Lapland Larks

Comment 1 Standard

Hej hej,

Apologies in advance for what is about to be a somewhat hyperbolic and unrepresentative reflection of how amazing studying abroad is, but, still riding the high of recent travels, I want to endorse seeing life in a different country as a unique experience to exploit your new geography and travel to places more accessible than from the UK.

Before coming to Sweden, I’d only a very vague understanding of what and where Lapland is, and had never considered it to be somewhere I’d prioritise travelling to. I had visions of lots of snow, extreme cold and perpetual darkness in the winter months, which wasn’t entirely unappealing, but also didn’t do much to sell the idea to me. When my newly-found friends decided to book a trip advertised at the welcome fair, however, the fomo hit, and I too signed myself up for 5 days in the far north on the ‘Lapland Express’ tour.

As a budget tour catering for students, compromises were made to keep prices low, including taking an overnight coach to spare expenditure on accommodation and transport. Laden with a rucksack filled to the brim with every piece of warm clothing to my name, I was collected from town, and we began the long drive north. Amazingly, despite what seemed to be the entirety of the UK being coated in a generous blanket of snow in previous days, Uppsala had been distinctly free from wintry weather, which I soon realised wasn’t a reflection of the situation in the rest of Sweden… Once we were outside of the city, the scenery changed dramatically, with every road, house and tree obscured by thick layers of snow. I won’t lie, the reality of spending 17 hours cooped up on a bus was as unpleasant as it sounds, but the excitement of what lay ahead (and occasional drama on the road – stopping the bus to avoid collision with a baby elk etc.) kept spirits high.

The distance from Stockholm to Kiruna

Our first stop was Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, famed for its enormous iron-ore mine, which – fun fact- is causing the entire city to be gradually relocated 3 km east to allow for further extraction. After a quick change into warmer clothes, we were bussed to a local activity centre, where we immersed ourselves in the full tourist experience, driving snowmobiles across the snowy plains and being taken by husky sled back to base. It was a fantastic way to begin the trip, and definitely succeeded in waking us up after such a long journey!

The afternoon was spent touring the city, but we didn’t have the energy for much more. The darkness isn’t totally complete, as you can see from the photos, there’s a degree of light at midday, but we’d arrived right in the middle of the polar night season, meaning that for the entirety of our stay the sun never actually rose above the horizon. Regardless of how often you check the time, your body can’t keep up with such a dramatic change, and I spent most of the afternoon bus journeys napping and then waking up, disorientated, to see that it was pitch black at 3 pm…

On Tuesday, we left our hostel and headed further north, stopping at the Ice Hotel on route for a tour of the production rooms and a nose around the ice suites. I can confirm that the beds are very comfortable, but the visit did nothing to help me understand why people willingly pay £150 to sleep in the extreme cold, despite the attraction of some seriously stunning artwork. Before arriving at our accommodation, we made another stop to visit a Sami community, who continue to practice their traditional livelihood of semi-nomadic reindeer herding (though nowadays with the aid of snowmobiles and helicopters). After feeding the reindeers lichen, we warmed up inside a lavvu, a tent heated by an open fire, and drank a broth made from reindeer antlers. All very touristy, but bucket-list activities for any trip to this corner of the globe.

We were meant to be staying in Abisko National Park for the remaining days, but a twist of fate in the shape of a vomiting virus meant we were relocated to a ski resort in Björkilden, and rather than having hostel rooms, we enjoyed the luxury of wooden cabins with lakeside views, a kitchenette and PRIVATE SAUNA! Smug is probably an understatement to describe the general sentiment, and I have to say that, standing outside our cabin watching the Northern Lights that evening, life felt pretty damn good.

file

Wednesday happened to fall on the 13th of December, an important day in the Swedish calendar, also my name day, Luciadagen – Saint Lucy/Lucia’s Day. This page gives a nice introduction to the general idea. I was gutted to miss the celebrations in Uppsala, but we got a taste of the festivities when a local school came to perform Swedish carols in the hotel lobby, dressed in traditional attire with the ‘Lucia’ donning white dress and crown of candles. There were also free festive snacks, which I exploited as breakfast: lussekatter (buns flavoured with saffron) and pepparkakor (hard gingerbread biscuits).

Fortune was shining on us again, as the weather was declared good enough for a trip across the Norwegian border to Narvik to be given the go-ahead. We drove across the snowy landscape listening to Christmas songs, stopping at a fjord on route to take photos before being dropped off to explore for a few hours – the longest our guide was willing to risk waiting before returning, for fear that the heavy snowfall would close the road back. She wasn’t being paranoid: a group the previous week had delayed their return by 10 minutes, and found themselves stranded in Narvik for two days thanks to extreme weather, with only the possessions they’d brought for the day with them. I can’t really speak much for the city itself, but, as a true history student, I can wholeheartedly encourage a visit to the war museum. Military history isn’t usually my style, but it turns out that I was amazingly ignorant when it came to Norway’s role in WWII, which is well worth a look into if you’re interested.

img_0351

A fjord on the outskirts of Narvik

Wednesday evening was spent in possibly the most stereotypical Swedish fashion imaginable. Not only were we drinking glögg (Swedish mulled wine, can taste uncannily like Ribena, take care) in a cabin in the snow, we were lounging in our very own sauna, and even slapped on an ABBA mixtape to complete the picture. When the heat of the sauna became too oppressive to cope with, we all dashed outside, straight into a fresh pile of snow. I kept telling myself my muscles would thank me for the rapid changes in temperature, but I can’t say it felt like they were appreciating it the next day.

Thursday was our final day in Lapland, and, having decided not to join the excursions for ice climbing and cross-country skiing, we spent it ticking off all the wintry activities we hadn’t found the time for before. We borrowed sleds, and half walked, half slipped down to the lake, taking in a magnificent frozen waterfall on our way.

img_0347

‘Olaf’ enjoying the view 

The journey back to Uppsala was as painfully long as the first, but broken up with stops – such as a visit to the ‘Arctic Circle’, which, as shown on the above map, we’d crossed days before without the slightest notice or mention. We were warned not to get our hopes up too much, which I’m grateful for, considering that it is quite literally an inflated road sign, obscured by the dark and a generous layer of snow.

img_0350

Wow what a spectacular sight (sarcasm intended)

Cultural Guilt

Leave a comment Standard

After almost 11 weeks in Paris, one of the things I’ve struggled with the most is the guilt of not making the most of my time here. When I’m relaxing after university, eating tinned soup and even when I’m studying I have the feeling that I could be using my time to see and experience more of Paris.

This feeling was growing towards the end of October as I’d spent a lot of the month worrying about and sorting wifi, my bank account and then even more so when I had a mid-term exam for each of my modules. Mid-terms at my host university count for about 20% of the module mark and normally take place between 18:00 and 20:00 in the evening. This is probably my peak procrastination time so really isn’t when I’d choose to take a relatively important test.  This meant staying in and studying for these, taking more time due to the language difference and resulting in more guilt. The other side of this is guilt for not studying. I was in a bit of a vicious cycle, yet to find a balance between everything.

IMG_7674

I will admit to a quick visit to Le Musée de l’Orangerie when I should have been studying.

However, with midterms over and everything finally sorted, I’m planning to assuage my guilt by getting some more cultural activities under my belt. The next week is looking hopeful with plans to visit the Catacombs of Paris as well as an organised run through the heart of Paris and a birthday party with lots of other Erasmus students.

FullSizeRender

At the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

This past weekend also allowed me to experience some fantastic food and discover what there is to do in Paris other than visiting museums. Despite being vegetarian and most menus listing only meat and fish based meals, asking for a vegetarian alternative normally results in some delicious food. On top of the incredible food, a highlight of my weekend was seeing a classical music performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. This was a brand new experience for me and was such an exciting opportunity to get dressed up and discover something a bit different. With tickets as cheap as 5 € I think I’ll go again!

Finally, I was lucky enough to be invited for a meal in the Eiffel Tower, by far the coolest thing I’ve ever done. This was an experience of a lifetime made all the better by exceptional food, breath taking views and great company. While we were up on the second floor, the weather changed from rain to fog and then cleared to give an amazing sunset. This gave us some dreamy photos (see below) which I’ll be showing to people for a long time to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Not quite french yet

Leave a comment Standard

Hi everyone!

I’ve been living in Paris for just over 5 weeks now and a lot of things have happened since my last post: I’ve finally found myself somewhere to live (phew!), I’ve started going to classes properly and I’ve already handed in work that counts towards my final mark – all before Durham has even had freshers’ week. The only sad part about moving into my new flat was the fact that I’d no longer get to walk past the best shop in the world on one of my daily commutes. Aptly named ‘The Dog Club’ as it sells the most adorable puppies, which are on display for everyone to see!

However, 5 weeks has definitely been enough time for me to notice the massive cultural differences as well as just the downright weirdness of life in France. Here’s 5 things that I’ve noticed so far:

  1. It’s not easy to find proper cup of tea: As a tea addict, this is the main issue I’ve encountered so far (a lot more problematic than missing my first week of classes). The French almost always choose coffee, which is not something I’m willing to get on board with. The first thing I’ve learned is not to order tea in a café or you’ll end up having to go back and ask for milk. The second is that once your supply of PG Tips has run out, head straight to Marks and Spencer’s for the next best thing- their strong English Breakfast tea. Finally, don’t expect to survive by boiling water in a pot, it’s just not the same.

    IMG_7502

    The kettle and toaster I bought to complete my flat.

  2. France is closed on a Sunday: I thought it was annoying that many shops in England close early on a Sunday, but this is the next level. Almost everything is closed on a Sunday. It’s possible you might find the odd shop but you’d have to be looking quite hard. Apparently, no one is unwell on a Sunday either with all pharmacies and doctors having their doors firmly locked and their shutters down. The only saving grace is that McDonalds follows its own rules, so there’s no lack of Mcflurrys all week round.
  3. Every lecture or class is at least 2 hours: Coming from a University where lectures and tutorials are 50 minutes, and the longest class I’ve had is 3 hours, this was quite a shock. Not only are all lectures and tutorials 2 hours, but my programming and practical classes are 4 hours! (not including the 15 minutes that’s meant to be a break). I’m slowly getting used to this new system, but I have to say I’ve struggled to retain my concentration for 4 hours- who wouldn’t?
  4. The use of the internet hasn’t really caught on yet: Pretty much everything here is done on paper. Processes that would normally be quite straightforward in England such as opening a bank account and signing up for modules all have to be done in person or via a hand written form in the post. This does tend to mean that everything takes a lot longer and uses a lot more paper than it really needs to…
  5. French keyboards are confusing: A bit of a strange point, but one that has been quite a big deal amongst my friends and I, even those from countries such as Germany and The Netherlands. Here in France, the QWERTY keyboard doesn’t exist and you have to hold ‘shift’ to be able to type numbers and even for a full stop. It doesn’t sound like much of a problem, before you realise that your typing is littered with ‘q’s instead of ‘a’s and symbols where you meant to type numbers. Have a go yourself by following this link :https://www.branah.com/french

So there you have my summary of what I’ve learned here so far. It turns out that most things are very similar to England, but there a couple of differences that I haven’t quite managed to get my head around yet. At least the buildings are always pretty:

 

how to (barely) survive orientation week

Leave a comment Standard

On the day of my departure I boarded the Eurostar, sat at my window seat and waited for the train to leave St Pancras. Instead of admiring the French countryside speeding past my window as I waited to arrive in Brussels, my primary thought had been “Did I remember to pack my toothbrush?” (I didn’t.)

image1-7

The journey was an interesting one: I only finished packing 15 minutes before I had to leave to catch my train, the journey to St Pancras was spent reassuring my mother that yes, at the age of 20 years old I am able to travel by myself and only a few minutes before departure did I manage to lug my suitcases onto the correct platform. It was slightly chaotic, thought notably without any major mishaps. These seemed to begin during orientation week.

IMG_8201

I am particularly prone to making mistakes, so the initial week of my year abroad has been no different. Speaking from personal experience, here is a list of five things not to do prior to starting your year abroad in Belgium:

1. Don’t leave packing ’til the last minute.

If it seems like an overwhelming task to pack everything up to be shipped off for a year abroad, thats probably because it is. It might seem blindingly obvious that you should not pack all of your belongings needed for a whole year in Europe the night before, but alas I never learn. At 2am on the morning I was travelling, I found myself frantically googling “Will I need my food processor?”, something you would find only a totally underprepared exchange student doing. Help yourselves out – avoid the unnecessary stress and pack your bags at least a week or two in advance!

2. Keep track of essentials!

Don’t lose your phone! Obvious? Yes. Highly unlikely to occur if you are not a total scatterbrain? Also yes. Did this happen to me? Unfortunately.

 

Being in a foreign city without google maps has shown me how dependant I am on the internet for everything: navigation, registering for my courses, knowing the orientation day timetable, communicating with those back home as well as everyone I’ve met here. After we had a pizza to commiserate my loss, I walked home and was off the grid for 24 hours (until I very luckily had my phone returned to me!) Travelling might be frazzling, but keep track of your essentials such as your passport and phone.

3. Do not believe the myth that because you are only across the Channel, you won’t struggle with the cultural differences as much.

I was aware that the language would be different, and the food and the people. I just thought that as a European way of life I would understand it fairly easily and adapt to it. I was very much mistaken.

IMG_8212

I have probably almost collided with every one of these bikes on my walk to lectures.

Belgians go home from university every weekend to visit their families. The university has ‘kotnet’ which is not as simple to sign up for as eduroam in England – it’s taken me five days to register, activate my number for internet, get my head around it, install a router, and I still do not have wifi in my room.  Everyone rides bikes. You’ll get almost run over at least five times during your first week. The shops are closed on a Sunday, and close at 5pm everyday. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the twilight zone.

IMG_8218

Overall, just be aware that you will encounter a very different culture on your year abroad no matter where you go, and you’ll be confused at first but ultimately end up loving it – after all how could anyone not when the Belgians are famous for their waffles, fries and beer!

4. Read your housing contract.

Please. Don’t turn up and realise that your room doesn’t come with a mattress.  Just read it – you’ll make your orientation week go a whole lot smoother if you turn up with everything you need.

5. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Everyone will tell you that a year abroad is a difficult experience. I was told multiple times before going how lonely and stressed I would be, how difficult it was to make friends and how alienated they felt living in another country. I haven’t experienced any of these problems so far, but maybe it’s just because I’m on a freshers week high, because we had an orientation week to help settle us in or because the number of international students in KU Leuven is extremely high. Regardless of the reasons, I am really happy that I took a chance and applied to Erasmus on a whim.

Guest Post: If you don’t speak Castellano you won’t truly understand Spain

Leave a comment Standard

Jessica is a third year Modern Languages student coming to the end of her year abroad in Spain. This guest post considers the Spanish language and its relationship with Spanish national identity and culture…

It’s safe to say that my Spanish has undergone a profound transformation in the last 8 months. From my first day arriving in Madrid when I quite confidently thanked the taxi driver in impeccable Thai, ‘khob Khun kaa’, for taking us to the train station, I knew I had a long road ahead of me. After five weeks in Thailand I had unconsciously memorized a few local phrases, and I wondered how living in Spain would do the same on a much larger scale. Living in a foreign country is vital to truly surround yourself in the language, perfect the pronunciation of words, and obtain a variety of idiomatic expressions and fantastic swear words from first hand sources. But as you start to notice
the subtle nuances a language holds, you notice the hidden linguistic messages through which the Spaniards individually and collectively project their culture and identity. There are some things that just can’t be translated. Continue reading

Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, Paris

Leave a comment Standard
IMG_20170408_111827

Beautiful background for an ‘au revoir‘.

My time in Paris is coming to an end. The year has passed very quickly and it feels weird to leave this beautiful city now.
In order to have a proper good bye I crammed lots of things I wanted to do but never have into the last few weeks as if this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so. I am certain though, that a return won’t wait for long. Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, Paris [It is only a so long, Paris].

Of course, I came to Paris to study, so towards the end of the semester I had the usual bulk of essays and exams to get through. At least this semester I was a lot better organised and managed to squeeze the presentations into the first few weeks so they were out of the way. Still, it was a lot of work as I had some highly demanding professors this week that didn’t quite realise that exchange students are not that prepared to invest loads into extensive research papers.

However, let me concentrate on the nice things that filled my last month here. Continue reading

Where and how to live on your year abroad

Leave a comment Standard

Hey, finally I’ve managed to get around to posting again. Please excuse my long silence, but there has been a lot of work for me recently and so many other things were going on as well. I also now feel like you know my life in Paris pretty well, so it becomes harder to write about things that are (hopefully) interesting to you. Therefore I have decided to today write about living situations at years abroad. And in order to be of as much use for you as possible I will not only speak of my own experience. Continue reading