29 May 2013

Accommodation on your year abroad.

If you're a first time Erasmus-er (like I was) and haven't traveled anywhere particularly extravagant yet (like I hadn't/still haven't) then you might be feeling a little bit nervous and overwhelmed on the accommodation-front. You can read my blog post from July last year here, where I talk about stressing myself over finding somewhere to live and offer a few handy websites to aid you in your quest to find some quintessentially European sleeping quarters.

So, since I've come a long way since then (I wouldn't say boo to a goose about a year ago and now I feel like I can accomplish a lot of things if I just stop worrying so much and do something to get the ball rolling) I thought I'd compile a list of my top advice and, since France and Spain are very different countries, do another comparison table! Yay!

Issue France Spain
Searching for Accommodation
I would recommend searching online as much as possible before you leave for what you can rent in France. On most of the websites I listed in the blog post mentioned above, there are things called collocations. This basically just means renting from a live-in landlord/lady or sharing with others who have already sorted the hassle of agency fees and are searching for another cool cat to share their crash pad with. Again, I would recommend searching online to get a general idea of what is out there before you leave because it's helpful, but the estate agents in Spain don't seem to be all that complicated so we just went straight to them and found a flat in a day. I really wouldn't worry too much about struggling to find somewhere in Spain - there are loads of empty apartments just waiting for you!
Agency Fees
I have to admit I don't know much about how these work because I ended up going through a private renter (using appartager.com) and because as soon as I saw how extortionate agency fees were I closed the internet tab in horror and sat with my mouth open for about five minutes afterwards. Trust me, unless you're a trust-fund kid you don't want to be doing that kind of shit; agency fees are literally thousands of euros and that is even before you've moved into your place. I did go through an estate agent to find my Spanish residence, but the fees are almost non-existent. You have to fork over the first month's rent, plus the fianza which is just a deposit that you should get back provided you don't knock any walls through (this is another first month's rent - or was for us anyway) and agency fees which, again, was another first month's rent. If you share with people, the costs will be minimal. Just make sure you don't rely on your student finance/Erasmus grant to cover you - take some savings.
The Contract
I didn't actually have to sign a contract in France, but I think that was because I had an exceptionally nice landlady who didn't want to create too many formalities. I think she wanted to make me feel as at home as possible so providing me with a big scary contract on my first day would not have been ideal. I do however know others who had to sign a contract - just make sure you read what you're signing because the French love to screw people over using the means of paperwork. You may also need a signed letter from your parents saying that they will cover the costs if something were to happen to you or your bank account, as one of my friends needed when she signed her contract. Our Spanish contract was knocked up for us in a matter of days. Even for people whose Spanish had been worn down by six months of speaking French, it was fairly easy to understand. It's not very formal and all you have to do is hand over a few signatures to say you've read it all through. The Spanish are really lovely and helpful so they won't have a problem explaining things five or six times to make sure you understand what you're signing for. Furthermore, the contracts seem a lot easier to get out of here than in England - you have no obligation to stay and any problem that arose our particular landlord or estate agent found a way around it. (I am speaking in terms of small-town estate agents here - I can't tell you what it would be like for somewhere like Barcelona or Madrid).

So with that said and done, what are my "top tips"?

  1. Look before you book - shop around a bit on some of the websites listed in my blog post mentioned at the top of this one and get a general idea of what kind of thing your money can get you. Keep all options open and look for plan B possibilities in the area (friends to stay with, hostels, couchsurfing etc.), just in case you don't have anything sorted before you go.
  2. Learn the lingo - you wouldn't sign a housing contract or any other type of contract in England (save for phone contracts because let's be honest, nobody reads all that) without knowing just what you were signing, so make sure you learn how the renting system works and look up any words you might need to know when looking for a flat.
  3. Save - have a little wad of cash (not literal - there is such a thing as internet banking these days which, if you haven't set up, do it now!) set aside specifically for rent and initial costs. It may be painful because extra student finance for your year abroad will make you feel rich, RICH I TELL YOU! But trust me, you will thank yourself later.
  4. Share - If you're not going into student halls (which my friend Gareth very bravely did) I would highly recommend sharing with either a live-in landlord/lady, somebody you already know or find a flat that is looking for an extra housemate because it will cut costs right down and you could make some friends for life like I did with my landlady in France!
  5. Communicate - The best method in getting anything done is to communicate. If you have a problem, call your landlord or estate agent (example: I put my arse through my window on Easter Sunday and went and told my landlord straight away and he was absolutely fine about it). Don't leave it until three months down the line and then tell them because they're probably going to be more annoyed that you didn't tell them (whatever it is). Honesty is the best policy.
This post now comes to you in the wake of speaking to my landlord and his wife about having to leave Spain earlier than expected. We had a few things to ask such as tying up old loose-end bills and whether we could pay less rent in our final month since we would only be there for half of it and he was fine about it. He even offered to cover our first couple of months' gas bills! I suppose this ties in with the communication point I made above. Just remember that there's no harm in asking anybody anything ever

So, in return we're going to make him and his wife some Scottish shortbread and get them a card and some flowers to say thank you (which I also did for my French landlady because she was just so lovely). I wish you the best of luck in your house hunt and hope you come across people as lovely as I did on my year abroad!

Do you have any questions? Would you like to add anything to what I've written? Let me know about your experiences with renting property abroad, I'd love to read about them!

Carey.
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20 May 2013

A relationship abroad: long-distance.

I've been on my year abroad for almost nine months now (I could have harvested a human in that time) and I haven't really posted anything about what has been the biggest feature for me; my relationship. I don't know why that is. Maybe it's because I thought people wouldn't really want to read benign ramblings about somebody else's relationship or that, since this is a travel blog, I should mainly stick to blogging about places I've been and things I've seen. But I've blogged about some other personal things before (for example here and here) and since this really is such a huge factor for me, I thought I should eventually write something about it and hopefully clarify and give advice on a few things along the way for people who are also going to be in the same situation when they take the leap and jet off on their year abroad.

Before I get into this post and start giving out any advice, I'd like to tell you a little bit about myself and Paul, my boyfriend. This is us:
The oldest of these photographs (top-left) dates back to 2009 when we'd been together for about 6 months and the newest (bottom-right) is from when Paul came to visit me in France in October. I don't have any which are more recent because out of the 45 weeks there has been since September, we've only spent six of them together so have had no time to think about getting photos of ourselves. (P.S. I don't know why I'm always on the left of him whenever we get a photo taken together. Maybe it's because he's my right-hand man? I'm sorry for yet another bad pun, I didn't even plan that one).

From the dates above you can see that we've been together for quite a while (it'll be five years in October of this year - a big one!) and we've really grown to be best friends, so for us to go from living together in the same house to being separated by hundreds of miles was quite a difficult experience. There were a few people in France who were also going through the long-distance thing so I was able to talk to them when I saw them now and again, but here in Spain I'm the only one in my situation and it certainly feels that way. People are really supportive and I'd like to thank them for that (if they're reading), but it still doesn't detract from the fact that your better half is over a thousand miles away in a different country.

So, how have we managed almost nine months apart (it'll be ten by the time I go home!) and only seeing each other for a short while every eight weeks or so? Well, it hasn't been without its lows, but here are a few tips I can offer based on my personal experiences. (Remember though, every relationship is different and you know what works best for you, so when you're reading the following points try and think about them in terms of your relationship!)

  1. Have "the talk" - it's no use being in a relationship knowing that one of you is going abroad for a semester or two and just plain ignoring that fact. Talk about it as soon as you know you will be going abroad; you're both mature adults and can handle a heart-to-heart. If you start out strong, you'll stay strong. 
  2. Plan your visits - 45 weeks apart sounds like a long time, doesn't it? I'll let you in on a secret: I only really said that for effect. Cut the big scary year up into tiny, non-terrifying, manageable chunks and you will be just fine. Like I said, Paul and I have seen each other periodically for a week or so (three at Christmas) every two months. There, it doesn't seem so bad now, does it? If you can't fully organise visits before you leave, at least try to hammer out a rough plan.
  3. Trust each other - A thousand miles between you can put bad ideas in your heads (like thinking the other is out pulling somebody new or generally just being jealous that others are spending time with them and you're not), but if you trust each other right from the outset, you won't have a problem. If you've had a bumpy past, you might have to work a bit harder, but always, always be truthful to one another.
  4. Skype a lot - Communication is key when in a long-distance relationship. Send morning texts or messages through facebook to let them know you're thinking about them and then make plans to Skype in the evenings or when you can. Just like if you were at home, if you were to stop communicating then the relationship would most likely breakdown. It is of even more importance when you're apart.
  5. Also don't Skype too much - Paul and I have been guilty of Skyping too much and ending up having four hour-long calls where we don't say much at all or end up having nothing to say to each other because we just Skyped the day before. Find a good balance; try to Skype once every couple or once every few days, it gives you a chance to miss them more. If you really can't stay away from Skype (like we can't), try watching a film or your favourite TV programme together online, or download Skype games like chess (like we did. Ahem).

When I asked Paul what his number one tip would be for doing long distance he said "just don't do it," because it is a very hard test to put yourselves through, but I think also because it's marginally harder for the person staying at home because at least you, the person going abroad, will have a lot of new experiences to take your mind off some of it (which for one minute does not make you a bad person, you just have a lot to think about when you move to a new country).

So then what would my number one piece of advice be? To quote Winston Churchill, it would probably be this:

"If you're going through hell, keep going."

This has always resonated with me in every aspect of my life, not just because my Granda Albert looks like Winston Churchill, but because I'm not the type of person who would ever let myself give up on something whether it be a project, a subject or degree choice or a relationship. I know I'd always be hard on myself for just letting myself give up so this is exactly what I do: I keep going. It doesn't matter how hard it seems at the time, if there is a goal you want to achieve and you're willing to work hard enough then there's no reason you should ever stop trying.

Looking back, I'm quite amazed but extremely proud of us because I remember how I felt when I was getting ready to leave for my year abroad; scared and anxious that we'd not make it the whole year (which is probably how you feel right now, am I right?) But I think if you follow the tips presented in this (now rather lengthy) blog post, then you'll set yourself up for success. If you ever need any questions answered from somebody who's done it all, you can hit the comment box or alternatively ask for my email and I will gladly help you.

Basically, things are never as hard as they first seem.
Carey. Follow my blog with Bloglovin'!

16 May 2013

The slightly-more-sweet-life of a student in Spain.

¡Hola todos!

I've been thinking that since I've recently only made a few posts about personal subjects including my arrival to Spain, various places I've visited since being here and a short picture post featuring my bedroom, I should probably write something with a little more substance and which may be of actual use to somebody who reads this if they happen to come across it in a year or so when they're about to begin their Erasmus experience.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you might remember the post that I made in October of last year about how I found university in France to be a little bit, let's put it politely, unorganised (it's sort of full of gripes about how chaotic the university I attended is, but if you read the post you'll understand why). I decided I wanted to do a contrast post between my experience at a French university and my experience here at a Spanish university because the two are really very different.

COMPARISONS.
Let's do a table. Everybody loves a good table

Issue France Spain
Initial Impression
If you read the post mentioned above, I think I likened the French university to Chernobyl post-disaster. It was like a labyrinth and the only means of navigation was the graffiti and political propaganda plastered throughout the decaying hallways. (That's not to say that your French host university will be like this). Big contrast to France; the building was at least standing up on its own without wire nets catching bits of falling debris. The university was so new when I arrived that parts of the library were still being built and overall it is a lot easier to find your way around. It's relatively smaller than the one in France, so that might be why.
Choosing Classes
It seems a distant memory now but I remember distinctly receiving no help whatsoever from anybody at the university. Everything was all very confusing and we had to find out ourselves where classes were held and at what time and then attend them to see if we wanted to take them or if there was enough room for us. The whole process took about three weeks. It was much the same here in Spain, but at least everything is conveniently displayed online so that you're not spending three hours a day running around a university trying to write your own timetable (I also had some friends who'd been here since September who were really helpful, which I am grateful for). Once I'd picked my subjects (which took all of about an hour), it took me a week to decide which ones I wanted to take for the semester.
Attending Classes
Once classes were chosen, attending them wasn't too bad, except some of the content was quite hard to follow at first because my ears hadn't quite adjusted to the Southern-French accent yet (especially in my Spanish class, where the teacher had a very strong Niçois accent). I picked up some interesting information about women's issues and rights in France in my French Civilisation class, which will help me for my dissertation in my final year. At first, classes here were even harder to follow because my ear had only been tuned into the sounds of Spanish for about 2 years at the time, but now I feel like I can follow about 70% of the content. I also feel that I'm getting more out of university here; my Spanish has improved tenfold and subjects such as Spanish in America and Translation are equipping me with knowledge I need for my final year at university.
The Teachers
In France, the teachers are strictly teachers. They come to teach you for a few hours that day and then they leave, they don't hang about. You'd be really lucky to receive an email reply from any of them since you're supposed to know exactly what you're doing at all times even if they don't tell you what it is you're meant to be doing. In Spain it couldn't be much different, the teachers will ask you how you're getting on with things and if you need a hand with any of the assignments and they reply promptly to any questions you send via email. I prefer Spanish teachers to French ones because they speak to you like you're an actual human being.
Degree Structure
The one thing I liked about the French university I attended was that students seemed to be able to tailor their degree to suit them. We can do that in England too, of course, but in my experience at Sunderland University, language students don't have enough of a broad choice to ensure we have individually-structured degrees, instead of seeming like we've all just fell off the same educational conveyor belt. It's much the same in Spain as it is in France; students have some core modules that they must take depending on what their main degree subject is, but there seems to be an exceptionally broad choice of options for them to take and, if I'm correct, they can even choose outside of their field of study if they wish. It seems there is a lot more freedom for tailoring your degree to your needs in mainland Europe, even though they pay a hell of a lot less for their education here. England could learn a thing or two.
Exams
Maybe this should file under "Admin" instead, but I had some issues with exams in France. Firstly, like everything else, we were expected to know when and where they were taking place without being given any such information. Secondly, if you have an exam clash it is deemed your fault, not the department's. In the end I was forced to choose between my Spanish or Catalan exam because Valerie in admin "did not see how she could help me." Other than that, exams and their content are pretty straightforward for Erasmus students. I've only sat a couple of exams and assessments here in Spain so far, but it's all a lot more relaxed than it was in France. You're not afraid to ask the teachers numerous times when and where the exam will be taking place and they'll also remind you the week beforehand, so no worries there. In some modules you can also choose between doing coursework or a final exam, so if you're not an exam person at all, like me, then Spain is the place for you (or my university is, at least).

SOME ADVICE
It is as follows:

- Practice your language(s) as much as possible before you arrive - I sort of let mine flop during the summer before I arrived in France, which was not the best of ideas. However, we are all born with a survival instinct and that definitely kicks in when you're out in a foreign country on your own.
- Arrive at your host university as prepared as you possibly can be - file, scan, copy, upload all documents that need to be filed, scanned, copied and uploaded before you arrive, so that you can prove that you've done your bit.
- Take at least twelve passport photos with you - foreign universities, especially French ones, seem to love to put a face to a name. You might also need these for bus passes, bank accounts and NIE number paperwork (for Spain).
- Don't expect everything to be presented to you on a plate - you're an Erasmus student and you don't pay fees, so the university will look after you as far as your paperwork is completed and that's about it. Just collect yourself, breathe and try to figure out with the help of your peers what you have to do next.
- Also don't be afraid to ask for help - if you know where to ask, then just keep asking. I've found that admin staff in France either pretend to not know the answer or give you a look as if to say "that's for me to know and for you to find out". In Spain, they have a mañana, mañana attitude about things, but are more friendly so you just have to remind them repeatedly.
- Be confident in yourself! - You're here for a reason and you've been studying your language(s) long enough to be able to use them in real life situations. In the North-East of England, we have a phrase we use which is "Shy bairns get nowt." To the rest of the world that basically means "Ask and ye shall receive."

I hope this post wasn't too lengthy (when I have something to talk or complain about, I tend to go on a lot longer than necessary) and I hope, overall, that it helps at least one future Erasmus student.

Is there anything you would like to add about your own experiences in a foreign university? Do you agree with or disagree with me? Do you have any questions to ask? Please feel free to use the comment box below.

Carey.
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12 May 2013

The Dalí Museum, Figueres

This will mainly be a post full of photographs because everybody already knows that Salvador Dalí (born as Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech - just a little bit of a mouthful) was a bit of a nutty surrealist who walked a pet aardvark around the streets of Paris and who also once turned up to one of his own exhibitions in a limousine filled with turnips (who knows why?) Again, this post is long-overdue (Figueres... get it? Figures/Figueres? I need to stop with these bad puns, I'm not even American either so I would never say that really) so I do apologise, but at least you're finally getting a cool arty fix! To the pictures!
We also saw a brass bumhole (yes, you read it correctly) on one of the floors which I can't remember if it was a Dalí creation or one by Vallès, but I thought I'd better not put that up here in case I offended anybody, even though the masses have grown accustomed to seeing the deepest, darkest corners of human anatomy whilst they're eating their dinner thanks to the wonder that is Embarassing Bodies.

As well as the brass bumhole, we also saw a lovely exhibition by Antoni Pitxot, an artist that I'd never heard of until visiting this gallery but that I'm glad I discovered because I really like his use of miniscule brushtrokes and stippling to build up colourful representations of things found in nature. I particularly liked his piece shown below in which I presume he used layers upon layers of oil paint to create an almost lifelike replica of a piece of lichen (you could even go as far as to say that I'm likin' the lichen. No? Ok.)
I've always loved Dalí from a young age and I'm really happy that I got to visit the Gala Foundation (Gala was Dalí's wife and consequently was featured in a lot of his paintings and drawings - see the pencil sketch on brown packing paper above), but I realised when I got home that I had never looked up the meaning of any of his paintings and just sort of took titles such as "Soft Self Portrait with Fried Bacon" as standard. There are a lot of interesting symbols in his work such as the crutches (representing the support that we all need) and the infamous melting clocks (demonstrating the irrelevance or the insignificance of time), but the symbols which have always most intrigued me are his long-legged elephants (which, incidentally, I didn't get a photograph of). I decided to research them and found out that they represent the ongoing human struggle to reach a higher place (for example, our expeditions into space or personal experiments to reach a higher consciousness) but always remaining grounded by either gravity, our earthly bodies or social constructs.

I think, taking this analysis into account, to me they signify the age-old statement of always going where you want and doing your own thing, aiming to reach your goals, but never forgetting your roots, which I think is just the perfect summary of my year abroad and has pretty much sealed the deal for me in wanting to eternalise one of these elephants in ink somewhere on my body.

This all got a little bit existential for a brief photo post about my visit to an art gallery, but I fell more in love with Dalí and learned something from it, which is good because they always say that every day's a school day!

Carey.

6 May 2013

Girona

I had the chance to visit this lovely, very green, city on Sunday with a few of my friends through an Erasmus organisation based in Barcelona. The full trip cost us 28€ for the day and it included a guided tour of Girona, led by a mustachioed Canadian with a posh umbrella, and entry to the Dalí museum a bit further North in Figueres (I'll do a separate post about this because my blog entries are becoming very photo-heavy and thus are not very mobile-friendly. I need to work on that, but I always recommend viewing my blog posts in full on a computer screen anyway).

So! Girona... where to begin? Firstly, let's not confuse it with Verona in Italy, the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which both my mother and my boyfriend managed to do. It's about a thousand kilometres South-East of there and sits between Barcelona and the Pyrenees, as well as being the last "real" city in Spain before you reach Perpignan in France. We had an extremely early start (6.45am on a Sunday! Jesus, Mary and Joseph Christ) due to having to meet the rest of the group, which included around 70 of us in total, in the middle of Barcelona at 10am. For a brief minute, wrapped in my warm duvet like (to quote Homer J. Simpson) a toasty cinnamon bun, I considered wasting the 28€ in favour of a few more hours sleep. Then I thought: "Don't be stupid, that's a week's worth of shopping and at least three glasses of wine, at least go and see somewhere you've never been!" Surprisingly, we were amongst the first few there.

 The journey took a couple of hours (or maybe an hour and a half, I'm not sure because I kept dozing off and waking up to different but all equally as shite Spanish pop songs) and when we arrived there we were all in various stages of hunger, needing the loo and frostbite because none of us had anticipated how much colder it would get just a couple of hundred kilometres North. Our tour guide gave us a brief introduction to the city of Girona, so that we could all tend to our individual instinctual needs, but I was near the back of the group and only heard something about a Lord called "Fellatio" and something about a church of "St. Penis?" Which later turned out to be something completely different to what my (apparently very dirty for a Sunday) mind thought.

He also informed us that once upon a time it was considered good luck to touch the bum of the lion statue as you enter Girona, but now (thanks to the flamboyant and romantic French) the tradition is to kiss the little stone lion on the buttocks. I, however, was bursting for a wee and missed the opportunity to do so (and possibly contract herpes or mono). Here are a few photographs from our exploration:


After looking around the city and learning about the origin of the Catalan flag (some guy called Wilfred the Hairy dragged his four bloody fingers down a golden shield after he was stabbed - the Canadian told it better) and that the townspeople used to believe that throwing apples into one of the four rivers which run through Girona would appease St. Narcissus (the patron saint of the city and also their saint of rain and floods - therefore reducing the swell in the rivers), we reached the bridges leading in and out of Girona. They weren't all that interesting and there weren't really any facts about them, but we got some good jumping photographs because it is considered another good luck charm of Girona to jump in the middle of one of them.
We were then taken to the cathedral and the mustachioed Canadian explained (more to the Europeans than us English) the origin of St. George's Day and how he came to slay the dragon, because apparently it all happened in or around Girona (we know it happened at Stonehenge or on top of a very tall hill in the Pennines or somewhere equally as English, right guys?) To finish our tour, we were turned loose to explore the city again at our own pace...
As it began to rain we realised we were all really hungry and cold and decided to find a place to eat somewhere. I didn't get the name of the café we ended up in, but it was a really nice little bar-type with music paraphernalia around the walls and old record players throwing out some Beatles and Johnny Cash. I ordered an odd, but very welcome, combination of English breakfast tea and patatas bravas!
Then, just as we were leaving Girona, I noticed that the stone lion was free of tourists so I finally got to kiss the butt, just like I imagined! (Note my mouth is not actually touching the butt so as not to contract aforementioned ailments.)

Overall, I really enjoyed Girona and would love to go back one day when it's a bit sunnier to see it looking more like the Emerald City than a moss-covered rock (although moss-covered rocks are beautiful, too).

Next stop, the Dalí museum...