Bye-bye Europe

At this writing, I’m getting ready to pack up my things and say farewell to Europe. I can’t believe that after four months of being abroad, visiting new places and seeing new things, my time here is finally over… It felt like it was never going to end!

I’ve been spending my last few days in Amsterdam with one of the closest friends I’ve met on my journey, and it’s been interesting to see people get revved up for Christmas in another place… I’ve been hearing a lot of the same Christmas carols, seeing a lot of different traditions I’ve never seen, but overall the feeling of Christmas is much the same as it is in Canada. Family, friends, and food!

Although I’ll be so sad to leave Europe (I think it’s called “reverse culture shock”… I might have to get readjusted back into Canadian society!), I must admit I’m getting antsy to be back home with friends and family and enjoy a (hopefully) white Christmas. All I know is that I’ll have a LOT of memories to take back with me.

In the end, the past semester has been an incredible experience – Europe has been everything everyone said it would be, and then some! Four months, countless countries, great food, and amazing people – I’ve been so lucky to have had such a great opportunity spending a semester abroad. By not only visiting a different culture but also living and studying there, I feel like you really get a feel for a place in way that you couldn’t by just vacationing.

In the end, I bid adieu to Europe, for now at least, and look forward to my return to Canada.

Until we meet again!

Patrick

 

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

Adjusting to Being Abroad

As is the case with starting a new school in any area, it takes a while to get adjusted.

I was a little skeptical coming to Denmark for school, as not only is it a new school in a different part of the world, but with it comes a new culture, a new set of rules, and a new language.

I realized I was lucky when I found out that literally everybody in Denmark can speak English. Apparently it’s been part of the grade school curriculum for decades, so even the older population is fluent. That in itself made life so much easier.

The university curriculum itself is a lot different from what I’m used to at U of T. Instead of being grades and testing based, classes at Aarhus are very discussion and essay based. Both curriculums offer different things, but I must admit school here seems a lot less intense than what I’m used to at U of T!

Aarhus does a great job of integrating new students into the social aspect of the school community. Campus parties, club nights and pub nights are held by the school societies very often, and it’s a great way to meet a lot of people from all over the world. It’s funny to note that in making friends, most of the internationals have stuck together, while the Danish students seem pretty settled within their own groups. Most of the friends I’ve made here have come from other parts of the world, like me, and it’s been a really cool chance to learn about a lot of different cultures. There are people from Ireland, England, Australia, Germany, Spain, as well as a few other people from Toronto.

The currency here, the Danish kroner, may be one of the hardest parts to adjust to… One kroner is comparable to about 5 Canadian dollars – so 20 dollars Canadian is about 100 kroner. It’s easy to feel like you have a lot more money than you actually do (something I’ve had to deal with more often than I’d like to admit!)

The fact that everyone speaks English has definitely made transitioning here a lot easier. For everyone living in Denmark for more than 3 months, you are able to enroll in a Danish language course for free for up to 3 years. I was going to do this, but once I realized everyone speaks English (and when would I ever really use Danish again?), I decided to not take advantage of that – I’ll focus on my schoolwork instead!

So basically, getting adjusted to life in Denmark hasn’t been too hard. I think the only trouble I’ve really had adjusting has been with the weather… The culture is great, but this rain?! Not so much!

 

Take care and safe travels,

Patrick

Misadventures in Spain

I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in Spain over my fall break with a great friend of mine. It was here that I learned that having a solid “in-case-of-emergency” backup fund is really important.

Unlike my usual trips (in which I’ve gone without itinerary or anything booked, and hoped for the best), we booked all hotels, flights, and other expenses in advance.

We landed in Malaga, Spain and jumped on a bus to a place called Marbella, a beautiful beach town in which I was looking forward to unwinding and getting that ever-elusive tan I’d long lost with the early arrival of fall in Denmark.

The first few days in Spain were absolutely amazing. The place was breathtaking – beautiful sunny weather, sandy white beaches, and palm trees spanning the coast. We spent our days lounging around the beaches, and our nights at restaurants and bars with good food and fine wines. Life was good… maybe a little too good.

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Beautiful Spain!

About two days before the end of our trip, we flat out ran out of money.  A mishap with the hotel (costing us €70 on top of our bill), a cutting-it-too-close rush to the airport and thus having to pay an extra €60 for baggage check, and the realization that the hotel payment hadn’t yet been processed by credit card quickly turned our trip from a dream to a bit of a nightmare.

Scraping together any and all of the money we could find in our Savings, Chequings, and/or Credit accounts, we paid off the hotel bill – but just barely. Two days left in Spain with barely any cash, our trips to restaurants quickly turned to trips to the nearest convenience store for some trail mix to share… Two days of this may have put a damper on our vacation, but luckily having the sand and sun made it hard to really complain.

However, after bidding adieu to my friend at the airport (he was flying off Saturday, me Sunday), I headed for the €7 hostel I’d found online. Sure, it was a far cry from the nice hotels we’d been staying at, and bound to be the sketchiest sleep I’d ever have in my life, but as long as they had wifi I’d be down to just curl up in bed, relax, and not have to worry anymore about money.

I then realized that after the bus ride to the city centre I was now a few euros short for the hostel… Having already used up everything else I had, I had no choice but to try and ask someone on the street if they could maybe, possibly, help me out. Realizing no one spoke English very well (and not knowing a single word in Spanish myself), asking for help eventually turned into a desperate game of charades: pointing at the few euros I had, and showing my passport to prove I wasn’t just a homeless person. I finally (miraculously) managed to scrounge up the money for the hostel, and settled in for my last (and by far least luxurious) sleep in Spain.

So Spain was an experience to say the least. I got to experience some beautiful things, and for sure experienced some ugly things as well. I survived, I’m happy to say, and when I look back, I’ll be sure to remember the beauty. :)

Safe travels and take care,

Patrick

How to survive in France (without knowing a lick of French)

Before starting my semester in Denmark, I got the chance to travel the beautiful and ultra-iconic country of France. I visited three areas overall: Nice, in Southern France, Lyon, and of course, Paris. While all three of these places were unquestionably “French” in every way, they all offered undeniably different experiences.

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The beautiful Mediterranean coastline of France

 

France is, without question, a one-of-a-kind country. The landscape, the architecture, the climate (in late August, the weather was perfect), and of course, the food! – it was all everything I could have hoped for.

It was also, interestingly, the first place in my travels where I encountered people who didn’t speak English. Having to rely on my memory of high school French (which I hadn’t taken since grade 10, and, admittedly, never really had a great grasp on) wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do.

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Duck – a delicious introduction to French cuisine

My first stop was Nice, a small coastal city in Southern France. I went with a friend I had met in Amsterdam, who had a pretty good grasp of the language… So with him taking the wheel on communicating with anyone we encountered, Southern France was a breeze. And “breeze” is the perfect way to begin a description of this area: a small and beautiful town bordering the gorgeous Mediterranean coast, the area was quaint but very chic, with stunning architecture and absolutely breathtaking views. Relaxing by the beach, working on my tan, and checking out the small shops and cafés was a wonderful way to pass my time there.

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Nighttime in Nice, France

Next stop was the city of Lyon, where I met up with a few friends I knew from Toronto. It was great to see some familiar, friendly faces (not to mention sleep in a non-hostel bed!).

I also got the chance to check out a few French house parties while I was there. It was cool to see how young people in another culture get together and unwind. The parties were so much fun, and surprisingly very similar to house parties in Canada. Good times with good people, and absolutely crazy – albeit craziness in a different language. The most shocking aspect of these get-togethers (to me at least) was that everyone really did greet each other by doing the generic kiss-kiss to each cheek that I’ve seen so many times on TV and always associated with France.

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Lyon, France – the country’s third largest city

Lastly, I spent a few days in the one-and-only City of Lights: Par-ee. Paris was everything I expected, and more – a busy and fast-paced city, but in a way totally different from North American cities that I can’t quite put my finger on. Glamorous and chic to some people, murky and vulgar to others, I had learned long ago from close friends’ and relatives’ attitudes that people either love the city or hate it.

I would say I fall into the former category: to me, the city was absolutely gorgeous. So cultured, so much history, and absolutely beautiful architecture (much of which I had been introduced to years ago via TV and film)… But so different to experience with my own eyes!

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The one-and-only “Tour Eiffel”!

It was honestly a great city to explore on my own. Although not being able to really communicate effectively with anyone I met, I did somehow manage to survive and find my way around – with a lot of hand gestures, pointing, and choppy, disconnected phrases (which didn’t exactly gain me that much respect from anyone I encountered!).

But with or without a grasp on the French language, France was a beautiful country. It was exciting to see so many things I had grown up seeing in books, on TV, and in the movies with my own eyes. An experience I’ll never forget, I can’t wait to go back – I guess this gives me an excuse to brush up on these lacking French skills!

 

Take care, and safe travels!

Patrick

Fitness Abroad

Fitness is a big part of my life. Not only does it keep me in shape, but I feel great and my mind is a lot sharper (and I need all the help I can get in that department!). Staying fit was one of my biggest concerns about travelling around Europe. Keeping up with the gym and eating healthy isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do while you’re living out of a backpack.

Throughout my travels, however, I’ve picked up a few tips on how to maintain a (pretty much) healthy lifestyle, while still enjoying all that a culture has to offer. And I can attest that at the end of my three-week travels, I felt great, and didn’t have a gut… So there’s always that!

Italy - swimming is definitely a fun way to stay fit!

Swimming in Italy is definitely a fun way to stay fit.

Tip #1 – Make the time

The best thing about backpacking, fitness-wise, is that you’re walking all the time – so it’s nice to think of it as cancelling out a lot of the extravagant eating you’ll be doing while “sampling” a new culture. That’s why when I had downtime I tried to find good toning and strengthening exercises to keep my body from getting too soft.

It really isn’t hard during the afternoons or evenings that you have a few hours to yourself to fit in a quick workout in order to keep your body energized. Searching up a 10/20-minute ab workout on my phone via wifi, then heading back to my hostel room and throwing in a quick workout before I got showered and changed for the night’s activities was an easy way to keep up with some of my usual fitness activities.

Tip #2 – Find a gym

For the exercises/workouts that require equipment, you can’t exactly do these in your room… And I wasn’t really feeling carrying around a couple of weights in my backpack.

Many gyms offer a one-day pass to check out the facilities, and travelling is the perfect time to take advantage of that. It’s a great way to get access to equipment you obviously wouldn’t while on the go, and ultimately keep your muscles and tone from totally disappearing.

During these gym days, I stayed away from cardio – I’d been getting more than enough walking in through my backpacking adventures. So the gym days were mainly aimed at weight lifting, and using the machines to strengthen up and tone.

Tip #3 – Eat healthy

Apparently salads don't always have to be boring

Salads don’t always have to be boring!

 

My main concern with eating healthy during my travels was not what I ordered while I was at a restaurant. One of the best parts of travelling is the cuisine – it’s exciting to sample all of the cultural delicacies each country has to offer… You only live once, right?

It was during my before mentioned “down time”, the times I was walking/traveling or resting up in my hostel or grabbing a bite before a night out, that I made sure to choose the healthiest foods I could.

I focused mainly on whole foods during these times – fruits, vegetables, even those pre-made salads you find in grocery stores. Quick, easy to grab-and-go, and inexpensive. It’s important to also grab a source of protein to keep you energized for your long travels. Nuts, trail mix, and even little bags of cheese were saviours for me – once again, very easy to grab on the go.

In the end, it’s not about sacrificing the enjoyment of a new culture in order to stay healthy, but rather just including healthy choices within your travels whenever you can.

Having said that, if given a choice between a boring salad and an exciting exotic dessert – choose the dessert. You can always work it off when you get back home! 😉

French macaroons - you don't always have to think fitness!

French macaroons – now how can you say no to that?!

Obviously this is not a step-by-step guide, but just a few smart choices to keep in mind. Of course, it’s important to not overdo it! But just keep these tips in mind and, trust me, you’ll feel all the better for it.

 

Safe (and healthy) travels!

Patrick

10 Ways to Fall in Love With Amsterdam

Before I began my travels in Europe, Amsterdam wasn’t even on my list of must-see places – I kind of just ended up travelling there on a whim. But once I got there, I completely fell in love! So laid-back, so beautiful, so clean… I basically had to drag myself out of the country at the end of my stay.

I stayed there for four days, and on the way picked up a few helpful hints for anyone hoping to visit this “land of wooden shoes”.

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1. Stop and smell the flowers

Amsterdam is famous for its tulips, so this is a given. Not that I’m that much of a flower guy, but I can tell you they definitely live up to the hype. Beautiful!

2. Go on a canal tour

I recommend this first of all. Since Amsterdam is just one big city full of canals, this is a great way to see pretty much every part of the city close-up.

My original plan for the canal tour was to flag any sights I was really interested in, and then go back to them when I got back on land. Only thing is I totally forgot where any of the stuff I wanted to see was once the tour ended… Fail. So my advice is to bring a map!

Views from the canal.

Views from the Amsterdam canals.

3. Catch up with van Gogh

The Van Gogh Museum is located in an area called Museumplein, which contains – shocker! – most of the city’s museums. I checked out quite a few of the museums, but van Gogh was probably the most iconic/worth writing about. Not even one mention of him cutting off his ear though, sadly.

4. Go to the city zoo

If you need a break from all of the history, architecture, and space cakes Amsterdam has to offer, the zoo is a great place to spend an afternoon. This place was huge! So many animals, the garden is beautiful, and the restaurant there was actually really good too.

Visit to the Artis Royal Zoo. Cutie!

Visit to the Artis Royal Zoo. Cutie!

5. Hit the town!

While I was there, Amsterdam really came to life at night. Every single night felt like a Saturday night! Which is saying something, since my stay was mostly during the start of the week (Monday-Thursday). The restaurants, the bars, even the streets… everything was jumping. One can only imagine how crazy the actual weekend would be!

Amsterdam Cafe at night!

Amstercity at night!

6. Eat pickled fish… (Or not)

No getting away from this delicacy! I was lucky enough to witness my Amsterdam friend indulge in some pickled herring, a cheap Amsterdam street food. Sadly (…note sarcasm) I didn’t get a chance to try some myself. Boo hoo.

I think I'm gonna pass on this one.

I think I’m gonna pass on this one.

7. Go see Anne Frank’s House

This is a must-do. As the name implies, a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking walk through the house where the Frank family hid during WWII. Simply breathtaking… Especially when you see how big the line-up is waiting to get in. But trust me, totally worth it!

The line-up for the Anne Frank Museum... No words.

The queue waiting to get into the Anne Frank Museum… No words.

8. Check out the red light district

Before I came to Amsterdam, everyone told me the red light district is a must-see. It was definitely an experience – I was surprised at how many tourists, kids, and older people there were. It was kind of like a risqué Disneyland… during the day at least. I’m sure at night it’s a different story – I’ll leave that for another blog, though!

9. Go see the windmills

Okay, so I didn’t actually do this, sadly. But the Netherlands is famous for its windmills, so I feel like no Amsterdam to-do list would be complete without mention. However, I did take a picture of a store that had a windmill attached… That’s like the same thing, right?

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Use your imagination.

10. Stop by a café

Honestly, this goes for anywhere in Europe… such a cliché, to sit outside of a roadside café and sip a coffee, but you have to do it. If not for the European-style coffee (so frothy!), then for the free wifi! Brownie points if you wear a beret.

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BONUS: one way to NOT fall in love with Amsterdam… using your credit card as collateral to get a gym day pass, and then forgetting to pick it back up again before you leave the country… Yeah, that totally happened. I guess my visit couldn’t be all positives!

In the end, Amsterdam more than lived up to its great reputation. I’d always heard amazing things about it, but it’s not until I actually visited that I completely understood the hype.

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Basically, I’ve found love in Europe, and it’s Amsterdam. Sadly, it’ll have to be long distance for now, but I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again soon!

– Patrick

An Introduction to Denmark

Rain, rain, go away… Come again another day.

On second thought, you really don’t have to come back at all.

It is with this new found mantra that I begin my term at Aarhus University, in the beautiful country of Denmark.

The many colours of Copenhagen, Denmark's capital.

The many colours of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital.

First of all, I have to admit that upon choosing Denmark as my country for exchange, I knew little about it – its customs, its people, or its climate. In all honesty, the only thing I did know when choosing my host school was that I wanted to do a semester abroad in Europe… Anywhere in Europe.

The school I ended up choosing seemed to fit perfectly. Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, has a university with a solid psychology program, courses taught in English (my aptitude for languages is, let’s just say, not the best), and a semester that lined up with U of T’s so I could return for my last spring term at home. Jackpot!

When the sun is shining, Aarhus University's campus is breathtaking. I could get used to this!

When the sun is shining, Aarhus University’s campus is breathtaking. I could get used to this!

It was after deciding on Aarhus and beginning preparation for my departure to a new country that I started gaining more information about good old Denmark.

The first thing I learned (something I’m still very curious about!) is that Denmark has consistently ranked within the top 3 of the “happiest countries in the world”. So far, it’s not hard to see why this place is so happy – life here definitely seems a lot more laid-back than the busy streets of Toronto I’ve become accustomed to. And everyone is just so friendly!

That brings me to one of the things I love most about this area of the world – the people. As soon as I stepped off the plane and into Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, I felt a welcoming air from everyone I met. Being the silly foreigner, I had no choice but to ask a lot of stupid questions, fumble a lot with this strange new money (Danish kroner, by the way), and look at everyone with stunned Bambi eyes whenever they tried to speak Danish to me. Everyone I met, however, took this in stride (not to mention with a lot more patience than most of the people I know back home would’ve!), and that made all the difference. Friendly people make going to a strange new corner of the world just that much easier. And Aarhus has even come to gain the nickname “the City of Smiles” – now how you can you not be happy living in a town with a name like that?

Aarhus, "The City of Smiles".

Aarhus, “The City of Smiles”.

Unfortunately, there was one thing that I hadn’t learned about before arriving in Denmark, something I was totally unprepared for… the weather.

Being a self-proclaimed sun worshipper, it was with extreme disappointment I discovered that the long stretch of rainy, cloudy weather we’d been having here in Denmark wasn’t just a fluke – it was a fact of life. Having packed a plentiful supply of shorts, tanks, and sunscreen (perhaps a little too optimistically… it is Northern Europe after all), it’s with sadness (and a little fear) that I continually hear the phrase, “You think the weather’s bad now? Wait until October…”

Regardless of the weather, Aarhus is a beautiful place, rain or shine. It’s a small city of about 300,000, that somehow has the intimate feeling of a tiny European village wrapped up in its hustle and bustle. Turning one corner out of the main and very chic shopping street, brings you right into a quaint, close-knit, village-like neighbourhood. So basically, I can take in the feel of small town Europe, while at the same time being seconds away from some of the country’s best shopping. Definitely not complaining!

I'll leave you with the image of a typical Danish breakfast. Tell me, how does everyone here stay so fit?!

I’ll leave you with the image of a typical Danish breakfast. Tell me, how does everyone here stay so fit?!

In short, it’s with excitement (and without my sunglasses, sadly) that I begin my term, and look forward to an eventful stay in Europe. Let’s see if I can survive this rain, and figure out the secret to Denmark’s happiness!

Cheers,

Patrick