Elephant and Castle

17 Oct

Welcome to The Elephant’s travel section, in conjunction with Lost in Translation every Tuesday at 5pm on STAR. Each week we interview a guest and for this issue it’s all been about Erasmus. Happy reading!

1) A bittersweet year – Toby Burton

Verona

I went into my degree knowing that I would eventually have to live abroad for a year. It wasn’t an idea I was fond of but at the time it seemed so far away that I felt I could just sit back and enjoy the first two years of my university career and not worry about it. Next thing I knew I was standing on a busy street in Verona with two enormous suitcases, telephoning a man I knew only as Igor trying to get keys to my new home.

The year that followed was a series of similarly strange and confusing incidents interwoven with some of the most enjoyable moments of my life so far. My emotions fluctuated from elation to despair. I fell in love with Verona and made wonderful new friends but I struggled with challenging exams and acute homesickness. It is, therefore, difficult for me to make a final judgement on it all. I feel a definite affinity with both the city and Italy but at the same time the very thought of it fills me with dread. It’s a very confusing emotion!

However, with the power of hindsight I think that all the bad times were worth it when I think of everything I got out of it. I’ll remember the good times for much longer.

2) Living cliches in Paris – Rachel Hanretty

Paris

Before beginning on a brief rendition of the best year in my life, I must state solemnly that the first few weeks of being in Paris in September of last year were horrible. Without friends and family, finding accommodation in one of the world’s most admired cities was horrific and emotional, not to mention painstakingly expensive. I ended up paying €690 for 12m² which, to put it into perspective, meant that while sitting on my toilet (which had nothing but a wall divider on wheels to separate it from the rest of my studette) I could stir my pasta on the two hot plates on the kitchen work surface. I had a fold down bed and no wardrobe. But every night the light shining from the Tour Eiffel would play peek-a-boo behind buildings which formed the view from my seventh floor window. And every night it was magical.

I experienced so many wonderful moments. I drank and wrote words in homage of Hemingway at the Ritz (€30 a drink!), my senses were overwhelmed on a daily basis with the smells from the bakeries; I drank red wine as the sun set over the Seine and spent Friday nights dancing to Serge Gainsbourg in an ancient cavernous club. The list could go on but it only becomes a form of self-torture as I try to recapture it here. Sallies tower isn’t exactly Notre Dame, now is it?

Padova

3) NAME: Fiona Lindley

OCCUPATION: Spritz Enthusiast, Worshipper of GROM, student (in that order!)

MY YEAR ABROAD: I spent the last year in Padova, a small but beautiful town in North-East Italy. Outside of classes I spent most of my time drinking espresso, eating obscene amounts of pizza, learning how to talk with my hands, or sitting in the main piazza chatting to friends with a Spritz in hand!

HIGHLIGHTS: I have so many amazing memories to choose from, but I would say my top 3 include: seeing Michael Buble in concert in the world-famous Verona Arena, spending a weekend by the sea in the region of Puglia, and bringing Christmas spirit to Venice alongside other St Andrews students by riding around in a gondola wearing huge reindeer antlers!

FINAL THOUGHTS: Dolmio adverts and ridiculous Super Mario stereotypes aside, I highly recommend to everyone to get out and experience the Italian way of life: the beautiful cities, wonderful people, incredible food and astounding sense of culture meant that I had an unforgettable year.

4) In fair Verona, where we lay our scene – Hannah Brownlow

Verona

What’s in a year abroad? That which we call a year abroad would surely be just another year at university (only in a different country).

I don’t think it’s possible to get something more wrong. Amid the trials, the bureaucracy, the language barrier, the cultural differences, the extreme weather conditions, and the complete abandonment, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself more. It sounds paradoxical, and to be honest, it is: my toughest year at university was my best year.

To roll out a cliché for good measure, the best way of describing it is to liken it to one of Gardaland’s rollercoasters. For every moment where I wanted to sit and weep, there was a moment where I could run round Verona wielding a lightsaber in an epic Star Wars remake. For every moment that I was surrounded in a pile of notes on Italy’s Arcadia movement, with little clarity regarding the content or, for that matter, the worth of what I was reading, there was an excursion planned over to one of Italy’s exquisite cities.

Ironically, I think it was the rough times that made my year what it was; bad times make you enjoy the good times even more because you don’t take advantage of them. And do you know what the hardest part has been? Well, let me tell you – it’s been coming back.

5) Laura Donoghue

Madrid

To describe my time in Madrid I could talk about the culture, from the heights of the Prado to the incredible street art in Chueca. I could talk about the amazing sunny afternoons spent picnic-ing and having ice creams in the Retiro, or the lazy Sundays spent wandering around the Rastro and la Latina in search of cañas and tapas.
These experiences are unforgettable, and the people I shared them with have become some of my closet friends, but what has irrevocably changed me during my time there was getting involved with communities. I worked in a bilingual school in a deprived area and could literally see the effect I had on those children’s education, and working with an NGO helping homeless people in the city centre really changed my perspective.

6) Ailsa May

Padova

In typical Italian style, my Erasmus year in Padua started off as what can only be described as a shambles: after being in denial about leaving the safety net of the “bubble”, I left the UK with no accommodation sorted and no real idea of what I was going to do when I arrived, particularly with my poor knowledge of Italian. A few tearful phone calls home, hours waiting in queues, and many frustrating Italian-glish conversations later, I found myself an apartment, enrolled in the university and was ready to settle in.

Living with 3 Italian students I was lucky enough to be immersed immediately into the Italian university culture and loved every minute. The sense of “community” amongst the students in Padua is incredibly strong and the Wednesday nights in the piazzas provided a catalyst for the development of great friendships.

There was also the opportunity to meet other Erasmus students as a huge range of events were organised and there was something going on every day. To sum up, I have to say that with various beach, city and themepark trips, classes, coffee addiction and many a hearty pizza I was not bored for a second and it is an experience I would definitely recommend!

7) Lauren Allen

Stuttgart

I spent my year abroad working as an English Language Assistant in a Gesamtschule in Freiberg am Neckar, not far away from Stuttgart in South Germany. It’s really hard to sum up the whole experience in just a few words… It definitely had its ups and downs and taught me a lot, not only about Germany, but also about myself. I loved having the opportunity to go to a German church, meet new friends, go travelling around the country at weekends, experience the Christmas markets, and encourage my pupils to have fun speaking English. Doing a year abroad really gave me the push I needed to get out there and start speaking German with confidence, even when you’re doing it with a really strong Northern Irish accent! One time while I was in Germany I was asked by an Asian girl if I was foreign after only saying “hallo” to her… things could’ve only got better from there! During my eight months abroad I realised Germany is actually a very beautiful country with great people and there’s a whole lot more to it than sausages and beer…

8) A few tips for the Erasmus year abroad – Lucinda Richardson

Erasmus

The prospect of living abroad can be slightly unnerving, and many approach the term of Erasmus with apprehension, however, don’t be afraid! The Erasmus year is an incredible experience, enhancing not only your language skills and general understanding of different cultures but it is also a great introduction for those thinking about living in a different country, and for some a different continent, in the future.

Settling in to a different country can take time but here are a few tips to help:

Firstly, choose your flat before you arrive! It may sound obvious but it can be all too tempting to postpone the ordeal until the summer holidays have passed and it’s time for your Erasmus to start. Online estate agents and local newspapers are a good way to begin the search, but it’s also a good idea to visit the flats in advance and meet the people you’ll be sharing with. Also, look out for adverts in flat windows, many people place adverts in windows to avoid estate agents’ fees.

If you think you’re going to be a bit overwhelmed by things, flying out to the country in advance gives you time to locate all your basic necessities (nearest metro, supermarkets, pharmacy, hospital, post office), without having to squeeze in the time when you’re working.

Lastly, enjoy your time there as much as you can! The year is a fantastic opportunity to completely immerse yourself within a different culture. Classes and clubs are a great way to meet people and there are often posters placed around the local university advertising what’s on and when, so there is no excuse not to get involved!

9) RussGeogAnglia – Anonymous

Sitting in a basement restaurant in London this summer I finally worked out what it was all for: what reason had already motivated me to get through 4 years, 1 of them with in bitter cold, with a plethora of documents close to my heart at all times. 4 years of language lectures, confused conversation in oral class, slightly awkward society meetings where everyone wants to speak English apart from you. It was and is all about people.

Culture is not something that one can experience alone. It exists only through the people who take part in it. To be a tourist can be a somewhat repetitive and unfulfilling experience, never getting more than short speeches in English (which is slightly confusing at the best of times). But to communicate in another’s language is to really learn, and to connect. It’s not a snub to the fellow speakers of the native language, but rather the expression of a desire to know as much of the human experience as possible, from the tragic, to the humorous and the tasty.

I had stumbled into this place in a somewhat unusual manor, sadly the details of which are not my own. The waiters were at first shy, but it’s amazing what a little burst of native language can achieve. “What, you know Russian? It’s my second native language!” And all at once the facial expression changes from one of glazed indifference to warmth. By knowing some of their language, you gain a chance to know their experience, to be able connect with their thoughts on a more meaningfully level. Not just looking in on a culture but sharing in it. And of course then, on a practical level, you get directed to the best possible parts of the menu and the best (but not most expensive) wines. Molten cheese in a soft bread bowl, red wine, (good value for being from a war zone) traditional music, and best of all I could meaningfully express how much I liked it. A year abroad needn’t be the end of your cultural connection, you’d be surprised how many people will appreciate your time and effort.

* * *

Leningradskii Vokzal

Leningradskii vokzal. 11pm. Dark. Raining. We’ve just settled into our cabin and are waiting somewhat apprehensively for the other two berths to be filled. Two women come in, I know my Russian to be defective in some areas but I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. They asked us which beds we wanted and were delighted to find out we were British. One lady was escorting the other to check she wasn’t sharing with the murderous hooligans, who are apparently numerous on trains. Turns out they were from Dagestan, so we have ‘the conversation’. Yes, studying Russian!

An hour passes, we’ve all finished our cup-a-soup out of the famous railway company metal glass holders, the type which mysteriously turn up in almost everyone’s houses and we begin to talk again. Being the wife of Dagestanian police officer is not easy. She talks of her fears for her land, how she watches order break down daily but how her duty is to the people there. How rebels have already shot at her husbands car. She could leave, but she won’t. Her husband can’t join her –he’s in the appointed period of mourning for his dead mother. She opens up completely, though we do not know her, and we are comfort – listeners in a difficult time. She’s on her way to Petersburg for treatment. She tells of her struggle to have children, and her desire to adopt. She’s passionate, she’s wonderful and in that little box rumbling through Russia she’s the most important person in the world. It was hard to say good bye in the morning – hard to know her, and know that I would never see her again. We arrived in the bright grey light that Petersburg does so well, the whole thing seemed like a dream, and thus we went our separate ways having shared a profound human connection.

10) Frenching – Charlotte Coulthard

Lyon

And so it begins, 7 months teaching French primary school children English in Lyon, the long-awaited year abroad. The reality that I was going finally began to set in when Freshers week arrived and a pang of jealousy hit me as I sat at home in Norfolk seeing all my friends head back to the Bubble, but this quickly dissipated as I packed my life into a smelly old rucksack and set off for London and the Eurostar, final destination Lyon.

Lyon is a beautiful old city; two amphitheatres mark the remains of its past as Lugdunum (the hill of the lights), the Roman capital of Gaul and most of the centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with tiny, winding streets and beautiful renaissance buildings bordered by the confluence of the Rivers Rhone and Saone.

My first week flew by in a blur of estate agents, flat viewings, meeting potential flat mates and generally exploring a big city. The stereotype of French bureaucracy has been fulfilled and surpassed in almost everything I have done out here, flat hunting, working, opening a bank account, getting a doctor, even buying a coat required my address. It is mad. The nightlife here is fairly chilled and as with most European cities, nobody goes out until about 1am, which means the bar and café culture in the evening is reminiscent of St Andrews, it’s just a lot warmer. People spill out of cafes onto the streets and the boat bars along the river banks are always full.

This laid back and yet strikingly fashionable city seems to encompass all that is associated with big city and rural aspects of French culture. As the self proclaimed gastronomic capital of France, the weekly markets in every arrondissement are a fantastic spectacle, glimmering with bright colours, a huge variety of meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables and so much more, in particular those which run along the Quais and merge into the antiques and art markets, where the air rings with the loud hustle and bustle of sales. This combined with the French love for fashion, which is so apparent in every generation, creates the cosmopolitan feel and excitement of a thriving city which is very strongly attached to its heritage and culture.

I have been doing some au pair work picking up two boys, 5 and 8 after school and waiting with the mothers is fascinating. The pavement outside school serves as a catwalk where these 30 year old yummy mummies totter along in sky scraper stilettos, immaculately dressed in the latest designer outfit and made up with not a hair out of place. They then proceed to watch with a wonderful indifference, which only the French seem able to achieve, as their children roll around in the mud of the park by the school, screaming, footballs flying everywhere. It is a totally incongruous image that seems to sum up France so well.

My teaching work starts next week, although the forecast is fairly strike-heavy, the pensions battle continues, so whether or not I will start is anyone’s guess. The longer I spend here the more I love the way of life and the city. Life as a language assistant is fairly relaxed and although we do have teaching and work to do, it is essentially speaking in English, which until now I had never really considered as an asset. It seems almost too good to be true to be earning money, whilst still reaping all the benefits of being a student, living in another country, simply by using a skill you have always taken for granted.

11) Thursday Island – Malcolm Canvin

Thursday Island

Have you considered a trip to Thursday Island? Why not? Could it be you don’t enjoy warm beaches? Or maybe the luscious palms put you off? Perhaps you dislike the welcoming locals? Well maybe it is the more likely reason; that you have never heard of Thursday Island. You are not alone.

Indeed I had never heard of Thursday Island when, on a humid afternoon we anchored in the shelter provided by the close proximity of its sparsely populated neighbour Horn Island. Thursday Island lies in that corridor of water between the Cape York Peninsula of Australia and Papua New Guinea, and is one of the Torres Straits Islands that run like stepping stones between the two larger landmasses. I was sailing around Australia with friends, and it was precisely to see places like this that I had come. On the natural side of things, Thursday Island is the epitome of a tropical paradise. The long sands give way to the dense forest up the hilly banks, broken by dilapidated run-ways, relics of the WWII air bases that occupied the Island. This environment is full of colourful birds and threatening insects, the beaches and mangroves sprinkled with salt-water crocodiles, providing that curious mix of aesthetically pleasing and yet incredibly dangerous ecology, typical of these parts. We experienced this first hand with a species of biting ants, who build their nests in trees by sticking leaves together, leaving long strands hanging down from them, that when tugged, trigger the nest to fall and release ants all over the poor sod beneath. In our case, the poor sod was just a stick, handled by our voluntary guide, John, the owner of a pub. We had met him our first day, as in early evening, we strolled into his establishment for some beers and dinner. Being the only customers there, he was so friendly and welcoming that naturally we jumped at his offer to drive us around and show off his home. John, as a white man originally from Adelaide, was a reminder of the fact that despite the awe-inspiring nature around us, it’s Thursday Island’s people that make it so interesting.

An Australian island in the political sense, culturally it could not be farther from Sydney or Melbourne. Due to its position a great mixing of peoples happened here. The original Melanesian inhabitants remain in large numbers, and Creole is still spoken as widely as English. But don’t be deceived, colonialism has influence even here. With a population of around 2,500 it is easy to see the diversity. Also present are many whites and a large contingent of Aboriginals, moved there by the government (which John did not seem pleased about). The township proper takes up a large area of the 3.5 km2 island and all the above-mentioned people live in quaint bungalows arranged on the hillsides overlooking the harbour. Ships are big business here, and local pilots are needed to navigate through these treacherous waterways. Fishing remains too, and the locals still catch barramundi, which make excellent fish and chips, I can attest. There are schools, markets and many stores selling a valuable local product, pearls. We found several bars and one or two restaurants, even a hotel. It was the kind of quiet, peaceful place one could retire to, but I assume the youths of the island must clamber for entertainment. There are brilliant beaches and several nice hikes up in the hills, which we partook of the second day we were there, but swimming means danger due to jelly-fish. Tourism has not come in force to the island, perhaps due to how remote it is, but I am sure the locals would welcome more tourists, and with some development, it would be a fantastic destination. I was told Somerset Maugham used to frequent the island, to get a break from the world and write. Peace and quiet seem to be the things this place offers in spades.

So now if someone asks you if they should go to Thursday Island, well you can at least tell them where it is, I shall let you decide whether it is worth the trip.

12) L’Alliance St Andrews-Loches – John Matthews, Chairman St Andrews-Loches Alliance

Loches

La ville française de Loches a toujours été attirée par le jumelage avec une ville médiévale écossaise. Située à 40 km au sud de Tours, elle est entourée d’un paysage mixte, tantôt forestier, tantôt agricole. La ville, un peu plus petite que St Andrews, est dominée par la cité médiévale avec ses remparts impressionnants, un grand donjon, l’église de St Ours et un petit château (le logis royal). Autour de la cité médiévale se trouvent d’élégantes habitations du 17ème siècle.

Saint Andrews, bien que réticente à l’idée d’un jumelage « classique », a accueilli voilà quinze ans l’idée d’une Alliance Loches-St Andrews, qui offre une structure pour les activités collaboratives entre les deux villes. Pendant les premières années, « La Nouvelle Alliance Loches-St Andrews » a appuyé plusieurs échanges sportifs et culturels, tels des matches de rugby et de football, une exposition des tableaux de Lansyer à St Andrews, des expositions de tableaux et photos écossais à Loches et toute une série d’événements musicaux.

Finalement, le 30 septembre 2006, au lieu d’un jumelage, un « Accord de Partenariat Culturel » a été signé. Ces dernières années, les échanges continuent malgré quelques problèmes posés par la pénurie de logements bon marché à St Andrews, afin d’accueillir les visiteurs lochois, particulièrement les jeunes. Pour sa part, Loches vient de moderniser le Centre Maurice Aquilon dont les chambres ne dépassent pas les 20€ par nuit. De jeunes golfeurs lochois ont visité St Andrews deux fois (en 2008 et 2009) en tant qu’invités des membres de l’Alliance et chaque année se lient de nouvelles amitiés.

Cette année, pendant la première semaine de Juin, 30 membres de l’Orchestre Symphonique de notre université ont passé une semaine fabuleuse avec nos amis français. Ils ont donné trois concerts – au Château de Nitray (près de Tours), dans l’Espace Agnes Sorel (la plus grande salle de concert de Loches) et en plein air à l’ombre de l’énorme donjon de la cité médiévale. Un soir, ils ont même pris la forme d’un groupe de ceilidh, d’une qualité remarquable. Depuis quinze ans, de nombreuses amitiés se sont formées, et les jeunes semblent aujourd’hui prendre la relève avec un entrain prometteur.

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