A Guide to the French Life (on a budget)

By Eva Kristinova (Sciences Po Toulouse, France)

France is full of awesome places that you can explore, food you can try and events you can attend. But living the ideal exchange experience rarely comes cheap – don’t know about you but I certainly cannot afford to buy a fresh baguette from the local bakery every single morning (yes, this stereotype about the French is actually true). Well, don’t worry, I got you 🙂 Here’s five tips for getting the most out of a stay in France, and not going broke in the process.

Continue reading “A Guide to the French Life (on a budget)”

Hölökyn Kölökyn to a Very Finnish Freshers

By Amber Musgrove-Benford (Finland, University of Helsinki)

When I arrived in Finland, I had little expectation for Freshers. Made pessimistic due to the pandemic and the restrictions still in force in Helsinki, I expected nothing more than a few quiet drinks with other exchange students I met in my accommodation. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Freshers at the University of Helsinki is a big deal. Fuksit (first year students) – or Phuksit for law students – take over what seems to be the whole city in a week or so of activities and orientation organised, at least for the School of Law, at both Faculty level and through the law society, Pykälä.  

Barely two hours after landing at Vantaa airport, I was already meeting my tutor group for the first time in a café in the city centre. Over the next week, we would watch introductory lectures together, both in person (what a novelty!) and online, as well as attending other events, all whilst managing to walk a massive 20,000 steps each day. 

taking a short break from sightseeing to grab a coffee and korvapuusti, a much better version of the cinnamon bun

In the afternoons, our tutors, both second year bachelor students, often took us sightseeing, around both the campus and city, or we would spend the lunch hour like typical Finns – in a restaurant or at a bar where we enjoyed the final hints of summer, all of us knowing it was likely the last time we would see the temperature reach 15 degrees until next spring. 

Evening events were often the highlights of the day and ranged from a very competitive tournament of the traditional Finnish game, Möllky, to an even bigger Flunkyball tournament (a game involving beer, a bottle, running, and a shoe – much better than it sounds, I promise!). We were even, on one evening, treated to a night-time concert attended by both Finnish and Exchange Law students in Kaivapuisto, a beautiful park right on the coast. 

The best event I had the chance to take part in was Phuksiaiset. Labelled on Pykälä’s website as “the event your mother warned you about,” this mammoth scavenger hunt was set in a handful of Helsinki’s southern parks and included teams of eight taking part in ridiculous and frankly insane games and challenges to earn points. Turning up at the starting point on the steps of Helsinki Cathedral, my friends and I quickly realised, somewhat bemusedly, that Finns take this event very seriously, and we made the decision to do the same. This turned out to be the right decision, and the day ended up being one of the most fun – and memorable – experiences from my first few weeks in Helsinki. 

awaiting our first instructions of phuksiaiset 2021 on the steps of Helsinki Cathedral

Now things have finally calmed down at little here, the temperature has dropped and my courses have begun, it feels like a good time to reflect on my first foray into Finnish student culture. 

As always, though Freshers can be overwhelming, and perhaps even worse when in a new, unfamiliar country, fthanks to the great tutor group system here at UH, I really could not have hoped for a better start to my year studying abroad. 

On that note, I’ll sign off. As the Finns would say, hölökyn kölökyn! Or for us English speakers – cheers!

Here’s to a great first semester x

Toulouse à Grande Vitesse… or not.

By Eva Kristinova, (Sciences Po Toulouse, France)

Hello everyone and welcome to my year-long study exchange journey in Toulouse! We will start off with the good news so far: I’ve arrived.

And I’m afraid that’s where it ends. To be fair I am somewhat to blame for all I’m about to tell you, but I hope that after reading this, you will admit that no amount of extra preparation could have helped. So let’s dive into my voyage from Brussels to Toulouse… oh, did I mention it was all by train? Well, now you know (and those of you familiar with the French TGV probably guessed as much from the title).

Destination: Toulouse train station
Continue reading “Toulouse à Grande Vitesse… or not.”

Uppsala Universitet: ‘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’

By Lucca Di Virgilio, Uppsala University, Sweden.

The Carolina Building. This is the main library of Uppsala University which sits on a hill overlooking the city.

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.

Social Life

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?

More likely still is the fact that club nights end by 2am and pre-drinking is an inconvenient and costly business in Sweden. Indeed, any alcohol over 3.5% can only be bought from Systembolaget, a government-owned chain of liquor stores which close at 8pm weekdays and have limited hours over the weekend. But, ultimately, this is a minor inconvenience and can be overcome by simple foresight.

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.

Flogsta on a cold morning.

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.

Academic Life

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

Bike racks are commonplace across the city. Pictured here is one outside of Uppsala Central Station.

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.

Before Leaving…

It’s been a while since I last thought about moving to the States. I was 17 when I decided to become an exchange student in a Canadian high school, and since then, I thought my experience abroad was over. But now, once again, I’ve been given the opportunity to travel, to discover a new culture, and to get to know myself a bit better. Isn’t this extraordinary?

In eight days I’ll be on the plane. Destination? Phoenix. No turning back. Me, my luggage, and all my expectations and fears. What if I won’t like my housemates? What if I won’t like the courses? But c’mon, think about all the opportunities you’ll have, all the friends you’ll make. You’ve always watched High School Musical, and you’ve always been dreaming of those lockers, the cheerleaders, the football team! There is more to gain than to lose!

Going abroad is one of those experiences that simply form your person. it teaches you to expect the unexpected! Every day is a different story, and you just have to trust the journey and try out all you can, with no judgment. Eventually, you’ll find out that it’s all you’ve always been waiting for! That for how tough it can get, you’ll always get up and get back in the game stronger, because it’s your game and no one can win it but you.

I’m ready for this, I can do it. What about you?

How to finesse your way through study abroad in Amsterdam (broke student edition)

Living and studying abroad is already expensive, and unless you’re able to get a part-time job/paid internship alongside your university contact hours (which are 5x that of Manchester’s), having fun while still maintaining a sustainable living situation can be tricky. I had heard that Amsterdam was an expensive city before I got here so I was ready to spend mindfully in an attempt to budget but I failed within the first two weeks of getting here. I found it too easy to get caught up in spending on little things and forget that a few euros here and there adds up really quickly.

Writing this post has made me beyond thankful for my Erasmus grant, but there is only so much that this will cover, especially when you’re broke but living in a city that has so much going on – like Amsterdam. So I’ve decided to put together a little list of tips that have definitely helped me save a substantial amount of euros here and there. Some of them might be a bit extra…but desperate times = desperate measures!

Amster-DAMN!

Moving In

It has been two and a bit weeks now since I moved into my studio apartment in Nieuw West Amsterdam in a building called Maassluisstraat which is part of the DeKey housing company. Prior to moving in I was very concerned about living by myself in a studio after having got used to living in an 8 bed house in Fallowfield and always having someone around for company. I am actually surprised at how much I am enjoying living in my studio here and having my own space, I also think it has probably pushed me out of my comfort zone a bit as you don’t have the comfort of ‘flat mates’ to fall back on and has probably contributed to me meeting more people than I initially thought I would. I was also worried that living in a studio would be quite isolating and lonely but I’ve had neighbours knock on my door to say hello etc when they moved in and my accommodation also had a social event early on which helped create a really warm and welcoming atmosphere straight away.

Continue reading “Amster-DAMN!”

Surviving Copenhagen on a student budget

Alice Logan, University of Copenhagen, English Literature and American Studies

Firstly, as a disclaimer we all know that Copenhagen is an insanely expensive city to live in, however having spent five months there I did find some handy ways to save some pennies for summer travelling ☀️

 

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The harbour at Nyhavn 

Continue reading “Surviving Copenhagen on a student budget”

Two Weeks in Copenhagen

Alice Logan, English Literature and American Studies, Univeristy of Copenhagen

After just two weeks in Copenhagen, I already feel at home in this beautiful city and am slowly acclimatising to the depths of Danish winter.   I defy anyone to not have positive first impressions of this incredible city.  Copenhagen boasts beautiful architecture, both modern and Renaissance, canals to rival Amsterdam, a multitude of ornate gardens and the most beautiful harbour that’s so colourful it can cheer you up even when the sky is grey (which it is 90% of the time).

 

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Candid Nyhavn photo as modelled by my parents

Continue reading “Two Weeks in Copenhagen”

My post-Brazil, pre-Berlin (positive!) post-mortem

By Mitch Mainstone, English Literature (Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany)

So. Berlin is now a thing in my life. A big, leafy, musical, beautiful thing that up until a week ago I’ll admit I had no real conception of. I think that if I write that I feel that same way about myself, but reflecting back on myself as I am at the moment, in some future ‘conclusion of study abroad’ blog, then I think this year will have been a successful one!

I’ll start this by saying that both my uni-home of Manchester and my home-home city of Bristol have an incredible amount to learn from Berlin’s public transport system. Study in Berlin and you get an ID ticket that lets you use all systems of transport – Magic Buses seem almost barbaric in comparison, never mind the flaky monstrosities that pass for bus schedules in Bristol. I already love that if you want to get somewhere in the city as a student, the only thing you will really have to pay with is time. And, fortunately, that is something I have a lot of at the moment! When I met my new flatmates, because of this, I could actually get to know them instead of passing through the flat like some sort of crazed Erasmus orientation alien, which resulted in finding out that one of them is Brazilian! To others, this might seem pretty interesting, but to me, having up until three weeks ago spent six weeks volunteering there with AIESEC this summer, I CAN ACTUALLY USE PORTUGUESE AGAIN! I couldn’t really express how happy I was at that, because it was like I was combining a place that is already special to me (Brazil) with a place that I’ve newly started to call home (Berlin). The fact that he speaks almost no English, but amazing German, only helps the situation, as do my other wonderful flatmates who are brilliant, and from three other countries themselves.

That’s also one of the reasons I wanted to leave my first blog a little later, until I was half-way between being at home, and being fully immersed in FU Berlin student life, as Berlin has two weeks of orientation that are really not-quite-university but not-quite-home. That, as well as having all but a few days between getting back from Brazil, into the UK, and being in Berlin left basically no time for anything other than spending time out with my family! I feel like I’ve been doing the things that people talk about doing: the travelling, learning new languages and being freaked out a little by new cultural norms, and yet, here I am, relatively settled, happy, and wiser for it. This is where I’m at now: I haven’t completely left home in my mind yet, but I am most definitely in the thick of studying abroad, having paid my rent for this month, gone shopping, and gotten fully enrolled. My head felt like it was going to burst with how new all the sounds, sights and norms seemed to be here, and culture shock has proven itself to really be a thing, having been shouted at by one of the administrative staff, having signed my rental contract late! Anyone thinking of coming to Germany… get everything signed and sealed on time if you can!  But despite that cultural faux-pa, I’m trying to keep it in perspective as all a part of the learning curve of my year abroad fun, really.

These first two weeks are FU Berlin’s way of registering who is where, doing what, and when. The pressure to get yourself organised academically-speaking, and in terms of accommodation has more than replaced the pressure to go out in the first week at Manchester… a pretty different kind of “re-freshers” week, I’ll be honest! After this fun but paperwork-heavy bit, I have a boat-trip around Berlin organised by my university (bizarre, wonderful, costing only 5EUR), and, currently, nothing else.  There is this gulf of time this week where I want to do things, but don’t really have any clear idea what I could do. I already feel like study abroad goes at such a breakneck pace, so I want to at least make a big list of things that I can do, see, and get involved in, to feel like I have some influence over the feeling of displacement that I myself have gotten, and expect to get again, as my own personal facet of culture shock. But, I imagine, this blog will definitely help, as will making an effort to truly ‘live’ my year abroad, with all the difficulties and triumphs that are undoubtedly coming my way.

Zwarte Piet/ Black Pete

black-pete-dutch

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Hi, so I’ve written a short journalistic styled opinion article on a hot topic in the Netherlands. The issue is around a tradition which involves white people black facing. Any comments or feedback is more than welcome, let me know what you think.

Over the last few decades there has been the rise in what can be described as unintentional racism and even ‘hipster racism’. Unintentional racism is exactly that, racism that is both unintentionally racist and unintended to cause offence. Hipster racism is the idea that we are so far past blatant outbursts of racism and racist attitudes, that we can now use it again as a means of satire. You know when an British-Asian comedian does a rib-tickling impression of a typical Asian accent, that’s hipster racism. In my opinion neither should really be accepted in today’s society and we should strive to eradicate both, yet both are omnipresent in Western Europe.

So what is the problem? Hipster racism is often ‘just a joke’. Aside from this it actually reinforces the negative stereo-types associated with racism. I mean who can really suggest that hipster racist anecdotes are always interpreted as satirical, there will undoubtedly be some recognition of negative differences between race consciously or not. In addition laughing about how we, the then white supremacy ‘used’ to be racist, while still these hierarchies exist, is detrimental to the minority.

A more complex issue to overcome in my mind is unintentional or accidental racism. How do you stop something from happening that was not meant? The first step in my mind is acknowledgement. Take the Dutch example of ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Pete’. Zwarte Piet is part of the traditional Christmas celebration, started Centuries ago, where Saint Nicholas is accompanied by black faced helpers. It is supposed that the helpers face became blackened by the soot coming through the chimney to deliver presents and that Zwarte Piet’s skin was all ready quite dark as he originated from Spain. Despite this likeable fairy tale, Zwarte Piet is presented as having a black face and large red lips, big gold earrings and curly black hair. It is therefore hard to deny that Zwarte Piet is actually a descendant of Europe’s colonial past in the slavery of black Africans. Additionally Zwarte Piet is traditionally foolish and silly, unmistakably tying in with white perception of the barbaric and simple Africans who were colonised.

Since the millennium Zwarte Piet has been met with much more protest and controversy. White Dutch in large parts seem to want to neglect the idea that it is racist. Many as kids enjoyed the celebration and never considered racist; something typical of neo-racism and of course unintentional racism. They think that by banning the tradition they are admitting it is racist and that they are racist. However I would like to point out that you are not necessarily a racist for having committed a racist act and that the two should be viewed separately from one another.

Other support for the tradition comes from those who feel a ban is a threat to their own culture and tradition. If these native dutch (mostly white) feel their culture is under threat from non native (black people) who disagree with Zwarte Piet, then there naivety is beyond me. It is not an attempt to destroy tradition, only to alleviate and prevent the reminder of a colonial order and white supremacy which conversely is being carried on in the reinforced in the tradition and in the whites majority to neglect the desires (the banning of the black face) of the minority. This essence of white dominance, is what comedian Russell Brand tarnished “a colonial hangover”, and is particularly evident in the recent court ruling of the discussion of ‘Black Pete’. An Amsterdam judge in 2014 ruled that Zwarte Piet “is a negative stereotype of black people and the city must rethink its involvement in holiday celebrations involving him.” However the festivity continues, as does the black-facing.

Both these objections to the ban of the tradition are typical with neo-racist ideologies and the Dutch who are known for tolerance and relatively liberalism in Western Europe,are not exemplified from this form of racism on an institutional and regional level. In my mind it is about time we put and end to Zwarte Piet, not by removing the holiday all together but by changing it so that perhaps none of Saint Nicholas helpers are white people pretending to be black. This should hopefully pave the way towards a post neo-racist era.

The example of Zwarte Piet a hard example to compare with. There are few instances if any in Western Europe, where apparent racial stereotyping, is embedded in such an old tradition. Therefore when we look at solving the problem you may think that a particularly complex solution is needed. However like many slurs of untended racism or hipster jokes, the solution is quite simple. Realise that what is being done or is being said is in itself a racist act. This does not mean you are a racist, but what you are doing is reinforcing negative stereotypes. This is turn will help to reduce those who are offended by accidental racism and help to bring equality for minorities in an social environment where white privilege is dominant.

I will conclude by reiterating what has just been said. Like the Dutch with the case of Zwarte Piet we need to look at our society and the more subtle forms of racism, intended or not. Initially by realising how our actions can affect minorities and how they can reinforce negative stereotypes can we hope to achieve a society with less racist actions and of course a less ethnically segregated society.

Assessment and teaching style at the UvA

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

In general, assessment at the University of Amsterdam is more constant with midterms and then finals with the ability to do a compensation exam. A compensation exam is like a retake of the course, but includes everything from the course; something you want to avoid. Having exams more frequently but less intense is, of course, beneficial in the sense that there is less to prepare for. However, it also means that you have to cope with having a lot on your plate more often, which can be stressful. At Manchester there is a more gradual build-up to the intense stress of exams, where as here it seems to come around the corner every 4/5 weeks, without much time for preparation. Similarly, because midterms are often worth 50% of the course, you put yourself under as much stress as you would the final exams.

A more specific criticism of the University of Amsterdam is that each individual lecturer chooses how the class is assessed. Whilst for the majority this means a varied form of assessment ranging from opinion style articles which encourage a journalistic style and creativeness, that make for an exciting break from the academic rhetoric, to the ever tedious group project and presentation. There is one particular assessment format I detest, this is the ‘take home exam’. The format is that between a certain a time you have anywhere between two and twelve hours in the comfort of your own home to answer several questions once they appear online. The problem is you never nearly have enough time, and because you are ‘at home’ you are expected to answer the questions as though you were writing an essay with proper referencing and complex structure. However, under the timed pressure, this for me and many others who I have spoken to, is sometimes quite impossible.

All of this is not to say I don’t like the assessment at the UvA, and being a student I could probably find holes in any assessment format. There have been some that I have liked, such as the opinion articles and essays that are pretty much identical to the Manchester ones, but there have been ones I don’t, particularly the take home exams, much like I how I don’t particularly like Manchester handwritten exams, when I only write by hand for these occasions. However, both at the UvA and Manchester, the exams in my mind justify the means.

Something I have really enjoyed is the teaching style. For me I have been lucky that all my classes have been in classrooms. No more hiding away in large lecture halls. Classrooms for me have meant that concentrating for three hours is a lot easier, not just because you feel less distant from the teacher, but also because classrooms breed more discussions, making it easier to ask questions, and I have found that debates break out between students much more. This could also be part of the Dutch mentality or due to the teachers I have been fortunate enough to have, but debate in class and discussion-based learning is for me much more engaging. I would point out that there have been one or two classes where this doesn’t exist and lecturers talk at you for three hours, in a far less engaging manner.

This brings me onto my next point, lecture length. Here at the UvA most of my lectures are three hours long and some extend to four. These of course can test concentration, but if you have an interesting lecturer then in some ways it is beneficial to have all your teaching at one point in the week, leaving you with the freedom of deciding when you want to work outside of these hours.