Is that you, Spring? A (tentative) farewell to the Swedish winter

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As the last tiny patches of snow have been melted by an unseasonably warm few days last weekend and the famously long days are making their highly anticipated appearance, spring looks to have finally sprung in Uppsala. The sudden change in temperature and scenery has been a shock, and it’s not long before you find yourself acting like a true local. Face turned up to the sun at every opportunity, having fika outside not because it’s especially warm, but just because – for the first time – you’re not risking frostbite doing so, admiring blossom and birdsong like you’re an extra in a Disney film… If you thought Brits were known for being ridiculous at the first sign of sun, you clearly haven’t met a Swede.

Joking aside though, the upturn in the weather has sparked some pretty serious conversations about the impact of such a long and difficult winter on people’s mental health. Before I came to Sweden, I had a reasonable awareness of Seasonal affective disorder, but I definitely hadn’t fully comprehended how intricately connected daylight and weather are with physical and mental well-being, especially my own. The notion of biting cold and extremely short days was only a novelty when I was organising my year abroad, and I gave little thought to the fact that my reality wouldn’t be a winter wonderland of hot chocolates and sledding for a week or two, but rather attempting to navigate the mundanities of daily life in miserable, cold, dark conditions, for what ended up being about a five-month stretch.

I don’t intend to sound all doom and gloom, and this isn’t to imply that I regret having moved to Uppsala, nor that I would discourage students from coming on exchange here. Rather, I think it’s really important to have frank conversations about the realities of living in an environment that can, for many people, be very challenging. Whilst it’s very difficult to predict how you’ll cope with a Scandinavian winter, there are definitely strategies that you can employ to make things more bearable. I asked a few friends who’ve also struggled over the winter for their tips and tricks:

1) Be social!

As much of a chore that leaving the warmth and comfort of your bed may seem on particularly dreary winter days, I cannot stress enough the importance of forcing yourself out of the house and meeting up with friends. The Swedish institution that is fika is practically designed for this purpose, so embrace the local culture and consume copious amounts of coffee and cinnamon buns in good company. Uppsala has an abundance of cosy cafes, many open until 10pm, and of course the nations all offer watering holes – VG and OG both have underground bars, which you may as well make the most of when the weather’s poor, as you’ll be ridiculed for sitting indoors when the sun finally makes its appearance.

2) Embrace the cold

Even though I’d opt for Swedish summer over winter any day, I’m really glad for having had the opportunity to experience activities which the mildness of the British climate doesn’t facilitate. Cross-country skiing on a frozen lake is one of the coolest (pun intended) things I’ve done on my exchange, and I can’t deny the beauty of the city when it’s entirely blanketed in snow. Skating, skiing and sledding are all popular Swedish activities which you rarely have the chance to try in the U.K, so make the most of it while you can! Exercise is also a fantastic antidote for low-mood, so you’re killing two birds.

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Cross-country skiing on a frozen lake at the beautiful Fjällnora

3) Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder!

This Swedish proverb – “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing” – is something to live by on your exchange. If you’re to achieve the above points, you’ll need to be ready for all that the Swedish winter can throw at you, so pack wisely/ be prepared to invest in clothing that will last and get you through some very cold and damp months. Leggings/tights under trousers is a must, biking (or for that matter, anything) will be impossible without heavy-duty gloves and wool socks are your friend.

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Winter happiness = abundant layers of clothing and a hood so furry you’ll forget peripheral vision ever existed?

4) Keep busy

As a student city, there’s always something happening in Uppsala, and events are often free or discounted. Pub quizzes are regularly organised by the nations and provide a great opportunity for catching up with friends, Musicum (the university music department) often hosts free concerts, and film, music and theatre festivals are a regular feature in the winter calendar. Uppsala also boasts a number of independent cinemas which are a lovely way to spend an evening when the weather’s against you -Fyrisbiografen and Slottsbiografen are my personal favourites.

 

5) Top up that Vitamin D

As a history student, I have to confess that I don’t fully understand the scientific importance of vitamin D, I only know that my mum insisted on packing me off with a year’s supply of tablets that I was told to take daily. I failed in this instruction, but would pass on the advice to others, as it gets bandied around a LOT here, so I assume it’s a rather big deal. Without many hours of daylight (around 5 hours in Stockholm in winter) and weak sun, not to mention being wrapped up from head to toe, your body’s vitamin D supplies will be seriously lacking, so supplements are the go to. To compensate for the impact of a dearth of sunlight, the university also has a free “light room” to tackle winter fatigue, and I’ve heard good things about light therapy boxes from a friend, which can be purchased online, though a good one will set you back a fair bit.

6) Communication, communication, communication

Most importantly of all if you’re struggling, remember that you’re not alone, and that it’s a difficult season for most people in Scandinavian countries. Talk to your friends about how you’re feeling, and reach out to the university’s student health services if you feel in need of extra support. It can be a tough few months, but believe me, the Swedish spring tastes all the more sweeter for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

England is looming

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As my time in Paris draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to miss about living in here and what I’m looking forward to having back in my life once I’m in England.

Things I’m going to miss

  • The boulangeries: It’s so nice being able to buy a fresh baguette or croissant whenever you fancy, I don’t think Durham will be able to match that.
  • Drinks by the seine: A lovely place to meet up with friends in the evening!
  • Café au lait/ café crème: I basically became addicted to these, in theory the same as a latte but for some reason it just tastes so much better.
  • Crêpes on every corner: Nutella and banana crêpes are soooo good.
  • How much there is to do: If you’re bored its so easy to find something to do for free. That reminds me that I’m going to miss the gardens and the free access to museums a lot as well.
  • The transport system: It’s so easy to get to where you want to be, with so many different options for the same route. As long as there isn’t any snow or strikes that is…
  • Speaking French: It’s the best feeling when you actually understand and contribute normally to a conversation.

Things I won’t miss

  • The taste of the water: The water in my flat was weird. I don’t know why.
  • Going for runs and trying to dodge all the tourists: One of the most frustrating things, why doesn’t anyone move out the way when they see you coming!
  • Not having an oven: So many recipes that wanted to be made and weren’t, can’t wait to do some baking finally!
  • The lack of a good cup of tea in cafes: I don’t have much to add, I just really miss buying tea when I’m out.
  • Nothing at all open Sundays/ bank holidays: What if I run out of milk on a Sunday!? Or I need to go to the doctors! Both of these things happened, the solution was always expensive.
  • The prices: (!) I can’t wait to put my Tesco Clubcard back to work and actually buy food for reasonable prices.
  • Living on my own: I’m glad I did it, but I’m ready to live with people again, it can get very lonely.
  • Speaking French: As much as I love it, I also hate it when I can’t understand and contribute. It will be nice to go out and not fear having to ask questions. Being able to speak a language fluently is so amazing.

As my next blog will hopefully be a video blog with pictures and videos of my year, I wanted to take this chance to talk about whether I actually met my aims for my second semester. My aims were to make more French friends and speak more French in general. While I’m not sure I made actual friends, I do have a French student on Whatsapp since we were lab partners! And I’m actually quite proud that I put myself in the situation where I was working in a pair with one French student for six weeks- It certainly meant I was speaking more French. As far as speaking French is concerned, I definitely did more of that due to a group project and working in a café as well as forcing myself to speak French was I was out and about. While I’m not fluent yet (anyone will tell you that this is very difficult), I certainly feel much more comfortable with the language than when I arrived and in general I’m comfortable conversing. The good news is I have a lifetime to improve, so I’ll definitely be returning to Paris! A bientôt x

Valborg, Walpurgis, What?

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No student in Uppsala can claim to have lived the full experience without participating in what has to be the most quintessential of Swedish student celebrations – Valborg.

Although Valborg was also traditionally celebrated in England, as Walpurgis Eve, this knees-up as an ode to the coming of spring is now a rather obscure pagan hangover in places outside of Scandinavia. I’m Sweden, however, ‘Sista April’ (the last of April), is no ordinary day in the calendar, especially in the calendars of students in Uppsala and our rival university, Lund.

As soon as you step foot into the university, Valborg becomes as fundamental a part of your new vocabulary as hej or fika or oh god it’s cold. Lecturers rave about it, the Nations begin planning bigger and better festivities, and veteran students reminisce about previous years’ antics. For this reason, the international students who only stay for the first semester feel practically obliged to book a trip back in April, meaning that the city’s once again filled with familiar faces, and the capacity of small student dorms is pushed to new limits. I was lucky enough to have four of my first semester friends to visit, in addition to my boyfriend, who I somehow managed to persuade to return after he’d suffered the coldest day of the year when he stayed in February.

So what is it?

Despite its name implying that the celebration is limited to a single eve of merriment, in its present form students eek out an entire three days to put aside the commitments of studying and sleeping, prioritising instead a host of weird and wonderful traditions.

28th April – Skvalborg

Skvalborg is the warm-up for the warm-up, a day (and night) of easing yourself into the celebrations, choosing one or more of the nations to base yourselves for eating, drinking, socialising and partying. It’s a bit more low-key than the other days, but there’s a tangible sense of excitement around the city.

The previous evening, my friends and I had won tickets in a quiz to ‘Tirolborg’ at Västgöta Nation, an Oktoberfest-style event with tankards of beer, bratwurst and strudel and a live oompah band. After braving the cold and sitting outside, we cooked together in student accommodation in town, before heading to a very packed Flogsta Party until the early hours.

Enjoying traditional Bavarian sustenance to prepare ourselves for Swedish custom

29th April – Kvalborg

Due to the previous night’s antics, our Kvalborg began later than intended, as we headed to VDala Nation’s rooftop terrace for food, overlooking the revellers at Upland Nation’s day-club next door. We met with a few friends to recuperate by the river, then out to another house party in the evening.

30th April – Valborg

The big day! Alarms were set intimidatingly early to ensure we could secure a good spot by the river Fyris, for forsränningen – the running of the falls of the river – one of the most established Valborg traditions. An annual feature of Valborg celebrations since 1975, this race pits small teams of engineering students against one another as they attempt to navigate the weirs of the Fyris river on a self-constructed polystyrene raft, modelled on whatever wild imaginings take their fancy. This year’s highlights included a wine bottle straddled by “Frenchmen”, a bathtub and the Hogwarts Express. You can read more about this peculiar tradition here.

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The most challenging weir that the rafts have to navigate

After we’d had our fill watching students capsize into the icy cold water, we headed to Västgöta for a traditional herring lunch, consisting of pickled herring, boiled potatoes, hard bread, chives and sour cream (and, of course, singing and snaps).

For the week before the day of Valborg, a countdown is projected on the front of the university library, Carolina Rediviva, marking the moment of the ‘donning of the caps’. At precisely 3pm, the vice-chancellor, watching the crowd below from the balcony, removes her traditional Swedish student cap – an action which is replicated by other graduates, young and old. The white caps were first introduced in Sweden during the 1800s and were used by students to show that they belonged to a student union. Later, they were worn by students upon completion of their high school studies. Paper caps are handed out to students without the real-deal to don, but I borrowed my Norwegian friend’s for the authentic experience.

There’s a choir performance to follow, and then tradition dictates that students move to Ekonomikum Park to drink and listen to music, a quiet and usually civilised space that turns into a post-apocalyptic nightmare once the revellers have left and all that remains are bottles and camping chairs.

Our Valborg ended queuing in the rain that night for an extortionately priced club, but if you’re really hardy, I hear that ‘Finalborg’ and ‘Katastrofalborg’ are on some people’s agenda. If you can hack another two days and nights of partying, I salute you.

“Studying” Abroad?

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Having just submitted an exam this morning, I came to the realisation that, despite having spent seven months studying abroad, I’ve yet to actually address the academic side of my year in this blog. I like to think that this is because the opportunity to travel and immerse myself in Swedish culture has been much more representative of my experience so far than any discussions of exams or assignments, but they are nevertheless all part of the package.

Whilst I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, for most people applying for a year abroad, the prime motivation tends to be the opportunity to live in a new and exciting place, academic considerations are undoubtedly also important.

So, what’s it like to be an undergrad student in Uppsala?

Well, firstly, really different from my previous two years at Durham. I knew that learning in a foreign environment would be a big change, but I had no idea what to expect from the pace or style of teaching, or the workload. Every subject is taught differently, so I can only really speak for the humanities, but here’s my two cents for what they’re worth:

  • The year is divided into two semesters – running from the end of August to mid-January, and then mid-January to the end of May. Something worth noting about this system is that it’s far more accommodating than its British counterpart in terms of the opportunity for students to stay for half the year. This is pretty handy if you’ve somewhere else to be for the other five months, but, for those of us registered for the whole academic year, it also means you’ve got to be prepared for a lot of reluctant goodbyes after Christmas. The majority of the people I befriended in August ended up leaving mid-January, which made an already cold and gloomy month that little bit more miserable, but thankfully I’d made some wonderful British pals amongst the international crowd, who were also sticking the full year out.
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Emotional farewells at Uppsala station

  • Holidays don’t really exist… This was something I’d spotted when applying, but – used to Durham’s generous month at Christmas and five weeks at Easter – had assumed I’d misunderstood. I hadn’t. There are no official holiday periods in the academic calendar, with only national holidays guaranteeing time off. Between modules, it’s usual to have a few days or a week clear, but, taking Easter for example, there’s only Good Friday and Easter Monday off-timetable. This can take a bit of getting used to, and makes booking trips a little more challenging, but it’s certainly not impossible to travel.
  • Teaching is modular, with most modules comprising 7.5 ECTS. The standard format would be four 7.5 modules taken back-to-back, per semester, but this can vary a lot.
  • So far, I’ve taken modules in the department of cultural anthropology, modern languages, economic history, social and economic geography, and history. The method of teaching has varied, but has generally focused more on lectures than seminars, with a couple of two-hour lectures per week as standard. My next module is seminar-based, but so far, their absence has been one of the most noticeable differences for me, as I’d become accustomed to them on quite a frequent basis at Durham, and learnt the hard way to prepare adequately…
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Snowy scenes at the beautiful Engelska Parken – the humanities campus

  • One of the nicest differences is the practically stress-free assessment that the Swedish system seems to encourage. The knowledge that this year doesn’t contribute to my final grade is always reassuring, and takes a lot of the pressure off, but regardless, the system here seems designed to minimise stress – a model I think British universities could learn a lot from. Firstly, there’s the exams, which (though admittedly aren’t ideal – often involving bike rides in the dark to reach locations very far from campus for an 8am start), rather than rinsing you of knowledge in the smallest amount of time feasible for you to write legibly, actually set the clock hours beyond the time necessary for completion. The prospect of a five hour exam is initially pretty daunting, but when you realise you’re only given that much time so everyone can work at their own pace, and walking out after an hour is perfectly acceptable, it all becomes a lot easier. Re-sits are also far from the terror they’ve become at home, being released only a few weeks after the original, and lecturers actively encouraging students not to turn up to the initial exam if they’re under-prepared. Another perk is the take-home exam, a set of questions released by email, which are submitted online after a period of time. With these, you can work entirely at your own pace, with whatever resources you desire, even at home in your pyjamas, if that’s your jam.
  • Studying in the U.K. had made me accustomed to pretty erratic sleeping-patterns and hours of work, with the first all-nighter a veritable rite of passage for the uni student at home. In Sweden, however, the student culture is far closer to the world of real work. This can be seen most clearly in the hours libraries are open. Who knew that the 24/7 Billy B was such a blessing? The university main library here, Carolina Rediviva, closes at 7pm on a weekday, and 4pm on a weekend. I love the idea of being sufficiently organised to pack-up work in the early evening like a real adult, but I’m also not completely naive… I think it says a lot about Swedish culture that, whilst the libraries shut at seven, you can rely on cafés to be open until 10pm. Priorities.
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Carolina Rediviva library

100 Days Left

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It feels like I’ve only just got here, but I can’t believe that I’ve actually been here almost exactly 6 months. I’m getting used to seeing snow on the ground almost constantly, living in negative temperatures and constantly hoping for a Chinook wind so that it’s -5 degrees instead of -25. I’m not here for that much longer, but I’ve decided not to think about that, and instead try to do as much as I possibly can to make the most of my last few months.

The start of a new semester means new courses, which is a little strange, seeing that at Durham we have the same courses throughout the year, but I think is great for a year abroad because it means I get to study a wider range of tropics. I’m only doing three classes this semester (the least I can do), because I chose almost completely science and maths courses, which I’m finding pretty different and difficult as I haven’t done pure science for over four years. I’m still really enjoying the opportunity to study new things, especially this semester where I’m doing biomechanics for the first time, and I have a two hour cadaver lab every week – where we find anatomical landmarks on donor bodies. This is one of the things that
has led to me finding my classes difficult, since it’s something I’ve never done before and is pretty daunting, but such an amazing opportunity I felt like I couldn’t really

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One of my favourite
Ice sculptures

pass it up. Since post Christmas means that Canada is officially in winter, I thought I’d write this blog about the winter activities you can do here in Calgary. 

Lake Louise Magic Ice Festival

Lake Louise held an ice carving competition in January, and Banff had some snow sculptures. It was pretty amazing to see how intricate ice carving can be, and it was crazy to see Lake Louise again in winter. The last time I’d been had been in summer, but now the lake was completely frozen and covered in snow, so it looked completely different. Unfortunately it was really cold the weekend we went, so we watched people skating on the frozen lake but didn’t actually do it ourselves. F1504667-3F9D-45C4-BBC3-62890AA011D5We did walk on it, which has become a relatively normal activity here, despite all of the ‘danger, thin ice’ signs. The Ice Festival also included an ice bar, which was pretty awesome.

Calgary Hot Chocolate Festival

Throughout February Calgary has been holding a Hot Chocolate Festival, where loads of cafes around Calgary each have a speciality hot chocolate and you vote for your favourite. They have some amazing flavours, like Honey Lavender, Thai Chilli, Coconut, Gingerbread etc., and each purchase goes towards a charity that provides meals to those in need in and around Calgary. Me and a couple of friend went on a

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All the hot chocolates we tried

hot chocolate crawl recently to try as many flavours as we could – even though we only got through four places. My favourite was a dark chocolate base with vanilla, almond and cinnamon flavour.

Snowsports

With all the snow we get it makes sense there are a lot of ski hills in the nearby Rocky Mountains. Before coming to Canada I’d never skied before, and my first proper skiing trip last semester didn’t exactly go amazingly, so I’ve been quite apprehensive about going again. Setting out skiing again was pretty daunting, but luckily I went with amazing people who helped me

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Snowboarding next to the
Eddie the Eagle ski jump

and we also went to a much better hill than my first trip (in my opinion at least), so I had an amazing time and am already planning more trips. I also gave snowboarding a go with a couple of friends which was so much fun, even though we were only on a small hill. A lot of the days here are amazingly sunny, even if they’re ridiculously cold, so the views from the top of the ski hills are absolutely incredible!! I also want to try out cross country skiing, and ice skating on one of the many frozen lakes and rivers that surround us.

Hiding Inside

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A kitten at the Cat Cafe

January and February seems to be the coldest months in Canada, with constant negative temperatures and snow on the ground, even though it doesn’t actually snow that often, it’s just so cold that it never melts. Therefore a great way to be entertained while staying warm is finding activities to do indoors. We went to the Cat Cafe, where you can play with rescue cats are kept before they are adopted, and the Rec Room, which is a kind of arcade centre. And of course because the Winter Olympics are on its quite fun to be able to cheer on a country that can actually do quite well (however much I love Team GB).

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Flat 209

Rez Gala and Crowchild Classic

Me and my flatmates were intrigued and excited about the Residence Gala event, which seemed to be similar to Durham formals and balls. Even though it wasn’t as fun as the events I’ve been to at Durham, it was fun to experience a similar event across the pond, and really nice to dress up with my flat and have a 3 course dinner cooked for us. UofC also held the Crowchild Classic in January, an ice hockey varsity match against Mount Royal University. It was really fun to go down to the ice hockey arena and watch the match, with everyone dressed up in red and gold and cheering for UofC – I love how big

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The face of someone
 who’s just been 
presented with a 
surprise birthday sundae

university sport is here, there’s some university sport to watch most weeks and it gives a real sense of pride to UofC

Celebrating my birthday abroad

My 21st birthday also came in January, which wasn’t my first birthday away from home, but it was my first so far from home. It was definitely a pretty strange birthday, not having seen my family or friends for 5 months. Fortunately I have made some pretty awesome friends in Canada who gave me a great day. I never imagined I’d be celebrating my 21st birthday in Canada, but it’s definitely one one I’m going

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Great decorations by Bea, Flora
And Anna

to remember. Since it was a weekday most of the day was filled with classes as usual, but I had a great lunch (with a few surprises) and $5 wings for dinner, followed by homemade birthday cake, presents and card games with my flat. It was also really nice to receive cards and presents from friends and family back home, although Canada Post doesn’t seem to be very efficient, as I am still waiting for one parcel to arrive almost a month after my birthday.

 

At this point in the year I’m feeling pretty confused – all the things I’m missing back home are adding up and after 6 months away I can’t wait to see all my friends and family again. But at the same time I’m aware that I’m not here for that much longer and I want to do as much as I can out here, and I definitely am not ready to leave!

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Can’t Stop Me Now!

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I apologize for the late Christmas post upload – not sure why that didn’t go up as scheduled.

This past month has been non-stop traveling. And I mean really non-stop. Let’s flash back to December 20th, 2017 (seems like ages away already).

I pack my bag, hop on the trusty trams of Cologne and head to the main train station. From there, I step onto the 3h ride separating Cologne from Paris. A movie is watched, a book is read, views of the countryside are appreciated. Once arrived in Paris, I make my way to CDG Airport where I dilly dally a few hours before boarding my flight to Abu Dhabi (just for a layover, of course). In Abu Dhabi, I barely have time to text my worried mother before boarding the next flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It’s safe to say I’m already exhausted, even just by typing this.

I meet a friend who’s doing his placement year there, we spend a wonderful Christmas together, and on Christmas Day we rush to the Philippines for some much needed adventure (I say rush because we were late, as per usual). New Year in the Philippines was completely and utterly amazing – I highly recommend for those keen on traveling.

Unfortunately, the Philippines adventure comes to a halt and poor Alex (me) has to head back to Cologne to hand in an essay (committed!). The trip back was basically the trip there but in reverse.

It’s now a week later, January the 18th, and I’m packing my bag again to see my parents in Paris (I was on such a tight time schedule I didn’t get to see them when I passed through before Christmas). I spent a few days at home which is always nice (students, you know what I mean) and then started to make my way back to Cologne to leave to Poland that very same day. I know. I’m an optimistic person.

Optimistic or not, my train was cancelled. While I was on it. While we were crossing through Belgium. While my friends were getting ready to go to the airport for Poland. I was still optimistic. I tried to hitch a plan with some other distressed passengers to rent a car and “yolo” our way to Cologne. DING DING, change of plans, my friend kindly offered to pick me up by car from Liège and drive me to the airport straight away. I was right to be optimistic. But that also meant I would be going to Poland without the right gloves. Meh, I still did it.

So, in short, I made it to Poland and we had a splendid time. We went back to Cologne after a long weekend of polish beer and dumplings, and I guess now I’m just chillin’. My next trip is to Malta in February, and then I plan on exploring Germany (the weather should be nicer in a few months). I guess you could say I like traveling.

If you have any questions on how I manage to make this all work, or if you have any general requests, please do let me know through any form of Social Media! And for more pictures, be sure to check out my Instagram @alex_laval

Until next time,

Alex