Academics, All, Exchange, Student Life

All good things come to an end.

I just booked my flight back to Canada. Just like that moment almost a year ago when I booked my flight to France, it has all just become real that this too is coming to an end. In the 20/20 of hindsight, I’ve decided to compile a short (haha) list of hopefully somewhat helpful hints for anyone undertaking an exchange adventure in the future. You know, pay it forward?

It takes time to adjust.

I had friends who went on exchange the year immediately before mine, and who came back telling me they had the best year of their life. So naturally, this was where I unwittingly put my bar of exchange success/failure. Best year of my life. Don’t do that.

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Because this, of course, led to a first semester full of doubt, thinking I must be doing this whole exchange thing wrong. I wasn’t loving Strasbourg’s grey skies, I was blurting out gobbledygook not French, I was still in that awkward new friend stage here and missing my old friends elsewhere, and school was, well, school. This went on for a while, with ups and downs of course, and then around Christmas something changed. I don’t know exactly what it was, but when I came back to Strasbourg in January exchange had become the comfy old slippers that you love till they fall apart- and the second semester became one of my favourite times of my life.

So all this to say that while I have friends who loved life on exchange from the get go, I took a bit more time to adjust and to feel like I was making the most of my year. Pretty much a whole semester, to be exact. So if you find yourself in a place like I was, you’re not doing it wrong. Be patient and keep making small talk and keep going to pub nights and keep on keeping on and you will get there too.

Thing’s aren’t weird, just different. 

This is something that has become a bit of a pet peeve of mine over the years, and something I still have to stop myself from doing. It goes down like this: “This is how xyz works in France” “Oh, that’s weird. In [insert other country] it works like abc”. Personally I find that as soon as ‘that’s weird’ slips through my lips the immediate comparison is negative and my impression of the country is negative. If I consciously remind myself to say ‘that’s different‘, or ‘that’s interesting‘ in its place, I am reminding myself to be open minded and un-judging in my interactions. This may sound a bit far flung, but when you are sent to your third government office only to be told you need ten more photocopies and five more forms and that you need to go back to the office that sent you there, a constant reminder to keep an open mind can’t really go amiss.

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Leading me to my next point:

The bureaucracy poses many problems but offers many solutions. 

A German friend came up with this phrase, and I absolutely love it because it totally sums up what happens here. We had a mandatory meeting at the beginning of the year to learn how to fill out a form. Mais vous n’êtes pas allée, madame? C’était obligatoire, fallait être là! Je ne peux rien faire pour vous. (plead your case politely for a couple more minutes) Allez, prenez cette formulaire, allez voir cette personne, voilà. Mais sachez que les réunions sont obligatoires!

We also had to do our course selection for the whole year online. L’inscription est définitive, aucune changement ne pourra être effectuée après cette date. Two weeks later you go see the coordinator in her office. Je ne peux pas changer vos cours, madame. Je ne peux rien faire pour vous. (plead your case politely) Allez, c’est quels cours que vous voulez changer? (gets out her paper binder full of printed copies of the online course selection, neatly rules a pencil line through the courses you want dropped). Allez, c’est bon.

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See? Many problems, many solutions. Just never forget your Ps and Qs, which count for everything here.

Know your niceties.

One can bookend any manner of negative information here as long as it is proceeded by a bonjour, followed by an au revoir and that there is a good peppering of SVP, madame, monsieur and merci in the middle. And, if you are friends, a bise or two in the mix as well.

There was this awkward moment a month of so after I had first arrived when I was meeting friends of my roommates. I said hi, with a small wave of the hand as you do. The girl in question then got up and moved towards me, and I moved aside, thinking she must want to pass to go into the kitchen. She then stops abruptly, “on fait pas la bise?”. Oh, riiiiight. At one party when people arrived they did la bise to everyone in the room. Everyone. To the point where stragglers had to kiss twenty or so people before taking their coat off. Normale.

So what to take from all this? In short, at the end of the day if you are polite, flexible, open-minded and patient with yourself, you’ll be fine. You may even have the best year (or half a year) of your life. (I think I did!)

Because sometimes leaving is inevitable. And because sushi.

Because things inevitably come to an end. And because sushi humour is always welcome here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All, Exchange, Student Life

So wait, where are you from again? (A Third Culture Kid on Exchange)

It happened again last night. We were having a few drinks, and my Finnish friend starts rattling off Canadian hockey players and where they play, looking to me expectantly for acknowledgement. I laugh and explain that I know next to nothing about hockey. Then comes the stock standard reply: “But you’re Canadian!!”.

Or there was that time in December, as I was packing up to head home for the holidays. “You’re heading home, you must be looking forward to the snow!” Um no, because home is Singapore, where it is 30c. Day in, day out.

Or when back in September a French friend’s parents asked me what one learns history-wise in the Canadian school curriculum. I had to tread gingerly and explain that I had no idea, I went to school in Australia, and we learn about explorers, aborigines and the gold rush. Year in, year out.

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The sisters and I in our natural habitat.

And I know, it is probably my fault, as I do tend to introduce myself as Canadian. It’s just easier- I am studying there, I have picked up the accent, I look the part (at least when I’m in my Roots trakkies, that is).

But truth be told, for about 18 years of my life Canada to me was not much more than the country on my passport, the accent of my parents and the place where we went for summer holidays to see my cousins (who also had that funny accent).  And this is because at the end of the day I am not really Canadian, nor Australian, nor Singaporean. The buzzfeed lists that really hit home? They’re about Third Culture Kids.

For those who may not be familiar with the term, a Third Culture Kid is someone who grows up between two cultures, hence creating a third. Or, better put:

Formally defined, TCKs are people who have spent a portion of their formative childhood years (0-18) in a culture different than their parents’. … TCKs tend to develop their identities while living abroad, thus blending their “home” culture with the culture of the world around them. “ (Source)

Basically, this.

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This was my summer holidays. (mind the teenage awkwardness)

For me, I was the Australian whose parents were Canadian (somehow I didn’t think it extended to me at that time), who could never imagine living in any other reality. Then at 13 I discovered that there are a multitude of amazing countries out there, and I became the Australian living in Singapore studying at the Canadian school (but who happened to be Canadian also, technically). As my experiences widened, so my identity changed. Slowly it morphed into the Canadian who grew up in Australia and who now lives in Singapore, or some sort of hybrid of all three.

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Loving life (because life has xiao long bao).

When I moved to Canada at 18, supposedly returning ‘home’, I felt a bit as if I had been masquerading as a Canadian all these years- suddenly surrounded by the real thing, you see what your act is lacking.

Say someone asks me what I think of the senators (um, Dallaire is pretty cool). Or where I went to high school. Or how I like my Timmies (Tim? I don’t know Tim). Or realises I can’t skate or have no idea what black ice is or why everyone cares about the ‘wind chill factor’. And then things get awkward. Like that other night with the hockey thing.

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Learning the ropes.

When you are on exchange you inadvertently become an ambassador for your country. It’s probably one of the best parts of exchange- the constant dialogue between different cultures, comparing how things are done in one place or another, sharing viewpoints and traditions. But as a TCK, picking one place to be an ambassador of is tough, as is explaining why you sound Canadian but eat Singaporean food and miss Australian weather. Sometimes you just want to wear a sticky on your forehead saying ‘But you don’t get it!!’. And sometimes you just don’t feel like rehashing the whole story, so you stick to the minimum and allow your interrogator to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions. You know, let it lie.

That said, the beauty of exchange lies in the interactions, and I have learnt over the year that the richest and most meaningful interactions are those in which I don’t take short cuts, and I don’t let assumptions lie. If I take a deep breath and tell my whole story, often the reactions surprise me. The fear of a misunderstanding, of being different, or of undue attention, they are proved to be unfounded. And more often than not, I find a fellow TCK right under my nose. Exchange is full of them- us internationals, you just can’t keep us down.

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Unless, that is, you ask us for a permanent address. Ouf.

 

 

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All, Exchange, Travel

Le beau pays

Quebec may be la belle province, but for me France may just be le beau pays. The region of Alsace, for all its cultural charms, is not the prettiest. It is all a bit grey, industrial, a bit German (don’t worry, my German friends agree). So these past weeks, as two friends and I were traipsing around south eastern France, I couldn’t help but be constantly wowed by the gorgeous sights before me and thank my lucky stars for the opportunity to see them.

Les deux semaines suivantes Pâques étant fériés, on a pris le train (et parcouru presque la hauteur de la France) pour commencer notre promenade qui nous mènera à neuf villes et villages, dans un effort de dernière minute de voir un peu la France avant qu’on se quitte et retourne dans nos pays respectives au mois de Juin. On a fait du camping, on est restée sur les canapés des inconnus, on a mangé que de la baguette et du fromage pendant des jours entiers, et on a surtout bien, bien rigolé.

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Living where I have lived, I am not at all used to having centuries, even millennia, of visible, tangible history at my fingertips. This continued to astound me as we learnt time and time again that we were standing in this roman ruin here and that we had walked through that medieval building there. On sentait vraiment le poids de l’histoire dans ces villes, et pas seulement une histoire comme celle qu’on trouve dans les manuels, mais une histoire vivant, qui nous entoure toujours.

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We started our trek in Toulouse visiting medieval cloisters, exploring the gardens and biking along the Canal du midi.

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We then moved along, with our mountains of bags (one of the many lessons learnt) to Nîmes in order to see the roman ruins, with a bit of a beach day on the side in Grau-du-roi.

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The next stop was Marseille, which ended up being my absolute favourite, despite the warnings to skip it by many French who regard the city as a bit of a black sheep. True, it is gritty (and granted we never really ventured out after dark), but there is also a fantastic vibe to the place, with a cultural diversity far beyond most other French metropoles and lots of hole in the wall cafés and shops to discover.

Marseille a vécu une super année en 2013 sur le plan culturel, et le passage du nouvel an n’a rien diminué. Alors pour ce qui cherchent à faire le tour des musées, avec un oeil sur les oeuvres et un autre sur la mer, Marseille ne peut que impressionner.

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We saw fishermen hawking their haul in the port, wandered around an old fort turned cultural hub, stopped for a drink break in a hole in the wall bar in the indie Panier neighbourhood and hiked to one of the most gorgeous views I have ever seen in les Calanques.

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Although it would be hard to top Marseille we tried anyway, and headed on to Aix-en-provence and Cassis. I remember seeing pictures of Provence when I was younger and thinking no way could it actually be that sun drenched and beautiful. Il l’est.

Oh and I just love this translation, so here you go. Bisous!

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En remontant la frontière est du pays on a quitté la chaleur et le soleil mais pas la beauté. Nos attentes ont été dépassés de nouveau, cette fois par les montagnes et le lac d’Annecy, ainsi que par le dynamisme et l’histoire vivante de Lyon. To top that off we stayed with the nicest old lady in Lyon, who fed us within an inch of our lives each night and delighted in leading us to every monument in Lyon, even the ones we didn’t exactly want to see.

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In the last few days we felt the weight of two weeks of solid travel, and the sole goal became to get home to our own beds. In hindsight, I am extremely grateful for the chance we had to do the type of rough, students-on-a-budget trip that we did and to see what we saw. Every time I feel guilty about the travel-to-study ratio of this year my parents remind me that you are only young and in Europe once, and I feel like that was what this trip was about. De voir autant qu’on puisse, de vivre autant d’expériences possibles, lors qu’on peut, tout faire avec des super amis, et dans un beau, beau pays.

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All, Exchange, Student Life

Strasbourg in Spring

The excitement of October, the settling-in blues of November, the comfort of December and the stress of January. It all has passed. Winter in France has now truly come and gone, and spring has sprung, as it does, with flowers in bloom, sunny afternoons and a distinct lack of winter chill in the wind. The air is soft again, and it has been a glorious month or so.

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I think this has got to be the best part of exchange. We are now at home in Strasbourg, we have our close friends and our wider circle down pat, we have gotten through the language and culture shocks of the first semester and have come to terms with the fact that sometimes the French way of doing things, well, it’s du grand n’importe quoi. But we don’t mind, because we stick it out, we lean on each other and we laugh about it, because it’s all part of the experience. We have the hard stuff behind us but we’re not yet at the goodbyes- it’s a perfect in between filled with good times and not (too) much studying.

This past month has been a bit of a lull, but a happy, comfortable one. I travelled a bit, studied a bit, but mostly just enjoyed being here. In fact, I think it has been one of my best months in France so far. Everything is familiar, but I’m still discovering and thanking my lucky stars I got to live this experience.

And this never more so than on a beautiful spring afternoon like we had yesterday. I finished class at 2pm, grabbed a baguette and then spent the better part of two hours chilling with friends in the sun outside of the university. Reluctant to go indoors, I then took the long way home- pedalling slowly and stopping in a few places to take some pictures of Strasbourg in all its sunny glory.

And this on my beloved vélop- my bike in the city that made me love cycling again.

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I started my ride home at the IEP, with cherry blossoms and the church steeple in front.

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My route back from school then takes me down boulevard de la Victoire, which is one of my favourite streets because it is a bike/pedestrian lane with tram tracks on either side and then a lane for cars on the edge, as if they were an afterthought.

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I then ride along the river Ill, which is the main river in Strasbourg, and in which the center of the city is basically an island.

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And then, 15 minutes later, I am home.

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All, Exchange

La Chandeleur

Yesterday my roommate came home with eggs, flour, milk, and sugar, all ready and prepped for the Jour des Crêpes today. I had no idea that France had a crêpe day, but I was in no way going to question the idea of a lazy Sunday spent eating some.

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Today is not really ALL about crêpes (although it kind of is)- February 2nd is actually called la Chandeleur (literally: the candle maker) and was originally a religious holiday, Candlemas. Worshippers would be given a candle at church and have to make it all the way home without it blowing out, in order to ensure survival during the following year. Thankfully things are no longer quite so life and death, and the celebration has morphed into a marker of the beginning of spring with weather predicting and crêpe eating in abundance.

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Nowadays to celebrate la Chandeleur you can make crêpes and try to flip them while holding a gold coin to ensure good luck in the coming year. There is also a bear who comes out of his den, allowing us to make groundhog day like predictions about the coming spring.

Quand il pleut pour la Chandeleur, il pleut pendant quarante jours.” 

“Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere; Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte!”

According to the sayings (and the bear!) the rainy, cloudy Strasbourg skies of today mean that we will have another 40 days of winter. At least we have our crêpes and apple cider to get us through!

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All, Travel

Here comes the sun

After two weeks of mid-year exams under the cold grey Strasbourg skies it seemed only fitting to head off for the weekend somewhere- anywhere- as long as it was sunny.

My friend Alex and I found a steal of a flight from Strasbourg to Porto, and off we went. I had no expectations, but if I had Porto would still have far exceeded all of them.

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The character of the city seeped through the cobblestone streets and filled the narrow alleyways. The locals were some of the friendliest people around, and entirely indulging when we spoke no Portuguese and offered up bits of Spanish, English and French as compensation.

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Porto itself is built around the Douro river, and being a stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean, has been the hub of Portugal’s international trade for centuries.

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The city has been so carefully preserved that you can almost imagine the expedition ships sailing down the river heading for the new world, or the small boats arriving from the Douro river valley, laden with port wine.

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That is not all the city has going for it. The portuguese bakeries were glorious- filled with golden egg tarts and flaky meat pies.

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The old town was dotted with beautiful old houses and adorned with decorative  azulejo tiles.

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All together the weekend was a perfect pocket sized getaway under the sun- and a great energy and morale boost for the new semester. Porto and Portugal has won me over, and it’s not just because of the egg tarts.

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And now, back to reality!

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All, Exchange

Half-Way // Kirsty in Ecuador

Exams are over, I survived, and this weekend was my blissful escape before the new semester started up again. Friends are leaving, new students are arriving, and my exchange is officially now half way done.

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I could be sad since technically it’s all downhill from here, but in reality I am just so pumped for all the excitement and adventures that these next four months or so will bring (still no idea when the school year actually ends… ahhh, french administration).

As I continue on my exchange my friend Kirsty has just finished up hers, and in a vastly different location: Ecuador!

Since a little reflection can never go amiss, I decided to take this opportunity to ask her about her experience on her York International Exchange and to share it with you. Enjoy!

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So, where did you go?

I went to Cuenca, Ecuador, on exchange for the fall semester. I chose South America because I wanted to see something different than Europe or any of the other developed countries I have visited so far. I wanted to experience a completely different culture than my own while still learning Spanish. I chose Ecuador specifically because I had heard the accent there was pretty standard and I liked the program for International Students offered at the university here.

Do you remember your first thoughts when you arrived?

When I first arrived all the international students travelled together for an orientation trip. Looking back, I realize it was a gentle introduction to life in Ecuador. I remember being amazed by the natural beauty of the mountains and landscape. My first impressions probably include some shock with seeing how poor some people here are and the tiny houses they live in. Also, I felt very out of place with my blond hair – definitely very inconspicuous.

Were there any moments of complete cultural incomprehension? Or cultural oddities you found it hard to get used to?

Probably the biggest adjustment for me was living with a host family and having my host mum do everything for me – my laundry, the cooking, washing dishes, etc. Children live with their parents until they marry and independence is not something parents teach their children. There is a very strong machismo culture here which is hard to get used to. For example, my host mum doesn’t drive a car, only her husband does. Also, I found out that it is very rude to blow your nose in public. I had no idea until I offended my host mum and she asked me to go blow my nose in the bathroom!

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And anything you think you just might find yourself adopting/ doing back in Toronto?

I really enjoyed a lot of the food here so I could see myself recreating some Ecuadorean meals back home. I like the freshly squeezed fruit juices we have every day, popcorn in soup, and fried banana. The international students all had dance class every Friday where we learned the basics of salsa, bachata and merengue. I loved dancing so I might continue that when I get home.

How did you go language wise? 

I have definitely noticed a huge improvement in my Spanish. My comprehension has improved more than my speaking though. I watched a Mexican movie the other day without subtitles and I understood almost all of it without even trying too hard- before I would have gotten a headache and only understood half. [Go Kirsty! That’s awesome!]

What was your academic experience on exchange? 

My academic experience was not quite what I expected because I’m not at a university – I’m at CEDEI which is a Centre for Language Instruction. That meant that the only other people in my classes were the other international students who arrived with me. One advantage to this was the small class sizes, I had some classes where I was the only student! We were also able to do lots of hands-on things like visit museums and different places relevant to what I was studying.

I have never had to work so hard for school as I have in the second half of my time here. I have been writing lots of essays in Spanish, reading textbooks, and doing presentations. It has been intense because obviously everything is harder in Spanish, but I think it has helped me to continue to improve my level of Spanish, especially in terms of learning academic vocabulary and learning to write with more ease.

What are you looking forward to about heading home and what will you miss?

When I get home I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends again of course. I am also looking forward to living in my own house, cooking, and basically just feeling comfortable in my home. I will miss the weather here in Cuenca which they call the eternal spring, my daily walks to school, and the friends I made here.

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And finally, do you have a favourite moment on exchange (I know, tough, but whatever stands out the most)?

My favourite moment on exchange would probably be the time I travelled the coast with my friend Bianca. We got to go surfing and snorkelling which was amazing! It was fun to be independent again and also to put my Spanish into practice – once on a tour boat they even asked me to translate for some of the tourists who only spoke English. So that was definitely a feeling of accomplishment!

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