Hamburg

Last weekend I went on a trip to the second largest city in Germany, Hamburg. It was a trip hosted by the international club at the Humboldt University. It was a great group trip for a mere 80 Euros. I received transportation to and from Hamburg, two nights residency in a hostel, a walking tour, a boat cruise, entrance to two museums and a weekend pass to use the public transit system. Hamburg is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to in Germany, definitely worth a visit.

One of numerous water passages

One of numerous water passages

View from our hostel overlooking the port

View from our hostel overlooking the port

The first part of the itinerary once we arrived was a walking tour through the Innenstadt (the German word for “downtown” or “city centre”). We learned all about its history. Hamburg is a major port city located on the Elbe River and it is one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. What is interesting about Hamburg is that it is a city-state, like Berlin. That means that it is both a city itself as well as a Bundesland (“state” or “province” in English). So imagine the City of Toronto held the same standing as Ontario – that is what it is like.

The Innenstadt- looking ready for Christmas

The Innenstadt- looking ready for Christmas

Two museums were included within the trip. The first one was the International Maritimes Museum. It was approximately 10 stories of pure fascination about all types of naval interests. There were artifacts, models, scene recreations, an art gallery, naval warfare displays, uniforms … I simply cannot begin to describe all the attractions this museum contained. It was simply amazing. The other museum we visited was the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which is the city’s art gallery. We had a guided tour and I learned a lot about the different genres and types of art. But the downside for both museum visits was the amount of time we had. Only one hour was given respectively to each museum, as our daily programme was packed with events. I could have spent a few hours in each of the museums alone, especially the Maritime one.

Hamburger Kunsthalle

Hamburger Kunsthalle

The nightlife in Hamburg is one of the defining features of the city. The most famous area is called the Reeperbahn. This street is lined with restaurants, nightclubs and bars. The action is not only on the main street, but the neighboring streets in the vicinity as well. The Reeperbahn is also the largest red light district in Germany. At all hours of the night the street was crowded with people, partying the entire time. It seemed like the energy just never left the area.

One morning we did a boat cruise along the Elbe River and through the harbour itself. This allowed us to get a great water-level perspective of the daily operations of the port and the sheer scale of its size. We saw everything from the endless rows of massive cranes used to unload the freight ships to the docks where repairs are made to all types of vessels. The amount of logistics behind such naval operations is mind blowing.

Boat cruise, a real up a close view of the harbour

Boat cruise, a real up a close view of the harbour

IMG_3480

Not only was the sight-seeing experience great. The best part is that I met a lot of really cool students along the way. We got to know each other pretty well and we will stay in contact for sure during the rest of our studies in Berlin.

One thing is for sure: the next trip that the international club offers next semester, whatever destination may be, I will take part in again for sure!

The Rathaus (city hall)

The Rathaus (city hall)

Inside the Rathaus

Inside the Rathaus

 

Glögg and Holiday Tidings

Greetings once more from Sweden!

Christmas is definitely in the air here in Lund. There are beautifully decorated conifers all throughout town, all the shops have set up their Christmas window displays, and lights have been strung throughout the city centre. It seems that every social event I attend now serves ample amounts of glögg (mulled wine), which appears to be part of every European’s childhood holiday memories…I’m assuming they were drinking the non-alcoholic version back then…

Swedish Christmas trolls…they're sold in almost every store.

Swedish Christmas trolls…they’re sold in almost every store. Photo from another blogger’s website.

Of course, for us University students, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without exams…Oh wait, yes it can, since my course has no exam (she typed with a massive smile on her face). My heart goes out to my fellow U of T students, all of whom I know are studying day and night at the moment. I’d like to use my lack of December exam as a selling point for Swedish exchange studies, but in actuality I just got lucky with my particular course. Thus, the exam atmosphere is just as potent here as what I’m use to back home.

Since I have no exam to study for, you may be wondering what activities have been filling my time. Well, for seven days straight I have been working on an assignment for my Fisheries Ecology class. The assignment consists of an excel file with catch, landings, and discard information regarding the cod stocks in the North Sea from 1963 to 2012. Historically, these stocks have been heavily fished, and there is a large concern that this cod fishing industry is heading for collapse in much the same way as the Canadian cod fishing industry in Newfoundland collapsed back in 1993. So, my assignment then is to first construct a VPA (Virtual Population Analysis) model based off of this historical data. Second, when satisfied with my VPA, I must use the model to make short and long term predictions regarding catch and landings quotas, and about how the cod stock will change moving into the future. These predictions all vary when altering model parameters, such as fishing mortality, cannibalism, recruitment, and trawl mesh size. Meaning, it can be quite difficult to settle on a finalized model. Overall, I’m enjoying the assignment. It has taken me a lot of time just to create my models, but I have found it interesting to muck around with the predictions, and enjoy getting a better insight into the work conducted by fishery managers and fishery scientists.

Excelling in excel.

Excelling in excel.

In other, non-school related news, a recent storm named Sven blew through my little Swedish town (and apparently many other towns in several countries), bringing with it insanely strong winds. Seriously, I was riding my bike down hill against the wind and had to pedal vigorously to prevent myself from entering what seemed like a state of suspended animation. The following morning I awoke to a beautiful fresh layer of snow that has since turned into an icy pile of mush, which makes it rather difficult to get around town by bike. I mean, of course I could walk, or use public transit, but where’s the fun in that?

View from my apartment window after Sven passed through town.

View from my apartment window after Sven passed through town.

Finally, I’m currently in the process of planning my holiday travels. I have decided not to return home for the holidays, but instead use the time off to see a bit of Europe. At the moment, it looks like I’ll be heading to Italy, but I’ll wait until my next post to tell you more.

Until next time,

Abby

So I can die happy now….

I’m sure my 2nd blog, with its stories of medical madness have given you, dear reader, a sense of my luck with my own health. It appears my many medical misfortunes are a trend of life that determined to follow me across countries.

On Monday the 2nd of November I found myself in need of a trip to the hospital because of a searing pain in my right lung, which made it pretty difficult to breath. The pain had started 24 hours before this point, but much like the UTI I had before coming to England, I had chosen to ignore the pain and the accompanying cough until it got bad.

In a matter of hours I had gone from on and off discomfort to gasping and sweating with pain. So here is a chance, dear reader, to learn about the British Health Care system.

I know that house calls are an available service here and I was tempted to set one up, if purely for the kind of romantic experience that would provide (and I mean romantic in the traditional sense here, not the current use which would imply romance). However, the nurse I spoke to strongly recommended I go to a hospital. Luckily I have made a dear friend here who has a car. Together we googled the address of the nearest emerge and off we went.

Once in the emergency room I got to experience meeting a triage of what English people call ‘Chavs’. A Chav being a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behavior who wears (real, or imitation) designer clothes. The girls were lovely, and certainly dressed to impress; one sported a red onsie and superman socks. The other wore cashmere pajamas.

After putting bodily fluids in flasks, cracking bad jokes and waiting for a few hours I was at last seen by a doctor. There is something about the massively imposing figure, charming accent and twinkling eyes of a Swedish doctor that just suggests nothing could possibly go wrong.

After poking and prodding, and running a few tests of his own he discovered that I had trapped a nerve between two of my ribs. This was causing the extreme pain, but wasn’t at all serious long term. His actual advice was to take some anti-inflammatories and a hot bath.

So disaster averted!

On November 20th, several days before, I ventured to the Darwin House, home of the famous Charles Darwin! The friend I was going with remained skeptically nervous our whole journey because after he accidentally demagnetized his train ticket (making it useless and forcing him to explain this strange occurrence to the gate guards at every station we needed to transfer at) he and I then had to take 2 long train rides, 1 bus journey and then a long walk up hill on a very narrow, very poorly monitored road down which several retired and well off old people sped in really nice cars. He remained skeptical because he did not I think, actually think we, would make it to the Darwin House.

His suspicions were somewhat justified though, as when we got there, the house was closed for cleaning. The house is only open to the public on the weekend.

But that didn’t matter, because between our charm and good old British hospitality we managed to sweet talk our way into a tour. The tour was reduced, as we weren’t allowed to be in the rooms that were being cleaned, nor were we allowed to go in the rooms that were locked to the cleaning staff. The staff there felt so bad about this reduction that they didn’t charge us entree!

As a Bio student the Darwin House was super cool, but even if you aren’t a total nerd like me it is still well worth the trip. Just seeing the preservations, the details of his family life and their profound similarity to the family standards of today, and the ways in which he was mocked while making advances in Biology, I certainly can’t imagine the world without it. Making the house a note worthy point to stop at.

The weekend of the 23rd November. In an attempt to avoid copious amounts of school work I took a journey to the beautiful city of Bath (a short train ride from Chippenham, which is a long train ride from Egham, Surrey, which is a 40 minute train ride from London) where I encountered a wonderful man taming pigeons for the joy of the public. A strange but 100% accurate sentence.

Bath is an amazing city; filled with cute shops, an amazing Christmas market (though it was closed when I arrived there) and beautiful buildings surrounding loads of bustling people, stopping to shop, eat or watch the street performers. I saw some really cool stuff in the shops and was able to get awesome Christmas presents for my house mates and family.

I’m sorry to report that I haven’t really done much these last few weeks as exams draw closer; though it is important to balance the academics of exchange with the fun. I highly recommend joining some clubs at your school abroad if you can; you will meet cool people and learn cool things. I personally have a flare for the dramatic and so I joined an improv comedy club which has put on several amazing shows and provided a really supportive group to blow off some steam with.

The shows and rehearsals are a great way to break up the monotony of schoolwork and they really have enhanced my experience as a student; laughing until your sides hurt is always an excellent use of a Sunday.

3rd December 2013.  I have been to London many times since my arrival here but I had yet to see the changing of the guard, a rather spectacular and quintessentially British event.

The changing of the guard happens every other day and, unfortunately, I had gotten the days mixed up. So I didn’t get to see the guards change, which was somewhat disappointing, but because I have a life history of plans not coming together I have learned to roll with these kinds of punches pretty well. The building is still beautiful and I did get to see the guards in their giant fuzzy caps and a few police officers were walking around with semi automatics to blast to bits any one who got too near the Queen.

So all in all; fun.

I visited the Buckingham Palace shop where I could afford nothing; royals only it seems, and then made my way to the park outside Buckingham. The park has an amazing collection of birds (and many friendly squires with no concept of personal space) including swans, which all belong, by law, to the Queen, making them illegal to eat in the UK.

After the palace I went to Covent Garden which much like Bath is awash with amazing little shops; some large darpartment stores, others holes in the wall, and street performers. In fact, while there I was walking down some stairs only to be swept up into the arms of an opera singer who then danced with me as he continued to sing. I know most people would be mortified by being so spontaneously dragged into a show, but this is exactly the kind of silly-center-of-attention-but-not-really- action that I thrive on as a Drama student.

On my way back to the train station I happened to pass a film crew at work. Now I can’t say where it was, or what film it was or who is in it. But I can say that I got to meet, talk to, hug, and watch work on the monitor behind an equally note worthy director, a very famous person. And his name may or may not rhyme with Dohhny Jepp.

I kissed his cheek. Had a real conversation with him and hugged him. Multiple times.

I’m not saying anything more about who it was. But I will say this; he is as kind and lovely in person as I always expected. And I can die happy.

Field Trip to the EU!

This past week I had one of the coolest opportunities so far on exchange. My Institutions and Jurisdiction of the European Union class did a fully funded four day field trip to Brussels! We got to visit the European Parliament, Commission and Council, as well as a number of firms and lobby groups. As an exchange student, I was blown away by the generosity of the school to fund me to participate along with their own students. (Thank you Glasgow Uni!!!!)

Brussels is an amazing city. With the European Union and Council of Europe both located there, plus the Hague and European Court of Justice just a short train ride away, it feels like the center of the world! When I came on exchange one of the things I wanted to do was to take a step back from the typical Canadian law student route and see what else was out there. This trip did that for me and more! Meeting the lawyers working at the EU and the various firms has opened my eyes to so many career paths I didn’t even know existed before coming on exchange. (It also reinforced the need for me to actually brush up my french. Nearly every talk began with “So you NEED a second language to work here…”)

Bonus: I randomly found out while I was there that a friend I met backpacking in India a couple years ago is also currently interning at the Parliament. We weren’t able to coordinate a time to meet up but I’ll be seeing her when I’m passing through in January!

But it wasn’t all work and no play! Many fries, waffles and chocolates were consumed, not to mention the mulled wine and Belgium beer! This was aided by the presence of one of the most fabulous Christmas markets I have ever seen. Huge Christmas trees were located everywhere and the squares were full of christmas lights and stalls selling everything from German sausages to fancy cheeses. I had a great time getting to know my classmates. Often times the exchange students feel a bit segregated from the rest of the school community so it was really lovely to be able to spend a few days with them.

Screw New York, Brussels is the place to be!

Much Ado About Munich

Munich, Germany, is a city that, while famous for its beer and Oktoberfest celebrations, is so much more than that.
The city itself is gorgeous, and has a very distinct feel to it. Heavily damaged by bombing during World War II, Munich is a city where the past meets the present at every turn. Chic shopping districts are located within steps of buildings that have been around for longer than you could ever even imagine. The old city hall, with its white brick and Gothic architecture, stands adjacent to the new city hall, which, while much more recently built, in many ways looks older. Men in lederhosen drink beer next to tourists taking pictures of their food (that will inevitably end up on Instagram – I can’t say I wasn’t guilty of this) at the world-famous beer hall, the Hofbrauhaus.
One can’t write a blog on Germany without writing about the food – the food in Germany was absolutely delicious, as I’d been told by all my friends who’d visited before. And it was so rich! Meats of every kind, potatoes, stews… and washed down with a beer, mind you – it’s a wonder I finished most of my meals while I was there!
Our last full day in Munich was spent learning about the history that the city (obviously) doesn’t take pride in. A WWII historical walking tour of the city explained much of Hitler’s ties to Munich – how he spent many of his early years there. The day was then finished off with a trip to Dachau, the first of the concentration camps opened in Germany, and the longest-lasting. It was a heavy, heart wrenching day, but nonetheless a moving experience!
After taking in the many sights, sounds, and tastes Munich had to offer with my close friend, we took a two-day excursion to the Alps. The Alps were, as expected, absolutely breathtaking. We took a hike as far up as we could, and found a tunnel dug into the mountains themselves that people could explore… It was really an amazing experience that wasn’t expected in the least!
In short, Munich was an absolutely gorgeous city that had so much to offer. Germany in general was a wonderful experience, and I can see why so many people love it so much!

Take care and safe travels,

Patrick

To Travel or Not to Travel?

Guten tag, from what is still the coolest city I have ever been to (in case you are wondering)! :)

Not all of Berlin is beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, but that's part of what makes it interesting.

Not all of Berlin is beautiful, in the traditional sense of the word, but that’s part of what makes it interesting.

I enjoyed spending the whole of last month right here in Berlin. November in the northern hemisphere, as we well know, is not the most “beautiful” time of the year, by any stretch of the imagination. It has progressively grown darker (we’re talking 4:15 p.m. sunsets), colder, and rainier as the weeks have passed. Slightly inconvenient, yes. However, with this city at my fingertips, it’s easy to take advantage of the myriad things to see and do and to make the most of every moment left of this semester.

For exchange students from far away, it’s a real treat to be able to spend a good chunk of time in Europe and roam around the continent. There are so, so many places to see here, after all! During my undergraduate degree, I was lucky enough to participate in a semester abroad in Budapest, Hungary, and in my 5 months there, that is exactly what I did. Among the neighbouring (or at least nearby) countries I visited were Austria, Slovakia, Poland and Croatia. I somehow managed to venture even further as well, all the way to Spain, Ireland, England and even Turkey! Looking back, I can’t believe how much I squeezed into such a short period of time. I remember a couple fellow students in Budapest sometimes telling me, “You’re never around.”

IMG_4876

The funky colored seats in Berlin’s underground metro system.

Perhaps as you gain experience — or maybe just as you get a little older, I’m not sure — it seems more appealing to really try to get to know a place, instead of checking it off of a list. In the majority of the countries I visited during my Budapest exchange, I only spent 2 or 3 days and saw just one city (not that I’m complaining). Since then I have asked myself, did it count as getting the real experience? Because although there is something undeniably “European” about every country in Europe that I can’t quite put my finger on, each country still has its own personality. A day or two of rapid, efficient sight-seeing in one particular city might begin to scratch the surface of that personality, but in no way, shape or form does it reveal the true heart of a place or its people to you. You probably will not come to relate to the culture, understand how and why it is the way it is, or discover the minutiae of everyday life that make it unique from the rest of the Europe.

IMG_4858

A rare glimpse of the sun on a beautiful mid-November’s day on a boulevard called Mehringdamm.

For this reason, I am happy that I spent every moment of November in Berlin soaking up its rhythm, the pace of life, and the little everyday things that make it the special place that it is (I won’t even realize what those things are until I am back home). I admit there are a few important museums and other sites I have yet to see — it’s so easy to put them off to another day when you can do it anytime — but I can rest easy knowing that even if I don’t get to them, at least I spent real, actual time here.

To be fair, it is completely understandable to want to travel and see as much as possible while in Europe. Time and financial constraints make it impractical for most of us to fly across an ocean every time we want to check out a different European country. This is especially true for students! As a huge fan of traveling, exploring, and adventuring, I am of the opinion that even a few days in a place is better than none, and I would commend those who do those kinds of trips on at least having the enthusiasm, spirit, curiosity and courage (yes, courage!) to save up some money, pack a bag, and go.

IMG_5182

It’s Christmastime in Kolding!

Now, having made the case for both types of Euro-adventuring, I can justify my 3-day visit to Denmark this past weekend. It did not include Copenhagen (perhaps another time). Instead I spent a relaxing weekend in a small Danish seaport called Kolding visiting my sister, who is on an exchange semester at the Designskolen. Kolding is a lovely little city; it felt very “human-sized,” compared to Berlin, anyway. Small streets, short buildings and nearly everything within walking distance. It was really nice being able to hop on a bus for a few hours and end up in a whole new country. And although I definitely did not come back an expert in Danish culture, customs, history, cuisine, or architecture, I hope I at least scratched the surface a little bit.

As always, thanks for reading and see you next time! Tschüß!

Mari

On winter holidays and exams

Though Christmas is not yet upon us, the streets of Paris have been recently given a very festive uplift. Lights now hang over most streets. Many shops have also busted out their Christmas lights.

Boulevard Saint-Germain near Sciences Po

Boulevard Saint-Germain, near Sciences Po

But before Christmas travels and celebrations can even happen, one has to get through exams at Sciences Po. For most exchange students, classes have ended this week. The official exam period starts on the week of December 9th and continues until the few days before Christmas. As an exchange student, many of your classes will have in-class exams, or just a final assignment instead of an exam. So a large part of your December can be devoted to travels and other non-academic aspects of your exchange experience. But in the spirit of all the exams we have to get through before the holiday season, I will briefly describe the general forms of evaluations at Sciences Po.

Exams at Sciences Po are not very different from those at U of T. You have the typical essay exams and multiple choice exams. There are, of course, also those non-exams that come in the form of essays and presentations. I have noticed that all my assigned essays have not asked for more than 2500 words (this is a marked contrast to my first essay ever at U of T, which was for HIS103 and already passed 3000 words).

For the lucky few who land themselves in certain French courses, you might have a Grand Oral exam. The exam is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a typical written exam, you will be given some materials and a few minutes to prepare (there are also cases where you will be given the topic a week beforehand) before you head in to the room and give a 10 minute presentation followed by a discussion with the jury (which could just be your professor). This sort of examination is more common in the masters level at Sciences Po, but certain undergrad professors like to challenge their students. For those who get to experience this uniquely Sciences Po tradition, Bon Courage!

The most distressing fact for assessments at Sciences Po is that you do not know how you are doing in a course until you see your transcript. Professors at Sciences Po are not obligated to, in fact they are encouraged not to, reveal your mark for any of your assignments and tests, because these marks will not reflect your final mark. You can imagine how this may present some difficulties in identifying gaps in your knowledge or the amount of time you should allocate to any subject.

This scuffle over grades stems from the fact that Sciences Po is one of those schools that subscribe quite ardently to the concept of bell-curving and grade distribution. There is a cap on the number of students that can be in a particular grade-range. And to be honest, this is something that deeply bothers me as a student. At U of T, I try to avoid courses where the first thing the professor mentions is that only a certain number of students will receive an arbitrary grade without even knowing the intellectual composition of the class.

This system is fully and strictly in place at Sciences Po, though the professors here are better at diplomatically explaining it. I can overlook the grade distribution because of the many other positive aspects of my exchange. And if you do not really care for how you do on exchange as long as you pass your courses, this will not be a big issue. But if you do care about your academic performance whether for scholarships or for graduate school, you should keep this in mind prior to making your decision.