Second time around…

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Returning to Leuven at the beginning of February was quite the shock.

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Almost none of my old friends are here (apart from a few British students from other universities who are still hanging on in there), I was not in Leuven for Orientation Week for the second semester and there are significantly fewer arrivals. Along with the sub-zero temperatures and travelling home and Germany for a number of weeks at a time while I still did not have a set timetable, I haven’t really had the opportunity to go out and meet many of the new people in Leuven. Instead it has been a lot easier to stick to my old friends in Leuven and stay in bed with Belgian Netflix (which has a significantly better choice of shows than in England).

Having done very little, apart from try to organise my very, very full schedule, I thought I should talk about my plans for the next semester and how things have changed now that I feel comfortable living in Leuven, Belgium.

1 / Visit friends from Term 1 and hope they still remember me!

 

 

I’ve already visited London twice now to visit friends I hadn’t seen since summer last year, and I’ve visited Frankfurt as well. There are plans in the works to visit Berlin, and I was so excited that a few of my friends from last term ended up visiting!

 

Staying in contact with friends both from Durham and Erasmus has involved weekly updates, snapchat groups and vague plans to visit as soon as possible; the old Leuven gang have been severely missed by those of us left here but it’s been great to hear about their new internships and trips across Europe and the US.

2 / Fewer exams, please.

I have taken two non-law modules this term in literature and sociology; I love writing papers and I love the two subjects, law modules are very harshly graded here (as are all subjects to be completely honest) and I felt like I might need a break from my other 6 law modules this term.

A number of my courses this term require me to write a paper project, rather than write exams. This is very common for the open modules available in Leuven, so it’s a mystery to me how I ended up with 100% exams last term. This time round I’ve tried to space out the work and stress myself out just a tiny bit less during exam season.

3 / Act like I know what I’m doing.

Now I’ve been here a term I feel like I have just enough knowledge about the culture, the cities and the language to blag my way through the next term. I don’t need to set up a bank account or register, so I can really focus on pretending like I have my life together in Belgium.

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Everyone came out for the one sunny day so far this term

Here’s a few pointers from someone who has only lived here 5 months now and seems to think she’s a local: ‘dankuwel’ and ‘alstublieft’ are the most helpful phrases to know in Flemish, the best tourist city in Belgium is Ghent not Brussels and fries are better with mayo than ketchup. I feel like I don’t know much, but I know the important things… notably how good the Belgian’s fries and waffles are.

4 / Try more beer.

I’m still trying to get through all the different types of Belgian beer… I have a sneaking suspicion I wont be able to get through the 400+ beers on offer but here’s to trying.

 

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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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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The Biggest Italian Surprise

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This Monday, the temperatures are forecast to be -2 C maximum, -11 C minimum. It’s safe to say that this is not a welcome aspect of my year in Italy; in Seville – my initial first choice, before I was persuaded otherwise – it’s going to be 19 C. Having had some family to visit last weekend and others coming next, it feels almost embarrassing that I can’t offer them the winter sun that I thought I’d be able to (still giving them more than a trip to Durham, though).

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They’re smiling, but I don’t think my cousins were impressed with the ‘amazing’ view from San Luca…

Anyway, despite forcing me to wear four layers and lengthening my longing-for-Summer playlist on Spotify (check it out, you won’t be disappointed), the cold weather has got me thinking about other things that I wasn’t expecting before coming out here. Some, like this winter weather, I could have done without, but, given how nervous I was before getting on the plane back in September, the biggest surprises have certainly been positive and have made me even more grateful to have had this opportunity. Since a list of every surprise would bore you to death, I’ve chosen to inform you of the biggest, nicest and most important:

Italian people have been so kind.

True, most of my friends out here are not actually Italian – that’s not to do with the people themselves, though, but rather down to the nature of an Erasmus placement. But it’s impossible not to have interactions with the real locals if you spend longer than a month out here: if your hair grows like mine, a haircut is one of the first worries to crop up; and, almost inevitably in this weather (you can tell it’s really getting to me, can’t you?), a trip to the doctor will become necessary at some point or other. All of this, of course, on top of daily interactions at shops, restaurants and bus stops. Now, it’s not that I ever had a negative opinion about the Italian people – I’ve always loved Italy! – but, since arriving, its become clear that people here are not just willing to help you, but will actively go out of their way to enable you to enjoy their country – and this was a surprise.

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Montalcino (see below).

For example, in October, some friends and I went on an Eramusland Wine Tour of Tuscany. We had lunch in a beautiful town, Montalcino, where there happened to be a local food festival: picnic benches, barbecues and outdoor bars in the sun, overlooking terracotta roofs and undulating hills (talk about La Dolce Vita!). This is enough to put anyone in a good mood – but is it enough to make you want to share your bottles of expensive wine with five tourists sticking out like sore thumbs and looking questionably at the local idea of street food? Well, it was for the jolly party of six retirees sitting next to us. I refused at first (an English dilemma: is it polite to refuse?), but they were so insistent that we ended up taking at least two cups each from them. Perhaps it was their deep pride in their town, country and life; maybe they were just so grateful for our interest in their culture; or was it an older generation looking after, even teaching, a group of young lads? It was probably a mixture of all these and other things, but, whatever their reasons, the resulting kindeness was the same.

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Tripe with salsa verde in a bun :S

Shortly after that trip, I did take the bold move to have my hair cut by an Italian hairdresser. ‘Parla inglese?’ ‘No.’ Damn. After fumbling to get a photo from my phone in an attempt to avoid a buzzcut, he proceeded to cut my hair and, despite my terrible Italian, to ask after my life and my reasons for being here. At the end, as I was paying, he disappeared for ten seconds; upon returning, he had three books in his hands, all in Italian: a joke book, a short story book and a novel. As he was placing them in the bag, I got my wallet out again (this time, too polite to refuse) – he laughed, gestured for me to put my wallet away, handed me the bag and wished me a good day. The man had given me three of his own books so that I could learn his language – and how much more personal is gifting a book than telling me to download Duolingo? Now, I can hear the voices of particular friends as they read this: Ed, you’re so naïve, he just wanted you to return to him so that he can make more money. I’m not stupid, I can see that – but I genuinely don’t think that that was the point. Above all else, he wouldn’t have had the chance to pull such a stunt had he not had the interest to find out about me, even after realising that my Italian was painfully slow and inaccurate. I do go back, in fact – last time, I was 50 cents short in cash, but he didn’t make me pay by card or go to the machine – he just smiled and took it.

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Food festival mentioned earlier, because the hairdressers’ and my hair don’t make good photos.

Finally, and most recently: I went to the doctor soon after returning after Christmas. I think that this is the most stressful part of living away from home – the idea that, if something happened, I wouldn’t know what to do. I found that there was a doctor on my street and noticed on his CV that he spoke English, so I gave him a call and he gave me an appointment. I was greeted by a smile and listened to with the concern that you would wish for from a doctor. But, at the end, he didn’t just wish me well and say goodbye – he thanked me for helping him with his English and he told me I could come back at any time, even outside his office hours, if I ever had a problem. And, without ever having seen my EHIC card, there was no suggestion of any payment – and there still hasn’t been, two or three trips later. Little gestures, I know, but he couldn’t have known how worried I had been about the visit, and I’ll be searching for a way to let him know just how grateful I was for his kindness.

These are the sorts of things that really make a difference for a young student living in a foreign country. You’re not at home, and sometimes that’s the point; but, at others, you need to be made to feel part of the family. On each of these occasions I was left with debates in my head – Would this have happened in England? Why did they really do this? Am I too pessimistic and sceptical? – but, more importantly, I was left with a sense of happiness and comfort.

I must finish with a disclaimer, alluded to in the last paragraph: I’m not suggesting that this doesn’t happen in England. I’m sure you have many examples of random acts of kindness from all over the world, and I hope you can see that this post is not about a comparison of cultures, but about a real experience of welcomness that, whether abnormal or not, whether a product of my circumstances or not, has stuck with me here more than any other has. These were all people that I did not know at all, yet they still treated me like an old friend; I guess I’m just wondering how often I do that for people, English or foreign, back at home. Is this just my problem? Well, if so, at least my eyes are open now.

Koln Karneval

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Carnival (or Karneval here in Cologne) is a relatively international concept / celebration from what I have understood. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the events that occurred between the 8th and the 14th of February 2018.

Brief History Lesson: After talking to a handful of (intoxicated) locals, the story I have come away with is as follows. The celebration of Karneval in Cologne represents the cleansing of the surroundings before spring time. They’re basically chasing the creatures of winter away by dressing up in crazy fancy dress and dancing the night away for one week straight (not an exaggeration, the whole city was put on hold for a week). It starts big and ends bigger, to say the least.

I was unfortunately a bit ill when it began, missing the official start (was sipping some tea in bed) but catching up soon after over the weekend. A couple of friends from a bit all over the place (ranging from Berlin to Paris) came up (or down) to Cologne for some quality party time. We mingled and danced and enjoyed and slept as a consequence.

Conveniently enough, the Karneval took place smack when I was done with any and all academic commitments for the semester. It truly did mark the transition that the Kolsch people celebrate every year – and I would without a doubt say that this is something everyone should experience at least once in their life!

The end of the celebration was probably my favourite part simply because it embodied the traditional aspect of the Karneval. We were given massive candles and walked through the city streets, singing traditional Kolsch songs and ending up in one of the many squares of Cologne. A local then recited the texts, and a band played live music (to which everybody was singing along with – cue goosebumps). We then lit a big barrel on fire, where two ‘snowmen’ (made of hay) met the end of their days (pretty weird, but strangely satisfying).

With that wrapped up and sealed away with all the other strangely amazing memories of Cologne, I packed my bags and flew to Malta – marking the beginning of a string of adventures till the start of my next semester in Cologne. I will be in Malta for a little while, then traveling around Germany meeting some friends, and then back to good ol’ France (home) to see the family and do a quick road-trip to the coast. I’m looking forward to it.

I hope all is well with anybody reading this, and please do let me know if there is anything specific you would like to read about! More pictures are on my Instagram, including daily clips of what I get up to (@alex_laval). Until next time!

Alex

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

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!).

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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.

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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.

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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!