Exchange Bubble

Today, I have no fancy cultural anecdotes about Madrid to share. No breathtaking landscapes, timeless art or exquisite architecture to feast your eyes on. No delicious dishes or eccentric celebrations to describe. Nevertheless, I will highlight one of the most important factors in the exchange life. It’s something that has shaped my experience and influences every other exchange student around the world: other exchange students.

As the second semester started, I looked around and realized that a good half of the good friends I’ve made here are gone. They were only here for a semester and are now back in their home countries. It’s a sad thing in itself, but it also made realize how much time I’ve spent not with Spanish people but rather people from different countries.

It all started back in September during the week before classes. It was a week filled with events, activities and parties organized for the hundreds of us exchange students in order to get to know the school, the city and each other. Think frosh week but for visiting students.

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-Fail of the week: International potluck, where I was one of the the few who came empty handed because neither maple syrup nor poutine gravy exist in Spanish grocery stores.

“It was fun” <– understatement of the year. Details aside, this “Welcome Week” had an effect that is all too similar to what we experienced in frosh. Groups started to form. However, whereas groups of friends at frosh tend to happen arbitrarily (“Hey you’re a person, lets exchange numbers!”), people at Welcome Week seemed to gravitate towards people from their own country, or those who speak their language.

The fact that people started grouping up didn’t cause too much of an issue in getting to know other exchange students. Over the semester there were plenty more events organized for us, so it’s been easy mixing with the group as a whole.

The problem with these exchange bubbles is that it held many of us back from socializing with the local students, and so it held us back from the true exchange experience. One of the best things about studying in a foreign country is getting to know its people, speaking their language and spending time with them. Studying abroad but only hanging out with other visiting students is like venturing out into the ocean in the safety of a submarine instead of swimming in there yourself.

That being said, it’s not so easy to just integrate with the Spanish student body like a social butterfly. The language is barrier is one thing, but that isn’t a huge issue as many of us are here because we can manage in Spanish. Another problem is that we’re 3rd and 4th year students, so most of our classmates have known each other for a while and already have their groups of friends.

I have to admit that I ended up in a sort of submarine, but I still regularly venture out with my scuba gear to spend some nights out with Spaniards. I really don’t have anything against spending time with other exchange students and as a matter fact, that’s what I’ve been doing most of the time.








And I’m big in Japan

It’s amazing how such different backgrounds bring us together, with the same struggle and the same passion for all things foreign. Truth be told, getting to know people from different countries has been just as exciting as getting to know Spain. As much as I try not to stay in it too much, I love my exchange bubble.

Until next time,

Jonny K

Adventures in Amsterdam

Last Wednesday a few of my friends and I decided to go to Amsterdam that very weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever done something so impromptu. Though it was fun, it was more of a learning experience than a holiday.

For starters, we immediately regretted our decision to take an 11 hour bus. The bus driver was rude, it was absolutely packed and the seats were tiny… But the fun really began around 5 am, when our driver decided that he didn’t want to drive anymore because he thought someone on the bus was drunk. He then attempted to kick a guy off the bus in the middle the night, somewhere in Holland. An argument ensued, which nearly everyone on the bus became a part of. We ended up sitting there for about an hour while people stood around outside, trying to convince the bus driver in any way they could to keep driving. In the midst of this, two fist fights broke out (I wish I was kidding). The police eventually showed up to kick some people off and thankfully nobody got seriously hurt (though my friend and I were almost accidentally punched in the face). We then continued our journey to Amsterdam.

The struggle didn’t end there. We had booked a hostel online that, judging by the pictures, appeared to be fine… when we got there, we realized it was definitely not. The stairs were essentially a ladder, there weren’t enough beds for us in this tiny room with ten people smushed in, there was drywall on the floor and the “free breakfast” was bread. They wouldn’t refund us for the person that was no longer staying with us, nor for a night that we didn’t spend there. The photos on the website did not correspond to the reality of the place at all. We left after an hour. To say it was awkward would be an understatement, but none of us could see ourselves staying there after the journey we had. We happily checked into a cheap hotel and began our day, sleepless but happy.

Amsterdam is unlike any other city I’ve ever been to! It’s hard to put into words, so here are some photos instead:

House boat

House boat

Van Gogh museum

Van Gogh museum

Floating flower market on the right

We spent a total of two days there, roaming around the city in a sleep deprived state. I’d love to go back with more time to spend there, especially since we never made it to the Anne Frank museum or Vondelpark.

At the very least, the weekend was an exciting one. The bus ride back was awful, but at least nobody got punched in the face.

Back in London I haven’t been up to too much. Just taking it day by day.

Oh, but this happened.

Yes that really is Rupert Grint and no I can't breathe

Yes that really is Rupert Grint and no I can’t breathe

No biggie.

Talk soon,



Studentenwerk Berlin


I will dedicate this blog to educating my readers about the Studentenwerk Berlin (in German, Studentenwerk can be translated into something like “student services”). This is a large organization that operates with all the major universities in Berlin, such as the Humboldt University, the Free University and the Technical University.

The Studentenwerk Berlin provides different services to all its students. They cover student health insurance. They offer psychological counseling for students who need help. Those students seeking accommodation can apply specifically for a student dorm. Assistance is provided for students with children or those who have learning or working barriers. The Studentenwerk can help students find jobs, serving as a link between possible employers and students. There is also help for those international students who are dealing with language barriers.

It was actually through the Studentenwerk that I was able to secure my accommodations during the duration of my studies. When I applied for this exchange, I received messages from them asking if I would like to stay in a student hall of residence. I did not want the extra trouble and stress of trying to find my own apartment before arriving here so I let them do it for me. The accommodations within the Studentenwerk are mostly old buildings which were renovated into student dorms and most of the students who occupy them are international students from all over the world. There are about a dozen and they can be found spread throughout the city. There are different styles of flats, such as a WG (WG or Wohngemeinschaft in German means “flat share” in English) and single room apartments.

I live in a student WG with two other students. We have become good friends and I like it this way, as it enables me to have daily contact with fellow students. Nasr, one of my roommates, comes from Yemen and we communicate in German. Georgy is the other and he is an Australian native. We hang out quite often together and sometimes cook together. We live in a former East German-style apartment building. It is bare bones, but it serves its purpose and I could not be happier with my situation. There is a bathroom, a common kitchen, and we each have our own bedrooms. We have a student pub in the basement which is opened on the weekends and there is even a small gym which I frequently visit. It is not in the middle of the city, but for what I am paying (190 Euros per month) in comparison to other students I know, what I have is great.

Nasr and I eating Arabic food

Nasr and I eating Arabic food

Georgy and I enjoying Arabic food too

Georgy and I enjoying Arabic food too

Another service that the Studentenwerk Berlin operates is the Mensa (German word for university cafeteria). There are Mensas located all over the city close to the universities. A Mensa is provided to serve extremely cheap meals and snacks to all students and staff members. The food is pretty good and I can fill myself to the max with only 3 Euros. Little kiosks and mini-cafes are also located around campus and in some libraries for example where small foods and drinks can be purchased. Everything is paid electronically through a Mensa Card. It is kind of like the T-Card that we use back home. Students must load money onto their card at certain machines and then they can pay for their goods. Library services such as photocopying and printing are used with the Mensa Card as well, so it is very convenient.

My Mensa Card

My Mensa Card

Well, I have been checking the weather back home in Toronto and it looks quite cold lately. We finally had snow fall here and the temperature has dropped a bit, but I can’t complain. Wish me luck for the next two weeks- I got essays, presentations and tests that I need to write before the end of the first semester!


One of the workout rooms that we have in the basement

One of the workout rooms that we have in the basement

Simple, but does the job

Simple, but it does the job


First Week Down

And so ends the longest winter break of my life!

After my last exam in early December, I had over a month to prepare for my exchange. And despite both the polar vortex and the constant urge to drop everything and drive to the nearest ski slope, I was in pretty good shape by departure time. Because of this, I was only ‘very overwhelmed’ when I first got into the city, rather than downright flabbergasted! With incredibly favourable weather, and streets filled with iconic landmarks and hidden ‘nook-and-cranny secrets’ alike, it was hard to know where to start. I managed to see a nice chunk of what midtown New York has to offer:

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a nice (staged) photo at the ny public library

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Good Morning New York City!

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After a few days of touristy things, I headed over to Morningside Heights, to move into my dorm (‘res’) and register for New Student Orientation. Needless to say, it was a pretty exciting and busy day:

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at the Glass Menagerie

The next few days were stacked with administrative and academic sessions, with little free time during the day. But this was easily offset by the organized trips to Loews Theatre and Broadway. I’ve seen three Broadway shows so far – The Glass Menagerie (starring Zachary “Admiral Spock” Quinto), Once and Avenue Q. I know Toronto theatre isn’t quite as notable as Broadway, but seeing these productions made me interested in viewing Toronto productions more habitually too

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First thing I saw walking onto campus – Low Library


Today was the first week of classes. During this period almost every student at Columbia is ‘shopping around’ for courses, and will say so unashamedly when introducing him or herself to the room: “Hi I’m ____ and I’m shopping this course.” I’m shopping around as well, and should have a much better idea of the schedule. So far classes have been great, but I’m anticipating a lot more reading than expected


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There are many more things to talk about already, but I’ll keep this post short and sweet, ending with one of my favourite pictures so far – a few of us visiting students in Times Square. Until next time! – Sam

Of mornings, classes, and sports


Notre Dame

The semester officially started for me on a dark and chilly Monday when I struggled to get out of bed at 6am. For the first time in my entire schooling career, I have not one, but two classes at 8am in the morning. At this time of the year, the sun rises in Paris at around 8:30am. I walked to Sciences Po along curiously silent streets, accompanied by rows of darkened storefronts. Above ground, Paris is quiet. There are far less cars on the streets than in Toronto at the same time. And there seemed to be a silent solidarity of misery amongst the few darkly dressed pedestrians that I encountered.

I am pleased to announce that my 8am classes are interesting, although one of them requires getting up early on Saturday for supplemental field trips. However, when a professor offers to take the whole class on a walking tour of Paris to get to know the city better, one simply does not refuse.

The first week of second semester, in many ways, is similar to the one I experienced back in September. And I have neglected to blog about one of the features of this opening week. Sciences Po offers a variety of sports classes, ranging from the conventional tennis, volleyball, and dance classes to martial arts, fencing, and a few slightly less common fields such as polo and pétanque. During the first week of each semester, all sports classes are open for trial. Students can attend as many classes as they desire with absolutely no restrictions or fees. But, if you want to take a sports class for the rest of the semester, you would have to pay additional fees. And though students do not receive any actual grades, missing more than two classes will still result in a “fail” on your transcript.

All of these classes happen outside of Sciences Po, in various facilities throughout the city that host regular classes of their respective sports. This allows you to explore a new part of the city, but it does create inefficiencies. How many people would actually take the metro for 50 minutes just to get to an one hour skating class?

I tried out a class on canne de combat, which is a type of martial arts originated in France around the 19th Century when the bourgeoisie sought to defend themselves from the less savoury elements of the city with their walking canes. As a class for the totally lost, fumbling beginners, it was surprisingly fun. Sadly, as I have only attended one class, I cannot offer any observations of how canne de combat reflect the national psyche and cultural identity of France, or even of Paris. Perhaps at the end of this semester, I will be able to provide a more insightful reflection.

Until next time!

New Course, Seagrass, & Semlor

Greetings once more from Sweden!

I’m happy to announce that my Fisheries Ecology class has come to an end. Normally, I am not so eager for a class to finish, but I think I’ve had just about as much as I can take when it comes to modeling programs. To be fair, the class was a great introduction to understanding how fisheries managers manage a fishery, but both the modeling project and the stock assessment project were massive leaps (for me anyway) between the textbook theory and actual hands-on modeling.

Monday the 20th was the first day of my 3rd course here in Lund, Aquatic Ecology. Now this is a course I am rather excited about. The aim of the course is to increase our knowledge regarding the scientific method, scientific writing, and further develop our oral presentation skills. This equates to projects, scientific article readings, and PowerPoint presentations, c’est fantastique! No seriously, I actually really enjoy these things, especially when everything is related to current research in the aquatic ecology field. During the first lecture, our professor mentioned that one of the major assignments for this course will be an individual project worth 30% of our overall grade. One of the things I’ve come to love about Lund University is the freedom students are often given to explore areas of their own interest.  So I was not surprised when our professor encouraged us to begin thinking of possible topics that we find of personal interest. It took me about five seconds to decide on a topic, seagrass. Why seagrass you might ask, well because seagrass meadows are beautiful, unique, and they provide an amazing environment to conduct research in. Come on, if you’re version of going to the office everyday meant snorkeling or scuba diving through some seagrass meadows, you’d be pretty happy, no? If you don’t want to take my word on the awesomeness that is seagrass, fine, but perhaps you can use you’re eyes instead…

Photo from Photo credit: NatalieJean.

Photo credit: NatalieJean.


Photo credit: Rachel Sussman


Photo credit: Bill Keogh

Okay okay, I’m finished with my geek-out. Moving on…

Lund is beginning to get a bit more of a proper winter. We’ve been having on and off snow, and some pretty high winds. Nothing to complain about though, especially when I consider this Polar Vortex business going on back home.

Sightseeing on my way to class.

Sightseeing on my way to class.


Still sightseeing…


It’s a bit of a long walk…

One exciting change that I have been noticing in the bakery windows all around town is the appearance of a lovely little cream pastry. Known here as Semlor, these pastries are traditionally eaten prior to lent, more specifically, on Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Tuesday/Fat Tuesday. Why they are showing up now, well I can only assume that they are just too good to be eaten only once a year. I have not yet had time to purchase one of these delicious looking treats. However, on the final day of Fisheries Ecology our professor brought in a box full of them. All I can say is that it was a great way to spend a fika.

Semlor. Photo credit: Maia Brindley Nilsson

Semlor. Photo credit: Maia Brindley Nilsson

Until next time!


Start Spreading the News

Hey everyone! My name is Sam Levy and I will be keeping you updated on my exchange semester at Columbia University in New York City. My term is actually set to begin in a couple of days, so consider this post more of an introduction to who I am and what I’m going to try to do in my upcoming posts.

In second year, I was fortunate to hear about a study abroad program at Fudan University in Shanghai. With no relevant qualifications to speak of I flew to Shanghai and went on to have maybe the most shaping experiences of my life.  I couldn’t believe my fortune, that I was able to experience an entirely different way of life, make incredible friends, and improve my chopstick technique with each meal (in that order). My only wish was that the program (6 weeks) could have been longer.

Overlooking the Forbidden City

Overlooking the Forbidden City

I completed two more incredible study abroad programs – at Hebrew U (Jerusalem), and KGU (Osaka) – having equally unforgettable times. These programs were also during the summer, and so persisted my wish to go abroad for a semester. When the opportunity to apply for a Killam Fellowship to study in the US became possible, I eagerly applied.

But studying in the States isn’t really studying ‘abroad’ is it? With the largest border of any two countries in the world, a shared history that is crucial to both and truly intertwined economies, it is hard to find two more connected allies. But on the point that a student experience therefore would differ little between Canada and the US, there I would have to disagree. At Fudan I was surprised by how most of my time was spent with American students, with whom I had some truly awesome experiences. From learning the difference between ‘KD’ and ‘Easy Mac’ (turns out they’re the same thing) to celebrating the Fourth of July, I realized how little I actually knew about our neighbour to the south; it was almost embarrassing, given how important the US is both to Canada and the rest of the world.

At the Umeda Sky Building, Osaka

At the Umeda Sky Building, Osaka

Or take the recent US federal election. That an overwhelming majority of those outside the US favoured Obama, yet the votes of the American people reflected close to a 50/50 split clearly shows that there is something going on in the US that we do not fully understand – to our detriment, I might add.


Therefore, I intend to write posts that capture differences between, or shed light on American and Canadian values, customs, vocabularies, political opinions, etc. I want to share moments of revelation and discovery, with ideas that can be tied to current events and pressing debates.

image from:

image from:

Or I might just post some pictures of deli food (#dinerfromseinfeld), we’ll see what happens. Speak soon!

– Sam

A New Year, A New Experience to be had

Welcome back everyone to 2014 and Happy New Year!

For the Christmas break, I made the journey back to my hometown of Toronto. It was weird to land at Pearson Airport, as it felt like I had just left for Brelin back in August- time flies way too fast when you are studying abroad! But I have to say, it felt welcoming and good to be back on Canadian soil.

I spent a lot of quality time with family, relatives, friends….. and the cold weather. It was one crazy ice storm we all experienced this year. I arrived just in time for no power and life-by-candle light for a few days. Yet after my two and a half weeks back home, I had to say that I already started to think about returning and looking forward to getting back into the learning routine.

To compare climates, the weather in Germany is currently very mild for this time of year. The German people I have spoken to all say it is abnormal. Usually around this time, the weather is around -10/15⁰C with some snow on the ground. Yet this year (to my luck), there has been no such weather. The daily average is about 5⁰C and the grounds are dry. Everyone over here just wishes for it to snow. For me, I like it just the way it is! I’ve always had my fill of cold winters back in Canada.

I only arrived last week in Berlin and not much has happened since. One of the sights I always wanted to visit was the Berlin Wall and to experience its history first hand. So my Berlin Perspectives class (the program is described in a previous blog) met last weekend and checked out the wall.

As most of you probably already know, the Berlin Wall was constructed by the East German socialist government to prevent its citizens from escaping into West Berlin. It was built in 1961 and lasted a few decades until its fall in 1989. There were many escape attempts and many people died trying to make it to the other side. The majority of the wall has been removed since its collapse, but there are still some pieces still standing today.

One part is called the East Side Gallery. This is the longest still-standing stretch of the former Berlin Wall. In 1990, artists from around the world painted murals to depict themes of the Cold War. It stretches 1.3 km and it really is a wonder to visit. There are murals of Berlin related themes, political messages, messages of freedom, violence and oppression for example. Anyone who plans to visit Berlin MUST pay a visit to the East Side Gallery.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

There is another part of the wall which is located at the other end of the city. Here the grey, dull wall is not displayed as a beautiful piece of artwork. Instead, it replicates how the wall used to be when it was in operation. Guard towers are left erected, the “death strip” is still replicated, there are barbed wire and signal fences, there are anti-vehicle traps, patrol roads, and so on. Visitors are able to walk this part of the wall and learn along the way at information points all about its history and the brutal ways in which it kept citizens imprisoned within East Germany.

I hope that the studies are going well for those of you who are just starting the second semester. As I mentioned before, I am still in the winter semester for another month. I am starting to feel the pressure of final papers and assignments that are due soon. I will be of course exploring more of Berlin the next weeks and I will keep you all updated with my experiences. Until next time!

View from an observation platform overlooking the "death strip" section

View from an observation platform overlooking the “death strip” section

London Revisited

Hi again!

Veronika here, reporting from London.

I hope you all enjoyed your break (minus the ice storm if you were in Toronto) while I was slaving over my final essays. I finally handed them in a week ago, so I had a full five days to relax. Not optimal, but I guess it’s still something.

I’m back in London now as of Sunday and it’s been weird getting back into the swing of things. I expect I’ll be tired for about a week while I adjust to the pace of life here. But even so, I’m happy to be back! I missed the cafes, the pubs, and, of course, my friends here.

I’ve only been here for two days, so not much to report, but I did take a few snaps…

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St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I just love the mix of architecture in London.

I also made it to the top floor of my university building and found out that it has quite a nice view (as well as a library I didn’t know about)!

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London, you stunner. Guess I’ll be spending more time on the top floor in between classes.

But as much as I like where I live, I plan on travelling a lot more this semester. Ideally I’d like to go to Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, and Paris. But I’ll see where life takes me – and I’ll be sure to blog about it.

Til next time,

– Veronika



City of Opposites

Penelope Cruz is from here. That was 99% of why I came to Madrid, but as it turns out there’s much more to love about this place. I’ve been here since September, but it would be impossible to cram 4 months’ worth of stories and pictures into a single post. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the best and the worst of what I’ve experienced so far. As this is my first post, a bit of background on me: I’m…you don’t care. You came to read about Spain. Fine then. Here it is:


Fullscreen it to really take it in.

As you can see, the word “beautiful” wouldn’t do it justice. It’s also not enough fully describe Madrid’s unique vibe. One thing that stands out is how seemingly opposite concepts come together so perfectly in this city. For starters, it’s fascinating how the classic architecture meets modern, top-of-the-line infrastructure. The streets are lined with buildings that look like a something out of a history book, and yet you can get anywhere within minutes through well-build roads with smooth traffic and a transit system that puts the TTC to shame (or Translink for readers back home. Pretty much just mom -__-).







Another beautiful set of opposing ideas is the blend of big-city energy and small town tradition that brings the city to life. The best example of this happens every Sunday, and it’s called El Rastro. Every Sunday morning, a neighbourhood called La Latina fills up with vendors setting up stalls, tents and blankets on the ground to sell clothes, accessories, art, toys, human kidneys, souvenirs, and plenty of other things for incredibly cheap. I’m lying about the kidneys (duh), but there are plenty of random things sold here that you could never find anywhere else, and that’s a huge part of what draws thousands of people here every week.

rastro 2

Rastro 1

The streets are completely crowded with people, and yet somehow over all the chatter of flocking Spaniards and tourists the sellers manage to make themselves heard as they yell out their offers. There are tons of great deals, but on my first visit I bought a couple of polo shirts on impulse and learned the hard way not to get too excited when I see cheap prices…


The traditional Spanish spirit isn’t just at El Rastro. It’s everywhere and every day in   coffee shops teeming with overly affectionate couples and tapa restaurants lively with music. It’s in every narrow, one way street where kids play soccer football on makeshift fields and neighbours share beers and engage in loud conversations late into the night. I love the sound of it all but it’s almost impossible to tell if they are arguing or not, for two main reasons: 1. Spaniards tends to be loud and direct, even when being friendly and 2. I don’t know what they’re saying because I can barely understand Spanish.

My absolute favorite thing about Spain, the language, is the one thing that’s caused me the most trouble. I showed up way too confident, and despite only having one semester of Spanish class under my belt I thought it’d be fine to come here and take university classes in Spanish. Reality slapped me in the face from very first day of class.

I was expecting to hear:

“Buenos días clase. Me llamo Rosa. Soy la profesora.”

But instead it was more:

“Hola chicos hoyvamosaempezaconlossiwechuwudnmiowufndd…….”

 “Repeat that por favor? Yo no understand.”

Fortunately, Spanish people are some of the most approachable, friendly and helpful people in the world, so because of my classmates I managed to get through a semester. The only thing left to deal with was by far cruelest thing about Spanish universities: exams are right after the holidays.

It would have been great to enjoy those two and a half weeks of holidays to their full potential, but it’s not exactly easy when the imminent threat of 5 exams slowly gnaws away at your thoughts. Despite that, Madrid did a great job keeping us poor students distracted and entertained with what is definitely the most awe-inspiring holiday spirit I’ve ever seen.

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The holiday period culminated on the night of the December 31st with a Time-Square-like atmosphere in the dead centre of the city. As is customary here, thousands of people counted down the final seconds of 2013 together at Puerta del Sol  and then right after that, ate 12 grapes – one grape every second, for the first 12 seconds of the year. I don’t get it either but trust me it was beautiful.

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That’s not even scratching the surface of the multitude of traditions and beliefs that define this city. Madrid visually stunning – so much that it’s the only thing that made me start using Instagram regularly #shamelessselfpromo. But behind beyond the pretty sights and the delicious food there is an incredibly interesting culture and history that I’m still just starting to get to know.

As the second half of this exchange begins, I’ll be happy to share as much as I can about those but also some of the more mundane, day-to-day aspects of Madrid and its people. In these first months, I’ve really gotten interested in the subtle differences between young people in Spain and us Canadians: how they live, how they think, in school, night-life, relationships etc. Hopefully, I’ll also get to share a bit about whatever other cities and countries I can manage to afford visiting. But anyway, there are months ahead to get that all out. For now, I’ll end here and wish you all good luck with the New Year.

Until next time,

Jonny K