Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye to my room

Saying goodbye to my room

That fateful day had come at last. I always new it would. I had to leave Durham without any plans to return. My exchange had ended, it was time to head home. But I didn’t feel like I was heading home – I felt like I was leaving it. Durham had become my home; my friends lived there, I had memories there, I felt at home there. The thought of being homesick for my house in Vancouver had long ago vanished, replaced in stead by the knowledge I would feel homesick for Durham when I got back to UBC.

So this is the first blog post since I left for Durham that will be written in Vancouver, instead of Durham. I’m not sure if my feelings can really be captured in a post, but the word surreal comes to mind. It’s like a day that always seemed so far in the future suddenly reared its head and you see the life you got used to vanish in an instant. Other exchange students will know what I mean and I think that experiencing it is the only way to really understand the feeling.

Let me start out this post with the briefest descriptions of my goodbye (it was very low key). I had a 6:30 train to catch out of Durham on Friday morning, meaning I needed a quiet night before. I figured a few drinks at our college bar with friends was good enough. Many of my friends had already left so there were only maybe 5 of my close friends at the bar, but plenty of other friends were also there. I went to bed relatively early since I had to be up at 5:30 to have a shower, finish packing, return my key, and get to the train station. I had already asked a friend to help bring my stuff to the train station because I had two heavy bags. The next morning, I was surprised (and grateful) to see more of my friends had woke up early (despite going out the previous night) to see me off.

I hate goodbyes – for me it’s always “see you around” or “see you when I see you” or something along those lines. I don’t like the emotional and long winded farewells and basically avoid them, but I’ll admit there was a tear in my eye when I was saying goodbye to my friends. These are the people that saw me through some incredibly trying times, often without knowing it, and I will miss them dearly. And so I know it wasn’t goodbye – not really. I’ll see all of them again, when we’ve got some new stories to tell. But enough about me, here are a few tips on how to deal with saying goodbye to your new home.

Give Yourself Time for Fun

The comedown of ending an exchange is pretty dramatic, don’t make it worse by coming home right after exams end. For me this was easy – Durham has three weeks at the end of the year with no classes, exams, or assignments due meaning I could hang out with my friends, decompress, and get ready mentally to leave. Whether this takes the form of sticking around to backpack for a few weeks, visiting friends in their hometowns, or just visiting that one city you have yet to cross off your bucket list, giving yourself time for fun before coming home is crucial.

Stay Active

I think this is really my most important tip. When you get back to your hometown or UBC, keep yourself busy. Plan to see all your friends right away, have lots of exciting adventures planned, just don’t stay at home and watch Netflix all day. Not only is this a good way to deal with jet lag, but it’s hard to feel homesick when you’re constantly out of the house doing things. For example, I’ve spent countless hours on the beach, gone on a couple of hikes, saw all my family, had a BBQ, spent an afternoon shopping downtown, watched Jurassic World, all since getting home late Friday night. The less time you spend dwelling on what you miss the better.

Remind Yourself You’ll Go Back

One of the things you’ll learn when you go on exchange is that after living somewhere else for a year you leave a piece of yourself behind when you leave. It’ll always feel like home and you’ll always yearn to go back and one day you will. Whether it’s a year from now or 20 years from now, you’ll see the familiar sights, visit all your old haunts, and go back.

Don’t Make a Huge Deal Out of It

I’m not sure if this advice works for everyone, but for me saying goodbye is best kept a small affair. I don’t like to get all my friends together to say bye or go out of my way to talk to people who I’m not very close with. I tried to say goodbye to the people I had grown to consider like family but I didn’t go out of my way to have awkward, half-hearted farewells.

There’s my advice, it’s not the best and it’s pretty general but everyone has to find their own way of saying goodbye. This isn’t going to be my last post, I have a few more coming, but we’re nearing the end of this adventure. For now, I’m signing off.


An Odd Affair

Well this post will be a bit unusual because I had a bit of an unusual night a couple of weeks ago. It started out pretty normally; me and a few friends planned on going out to a house music night at one of the clubs in Durham but somewhere completely different. It’ll be a short post but I thought I’d share a different side of what can happen on exchange.

It all started out as a normal night, we had a few drink at our building before heading off to the club. We tried to dress a little edgy which meant my friend was wearing a white tank top with a borrowed shirt over top and I was in a pink tank top with a pink shirt over it. We got to the club and it was pretty dead (the house music night is known for being pretty disappointing and in that sense it didn’t disappoint). I said hey to the few people I knew there and we spent a bit of time there before deciding to leave. We’d managed to pick up a couple of police hats before leaving the building.

We didn’t really want to go home so we figured we’d finish the night in a different club that we thought would have more people and be generally better. We got out of the club and were a bit excited so we ran down the street and my friend decided to ‘parkour’ (jump) of a couple cars as we went. Big mistake apparently. I was ahead of him and wondering where he went and so turned around to see him on the ground with a big guy grabbing him. One of the cars he had jumped on belonged to a bouncer who had run after him and punched him in the face, dropping him to the ground. The bouncer held on to him and walked him back to the club.

At this point my other friends and I were very confused – we weren’t sure what had happened and stood around waiting to see what was going to happen. Shortly a bouncer walked over and grabbed me and told me “the CCTV said to get you” but refused to actually tell me why he was grabbing me or what the CCTV showed. Police arrived (4 at first but later another 4 would show up) and chatted to him while I stood around in my costume police hat waiting for someone to tell me what was going on. A bouncer kept telling the police that the CCTV said to get me but never told the police what it showed. Eventually my friend was arrested and taken away in a police car while I was given a ‘dispersal notice’ that meant I needed to leave the area.

I went home and sent a quick email to my family who would be visiting soon to let them know what happened, just in case it wasn’t fully resolved when they arrived. It would be the next morning, when my friend was released, that we would find out what happened. He had been shown the CCTV footage and apparently after he jumped on the car, the camera had zoomed in on me slowly for whatever reason and so they thought I was involved.

And that is the story of my first police encounter. I won’t claim to be an expert on dealing with police encounters but I will say this – cooperate, be calm, don’t freak out. And hey, you might end up with a story to tell.


Exams and Exchange

Bill Bryson Library – My home these days!

Today’s post is going to be a little more real than my posts usually are; we aren’t talking about the glamorous side of exchange today. Instead I’ll be writing about one of the least popular times of any year – exam time. Yes, even if you’re on exchange you have to write exams. And no, they aren’t magically better than they would be at UBC. I’ve taken a break between reading “Perception and Action Are Based on the Same Visual Information: Distinction Between Position and Velocity” and reading “Dynamical systems approach to emotional development” to write this post so trust me, you’ll have exams.

The first thing I’ll say about studying for exams while on exchange is that it will probably be tougher in a lot of ways than usual. The exams will be in a different format, there are different expectations, you probably don’t have the same academic background as your coursemates, and you probably just don’t have a lot of motivation. It’s no secret that student’s go on exchange to relax and explore the world for a year. While it is a great way to improve your resume, gain new perspectives, and challenge yourself, it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and you probably didn’t travel thousands of miles to spend three weeks living in the library. But I think it’s worth spending at least the exam season really putting in some good academic work.

Getting good grades while on exchange can really impress a grad school, if you choose to go to one. Imagine being able to say “While studying abroad at [my institution], I was challenged by the new academic expectations that I had to adjust to.  However I was able to adapt quickly and overcome those challenges and managed to thrive when I was faced with adversity.” Of course grad schools will love this – it demonstrates resilience, hard work, flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to thrive under pressure. Doing well at one school, in one setting, in one country is great. Doing well at more than one makes you really stand out.

It’s also an opportunity to gain the most from your degree. One of the things students often lose sight of is that they are a student – they’re paying tuition fees to gain not just a degree but an education. Going on exchange and putting in that effort during exams (and the rest of the year) makes that education all the more valuable. If you’re studying International Relations and are seeking a job in the field, the experience you gain from going abroad and developing that international perspective is incredibly valuable. It’s something truly unique to an exchange and can really help in your future career.

Good grades and hard work during exams can also help your employability. Take my exchange to the United Kingdom, for example. Employers in the UK look very closely at grades during University – in the UK you graduate with either a 1st, 2:1, 2:2, or 3rd and this relates to your academic performance. If I ever am looking for a career in the UK, being able to show both my degree from UBC and a strong performance at a UK university will really make me stand out from the crowd for the exact reasons I’ve discussed above. Good grades while you’re on exchange can make the difference between being an average candidate and an exceptional one.

I feel compelled, however, to discuss the inverse as I think a lot of students will struggle while on exchange as it is a challenging experience, both academically and personally. Personally, I have faced an uphill battle when it comes to academics this year as my courses are in very different areas than my focus at UBC. When it comes to Political Science I’ve always focused on Canadian politics and shockingly Durham has no courses in this area. I’ve taken some very Britain and Euro-centric courses instead, including one on political economy and one on theory – two fields I have no real experience with. Psychologically speaking I’m taking neuropsych which is about as far from social psychology as you can get. While I’ve enjoyed all my courses immensely it hasn’t been easy and I don’t necessarily recommend going so wild with course selection, particularly if you choose to do upper year courses like I have.

But moving past that, I think there are a few things to keep in mind if you do struggle while on your exchange. Most importantly is that you shouldn’t let academic struggles prevent you from enjoying the cultural experiences you went on exchange for. I’m not saying give up, but don’t take it personally. Keep going on weekend adventures, spending time with new friends, seeing new things. Academic struggles can replace things like Netflix and Buzzfeed instead of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

It’s also not the end of the world if you come out of the exchange disappointed in your grades. As long as you can articulate to an employer or graduate school why your grades while on exchange are not a reflection of your overall character and achievements, there’s no reason they should discount you because you struggled for a year.  While it is great to be able to say ‘look at how well I did!’, it is entirely okay to say ‘I’ll admit I struggled academically but I also gained a lot of skills while abroad’. If your grades post-exchange match your grades pre-exchange, it will be easy to do this.

To make your exams easier, I think it’s a good idea to stick around in your new home country or region for a little longer after the academic year ends. Exams are stressful enough without the added emotional toll from saying goodbye to a place you’ve grown to love. I had to say goodbye to one of my close friends in Durham before an exam and it was hard, I’ll admit it. So stick around for a while so that you have something to look forward to while writing exams, instead of something to dread. Maybe take a trip with a few friends or just relax and enjoy their company. But don’t add to your own stress by trying to leave the moment you put down your pen.

As a final thought, I’ll quote one of my favourite professors at UBC – Catherine Rawn. Before every exam, Dr Rawn sits her class down at tells them that no exam can define them as a person. No matter how badly it goes, it is not a reflection of their entire self worth. So don’t stress out too much, don’t worry too much, work hard and have fun. Isn’t that what exchange is about at the end of the day?


A Tale of Two Cathedrals (and One Bone Church)

More my next story, I’ll tell the somewhat less adventurous tale of a day trip I took from Prague to the small city of Kutna Hora just about 70km away. I’ve chosen this one because it’s a fairly representative story on how my trip went. I met someone, got lost, found where I wanted to be, struggled with the train system, made it, walked a bit, saw a cathedral, walked a bit, saw a church, got lost, found where I wanted to be, saw a cathedral, got lost, found a train home, got home, had good beer. Basically everyone of my days travelling can be summed up using those things in some order.

So let’s start the day out. I was staying in a hostel fairly near the centre of Prague and I woke up fairly early to try and get an early start to the day. My friend, a middle-aged Australian man, asked if I minded if he tagged along. Always happy to have company, I told him of course not. We set out for the train station on foot – I prefer walking if I can. The only problem is that apparently the train station in Prague is fairly removed from city centre – a solid half hour walk if you know the directions and we definitely did not. We had maps that gave us approximate directions but nothing fancy so that half hour walk? It took us a solid hour.

All this time I was getting to know this guy (who I later learned was named Joel – I’d forgotten it the moment he introduced himself). He was an interesting fellow – a sometimes actor, sometimes construction worker, he had packed up and gone backpacking when he realized he needed a change in his life. We found the train station and bought tickets to Kutna Hora – a fairly popular tourist destination. The tickets were, for all intents and purposes, gibberish to us. We had between us absolutely no knowledge of Czech and so only managed to find the correct train thanks to the generous help of at least three strangers. But we found it, and that’s what counts.

So we get to Kutna Hora and the train station is a half-hour walk out of town. No big deal, it’s an easy walk down a straight road that takes you right to the first of three major tourist attractions in the city – a Cathedral. It was a modest cathedral, as pictured below. Austere even, but none the less gorgeous. There was a pathway under the roof of the cathedral in basically the attic that gave visitors a unique look at how these buildings were, well, built.

Humble but beautiful.

Humble but beautiful.

Stop number two was nearby and the main attraction of the town. Known as the ‘Bone Church’, Kutna Hora’s ossuary is world renown for decorated with thousands of human bones. Former coats of arms, chandeliers, and large piles with no apparent purpose, these bones had belonged to tens of thousands of residents of nearby villages who wished to be buried in the graveyard that used to surround the church that was said to have dirt from Jerusalem in it. I’ve put a picture in for good measure.

Coat of Arm Bones? Morbid.

Coat of Arm Bones? Morbid.

Joel and I headed to our next and final stop in the city next. We decided to take a path off the beaten track, for some reason thinking that was a good idea. Naturally you can guess what happened next – we got lost. Very lost. Luckily for us, I had vaguely learned to use the sun to find cardinal directions and I knew which our goal was so we eventually found the cathedral we were searching for. It didn’t hurt that cathedrals form fairly obvious landmarks either!

This cathedral was a proper cathedral. Ornate as it was huge it was built on a hill overlooking the rest of the city. The view of Czech countryside was gorgeous, the cathedral was monumental, and the weather was gorgeous. I had an amazing time soaking it all in while Joel photographed all the artwork inside the cathedral (a hobby of his). I was, if anything, more interested in the countryside that surrounded the cathedral than the building itself. This was my first time in the countryside in a long time – my trip had only just started and I was ready to be out of the city.

A proper cathedral.

A proper cathedral.

So it was time to get lost again and we managed to do so quite efficiently. Trying to find the train station we ended up on the outskirts of town quite lost with only a vague sense of direction. We tried asking an elderly farming couple but they only spoke Czech and German and my German skills just weren’t up to it. Eventually we found our way back to the main road and the train station but again it was a pretty long search! Still, I don’t regret a single one of the times we got lost.

Luckily the ride home was easy enough, despite the fact that we almost got on a train headed in the opposite direction (and did accidentally send another tourist in that direction, despite our best efforts not to). When we got back to Prague we did the only responsible thing and tried ‘Tank beer’, a form of preservative free beer that’s dispensed from tanks and not kegs. With no reservations I can say it was the best beer I have ever had. Absolutely delicious, smooth, and refreshing after a long day on my feet.

Kutna Hora wasn’t as exciting as my train to Nowhere but it shows the other side of travel, where things are slow moving and fun. I had a great time with Joel and saw countless amazing things. I wouldn’t change a single minute of that day! I think if there’s any moral I’d learn from Kutna Hora, it’s that I get lost a lot. Like daily. And that’s okay with me.


Midnight Train Heading Nowhere

Belgrade - The Destination

Belgrade – The Destination

I’ve decided the best way to share my adventures are posts detailing a few of the adventures, instead of trying to recount the entire trip. Plus I’ve forgotten a lot of it so this way I can just recount the bits I remember. Today I’ll be sharing the story of how I ended up at a train station in a city I couldn’t pronounce and can’t remember the name of at 3am in Serbia with Americans, Spaniards, and luckily a few Germans who could read Cyrillic letters trying to find a train to Belgrade.

The story starts in Sofia, Bulgaria at about 8pm. I had booked a ticket to Belgrade on an overnight train including a couchette (seats converted to beds). The train was supposed to arrive at 5:30 the next morning and I planned on making my way straight to my hostel in order to catch a little shut-eye before exploring the city. I arrived at the train station and met an elderly Japanese-American man whose name eludes me. We got to talking and I learned he was on a bit of a round the world trip, at least insofar as he was crossing Asia and Europe. We found our train with relative ease and got on board to drop our bags off in our compartments.

According to one of the employees, there wouldn’t be very many people on the train and he was right. In the end it was us, another American, four ERASMUS students, and a family. The family mostly kept to themselves but the rest of us chatted before the train rolled out.  Shortly thereafter, the older man went to settle in his compartment while I spent some time getting to know two of the Erasmus students and the younger American. The two students were both Germans studying medicine in Sofia and the American was a 20-something programmer working for Google in California. The other two students were both Spanish but kept to themselves, presumably because one was feeling ill.

For the first few hours of the train ride we sat around and passed a bit of whiskey. Not much, but enough to make it feel a little bit rogue. The four of us we’re from fairly different backgrounds despite sharing similar views on a lot of things and the time passed quickly. At around 1:30 I decided to make for bed, hoping to get some sleep before we got into Belgrade. I had a compartment all to myself so things were looking pretty good, but as you might guess I didn’t sleep for four hours and wake up in Belgrade.

Instead I was woken minutes after dozing off by a train worker coming into my compartment, saying something I didn’t process, and leaving. I grudgingly stuck my head outside to learn something had happened to our train and we needed to get off and board a different train. I packed up all my stuff and got off the train, expecting a wait for a different train. To my relief (at the time) another train was waiting right there for us to board. This one was modern but a regional train – no couchettes for us.  All in all it wasn’t too bad, we were heading to Belgrade and we’d only been slightly delayed. The train was still somewhat comfortable, albeit bright and loud, so we settled down and all tried to get some sleep (except for the older man – he was wide awake after getting a few hours sleep).

Happy ending right? We get to Belgrade maybe an hour behind schedule and go about our lives right? Not quite. Apparently this train wasn’t going to Belgrade – it was just going to some city in the middle of nowhere Serbia. As romantic as a midnight train going nowhere might sound, I was pretty annoyed that we we’re being kicked off another train. If this were a Western European train journey this part might be straightforward but this far East customer service isn’t a priority. After being dropped off at this random train station we were left to find our own way to Belgrade. It was at this point that I made a joke about us exploring this random city the next day because we were stuck there.

Luckily for me, I’d made friends with the guys who could vaguely read the signage around us meaning all hope was not lost. They found a sign suggesting a train to Belgrade would be leaving at around 9am – not good, but it was something. At least we wouldn’t be stuck in Nowhere, Serbia for a full day. After waiting at this station for a good half hour we found an attendant and asked them if they could help us – we weren’t confident enough with the vague language skills to trust them. And for the first time that night, we got good news! A train would be leaving for Belgrade in about 30 minutes! We were elated – at this point it looked like we might get there only 2-3 hours behind schedule! Huzzah!

Naturally we were wrong, but for a solid hour we thought things were good. Sadly it turns out that we’d been put on another regional train and this train was the opposite of express. Whereas our original train was supposed to take maybe 2.5 hours to get from Nowhere to Belgrade, this train took closer to 6. Before getting on this train, we tried to get couchettes (we’d paid for them and this train had multiple sleep cars – it seemed fair to us) to no avail. The language barrier was insurmountable and we were turned away. So there we were, on a six hour train leaving Nowhere and headed for Belgrade in a dirty, cramped, bright, and loud compartment. Not my finest hour.

In the end the train made it (shockingly) and I got to Belgrade. Remember that 5:30 arrival time? Well I made it to my hostel at around 11:00 – emotionally destroyed, tired, hungry, and just looking for sleep. But I made it.

There are probably a few morals to this story, but I think the most important one is that you’ll make it. Travelling is supposed to be an adventure and every adventure has its missteps. If Frodo had made it to Mount Doom without a problem, the Lord of the Rings would have been pretty boring books. Enjoy the journey, make memories, and one day you’ll look back at it all and smile.


Practical, Philosophical, or Pedantic: Things I Learned While Backpacking

Me and Tiffany in Budapest

Me and Tiffany in Budapest

From mid March to mid April, I annoyed everyone I know by taking 5 weeks and living out of a backpack while travelling in Eastern Europe. From churches made of bone to horseburgers, it was definitely an adventure and I learned a few things along the way. I figure a few of these tips might come in handy if you ever plan on travelling and it’s a good post to put out while I decide how to share some of my experiences from the trip.

Pack Light

If there’s one thing I did right it was packing light. My backpack was 50L but because of the design could only really hold around 45L of stuff, meaning I was forced to pack light. I managed to pack almost exactly what I needed – I used everything I brought with me at least once and the only thing I forgot was a pair of shorts (and I hardly count that – who would’ve guessed it would be 26C in Vienna?!). If you’re staying in hostels, you’ll be able to do laundry so it’s not worth bringing more than a week’s worth of cloths (at most).

Free Tours are a Must

One of the best things you can do when travelling is take a free tour in the city you visit. The model is simple: the tour is free and at the end you can leave a tip if you think it was worth it.  If you’re a student on a strict budget, it can be small. If you loved the tour it can be bigger! These tours are great because they get you oriented in a new city, point out sights and restaurants you might want to return to, and are a great place to meet other travellers. My entire time in Budapest was spent with a few fellow travellers I met within an hour of getting to the city on a free tour!

Learn to Say Goodbye

It’s not the easiest word to say (or is it two words?), but goodbye is something travellers get used to saying quickly. Over my 5 week trip I probably said goodbye to 70-80 people who I have no way of staying in touch with.  A few people I befriended on Facebook or got an email from but for the most part these are people who passed through my life and I probably won’t see again. Saying goodbye is just something that becomes part of the routine for people who only spend a few days in each city.

Get A Back-Up Battery for your Phone!

Trust me when I say a portable phone charger is the most useful thing you will bring with you travelling. If you don’t know what I mean, here are a few examples. Some days you won’t be able to find a socket to charge your phone, some days you’ll use more than a full charge while out and about. One of these spare batteries might be able to charge your phone 4-5 times while on the go. I’m serious when I say I’m not sure where I’d be without my trusty back-up battery. Easily the most useful thing I brought with me.

Never Drink Alone Somewhere New

This is less something I learned first hand but more something I learned from a friend I met.  His name was Joel and he shared a hostel room with me. He went out drinking alone while in Prague and the next morning I woke up and his bed was not slept in.  I didn’t think much of it, assuming he found a local to spend the night with, but later that day I saw him an apparently he had spent the night in jail. According to him, he had been robbed and when he tried to tell police officers he saw, they detained him and put him in the Czech version of a drunk tank. Moral of the story? If you don’t speak the language, don’t drink alone.

Never Drink Alone Somewhere New

Seriously. Don’t.  I had another friend who had his jackets, keys, and wallet stolen and ended up needing to flee Prague because of a series of unfortunate events. Don’t drink alone y’all.

Hostel Location Matters Most

If you’re trying to pick a hostel, the location is most important. You won’t spend much time in your room (probably) so make sure you find a hostel somewhere in the city centre.

City Maps Can Replace Google Maps

When you’re travelling you won’t always have access to data, wifi, or Google Maps.  Instead I suggest picking up a city map that you can use instead! With simple map-reading skills and the knowledge that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, you can get around strange cities with ease.  Even when I had data in Vienna I relied mostly on my city map and not google maps – it’s just more fun!

Two Types of Fun

This is a brilliant pearl of wisdom I learned from a Californian programmer. There are two types of fun – type 1 and 2. Type 1 fun is fun in the instant.  Things like roller coasters, clubbing, and movies. It’s fun you have at the time.  Type 2 fun is fun that’s only really fun in retrospect.  It’s those activities that kind of suck when you’re doing them but you look back on them fondly. This can be having your train break down in the middle of the night in nowheresville Serbia, running 5k home to change into pants and then 5k back just to see an opera in Vienna, or trying to find a new route to your hostel at midnight in Bulgaria because the instructions you have are wrong (all three of which happened to me).  You might not love it at the time but you’ll love it the next day.

Bring your own Towel

Not every hostel provides a towel and sometimes the ones they do are pretty gross. Save yourself the stress by bringing your own. I used a “Micro Towelling Travel Towel” from Mountain Warehouse and it was perfect – quick drying and lightweight!

Stay Hydrated

The fastest way to having a bad time is to not stay hydrated. Drinking water throughout the day is a must when travelling, especially when it’s hot out.  Conversely, you might also want to keep a mental map of where the nearest public toilets are, just in case you need them.

You’ll Never Regret Walking Around a City at Night Instead of Watching Netflix

This is just something I noticed a few other travellers doing while I was abroad – they would spend the evenings in the hostel, sitting around and watching TV/playing on their phones/doing nothing.  Personally I think nighttime is the best time to experience a city and spent multiple hours wandering cities every night I could. Everything looks more interesting at night!

Talk to People

I feel like this might be the most repeated piece of travel advice in the history of ever, but it’s definitely the best piece of advice I can give. One of the best things about travel is that you never know who you’re going to meet. I museum curators, butchers, students, retirees, actors, software designers, journalists – the list goes on and on. I met people I would never, ever meet in my normal life and they were all incredible. I cannot recommend going out and talking to people enough.  Even as someone who enjoys time to myself when travelling, I would meet people everyday who were absolutely fascinating.  A few go to questions might be “What brings you to this part of the world?” or “Where are you from?”. The bonus of asking where someone is from is if they happen to be the same nationality as you (Canadians represent), they’ll be like instant best friends.

Keep a Journal

OK so I can technically claim I kept a journal while travelling. For about the first week I was good at recording my daily happenings and I found it pretty therapeutic. Sitting down at the end of the day with a beer (or soda, no judgement here) and going over the day and all the good/bad things that happened can be enjoyable. I fell off track when I started getting a little more tired and spent less time in each city making me feel more rushed, but it’s definitely something I would recommend to other travellers.


Those are my pieces of advice! Some things are practical, some philosophical, and some downright pedantic. Spending 5 weeks abroad was the most magical thing I’ve ever done and I will definitely remember it forever.  Look out for some kind of post detailing my adventures soon, though I can’t promise what form it’ll take. I’m considering posting a few stories with some accompanying photos, but I haven’t quite made up my mind. If you have any ideas, let me know!


Top Travel Tips

Prague – the one city I was not going to miss.

So your on exchange. Great, but what now? How do you get out to experience the part of the world you now find yourself in? Well I’ve recently planned a 5 week trip through Eastern Europe so I have a few tips.

1 – Budget, Budget, Budget

Start with deciding on a budget.  This will help you pick where you go and how long you go for.  Is money tight? Have you been frugal to save money for this trip? This is the time to ask yourself a few questions. Hostels, hotels, or couch surfing? Planes, trains, or buses? Knowing these things are crucial to decide where you’re going to go and how long you’re going for.

2 – Timing

One of the annoying bits of being on exchange is that you’re still a student and have academic obligations, even if you try to pretend you don’t. This means that time is always in short supply so try to spot long weekends, midterm breaks, and general time off well in advance.  I get 5 weeks off for Easter because I now live in a ridiculous country which is absolutely perfect for travel, but there have been other chances for me.  A bunch of class cancellations can me almost a week of in my first term and I’ve had a lot of 3 or 4 day weekends as well.  Those are really great opportunities for shorter single-destination trips and are great fun.

3 – Where in the World Do I Want to Be?

Picking a destination can be easy or it can be hard; sometimes you have a city in mind as a ‘must-see’ city but other times you just feel like getting out into the big wide world and exploring.  A few questions to ask yourself might include: Is it worth visiting Paris for a week or would I rather 3 weeks in Eastern Europe? Is it worth flying a great distance when there are adventures to be had only hours away? Is there any city that I absolutely have to visit before I go home?

4 – Here are a few websites to help you out

It can be fun to dive into the world of travel but sometimes you don’t know where to start.  Here are a few websites that might help you out.

  • Rome2Rio – A great way to plan routes, Rome2Rio figures out the approximate cost of flying vs taking the train vs busing vs driving.  Really a great resource!
  • SkyScanner – If you type ‘Everywhere’ into the destination box, it’ll look up the cheapest destinations for flights from whatever airport you put it.  A great tool if you’re looking for a weekend getaway without caring where to.
  • GoogleFlights – Another great tool for looking up flight information and surprisingly unknown.
  • Seat 61 – A great introduction to rail in Europe, this guy has basically any information you might want when it comes to taking the train in Europe.
  • Hostel World – If you want to pre-book hostels, you can’t go wrong with Hostel World.  It’s the easiest way to book hostels and has a massive selection.

5 – Don’t Sweat It

There is no wrong way to travel.  If you want to book everything in advance and plan every minute of your trip, go for it! If you prefer to just meander through a new country or city and take in the sights as you happen upon them, power to yah!  As long as you’re safe and having fun, travel is bound to be one of the best experiences of your life.  To use a fairly overused quote, “Travel: It leaves you speechless the turns you into a storyteller”.


An Ode to Home

How could someone not miss this?

One of the things I haven’t written about yet (and yes, I know there are a lot – I don’t write much, I get it) is homesickness.  I haven’t written about it much because I haven’t really been homesick.  The closest thing to homesickness was the first night I was in Durham for when I was the only person living in my building that has an odd smell and could use some TLC. My room was impersonal and felt unwelcoming and I had a moment where I thought “What have I gotten myself into?” Luckily I was so exhausted after being awake for about 36 hours that I fell asleep in seconds and the next morning I unpacked my bags and my room instantly felt like home.

Why didn’t I feel homesick? I think a few things helped.  Firstly, the UK really isn’t that different from Canada. I spoke the language, recognized the food, and vaguely understood most cultural references.  I knew what I was getting myself into for the most part and nothing really surprised me.  I think this is pretty important because it meant I avoided the culture shock that can be really traumatic for people who have never lived abroad before.  Instead of worrying about figuring out where I was and what was up with all these strange new things, I could focus on making a spot for myself in my new host country.

Another thing that played a big role in me not feeling homesick was, I think, the way Durham treats exchange students.  We were given the opportunity to live in the residences at Durham and be a part of their ‘Freshers’ (the equivalent of Frosh Week or Jumpstart at UBC here).  I was immediately throne into a community, initially with just a few international students but then with all the new students.  Making friends was easy and for the first week-and-a-half I couldn’t have had more than 5 minutes to myself if I’d tried.  This meant there was no time for me to miss home, I was too busy exploring my new home.

I think the last thing that really helped my adjust was that I changed what I considered home pretty quickly.  My home while I’m here is this room I’m sitting in as I write this.  It isn’t the house I left behind in Vancouver, it’s the small room that all the things I need for my year now live in.  It’s the room I return to after going on a day trip to Edinburgh or a week-long trip to London.  I think this adjustment is important for exchange students because it helps you feel like an insider, not an outsider.  If you always treat your home as being in Vancouver or Canada or anywhere except the city your on exchange to, you’ll never truly feel like you belong in that city.

So that’s why I didn’t get homesick but I think there are a few lessons to take from it if your worried about homesick or are feeling homesick:

  1. Know what to expect – don’t jump blindly into a foreign culture.
  2. Keep busy – doing things helps to keep your mind of home.
  3. Change where ‘home’ is – try to make your new exchange city feel like home by going on day trips or weekend trips.
  4. Meet people – making connections is the easiest way to make a new city feel like home.  There’s nothing more reassuring than seeing family faces all over town or campus!

For now, that’s going to be it! I have another idea for a post so look for that soon!


Mac Does Parliament

Mr. Doughty and me!


Hey folks! This’ll be a bit of a different post than usual since I want to talk about one specific thing I did since it was so cool! On Monday I had the absolute honor of visiting the UK Parliament and getting a tour from Mr. Stephen Doughty, a Welsh MP and alumnus of an organization I am part of back in Canada. About a month ago I reached out to Mr. Doughty on the off chance that he would be interested in meeting me and was a little surprised but mostly delighted when he said he would love to have lunch and show me around the Palace of Westminster. There aren’t any pictures because I wasn’t allowed to take any, but it’s a good story.

The first thing we did was a standard tour of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the two Chambers that legislating takes place within.  Mr. Doughty was incredibly knowledgeable about the buildings, talking about architecture, artwork, and the actual purposes of the rooms.  We happened across a display of celebrating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, a document discussed in basically every social studies course ever.  The display included on the the four original copies of the Magna Carta (not quite as cool as the original itself, but still a once in a lifetime opportunity).

The fun really started after we finished with the main public areas as Mr. Doughty offered to show me some of the backrooms that aren’t usually open to the public.  We walked past the Library which was one of the few rooms he couldn’t bring me into.  We also passed the Stranger’s Bar and poked our heads in, although it was too early for a drink.  We enjoyed lunch in what seemed to be the main dining hall while he listed the many odd features of the buildings, including a shooting range, hairdresser, and florist.  After lunch we took a trip the Member’s Porch, a beautiful deck overlooking the Thames on which I managed to get my picture taken as well as a quick selfie with Mr. Doughty.

After lunch we continued our tour of the backrooms of Westminster, including a visit to the committee rooms (the real heart of government, in my opinion) and one of Mr. Doughty’s three offices. Yes, he has three offices. In fact, he has two offices in Westminster which is two more than most people would ever dream of having.  In it I met a fellow Labour MP who worked closely with Mr. Doughty on a daily basis.  At this time, we enjoyed tea in the Pugin room – easily the fanciest tea room I had ever had the pleasure to enjoy.  With a view of the Thames and the knowledge that Prime Ministers sat in the same room making world changing decisions, how could it not be amazing?

Finally he offered to get me a seat watching the debate in the House of Commons that day in front of the glass screen that usually separates visitors and the politicians working. This was truly one of the highlights as I am both a complete Parliament geek and Mr. Doughty had to certify he knew me and I was trust worthy for me to sit there.  I got to my seat (which was over top of the Opposition with a pristine view of the Government) and stayed for about an hour and half, just enjoying the experience.  At one point I asked the usher who was watching us if I could move to the front row, in hopes of garnering a view of the front row of the Opposition but was informed that that row was reserved for the House of Lords. That was when I knew I was somewhere truly special.  Even better, not even 10 minutes later a member of the House of Lords arrived to watch the debate.  If that’s not cool than I don’t know what is.

That’s my story!  Mr. Stephen Doughty was an incredible guide – he had amazing stories, we shared genuine and unusual connections, and he was interested with what had brought me to the UK and how the organization is doing. I think the moral of this story is to reach out to connections you might have while travelling.  Friends, friends of friends, people who you have things in common with, you never know where your next adventure will be or who it will be with so you might as well try.  Until next time, keep doing you!


When Things Go Wrong

My Replacement Laptop

So I’m sitting here writing this from a university computer in thew library instead of from my ever faithful laptop. Why? That ever faithful laptop decided to call it quits this week.  On Wednesday night the screen suddenly turned off with no apparent cause.  I tried restarting it because that’s all I could think to do, and when that didn’t work I sent a quick text to my family back home about it and went to bed.  There wasn’t anything I could do at 11:00 at night, so I figured it wasn’t worth worrying about. The next day I went to the nearest Apple Store in the nearest city and was told it wasn’t worth repairing my laptop.  I got in contact with my family back in Canada to let them know I’d need to buy a new computer and get their input.  I ended up ordering a Chromebook on Friday and it should arrive tomorrow.

My flight back to Durham after Christmas was an ordeal, so say the least.  My first layover was in Toronto and that was supposed to last only 40 minutes.  It looked like I’d have to rush to make the connection.  When I got to the gate, my flight to Paris had been delayed by 1 hour (and later it would be delayed by another hour).  Earlier that day, there had been a hostage situation near the airport in Paris so flights leaving and arriving were all behind schedule.  Lucky for me, that meant I had time to actually grab something to eat. Unlucky for me it meant that when I got to Charles de Gaul airport, I had to move quickly through the terminals and I was still the second last person to arrive at the gate.  As I waited in the small queue, the screen switch from “Last Call” to “Boarding Now Closed”. I had made my connection, but as I found out when I finally made it to the UK, my baggage hadn’t. It had been lost somewhere in Paris.

Crisis. What do you do when it strikes? Something goes wrong and you need to change your plans.  Well here are a few tips for dealing with crisis.

Stay Calm

Sometimes when things go wrong, there’s nothing we can do.  My laptop screen isn’t working? I’m not a computer technician so there isn’t much I can do about it.  Staying calm is the best way to manage the situation – freaking out will only make things worse.  That is not to say don’t try to solve the problem, but you shouldn’t see it as life or death if it isn’t.  Sure, I sped up when I realized boarding had already started when I landed in Paris.  What I didn’t do was worry so much that I had a bad time – heck, I even had fun with it.  Speed walking through the airport like I was someone with important things to do felt kinda cool.  Stay calm, there’s no reason to make the situation less pleasant than it needs to be.

Ask For Help

I get it – you’re off on a journey of self discovery, learning to be independent for the first time.  The absolute last thing you want to do is ask your parents for help.  Sometimes, though, that’s the only thing you can do.  If your laptop breaks and you can’t afford a new one, don’t try to hide it from your parents if you think they can help you.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have parents that can help them so if yours can, make sure to keep them informed.

It’s not just parents that can be helpful though. Friends can be an even bigger help.  When my engineer friend heard that my laptop had broken, he offered to take a look at it (even though I’d already visited an Apple Store).  Other friends offered advice – from new computers to buy to setting myself up with a screen that my laptop might be able to run.  One of the best parts of friends is that they’re their for you when you need them, so go ahead and ask for help.

Make the Most Out of It

Sometimes a curse is a blessing in disguise (or at least there is some small part of it that’s good).  Each of my crises has a small upside to them and focusing on that can be really helpful.  When my laptop broke, it was an excuse for me to take a morning trip to Newcastle – a vibrant city rich with history.  Every time I go, I marvel at the beautiful city center, the gorgeous surrounding landscape, and the joy of being in a city again.  Even though I was there for something unpleasant, the short trip was still fun and a good change of pace for me. When Air France lost my baggage, it meant I didn’t have to lug my heavy suitcase from the airport onto the subway and then the train and then through town to my dorm.  It was way easier to have Air France pay to have it delivered right to reception at my College.

Things go wrong when you go on exchange, just like they do when you aren’t.  Being away from your old friends and family can make those things seem so much more important and more daunting but at the end of the day it’s the same problem.  Stay calm, ask for help, and try to keep having fun.  At the end of the day, if everything went perfectly you wouldn’t have any stories to blog about.  Exchange is an adventure – don’t worry about things going wrong.