Abroad

Third or fourth time’s a charm

I arrived in Shanghai for the beginning of the second year of my master’s last week. I landed and met a friend from Paris, everything went incredibly smoothly. The first day we shopped for essentials, the second day we set up bank accounts and bought bikes and SIM cards, the third I collapsed into bed with a fever. Lesson learned: rest a little when you arrive in a new country with a vastly different climate from your own. After a couple of days of recuperation, I was back to life again, though, so all was well.

For the past week there has been at least one administrative task to fulfil each day. Most have been simple, but the hard part is the queueing. One hour for the student card, one hour for course registration… I almost always need a little lie down once back in my room before being ready to even think about socialising with new or old friends. Luckily socialising with my Paris friends usually involves food so I have motivation to drag myself back out the door.

Whilst most administrative tasks have been easy, a couple have made me sweat. Firstly, in the first days I decided to put off buying a Wi-Fi pass. When I eventually decided to get one, the shop in my halls had sold out and sent me to the Unicom shop on campus. I went there to find it closed and was told to come back the next day. I went back the next day and was told they had run out. The following day I went again and was told ‘tomorrow, come in the morning’. So the following day I got up at 8am and joined a queue of at least 100 people. After a two-hour wait with my French friend, during which we got to know two Belgian girls, took turns going to buy fresh juice, getting an umbrella to shield us from the scorching sun, and running back to the dorms to satisfy the document requirements people around us were mentioning, we finally made it. They took our details and told us to come back later. I had to lie down in my room for a couple of hours to recover from the heat, and sure enough when I went back later my Wi-Fi pass was waiting for me. Thus a task that took my friends all of five minutes at the shop in our halls consumed a good five hours of my life with a lot of going back and forth. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Secondly, the medical check. Our predecessors had given us some tips on this important administrative task. Here in China, students staying for more than six months need a full medical check in order to apply for a residence permit to replace their 30-day entry visa. I was given an appointment which would have really pushed me for time in getting the results in order to go to the police and apply for my residence permit before my visa expired. This was also the case for some of my friends, so we took our predecessors’ advice and went on the first day of appointments to see if we couldn’t get it done earlier. After one hour in the queue, someone checked our appointment dates and three of my friends were taken out of the queue. I somehow managed to get through unnoticed and obtain and fill out an application form. Although time consuming, that was the easy part. Once in the queue for the actual medical check I was told ‘no, come back next week’. I begged and was sent to the appointment room. There they told me I couldn’t change my appointment. I went back to the queue and begged again. Then I was taken to the ‘teacher’ (head nurse in charge, I guess) who walked me around for a while. We ended up back in the appointment room where the appointment lady told me again, a bit louder, that I just couldn’t change my appointment. At this point I went upstairs feeling defeated. My Dutch friend told me to stop being so British and get back down there and argue. When they reopened for the afternoon, I went back. I started chatting to a Welsh lad who heard my situation and asked if I would like him to ask in Chinese. I accepted his offer and when the lady who had already sent me away to the appointment room twice returned to her desk, he chatted and laughed with her for five minutes before casually throwing in a request to change my appointment date. Without even hesitating she took my form and changed it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At that moment the appointment lady came to the desk and asked why on earth she was changing my appointment. She reassured her that it would be fine. Suddenly, I was whisked off to the medical bus parked outside for blood tests, an x-ray, ECC, ultrasound (?!) and blood pressure checks. On my way back I bumped into the appointment lady who gave me a hearty laughed and asked ‘hao de ma?’ (all ok?).

It’s easy to get frustrated with the bureaucracy and slowness of everything here, but it’s getting easier for me to just laugh it off and accept that this is just what I’m in for for the next year. Also, while it’s exhausting to stand in a queue for two to three hours, that feeling of relief when you can finally sit down and relax is rather nice.

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Abroad

Holiday no. 1 part 2

Having found relatively cheap flights to and from Ljubljana, Slovenia, I decided to tag on a few days to my Croatia holiday to actually experience a bit of the country instead of just using it for transit. I’m really glad I did because my few solo days there were pure bliss.

I spent a couple of very warm days wandering around Ljubljana, which involved a lot of eating, sightseeing, and a fair amount of chilling out. One of the highlights for me was Odprta Kuhna (Open Kitchen), a weekly street food event in the city centre which gathers a selection of chefs from different restaurants across Ljubljana to create small, affordable dishes. I had some salmon wrapped in crispy kadaif noodles and a rather decadent pancake thing.

Whilst if I had been with friends I could have quite happily spent the weekend eating and drinking my way around the city, it actually starts to get boring when you’re alone. I tend to slightly overfill my solo holiday plans so that I have to skip certain things rather than have to kill time.

I took off on a bus to Lake Bled early one morning where I quickly found myself a bike rental and cycled off in the other direction (with a purpose!). After getting a bit lost and very sweaty, I eventually got to Vintgar Gorge. It was worth the sweaty cycle in the morning sun: still early enough that the bus-loads of tourists hadn’t yet arrived, there was a cool breeze and the light was peeking through the trees to make the water glitter. It was beautiful.

One stunning sight wasn’t enough for the day, so I cycled back to the lake (again getting a bit lost amongst the houses) and went all the way around with a few breaks for photos and incredible cream cake at a tea room on stilts up on a hill. What a view.

I felt accomplished having seen everything I wanted to see by 3pm and only getting caught in one crazy rain shower. The whole day reminded me of places I’ve seen in Japan: Vintgar Gorge reminded me of Odamiyama, which was a half an hour drive from my home in Ehime, and Lake Bled reminded me of Lake Toya in Hokkaido. I cycled around that lake too (though Toya was much bigger) on my first solo trip in Japan and I felt nostalgic but strangely happy to have a similar experience in Europe.

On my last full day I woke up at 6am (hayfever…) and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was curious about the Slovenian architect Plecnik after seeing the market building and a few bridges designed by him in the city, and some iPhone-based research made me enthusiastic to go on a search for some of his slightly less-visited buildings. I found a church south of Ljubljana and set my sights on that. I hopped on a bus at around 7am, where I found out that I should have a pre-paid bus card. The driver let me off this time and said that I could find a machine at most bus stops to buy one. I thanked him, and got off near the church. Of course, it was still ridiculously early so it was closed. I wandered around outside and was shortly after chased away by an angry cat.

Having made a furry enemy I went on my way and in search of a bus stop with a ticket machine. Thirty minutes later I was starting to lose hope and my skin was starting to burn. Then the same bus and the same driver approached. I gestured to show my despair and he laughed and let me on again. The passengers gave me funny looks but I was too happy to care. These experiences and the rest of my time in Ljubljana have left me feeling very fond of Slovenia. I’d like to go with my family next time and rent a car to see the mountains and castles. Plans plans plans.

 

 

Abroad

Happy things and holiday no. 1

This week marks two months since I left Paris. Exams already seem a lifetime ago. In the past month I’ve had plenty of good news: I passed all of my exams (with a good mark in the subject which baffled me all year) and I was granted a scholarship for my studies in Shanghai. Unless something daft happens between now and September (you never know…) I will be a very happy student with a room on campus!

Time has flown since I left Paris. I miss the city but it’s nice to be home. I spent most days of the first month jogging in the morning, reading in the afternoon, and eating all the time. Unfortunately the eating habit was unsustainable so now I’ve cut down to smoothies and salads, but luckily such things have seemed appropriate in the warm spell we’ve been having.

I say that I’ve been home for two months, but nearly half of that has been spent elsewhere. I visited three of my friends from Paris in their home country Croatia. It was a wonderful experience to see a new country with the best tour guides. We started off in Zagreb, which is a small capital city (Croatia is a small country after all) but has character and is quirky. IMG_0002 (2)

I enjoyed my friends’ tour of Austro-Hungarian architecture, though my favourite spot in the city was Tkalčićeva Street, which was unbelievably crowded with football fans as Croatia was playing Portugal in the Euros on my first night there.

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Other highlights included the Museum of Broken Relationships which had us absorbed in people from all over the world’s heart-wrenching stories (there were some funny ones too) which accompany an object of their choosing.

After that emotional rollercoaster, I tried out being a lone protester in St Mark’s Square:

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The referendum result was still fresh in my mind on that day, so let’s say I was calling for Europe to hold me.

In the following days, we took a bus down to Rijeka to meet another good friend, who drove us down the Istrian peninsula to see the gorgeous town of Rovinj. We wandered around in the sun, explored the narrow, winding streets, gazed at the yachts and even took a quick dip in the sea.

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From there we went on to the island of Krk for a few days. A lot more swimming followed, as well as coffee-drinking, sun bathing and a bit of exploring. One day, we went to Vrbnik where we got lost in yet more narrow streets, and came across the narrowest street in the world. On the way back to my friend’s appartment, we stopped in Krk town where we watched the sun set in the harbour. The rest of the time was mostly spent relaxing.

Before we said our farewells, we explored Rijeka and found the coolest coffee bar ever for our morning coffee in Rijeka Castle which is on top of a huge hill with a great view.

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In sum, a great first taste of Croatia! Next time I’d like to go to the other end of the country to see my other friend’s hometown of Split and to visit Dubrovnik. We’ve already started making plans for next summer so I’ll start saving my pennies.

Abroad

Finding a balance

WordPress kindly informed me on Saturday that I created my account three years ago. I feel like we’ve been through quite a journey, my blog and I. Thank you, my lovely readers (shout out to Aunty Lorrie for all the encouraging comments) for checking out what I’m up to, it’s great knowing that I can share my experiences with you from anywhere in the world. I could quite easily share my experiences on Facebook or Instagram (and I do to some extent), but on WordPress there is less pressure. On Facebook, everyone sees everything whether curious or not. Writing my feelings or opinions on there would be like standing on my balcony and shouting to my neighbours across the street: they don’t want to hear it. I’m grateful that you are here reading this and I don’t have to shout.

That said, I haven’t posted much in Paris: it’s been busy and mildly overwhelming. I feel as if since leaving Japan I became a new person. In a way, Japan was a pause in my career, during which I took a very necessary step back to throw myself into something new and smooth out some of the kinks in my personality (I matured a lot in those two years). Starting my master wasn’t a matter of resuming where I left off, but starting something new. Having taken a break from studying made me realise that studying doesn’t have to take over your life, so my new studies in a new subject aren’t the only thing that define the ‘new’ me. I have learned to step back from studying. Although it is enriching, I have finally realised that it has to be balanced with other aspects of life that are equally as important.

Being back in Europe has allowed me to see my parents more often, and it made me realise how much I missed them when I was in Japan. I can see the difference between me and some of my younger friends on this issue: for me, going home is a joy and not a necessity. I call my parents more than I did in Japan. Part of this has been the phone contract that gives me free calls to landlines, but also because I want to chat and stay in the loop.

I’ve also realised how important it is to balance my studies with real leisure time, not only vegging out on the sofa with Netflix. I spend a lot of time cooking with my housemate for fun, which is my go-to way to relax. I have also tried to be more active this year: I’m dancing salsa occasionally at a few different salsa clubs around the city. I have been indoor rock climbing since January, having one day woken up and decided to pick up where I left off three years ago, making some friends in the process. I have also been swimming (you may not know that I only learned to swim a few years ago – just last month I finally “mastered” the front crawl). It helps that my favourite swimming pool is in Belleville, Paris’ second Chinatown, where I can indulge in bubble tea or Vietnamese pho after a swimming session. You might have guessed that I’ve also gained some weight this year, but I’m trying to keep it under control with occasional jogging in addition to all of the above.

I think that I’ve taken as much from my various hobbies, where I created a little world outside of my university, as I have from my studies. One thing I learned from leisure time is that I have a connection with this place, but I am increasingly realising that I can make anywhere my home. That said, I still need regular trips back to Kent to keep me feeling happy and connected.

Abroad

Master 1 almost done

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I felt a little sad this evening as I emailed my final essay of the year to a professor. In just two weeks, I will also have finished my exams. I cannot quite grasp the fact that the first year of my graduate studies are already almost over. Like most of my experiences in the past three years, it has flown past. Of course, a university year is actually less than nine months, but I still cannot believe that I have been studying in Paris for that long.

When people ask me my impressions of this year, I generally answer that I have learned a lot. This is an understatement. I feel like this year has been a crash course in everything I did not realise I did not know. I have learned so much about Europe, the EU, politics, sociology and history. I would not say that this year has been a typical post-graduate experience. In France a master’s is two years rather than one, so of course the structure is different. I have not done post-graduate studies in the UK, but I get the impression that in France the first year is extremely broad in content. This year I was studying European Affairs, yet I studied everything from the formation of nation states to how to run a linear regression in statistics software. I would not say that this is 100% a positive aspect of the French system, because in order to feel I was going deep enough into each subject I had to complete exhaust myself daily for months on end (and my friends experienced the same). For most people, the second year will involve a semester of more specialised studies followed by a final semester doing an internship, an exchange abroad or writing a thesis. I am on a special programme (a dual degree), meaning that I technically finish my master’s this year and start another next year (in China).

I am really sad to leave my university in Paris. Firstly, I have had the privilege of being surrounded by confident, smart and open-minded people (most of the time) every day. I have absorbed so much information just by listening and talking to my peers. Of course, I have also met some truly arrogant people, but they are in the minority. Studying European Affairs meant that in our relatively small cohort (roughly 150 students) there were more than 20 nationalities. My friend group was so diverse that often I would find myself out for dinner with a Croatian, an Austrian, an Italian, a Japanese, a French, and a German, and it did not feel strange in the slightest. I think I learned as much from them as I did from my professors.

Secondly, most of my classes were taught by professors at the top of their fields and professionals from the EU institutions. I studied for my undergraduate in a fairly small department, with well-reputed but relatively low-profile professors, so to be taught by the professors who are quoted thousands of times feels mildly prestigious, and being taught EU law by lawyers who worked on some of the big cases in the textbooks is quite thrilling.

It has not all been perfect, I admit. The French lecturers’ teaching style sometimes made me feel like I was back at school. I did not feel that I could go for a coffee and chat with a professor, which I think should be normal at post-graduate level. But then how could it be when the Paris campus of my university has several thousand post-graduates? I think that this will be different at my university in China, but we will see.

This year has had its ups and downs. At times I felt like I knew nothing and that I did not deserve to be here. But I usually just had to remind myself that I am very lucky to be studying at one of the best universities in France, and that I have had an incredible opportunity to make a drastic path change in my student career which has been great. Next year will most likely be a rollercoaster for very different reasons, but at least I know that I am going into it more confident and more enthusiastic after this stimulating year.

Abroad

New Year’s Resolution

As I opened up my laptop and wondered what I could blog about this evening, I absentmindedly squeezed a tube of hand cream. I opened the cap and a little more than I expected came out. Earlier I had found that squeezing it differently shifted some air around and helped the hand cream to go back in. Nope, it kept coming. By this point, I had enough hand cream for six hands. I stared at it in disbelief and wondered what to do. Should I run next door and offer my housemate some hand cream? No, I’m ill, she wouldn’t want anything that could have been in contact with my hands. Reluctantly, I put it into my palm and replaced the cap before it could get any worse. While I desperately tried to apply the hand cream from my finger tips to my elbows, I realised that this was very like me, creating an awkward situation for myself, then freezing, flailing and making it worse, and finally doing something about it.

When I arrived in Japan and the initial euphoria wore off, I spent hours wailing that I couldn’t handle it. It took me months to realise that my problems wouldn’t solve themselves, and that only I could take control of my success or failure in my new environment. Sure, I didn’t think it through when I decided to go to Japan. It was too abstract for me to realise what kind of a challenge it would really be, but rather than embracing the challenges I faced when I arrived, I tried to hide from them. Luckily I had friends to wake me up from my stupor in time for me to decide to stay for another year and start doing it as I should have from the start.

I repeated that process when I applied for my masters in Paris. I loved the idea of being a student again, but once the initial excitement at the start of the semester wore off, I was terrified. I completely flunked one mid-term exam, making me panic and nearly shut down completely. I was so disappointed in myself that it took me several weeks feeling like a failure to finally realise that all I had to do was keep trying. I started to work hard again and things got easier. I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think I’m doing alright now.

Stress is usually a consequence of a challenge. A challenge (when directly or indirectly self-made) is generally something exciting. Too often, however, I let it overwhelm me and don’t give myself a chance to enjoy the adrenaline it produces. I repeatedly tell myself that I’ve made a wrong decision and should have opted for something easier.

I am far from solving this flaw of mine, but I have some hope: last semester I did panic and slip, but I picked myself up and dusted myself off without anyone’s help. Challenges are important and necessary for self-development, they shouldn’t be avoided, but I’m coming to learn that they shouldn’t be terrifying either (scary, yes, but not terrifying).

How I got here from over-squeezing a tube of hand cream, I’m not sure, but my well-moisturised elbows tell me that I will always face challenges. When I create a challenge for myself, rather than desperately trying to run from it or getting other people to help me, I need to just face up to whatever it is, and maybe even enjoy it (I’m not just talking about smooth elbows). In all seriousness, I have never faced any hardship in my life, and all of my ‘struggles’ have been self-created, solvable and potentially enjoyable. So here’s my resolution for 2016: stop being silly and over-reacting, start thriving on opportunities and be grateful for them. I have a lot of challenges ahead of me this year, including a second semester here in Paris, hopefully a summer in an all new environment if I manage to find an internship, and then my first semester in China. I hope you won’t see me in a heap on the floor telling myself that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew again, but if you do, please remind me that this should be the fun part and that my carefree twenties will be over before I know it, so I’d better start enjoying them.

Abroad

I’m not writing about terrorism

I feel that I should clarify before I even start: this isn’t about terrorism. Social media are currently buzzing with a limited number of intelligent analyses and an awful lot of ill-informed, judgemental, narrow-minded commentary on the Paris attacks. I have nothing to add to the noise.

I sat down twice at the beginning of last week to write a blog post about my life in Paris. Both times I got half way through a post and gave up because I didn’t know what kind of point I was trying to make, or what I really wanted to say about this city.

Both posts were full of little aspects of Paris that make me love living here. Almost none of those things entered my mind when I sat at my work desk in Japan, chewing my pen and trying to decide where to take myself next, but I discarded those posts last week because I felt like the only things I could come up with were small and insignificant.

I wrote about people on the metro going to work coiffed and dressed like models in magazines, whether aged twenty or fifty. The people I see on my way home every day, sitting outside the cafés and bars, drinking a beer and smoking, 100% absorbed in conversation. The people in those bars and outside my university who lean against the counter or the wall and light up their cigarettes (when outside) and complain about everything and anything with their friends, but clearly enjoy doing so. The families and elderly people who occupy the park benches when the sun shines, but sure as hell wouldn’t shuffle over to make a space for me. The barristas in the hundreds of cafés who rarely make small talk but do make me wonderful coffee every time.

Paris is full of fascinating history, beautiful architecture, museums galore, tourists even more, great shopping, AMAZING food, sometimes even some sunshine… But what makes Paris special is the people. They’ve got attitude, they love to complain, they don’t give a damn, and they love life. They love the little pleasures. Like enjoying a Friday night outside a bar with their friends, or enjoying some live music. Last Friday made me realise that these little things are far from insignificant.

And that’s one of the many reasons that last Friday made me deeply, deeply sad. Yes, this is terrorism. No, these acts of terrorism aren’t a French issue, they are a European issue or perhaps even an international issue. We’re worried, we’re scared for Europe. We’re curious about how the next weeks and months will unfold. But I’m not here to talk about that.

Those attacks didn’t touch me directly but they hit me on an emotional level. Every day this week, I’ve found myself crying for Paris. I don’t walk outside fearing for my life, but I feel heartache. The innocent people who lost their lives are in my heart, and I am thinking of them, but I’m also mourning for what those young Parisians represent.

I didn’t expect to particularly like Paris. I definitely didn’t expect to love Paris. And never did I imagine that Paris would become a part of me, but last Friday made me realise that after just three months, it already has.