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


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


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.


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


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


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).


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


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


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,


Rain, Snow and Internships

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This past month has been pretty exciting in Paris is terms of all the different weather conditions. First there was an unprecedented amount of rainfall, causing the seine to flood and worryingly closing many metro and RER stations. Not only that, but lots of the stations still open had leaks all over the place with the water being collected in buckets. It wasn’t amazingly reassuring… Next came the snow which was quite exciting. Paris itself looked beautiful in all its white sparkling glory but it seems the city isn’t really cut out to deal with adverse weather and many stations were closed and all the buses cancelled for a while.

While all of this has been going on, I’ve been steadily getting through a mountain of work – a lot more than last semester. However, despite the stress of this work and lots of speaking French, I managed to fit in a little visit to New York (or at least Paris’ mini Statue of Liberty) and a trip to Normandy, which was also affected by floods at the time. Even though much of the area was water logged it was still very pretty and visiting the D-Day landing beaches really left an impression. What as more impressive was that the soldiers each carried the weight of another person on their back up the beach whilst under fire. I tried to carry my boyfriend, Charlie, up the beach and promptly collapsed. I would never make it as a soldier.

Throughout all the fun, excitement and work one thing that has always been at the back of my mind has been to try to get an internship for the coming summer. This has been quite difficult to do from another country and has involved a skype interview as well as an assessment day squeezed in in early January, 2 days before I was due to fly back to Paris for my exams. Since one of these first exams didn’t go fantastically well, I’m going to put it down to this assessment day (which also had me missing out on other more fun plans I’d put into place before this last-minute interview).

I was lucky enough to interview with such an accommodating company but others have not been as helpful. I’ve known some people who have had to fly back at short notice, at their own expense for an assessment day. This means missing classes and sometimes losing a large amount of money from your own pocket. This kind of thing is something to bear in mind when doing a year abroad, you have to be prepared to be flexible and to pay. Fortunately, I have now managed to find an internship for which the final stage was a telephone interview – lucky me!

With my summer plans in place, I’m looking forward to focusing more on my French work, knowing that I won’t have to hurry back to England any time soon. This is only good news as I’m becoming more and more << Parisienne >> by the day (see photo for proof!).


Very happy with my new Beret!

Round 2

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My first week back for my second and final semester starts tomorrow. This time around I was ready for the inefficient French system and really tried my best to be organised. This meant sending emails to all the modules I wanted to do at the end of the December. However, despite my best efforts I’ve somehow ended up doing something a bit different from my original plan. The good news is that I haven’t missed the first two weeks of classes, so compared to last time, everything is looking good.

After having spent a great few weeks at home catching up with my family as well as managing to see some friends that I hadn’t seen since June it’s safe to say I wasn’t too pleased about coming back to Paris on the 7th of January to do my exams… Just to make it worse I only got back to my flat the night before my first two exams, and it really wasn’t easy dragging all that extra Christmas present weight up four flights of stairs. I couldn’t be happier that my exams are over and after a very well timed trip to London and the return of my boyfriend later, I’m now very excited to be here and to get back into the swing of things.


Now part of the Sorbonne!

Then again, now that the exams are out of the way, I’ve had more time to worry about my seriously full timetable. I feel very very sorry for the actual physics students here who basically work 8:30 – 18:00 every day. A very different experience to a Durham timetable in my opinion. One piece of exciting news is that my University has become part of the Sorbonne, which happened on the 1st of January which meant I came back to new signs and logos all around the campus. This also makes it a lot easier for me when people ask which university I got to, a ‘The Sorbonne’ is a lot simpler than ‘Université Pierre et Marie Curie’!

One thing I noticed straight away once I was back was that after three weeks of only speaking English, I was really struggling to understand any French. It really is one of those things where you need to use it or you’ll lose it! Even after a week of just enjoying Paris and relaxing I’m still not sure I feel ready to start learning in French again. Hopefully, by the end of next week I will have picked it all back up.

So since nothing new or exciting has really happened to me recently, I wanted to take a look back at my favourite moment from my first semester. For me this was realising that I was finally comfortable living in this new city. This was the moment when I realised that I can do the whole year and really enjoy it. I realised that I know the city, I can understand French, I can sort things out in a different language and live all by myself. I can’t say that it was a very memorable moment, or that I remember where I was when it happened, but there definitely was a moment and it was a really great feeling.


I can be French!




To finish off, I wanted to talk about my aims for the next semester. Hopefully by my last blog post I’ll be able to look back at this and say that I achieved what I set out to do. My reason for studying abroad was to experience living in a different country, look at physics from a different point of view but mainly to improve my French. With everything that happened in the first semester, I felt like I didn’t put my all into this, I still improved but I didn’t feel like I made the most of every situation. Because of this, my aims for the next semester are to make more French friends, speak more French in general and really make an effort to do this. Wish me luck!


Christmas in Paris

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Since my last post I’ve been incredibly busy, but now that I’ve arrived back home to PROPER chocolate and tea, I’ve finally found the time to fill you in on Christmas in Paris.

There’s so much to do in Paris at Christmas time and I really tried to squeeze it all in. The Christmas traditions are similar in France, but one of the biggest differences was the serious lack of mince pies. This was a devastating discovery until I found them in my local M&S- problem solved. Another slight difference is the Christmas cake, the French have the “Galette des Rois” – the cake of Kings. The cake is traditionally enjoyed on the 6th of January, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem. This led to an interesting discussion in my French class, where we learnt that it’s actually a very expensive cake. This is down to the current butter shortage which is most likely due to the fact that China has discovered croissants! (Amongst other reasons).

Being the organised person that I am, I drew up a plan that allowed me to do all the Christmassy activities as well as squeezing in my final French test. Fortunately, Paris got into the Christmas spirit very early on, with these cute Christmas lights going up in the second to last week in November.


The first Christmas lights I saw!

As well as getting ready for Christmas, I was also lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving twice, with one of the celebrations being a pot luck. I was quite confused at first, having never heard of a pot luck before, but it turns out that everyone brings a different dish so you end up with a variety of things to eat. The good thing is that most people can’t be bothered cooking meat, so there was loads of vegetarian food I could enjoy as well! It’s actually such a great idea that I’m hoping to do it again back in Durham.

Christmas lights are kind of a big deal in Paris, so I felt it was important to see the famous Champs-Elysées lights as well, which were even better seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.


From the Arc de Triomphe.

This was actually a traumatic outing due to the freezing cold temperature. I’m not sure why but Paris feels even colder than Durham ever has, it has me thinking that I won’t be able to survive the temperatures when I go back to Durham next year… Despite the temperature, Paris didn’t quite get the same amount of snow as England, something I was quite sad to miss out on. Why does it only snow when I’m not there?? Nevertheless, I did still manage to catch a winter cold – twice! Luckily, I was well cared for and provided with endless paracetamol and hot drinks.

By the beginning of my last week in Paris before the Christmas break I was fully recovered and ready to fit in as much as possible. First on the list was the Christmas markets. I managed to fit in three of these before I left. The first was called the “Village de Noël” and even though it was right in the middle of a business district, which was not the nicest location, it was very cute and had loads of stalls. I even got to meet Père Noël and stand in an English telephone box (?)

The best market by far was the Notre Dame market. Even though it was quite small, it definitely looked the best and really got me ready for Christmas.

I also took the opportunity to finally go to all the shops I’ve been walking past since I arrived. I stocked up on some fancy chocolate and visited two of the biggest department stores, both of which were suitably decked out for Christmas. Just to make sure I’d really looked everywhere, there was also a trip to a big shopping centre on the edge of Paris (they had a Primark!). Everything was very pretty and so I took a lot of pictures since I can’t imagine I’ll be seeing the same kind of things in Debenhams next year.

The final adventure, and possibly the most exciting, was a trip to Disneyland. This was something I’d been looking forward to for weeks and it was made even better by the cute Christmas decorations and the Christmas parade. We were lucky to have really good weather as every other day there was almost constant rain. We made the most of it and spent the day outside, walking around both parks. I was exhausted by the end and we didn’t even get to go on all the rides! I’m already looking into when I can go back to finish them off…

All in all, I had a pretty great November and December, and I did actually do quite a lot of work – I promise!

Sightseeing in sub-zero: a tourist’s guide to winter in Uppsala

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Considering that I’m on exchange in Sweden for a full 10 months, you’d have maybe thought that friends and family would confine their visits to see me to the spring and summer months. Whilst summer temperatures in Sweden are never going to set any records, my hazy recollections of the first weeks here in August are marked by long warm days, where having fika outdoors, wandering through parks in the sun and even taking off the occasional layer *gasps*, was a tauntingly brief reality. Unfortunately for those who booked to visit me, however, the perks of being a summer tourist were a very distant memory when they came in November, January and February respectively.


Uppsala’s a wonderful place to be a student throughout the seasons, but when you’ve only a few days to experience what it has to offer, and those days happen to be consistently below zero and filled with intermittent bursts of snowfall, sleet or icy rain, the pressure to get creative with your tour-guiding is on. To save future Uppsala-students this panic, I’ve compiled this handy list of sightseeing musts, for when the elements are very much not on your side.

  • Escape the cold by ducking into Uppsala Domkyrka. The tallest cathedral in Scandinavia, this masterpiece boasts some truly beautiful wall paintings, King Gustav Vasa’s tomb and the relics of Sweden’s patron saint – St. Erik. It’s also free to enter, open until 6pm and, as a bonus, has an amazingly effective central heating system…


  • Use your student ID (guest cards from the uni also work) to get free entry to Museum Gustavianum. Learn about the university’s history, wander around one of the world’s oldest anatomical theatres and marvel at the Augsburg Art Cabinet, a 17th-century cabinet of curiosities which is, quite simply, mad.


  • Botaniska trädgården is maybe more attractive in the warmer months, but is still worth a visit for the tropical house (also free entry for Uppsala students) as an escape from the cold.


  • Bror Hjorths Hus is one of my favourite spots in Uppsala. A little out of the way, it’s well worth the walk for a look at the quirky art of local favourite Bror Hjorth, displayed in his own home. (Also free!)


  • Uppsala konstmuseum is another great place to seek refuge from the cold whilst getting to feel lovely and cultural. Set within the castle, the museum has a decent collection of artwork, regularly changing – so perfect for multiple visits with friends! (Need I say, this one’s also free…and open late on Thursdays, if you need somewhere warm to wait before getting dinner)


  • If you’re blessed with a sunny day, it’s worth embracing the cold and walking/biking to Gamla Uppsala. This site, inhabited since the 3rd Century AD, was an important economic, political and religious centre before activities were shifted to present-day Uppsala. There’s a museum (not free, sorry), a 12th Century church which still holds services, and most impressively of all, monumental burial mounds which offer an amazing view across to the cathedral.


  • If you want to pretend to be a true Swede for the day, a trip to Fjällnora Recreation Centre is a must. Serving as a haven for swimmers, hikers and canoeists in the summer, this massive lake entirely freezes over in winter, and swarms with skaters and cross-country skiers. It’s accessible by bus from Uppsala centre, and equipment is available for hire at a reasonable price. I went skiing with friends a few weeks ago, and can honestly say that despite it being the coldest day of the winter so far (lows of a very chilly -13°), it was absolutely worth it for the scenery and the fun of trying a new, and very Swedish, sport.


  • Bandy is a sport I hadn’t encountered before moving to Sweden, but for those also not in the know, it can be summarised as a slightly less exciting version of ice hockey. It’s immensely popular in Sweden, and Uppsala has its own team – IK Sirius – which plays regularly throughout the winter in a stadium not far from the centre. It’s possible to watch for free as a student, and though I’ve only been a spectator, I’ve heard it’s also possible to play.


  • If outdoor activities aren’t really your thing, however, or the cold is simply just getting to you, it’s always good to know that cafés and Nations are only ever around the corner. Both are an integral part of student life here, so you can easily justify spending a significant part of your tourism-time indulging in fika or enjoying drinks.


All I Want For Christmas Is…

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If there’s anything to take away from Koln during the cold and dreary seasons of pre and current winter time, it’s definitely the obsession with the Christmas Markets (aka Weihnachtsmarkte). There is a grand total of 11 different “main” markets spread across the city – ranging from the the tourist zone in front of the renowned Dom to our very own LGBT+ Christmas Avenue near Rudolfplatz.

I’m personally not a huge fan of all things Christmas, notably the overplayed Mariah Carey tunes and whatnot (call me a Grinch, I’ll take it). However, these markets are pretty impressive. They are built overnight on the 27th of November (saw it wit’ me own eyes!) and keep running till early January. They’re not so much ‘santa this’ or ‘elf that,’ but more so the more traditional delicacies of Christmas time. It’s safe to say I’ve had my fair share of Gluhwein (boiled red or white wine, to put it simply) and assorted roasted chestnuts as of now.

Unfortunately, due to exams, I was unable to see the winter wonderlands under the few days of snow we had beginning of December – I hear it was splendid – though these markets have become quite the practical rendez-vous point now that we (I) have more time to spare, “Yes, lets meet under the weird looking Christmas gnome next to the ice-skating rink.”

Weirdly enough, this is the only real taste I’ll have of the full-on Western Christmas spirit because I am off to Vietnam / the Philippines for the actual Christmas Day and New Year. It was a spontaneous decision, and I can’t say I regret trading in the -6°C for some beach time and 30°C sunshine. That said, I wish you all a very merry holiday and look forward to catching up in the new year!

Till then, yours truly,