so it can sometimes feel like students are on and off campus in a heartbeat. This means that social cohesion and a sense of student culture is a little lacking compared to Manchester. This took a while to get used to, but having found like-minded people with the ski-slopes on our doorstep, there’s been no shortage of fun to supplement the work.