Bringing Zurich to a close

Dear Friends!

Our semester in Zurich is slowly drawing to a close! Lea and I have exams this week and next week, and then I’m leaving next Saturday to go to Amsterdam for a few days, then Brussels, over to Aix-en-Provence, (visiting friends) and then back to Zurich for a couple more exams. I’ll be leaving Zurich for good on June 19th. This semester has gone by incredibly quickly! We are scrambling to find free evenings to invite over, for one last dinner, each of the friends we’ve made here. We will hopefully also have one last Deutsche Potluck!

Factory Planning

Yesterday, Lea and I had our first oral exam, together-Factory Planning! It was quite an experience, since in our engineering studies in Toronto we had only done written exams before. For this exam however, a group of 2-4 students complete it together. Each of the students randomly chose 4 questions written on small slips of paper, and the professor asked each student one by one to read a question aloud, and answer it. Often the questions were quite general, and after giving an overview of the topic, the professor asked us to delve deeper into one angle or another. These exams test quite different skills than a written exam, since it is not enough to know the right answer; one must also be able to not just coherently explain what one knows, but also have the ability to guess what answer the professor is looking for. The depth of knowledge has to be quite deep, since the professor may choose to press any question deeper as he pleases. Since we had the luck of being in a team of 2, i.e., only the 2 of us and the professor in the room, it was quite a fun and funny exam!

A similar electronic implant

I also have to finish my research project in the next couple weeks. I’m working on the Neue Walk project, a project involving several universities across Europe. It is quite fascinating research: the basic goal is to get paraplegics walking again. There are two main approaches: one is to regenerate the neuronal tissue, and the other is to bypass the problematic area of the spinal cord via an electronic implant. The lab I am with is working on the 2nd approach – I have spent the last couple weeks optimizing the printing of tiny electrode arrays, which are being implanted into rats and monkeys. The project looks very promising, based on the successful results with rats. Hopefully, in a few years, human studies will be successful too! This research has whetted my appetite for doing a PhD, but I have no idea yet in what area I would want to do it. There are so many things which interest me! From bioengineering to agriculture, from the progress of developing countries to psychology, from quantum physics to philosophy, there are so many topics which fascinate me, that it’s really difficult to choose!

Life on a boat

On a more mundane note: today we used our Swiss bank accounts for the first time! (Unfortunately, we have to close them when we leave Switzerland.) We made a transfer to the Croatian bank account of the company from whom we are renting a catamaran, for a fantastic sailing trip this summer! I got my Captain’s license 5 years ago, and each year since then, Lea and I invite the 16 most interesting, intelligent, enthusiastic-about-life students whom we meet during our travels, for one incredible week of sailing on the Mediterranean! One of the best things about sailing is that you can pull anchor one day, point to a place on the map, and spend the next night there! There is complete freedom, and thus we never come up with a strict itinerary, basing our trip rather on local advice and the wishes of the crew. We usually try to visit a variety of places, from wonderful snorkeling opportunities in natural reserves, to watching dolphins, to cliff diving, exploring Yugoslavia-era submarine caves, discovering little jewels of Mediterranean towns on the islands, Venetian castles etc..

We are going with students from 10 countries this year. It will be an incredibly interesting week, full of many fascinating debates about life! With this description of a couple of our plans for the summer, I sign off. I hope each of you reading these blogs have been a little inspired, have maybe realized how important it is to travel while you’re young and relatively care-free, and have become a little happier in your outlook on life! Der Friede seid mit euch!


La vie!

Dear friends,

Fribourg, Switzerland

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The Alps in the spring

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I finally have some time to write an update of our fast paced lives as I am on the train to Fribourg for a weekend with some French friends. There is so much that has happened since we last wrote that it is hard to know where to start. The most exciting is that I went skiing! You may ask, what’s the excitement?  Its Switzerland after all. While those living here might be used to being able to ski during all the months of the year, for me it was a totally new and fascinating experience.  It actually wasn’t in Switzerland, I went to the Chamonix region, to a little town called St. Gervais to visit a friend who lives at the base of Mt. Blanc. We woke up early, packed our gear into the car, and drove 10/15 min as far as we could get up the mountains. Then we slung our skiis and snow boots on our backs and starting hiking. After a short hike, we reached the much awaited snow! There we changed our gear, put on our boots and skiis (a special type that allows your foot to lift out of the bearing as you walk), and started our treck up the mountain. We were essentially walking up the regular ski hills that were not operating anymore. There was such a difference! It is a whole new experience to walk up a ski hill slowly, taking the time to breathe in the beauty of the scenery around you, instead of whizzing down at breathtaking speeds. The forest was alive with the life and sounds of spring mixed with the regular beat of our skiis taking step after step. After climbing around 1000 m vertically, we arrived at the top of the ski lift. For those of you who ski, you will know that there is often a net just before the end of the ski lift to catch all those who are too eager to exit the lift properly. We decided to have lunch there, and thus spent a blissful hour suspended in a sort of hammock above the Alps. The panoramic view was absolutely incredible! We were literally on top of the world! Skiing down was another experience unto itself. I think I can safely say that I have never skied in as heavy snow as that day. It was interesting to note that there were even some areas that we had skied over that morning, which already by the afternoon were brown with mud.  What a day! Was fur ein Wochenende!

This is what spring should look like

One of the only things I regret from this exchange was that we have hardly spent any time in Zurich. Overall in the semester, Hanna and I were counting that we have spent in total only 2 or 3 weekends in Zurich! There was always something going on outside the city/country, and thus we are both eager to explore the wonders of Zurich in the summer, when it looks more like the picture on the right v.s. our experience so far (left).

Our experience of Zurich so far

Our dreams for the coming summer days

In a city that is 14% the size of Toronto

But let us recount some of our experiences about Switzerland as a whole. There are some things that strike you about Zurich, or Switzerland as a whole. For one, it is by far not as multi-cultural as Toronto. Another thing that strikes you is the famous punctuality of the Swiss. While I believed this was more of a stereotype before coming, it’s for sure by far the most orderly society I have ever lived in. Just yesterday, I had to calculate at what time I should leave one place the next day to get to a meeting, and just by plugging the information into Google Maps, I was able to get accurate information about which streetcars to take from where, when. The impressive part was that the next day, following the directions, I arrived within the minute to my destination. There is a placard inside each streetcar which announces the next couple of stations, how long it will take to get there, (continually updated with traffic information), and what the next connections are from the upcoming station. I could go on and on about the stellar performance of the public transport here, but it does have one slight downside. The drivers will never wait for you. In Toronto, if the driver sees you running for the bus, waving at him frantically, he will more often than not wait for you. The one downside of this punctuality is that here they are less understanding. Another phenomenal thing here is the sheer number of street cleaners. A whole army of personnel with brooms, vacuum cars, etc. are on patrol around the city at all hours, ready to pounce on any garbage you happen to let drop.

Another super exciting thing since I last wrote is that Bassem came to visit me! We had been planning the entire trip for a couple weeks, and I was excited to get a whiff of my Canadian life again. We spent an absolutely beautiful day all around Zurich bathed in sunshine for the first time in a long time. It was so warm that we decided to rent a paddle boat and paddle out into the middle of the Zurich Lake! What bliss! The Alps rising majestically above the clouds on one side, and the medieval towers of Zurich rising up on the other.  We were so busy soaking up the sunshine and view, that we didn’t notice until almost too late that a big ferry boat was bearing down on us. It honked its horn at us, but we couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so it ended up coming close enough to us that we were able to push ourselves off it as it came by. Some adrenalin to brighten up our day. The next day we had decided to visit Lausanne, a beautiful city in the French part of Switzerland. Now Bassem told me that a friend of his — a guy named Mat Callagher, a British man studying hospitality in Zurich who had worked with him in Dubai — was coming to Zurich for a couple days just to spend time with him. So he told me to organize all our events for three. I tried to pry Bassem about this friend and all I got was that he was supposedly just as crazy as me and that we would get along well. So we went to the airport to pick up this mysterious friend of his before we set off for Lausanne. We walked into the airport, and Bassem got a call from Leyla. I asked Bassem if I could say some words to Leyla on the phone, and Bassem said “no” and put the phone down. I asked him why he wouldn’t let me talk to her, and Bassem said, “Because she’s right here!” I turned around, and there was the mysterious Matt Callagher in person! Leyla Beriker! What a perfect surprise! We ended up spending a night in Lausanne, followed by 2 days around Zurich, and a beautiful day hiking around  Zug, a tiny, adorable city (village) not far from Zurich.

Love to you all from Fribourg!



As our Kiwi adventure comes to a close


The morning we went to watch the penguins wake up.

The morning we went to watch the penguins wake up.

Hello Everyone!

It is truly unbelievable how quickly these 5+ months have gone by. There are so many things that we saw and did that I never had a chance to tell you about (Fox Glacier, Paparoa’s tropical forests, Arthur’s Pass, Oamaru’s high tea and steampunk, the rugby game when we won, dinners out, and nights out dancing, starry walks on the boardwalk, achievements and disappointments at school, marine dissections and the fishing trip, meeting a weka, our Speight’s tour, Tunnel beach, Larnach Castle, and a million other things). Instead, as my last post, I want to tell you more broadly about what this experience has meant to me.

Life abroad is a lot like life at home, and at the same time it is very different. There are still the days when you wake up not wanting to get out of bed. There are still the days when you just want to watch TV and do nothing. But the wonderful part about being abroad is that most of your days are distilled, concentrated versions of life. You cram more into every moment. For the short time that you are away from home, you get a glimpse of what it must be like to get old. You feel like you just don’t have enough time to do and see everything, and so you have to experience the most you can before the clock runs out. I think you appreciate each moment more, because you know that this weird, transient, indescribable part of your life is always slipping away, and one day very soon it will be gone, and you’ll be on the plane home.

But you don’t just gain appreciation for now, you also gain a nostalgic appreciation of home. You miss silly little things that shouldn’t matter. Like food that you are fairly certain you didn’t even like that much at home. Or your pillow. Or your cat waking you up at 8am because he feels, quite frankly, that you have slept long enough.

Do you want to hear the wonderful part? Unlike when you get old and really have run out of time, this time, you can go back. You can take all those nostalgic memories and go relive them. Sure, they won’t be the exact same, you will have changed from your time abroad, but you can still go back home and taste those foods again, and hug those friends again, and move back into your apartment. You can actually go back to your big family gatherings with new appreciation and enjoy the company. I guess it is true that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Going abroad gives you a chance to put your life into perspective, and to see all the wonderful parts of your life from a sort of “outsider’s” view.

Last time I went abroad, I struggled. It was really hard to be away from everyone I loved and to feel all alone. The culture shock felt like fire in my chest. I hated the local people, I missed home, and I just wanted to go back. And then? I let go of all the anger and frustration, and I just let the culture in. And I fell in love. I met new people, ate new foods, immersed myself in the language. I stopped fighting everything that was different, and I just accepted that there was an opportunity for me to be different too. I learned, and grew, and met people who have become a part of who I am.

I went home and I didn’t know how to communicate with the locals. Strange isn’t it? Canada felt cold and foreign. It was both suffocating (people everywhere speaking loud obnoxious English), and lonely (the people I had learned to lean on were gone, and the language I had to speak seemed inadequate). Just as the culture shock hit me hard, so did the reverse culture shock when I got home.

So you might say to yourself, “That sounds terrible, I don’t want to feel like that!” You actually do want to feel like that, you just don’t know it yet. Almost everyone gets culture shock while abroad, and most people feel wonky when they get home too. But this shouldn’t be a reason not to go! I never learned so much about myself as during that first trip. I grew so much that I came home a different person. When I did come home, many friends said things to me like “I’m so jealous of you! You’re so lucky!” Sure, I was fortunate to have met so many loving, wonderful people while I was there.

But let me tell you a secret: it wasn’t luck. I made it happen. I took the plunge and I bought the tickets. I looked back, I won’t say I didn’t. Looking back now, though, I am so glad I went. If you attend a university, you are wasting your time staying at your home university. Go abroad! You will never have a better chance to go abroad for so cheap or with so much support (for dealing with the emotional roller coaster). I can’t state it any more clearly. If you are reading this, thinking, “I’d really love to go, but…” then stop saying but and do it! If you aren’t part of a university, then it will be an even bigger adventure, won’t it!

This time, for many reasons, my culture shock has been small. It is in part because the culture is not so different, and the people speak my language (more or less). It is probably in part because this time I’m not alone, I brought Andrew with me. This time I had a community in which to belong: my university. Maybe it was just easier because this time I was ready for it: I expected culture shock. But what ever it is, I have had the chance to learn about myself, meet new people, and see a part of the world that is so beautiful and unique, and usually so inaccessible. I have lived more in these few months than I have in the last two years. It has still had it’s hard moments. I have still missed home, but it is all worth it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

My next trip will be to Greenland or Scotland… or Brazil. Or maybe Malaysia. Or Croatia! Meet me there?

The first snow of the year.

The first snow of the year.

P.S. If you have any questions about my experience abroad, feel free to write a question below in the comments!