Don’t Forget to Smell the Roses

Not all those who wander are lost.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Study Abroad is an experience – that much at least should be clear by now. Well, actually it’s more like a collection of little experiences that will all eventually come together to make up the bigger picture, just like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. That’s why no two people will ever go on the same exchange, even if they go to the same university, in the same country, even at the same time. Moreover, the experience – how it unfolds, what you take from it etc. – that part is all up to you. I think it was Albus Dumbledore who once said our choices define us much more than our actions and, you know what? He had a point!

I think one of the biggest choices I made (in terms of how it’s affected my Study Abroad experience so far) was my decision to not get a new plan for my mobile phone. There were several practical reasons for this, most of them to do with money (I’d have had to pay to break my contract, phone plans here are much more expensive… the list goes on and on), but finances aside, the more I thought it over, the more I decided to give it a go. I’ve been the proud owner of my own mobile phone since I was eleven-years-old, and I got my first smart phone when I was sixteen. In other words, for the past four or five years, if ever I’ve needed to know something – be it the local bus timetable, the name of the last five Prime Ministers, or even detailed instructions on how to mop a kitchen floor (don’t judge me, but I genuinely did once Google that) – it’s only taken me a few moments to find it out. We really do live with the wealth of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, and the prospect of taking that away was more than just a little daunting for me. Which of course only made me more determined to do it.

 

I should point out here that I haven’t gone completely cold turkey. I keep my phone on aeroplane mode most of the time, but I can still access Wi-Fi and, living in a city such as Montréal, I’m rarely without a good connection. But this has made the process of getting from A to B a whole lot more interesting – especially when I don’t have the foggiest idea where B is. Which is most of the time seeing how my sense of direction is determinedly backwards even on a good day.

I have no idea where I am going.

You would be surprised at how many people react with horror upon hearing that I don’t have a Canadian phone number, meaning I don’t have access to 3G which leaves me permanently stranded between Wi-Fi hotspots. I frequently get asked questions such as ‘how do you manage?’ or ‘don’t you think you should just get one?’, which to me only further reiterates how dependent we have become on the Internet to solve all our problems for us. The point is, we as a species managed perfectly well before Tim Berners-Lee came along and though I shall be eternally grateful to him for doing so (that floor wasn’t going to mop itself), it is more than possible to exist without being permanently connected to the World-Wide Web.

In fact, I would argue that it makes life (and certainly my Study Abroad experience) a lot more interesting. Not being able to rely on my phone to tell me where to go forces me to look up for a change, meaning I see so much more of what’s around me. Montréal is one of the most beautiful cities out there, but sometimes you have to go looking for the best bits, and I can tell you now that you won’t find them on a screen. Things like watching the sun set over the Olympic Stadium, seeing Downtown all lit up at night from the other end of Rue Sherbrooke or catching sight of the tip of a racoon’s stripy tail as it dives for cover behind a wheelie bin (sorry, trash can). Moments like those are fleeting; if you blink, then you can miss them just like that and if you’re too busy scowling at your phone screen because Google doesn’t have a clue where you are either, then you won’t even realise they were there in the first place.

The Plateau by Night

It’s true that not all those who wander are lost, but sometimes getting lost is half the fun of wandering. Don’t get me wrong, having 3G can be a lifesaver – especially when you’re stuck outside your friend’s apartment having to resort to throwing stones at their window Romeo-style because their buzzer isn’t working and you don’t have the Wi-Fi password to message them – but you don’t need it to survive. So, the next time you’re somewhere new, take the road less travelled by and remember to look up from your phone screen every now and then. Because you never know what you might see hiding just around the corner.

Given how big it is, the stadium was surprisingly hard to find.

 

Missing Home

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

~ Maya Angelou ~

What makes home, home? That feeling of belonging – the inherent knowledge that we are where we should be, like a book put back on the shelf in its correct spot: where does it come from? What makes it?

I never really got homesick during my first year at Lancaster. Of course, I missed my family (once the dust from Freshers had settled and I was left facing a looming stack of laundry, the reality of having to buy my own food and the dilemma of fighting off about three colds at once) but in terms of my ‘home’ – the town where I am from – I didn’t really miss it. I have no family ties to my hometown; it just happened to be where we lived. So when I moved away the first time, I found it was the people (my friends and my family) I missed the most, and not the place itself. Therefore, upon arriving in Canada, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I knew there would be aspects of the UK that I would miss, but as to what extent I honestly had no idea.

Tentatively, I spent my first few weeks in Montréal waiting for the nostalgia to kick in. I joked to my new friends about the lack of ‘proper tea’ (only Yorkshire will do, thank you); I dutifully complained about how the weather here in the city can reach 30˚C in the summer, but will then drop to -30˚C in winter compared to England’s average range of 2-16˚C. But though these were undoubtedly things that I found took some time and effort to get used to, I didn’t experience true homesickness and almost began to wonder if I ever would. My doubts, however, were soon put to rest at the start of this week.

UK universities go back much later than on this side of the Atlantic, and for some reason, Lancaster always goes back a week or two after everyone else even then. For the past couple of months, I’ve been the odd one out, and started to look forward to the point when my friends would no longer be able to tease me about having schoolwork whilst they were still enjoying their last few weeks of freedom. But as more and more posts started to pop up on social media about ‘Freshers 2016’, I suddenly found myself yearning to be back. At first, it was easy to dismiss the feeling as simple first-year nostalgia; after all, who wouldn’t want to go back to that time of blissful ignorance during which you remained stubbornly convinced you won’t leave every deadline to the last minute, truly believe you’ll keep your new room perfectly tidy and are still to discover the nightmare that is Circuit Laundry. But as the week went on, I realised: I miss Lancaster.

Maybe it’s the ducks, but there is something about Lancaster that makes it part of my home. I miss being surrounded by the rolling hills, with the Bay of Morecambe just visible in the distance when you take the 2A through Bowerham (a.k.a Narnia): I miss trying and always failing to be the first in the never-ending queue for Greggs on a Monday morning; I even miss – and you can call me insane here if you want – the abhorrent Lancastrian weather that was the main reason why none of us realised Storm Desmond had struck, because in our minds there was nothing unusual about the amount of wind and rain we got hammered with that weekend. These are the things I couldn’t bring with me to Montréal, as trying to smuggle ducks across the Canadian border tends to be frowned upon.

So, what do I do about it? I’m able to compensate for not being with my friends and family by talking to them regularly over Skype and FaceTime, and my room is littered with pictures and other mementos to remind me of all the different elements which come together to form what is, for me, my ‘home’. Having my family send Yorkshire Tea to me is also a huge help, but I can hardly expect them to send the rest of England out by Canada Post. For the most part, I need to go out and explore, and find new things that will help me make my home here in Montréal. In Lancaster I used to love going for random walks around campus and getting lost in the rambling countryside; here, I have the whole of Mont Royal to amble up (and consequently stagger down). One of the reasons I came abroad was to experience a new culture, and sometimes that means you have to let go of one or two aspects of your own. So, whereas I may not be able to get a decent cup of tea, I can substitute it with Poutine instead, and that is pretty much the next best thing.

poutine is love; poutine is life

Poutine is love; poutine is life

Carpe Diem

“The world is big, and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.

~ John Muir ~

Midterms are not fun.

I remember once being asked by a LUSU volunteer if I thought Lancaster should implement January exams, and replying that I couldn’t really say, having never had to take them. Well, here at McGill (and pretty much every other university this side of the Atlantic), you don’t just get January exams; you get October ones, November ones and of course, December finals. And I can tell you now, it’s a big step up. The workload here can get rather intense, and these past few days as I holed myself up my favourite corner of Second Cup (the Montréal equivalent to Costa), I found myself yearning to get out of the city for a bit. And so, that’s just what I did.

During my Orientation Week, I connected with a handful of other exchange students all hailing from various corners of the globe, and a group of us (five including myself) decided to take a weekend trip down to the States. It being the middle of autumn, New England was on all our bucket lists, so we hashed together a rough plan to drive down on a Friday afternoon after class, spend the weekend hiking in the White Mountains and then hit the road again on Sunday and be back in the city in time for tea (or, in my case, my final midterm on the Monday). To me, my brain ready to melt from constantly revising Marxist Critical Theory and Nuclear Deterrence, it seemed like the perfect respite.

They say even the best laid plans go awry, and we definitely encountered more than our fair share of bumps in the road (and I’m not just talking about Québec’s pothole epidemic). A misunderstanding with the car rental caused a three-hour delay into our four-hour journey, but nonetheless we eventually made it and, after yet another slight hitch (which involved flagging down a kindly local at 12am on a deserted road in the middle of the woods to borrow her phone so we could email the owner of our Airbnb and get the code to unlock the door) I was ready for a fun but chilled-out weekend during which the only thing I needed to worry about was not falling down the side of a mountain, something I seem extraordinarily prone to doing. And I have to say, New Hampshire in the fall is truly spectacular.

One does not simply walk into Mordor

One does not simply walk into Mordor

In the week leading up to the trip, I had begun to wonder if I was making the right choice in going. With my final midterm looming ominously on the horizon, I couldn’t help but worry if perhaps I should stay behind and study for it just like everyone else seemed to be doing. But I found that the more I considered dropping out, the more I felt like I needed to go. After all, I didn’t come all this way just to see the inside of a library. I’ve wanted to go on exchange ever since I knew it was possible to do so – even before I had chosen to come to Lancaster! It’s part of my whole reasoning for studying Politics and International Relations as a degree; when I graduate, I want a career that’ll take me around the world and give me the opportunity to explore its many wonders. Of course, I know I’ll never see everything our planet has to offer, but for me that’s the beauty of it. I can see and experience a thousand different places, and there will still be a thousand more.

Hella Atmospheric

Hella Atmospheric

And now, I can tick another place off my ever-growing list. And though I’ve already said it, New Hampshire was breath-taking. I know now why some of the treks are known as the Fire Trails; I have never seen such a magnificent, blazing ensemble of colour in all my life. And, despite a slight delay that was primarily due to me being incapable of making it down a mountain without falling over at least a dozen times (plus one or two issues with directions that were most definitely not my fault), we still made it back before midnight on the Sunday, in time for me to get a good night’s sleep ready to nail my midterm. In fact, looking back this evening, I think I might even have done better in the exam than had I spent the weekend cramming. Getting out into the woods refreshed my perspective on things, and standing on top of Mount Lafayette surrounded by clouds and listening to the wind roaring in the valley below, you remember that there really is more to life than one exam that, in hindsight, is only worth 20%. The world might be full of amazing opportunities, but if you’re not paying attention you can blink and miss them just like that. So even though it’s important to take your academic (and other) responsibilities seriously, there’s nothing wrong with cutting loose for a weekend and getting lost in New England with some new friends (plus the occasional chipmunk).

Autumn Colours

Autumn Colours

 

Making it down without falling

Making it down without falling

The Journey Begins

Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Do one thing a day which scares you”, and recently, this has resonated with me more than ever. Since leaving the UK a few weeks ago to start my Study Abroad adventure, I have had to do multiple things which scared the hell out of me, but I survived and I am still surviving – even if I’m not quite sure how. Given that studying abroad has always been something I wanted to do (hence why I chose to come to Lancaster), from the moment I arrived it seemed like all of my focus was geared towards spending my second year in another country. And, as of such, I sort of forgot to think about what would happen afterwards. As an example, somehow the fact that I would have to make the journey from England to Canada alone was something I never contemplated until it actually happened. It made me think about how, during the build-up to going on exchange, there are a lot of things you forget about, and then when you remember them it can sometimes be a little scary. This piece is about how it’s okay to be caught off-guard by certain things – especially emotions you weren’t expecting to have – and how at the end of the day, it’s just another part of the experience.

For some reason, I never thought that I would be struck quite so emotionally. I’m not really the sort of person who wears their heart on their sleeve – at least, not when I’m in public and surrounded by strangers. And besides, for the past six months or so, the fact that I’m spending my second year of university abroad in the beautiful city of Montréal, was a source of excitement. Don’t get me wrong – there were always nerves – but when I imagined the moment I finally said goodbye to my parents at the gates to airport security, I always envisioned myself striding stoically off into the distance, ready to meet adventure head-on.

So when instead my mum and dad turned to hug me for the last time, and I felt the tell-tale sting of tears behind my eyes, a part of me was shocked. The other part of me – the bigger part – was terrified. In those moments as I walked away, I suddenly found myself wondering if perhaps I was making a huge mistake. Thoughts such as “what the hell am I doing?” followed swiftly by “I can’t do this!” ricocheted around my brain in such chaotic fashion that I’m still surprised I managed to make it through Heathrow Security without any mishaps.

Now, this doesn’t sound like a promising start, and probably makes this post sound somewhat depressing, which is possibly why no one ever mentions this side of going on exchange – the side which involves frantic nerves, copious amounts of stress and a healthy dose of anxiety (in some cases). But also because, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, this feeling of being stuck at a loose end with no idea what you’re doing, where you’re going or how you’re going to survive the next few days (let alone an entire academic year) is not permanent. As soon as I was through Security, and found myself staring out over the labyrinth that is Heathrow Terminal 5, I realised that I couldn’t afford to panic. Switching off and going to find a corner to rock in wasn’t an option; there were things which needed to be done, such as finding out which gate my flight was boarding from. And, since then, I’ve found myself falling into a very similar pattern. If I only focus on what is immediately in front of me, whether that’s the whole day or just a certain part of it, everything suddenly seems a lot less daunting. As soon as I let myself start thinking about all of the things I need to do over the next couple of weeks and worrying over how I’m going to do them, that same panic starts to set in. And, once it has, it can be quite difficult to shake off.

sitting-at-the-airport

In short, what I’m trying to say is that feeling scared is not a bad thing. It’s what you do with that fear, and whether or not you let it control you, that matters the most. I didn’t think that I would get emotional saying goodbye to my parents, and the fact that I did genuinely concerned me, as it made me question whether or not I was going to be able to cope being on the other side of the Atlantic to them for nine months. But though I had my fears, I didn’t let them stop me, and now here I am, sat in my new apartment in Downtown Montreal, ready to start my adventure at McGill University. So, yes, Study Abroad is an intimidating experience – especially in the beginning. And I don’t expect that to suddenly change overnight. But so long as I keep pushing forwards, and I don’t let my fears and my worries get the better of me, then I have every faith that I’ll make it through these next nine months, and quite possibly be all the better for it once my exchange is over. Because it’s okay to be scared. Being scared just means you’re about to do something brave.

A Toronto Lancaster academic comparison

I really wanted to write this blog to give anyone thinking about studying abroad at U of T some kind of breakdown of the academic system and the differences to expect in academic culture. The most notable difference between Lancaster and U of T is simply the fact that the volume of work here is much greater than Lancaster. Prior to departure I was told to expect more homework by my study abroad advisor which I can now confirm was an understatement. During the first semester the workload was sometimes overwhelming and it took a while to make the adjustment. Weeks without deadlines are very sporadic and I will almost always have some kind of work due each week whether it is a homework assignment, an essay or revision for a quiz. There are positives to this since you tend to spend less time revising for exams because you are learning more continuously as opposed to just cramming everything in last minute. However it can get pretty brutal especially around finals.

In the winter semester I did find the adjustment particularly difficult since I obviously needed to complete the work to a good standard but I also knew the importance of maintaining a social life. The strange thing about U of T is that the actual work itself I would argue is easier than back at Lancaster, it is just much more frequently handed out. Exams here are so much more relaxed than at Lancaster which is really nice and most of my midterms were done in tutorial with a much more chilled atmosphere than I was expecting. I am no stranger to spending 5 minutes at the beginning of an exam freaking out before I eventually settle down but here I have been surprisingly relaxed in exam situations which has made them slightly less intimidating. Much like my first year at Lancaster final exams typically constitute about 40% of a module’s overall mark which is nice and coursework, assignments and midterms typically make up the rest.

As a second year student from Lancaster my year abroad is worth half of my degree. Whenever I tell other exchange students this they seem quite shocked. This is because many of my friends here from the exchange student community either do the year as an optional year abroad where it doesn’t count towards their degree or it is worth somewhere around the 20% mark. I must admit I am slightly jealous of these students who can afford to relax a bit more. Anyway, I just wanted to inform potential exchange students of what academic differences to expect so they do not come as too much of a shock. Despite the high workload there is always plenty of time to socialize and have fun as long as you make a conscious effort to do so and stay involved. It is not all so bad!

French in Québec, give it a go!

As a student in linguistics I am aware of the language situation in Canada. Canada has two official languages, French and English; however English dominates in almost all Canadian provinces with the exception of Québec. During reading week I spent four nights in Québec skiing with U of T’s Ski club as I thought it would be nice to get away from the city for a bit. I tried my best to speak French- the local language while I was there. We visited Québec City which is a really beautiful city and while there we ate traditional Québécois food in a really nice restaurant in the old town. My friends and I gave French a good go for the most part. I studied French at GCSE level and in the first year at university so I am reasonable at speaking although I struggle with listening quite a lot.

I think it is nice to give it a try and I am certain that our waitress appreciated the effort. For a native English speaker it would be so easy to just speak English as practically everyone in Québec seems to have some kind of Bilingual capacity in both English and French. However I felt bad doing so in a province which shows such a strong preference for the French language. People in Québec are really proud to be French Canadian which you soon become aware of with the never-ending presence of the Fleurdelisé. I feel English people, me included can be quite bad with this. Although sometimes we simply lack the knowledge of the language, we could certainly make a bit more effort. I think French people; specifically French Canadians in this case appreciate you giving their language a try. I remember in my first week in Toronto I tried speaking French almost jokingly to a French girl that I live with and she really enjoyed it. It is a nice thing when someone makes the effort to speak to you in your own language even if you are not the best speaker.

Things literally as simple as going to the local store and saying ‘bonjour’ to the shop assistant and ‘merci’ goes some way towards doing this. After all most of the language used in everyday contexts such as restaurants, shops and bars is really simple to acquire and requires little thought. French is also a really cool language to speak so you might as well give it a go. I think living in Toronto has made me quite determined to learn another language since in some of my classes it seems as though I am the only person with no multilingual capacity. During one of my lectures before Christmas my teacher did a survey to establish the range of languages spoken by people in our lecture. There was 20+ languages spoken in total and monolingual students such as me were undoubtedly in the minority, which is really cool in a way but it can make you feel slightly inferior.

Campus life

The university itself is situated in the city on a unique campus with lots of traditional architecture and a huge library with over 13 floors. It is a massive campus which is not surprising when you consider the fact that U of T has over 80,000 students. As the university is divided up into colleges, many have their own smaller libraries, which I often used for studying since they were nice and quiet.

I was initially surprised with the university’s lack of interest in sport as I assumed being a university of 80,000 students that the sport culture would be really alive and vibrant.  For sure there are football clubs, a boxing club which I joined and gym classes available to students but I must admit it wasn’t quite as I had expected. Perhaps this is because U of T is such a heavily academic institution. Nevertheless there are still plenty of opportunities to join clubs, I played for the exchange student football team and joining the boxing club allowed me to meet lots of new people. Clubs and societies are one of the best ways of meeting people and I am glad that I managed to get involved. This semester I am hoping to try out some new activities. I joined the Ski club in December and this semester I will be heading to Quebec with them on a 4 day skiing trip during reading week which I am really excited for!

Campus Life Toronto

Back at Lancaster I really enjoyed going to the gym and luckily for me there are three different gyms on U of T’s campus which are all great to work out in as a break from studying; I tend to go to the athletic centre because it is nearest to the majority of my classes. However there is the Hart House gym which is located in a very old, traditional building near University College which seems quite bizarre at first but is really cool. The other gym is next to the Varsity Centre which I haven’t yet tried but it looks very nice and modern.

No doubt, the workload in Toronto is more than what I was used to dealing with at Lancaster and there were a few times when it was difficult to balance work with my social life, particularly towards the end of the semester with finals. However there is certainly time to have fun and it’s really important to try and find a good balance. The way that my modules were split up into midterms in October and finals in December was good since I was learning continuously as opposed to just cramming for finals (like was often the case at Lancaster). Well, that is my positive way of looking at it!

Toronto

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Toronto so far and the city itself is great. It has a good transport system that allows you to get around the city easily. This was particularly helpful for me since I had to commute to the Scarborough campus for one module once a week. I noticed some of the other exchange students saying it was expensive but you pay per trip so when I went to the Scarborough campus it was $3 there and $3 back which for a journey that was slightly over an hour I thought was really cheap. You can also get a TTC (Toronto Transit Communication) pass which gives you access to the subway, streetcars and buses in the Greater Toronto Area for about $110 a month. They all run really regularly from Monday to Saturday from 6am to 1:30am but Sundays are slightly shorter hours. However I just payed per trip since I walk to university and didn’t think I would get good value out of the pass.

In Toronto there are the popular and iconic attractions such as the CN tower, The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Islands and Casa Loma which are all really cool and definitely worth visiting. But there are also lots of really cool areas within the city like Little Italy, Chinatown, St Lawrence Market, The Distillery District and Kensington Market some of which I am yet to visit. The food in Toronto is amazing and there are hundreds of fantastic restaurants to enjoy, any kind of food you want, name it and there are restaurants serving it here. This diversity is reflective of the wider culture of Toronto; it is a city where cultural and even linguistic diversity are the norm, which is completely new to me but is one of the things that makes Toronto great. In the city there are countless bars and cafes that are perfect to chill out in and talk to friends, Kensington Market is one of my favourites as it has a number of really nice and trendy bars. On nights out I tend to go to bars for drinks with my friends but for those who prefer clubbing there are plenty of clubs downtown.
An image of Toronto city taken by Dan Jones

One of my favourite things about Toronto is simply the fact that there is always stuff happening downtown and I found that by keeping up to date with both the exchange student Facebook Page and other Toronto based websites I was able to learn about lots of upcoming events in the city. In September there was the Toronto Film Festival which I was able to experience and in October there was the renowned Nuit Blanche, a unique and very popular Art Festival in Toronto which was really interesting. There were also unique exhibitions at the Royal Ontario Museum that were very intriguing such as a historical exhibition on Pompeii which I regrettably missed out on. Overall Toronto is a fantastic city with endless places to visit, countless events to attend and unlimited supplies of amazing food! The city lifestyle is completely new to me and was one of the main reasons I chose to study in Toronto and it is a decision I definitely do not regret.

Getting involved

For me one of the most rewarding parts of the study abroad experience so far is having so many opportunities to speak to people from different countries and completely different cultures. Never before have I had such a great opportunity to engage with people from so many different places, this is certainly one of the best things about studying abroad. I have spoken to Danish students, Spanish students, Swedish students, French students, German students and last but not least, Canadians.

I am a person who has always loved watching and playing sport, in England this has primarily involved Cricket, Football, Tennis and Boxing. In Toronto it has been really refreshing to experience a completely different sporting culture. I was lucky enough to go and see Toronto’s basketball team, The Toronto Raptors play against The New York Knicks. This was great fun and as an added bonus we were able to watch Carmelo Anthony play, a very highly rated American NBA player.

A picture from the audience watching a basketball game in Canada

I also went to watch Toronto’s baseball team, The Toronto Blue Jays play at The Rogers Centre. Although they lost I was really happy to watch my first baseball match and the throwing and fielding was amazing to watch. The Blue Jays also got into the playoffs for the first time in over 20 years so watching them on TV was fantastic and the excitement in the city was palpable and infectious, people were even watching the post-season games in lectures. Ice Hockey is also really popular here and I had great fun watching U of T’s first team play. At some point I would like to go watch The Maple Leafs, Toronto’s Ice Hockey team play. Overall this change of culture was great because I learnt lots about sports I previously knew very little about such as Baseball and Ice Hockey. One other popular activity in Toronto is ice skating and there are a number of places in the city where you can try it such as Nathan Phillips Square and downtown by The Harbour Front. Unfortunately I did not manage to go before leaving for Christmas but I look forward to giving it a go when I come back in January!

An image from the viewpoint of an audience member watching a baseball game.

The exchange student page on Facebook is really helpful and there is always posts from other exchange students regarding events and interesting things to do in Toronto. I found this very helpful because it informed me of countless opportunities to meet up and socialize with other exchange students which I took full advantage of. With all these events going on I was busy the majority of the time which was great as I was never bored or lonely. The Facebook page alerted me of an Exchange Student Soccer Team which I joined and had great fun playing in. Social media also informed me of Nuit Blanche, a hugely popular yearly art festival in downtown Toronto which I was lucky enough to experience with lots of other exchange students.