MILSA Blog 2017/2018

On this site we publish the blog contributions our participants are writing for the MILSA mentoring. Currently the MILSA 2018 is taking place. For the blog contributions from our previous participants, please visit MILSA Blog 2017 or MILSA Blog 2016/2017.

Heading the right way!

My first interaction with the Australian culture almost made it impossible for me to tell the story about it. After a long and at times very shaky flight, I took the train to Sydney Central Station where I was supposed to check into my Hostel where I would stay before moving into the Student Housing on Campus. Not having slept during the 14-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, I was only focused on one thing: getting some sleep as soon as possible. At this point, noticing and dealing with cultural differences or local customs was the least of my worries. After all, so I thought, Australia is surely the most European country in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, this lack of cultural awareness almost got me in big trouble when I tried crossing a small one way street that leads to the Hostel. Being used to traffic in Europe and at a point where even slightly moving my body exhausted me, I turned my head left to check for oncoming traffic – without realizing that I was supposed to be looking on my right side. Luckily, the driver of the car coming down the road was a little bit less tired than I was – he could stop the car before there was a collision.

The next morning, after getting some much-needed sleep, I was heading out for brunch, which is a huge thing in Sydney. Of course, this meant crossing the street on which I almost got run over 12 hours earlier. Although vividly remembering the scare, I, funnily enough, did not manage to turn my head in the right (quite literally) direction again. It was only after crossing the street that I realized my mistake. Luckily, there was no traffic to worry about this time. Some Internet research later on would reveal that left-hand traffic actually has the richer historic background than its right-hand side counterpart. According to Wikipedia, even ancient Greek and Roman soldiers kept left when marching and right-hand traffic was not introduced in Europe until roughly 100 years ago. As Australia has very deep relations with the United Kingdom, it is not surprising that the change here was not adapted.

However, the left-hand preference is much deeper rooted in society than what I initially thought. Inside the large shopping malls in the Central Business District of Sydney for example, it is very easy to differentiate between locals and tourists. Whereas the tourists stand on the right side of the escalator, the locals will roll their eyes be the ones rolling their eyes, knowing that you’re supposed to stand on the left side. The same is true for revolving doors, where you earn a stern look if you rotate the door in the wrong direction.

I was going to conclude my first blog post by mentioning that I felt like a true Sydney-sider the moment I managed to turn my head the right way when crossing a street. This took me about two and a half weeks and I instantly felt this overwhelming sensation of being a part of the society and the city. This feeling, however, didn’t last me very long. Trying to get to know locals and my friends from university, exploring Sydney’s nightlife was a top priority, especially during orientation week. Trying to avoid the very strict lock out laws, taking a cab to get from one bar to the next is inevitable. One can only imagine how terrified I was when we made a turn for the first time and suddenly were not on the right (quite literally) side of the street.

Michael Schär

Who needs cash when you can pay by card?

There are so many stories I could tell about Sweden or especially Lund. As it is one of the two big student cities in Sweden (besides Uppsala), student life has a whole different position in everyday life here than in other cities, like for example Bern, where my home university is. Everything revolves around university. A sign for this is that the nicest buildings in the city are University buildings like the breathtaking main library, which ist often seen on postcards or pictures of Lund, or the stunning main building of the student's society AF Bostäder. The city, especially the centre of it, is full of university buildings like the lecture buildings or the 26 libraries of the different faculties.

Living in the middle of the enigneer's campus, I'd also be able to tell stories about that (especially for the general image of engineers as "nerds") untypically wild engineer's party life going on here nearly every day since day one. Partybeats sometimes blaring through the window from 9.30 in the morning till late in the evening. I thought that might be over after the first two introduction weeks, but seems like truly I underestimated them. I'd be able to tell about the Nations which are, like in Uppsala, a crucial part of student life here in Lund. Joining a Nation is voluntary, but if you wanna enjoy student life, and not just be here to mark time, there's just not better way than to do so. I might also talk about the obsession this city has with bicycles. As a rather small city, bicycles are the mean of transport number one. Simply a must-have for every student.

But no; I'm gonna talk about a whole different subject. One that probably applies not only to Lund, but to whole Sweden: The extinction of cash. This country is obsessed with credit card payment. Not just that it's more and more common to pay by card, which is slowly but steadyily the same trend in Switzerland, no, you even get some strange glares if you try to pay by cash. Doesn't matter if you're 20 or 60, if you pay 5 Kronas or 500; you're expected to pay by card.

As a non-EU-citizen with a Swiss bank account, I pay some fees for every transaction I do with my card. I also pay a fee every time I withdraw some money at an ATM. the cheapest way for me here is to withdraw a large amount at once and try to get along with that as long as possible, so; cash-payment. I managed to do so for more or less the first two weeks. But sooner or later you can't resist the urge to use your credit card anymore. You indirectly get forced to use it. Like when there's a huge queue at the checkout in the grocery store, because only two of the five checkouts are engaged, whilst there are multiple free self-checkouts beside them, which, of course, just allow payment by credit card. Or simply when it's break between two lessons and you feel a little dry in your throat. So you go out to get a drink from the vending machine around the corner, but after looking for the coin slot for 5 minutes you just have to admit that there is none and you pay your 5 Krona-water (like 50 Rappen) by card. And like I mentioned; the people in the stores expect you to pay by card. It's just become the usual payment for them. After telling you the price he's just giving you this puzzled look when instead of your shiny plastic bank card you take out some old rotten bills and coins. And you even feel a bit sorry the moment you see that he has already typed in the payment on the card reader.

With these kinds of experiences you start using your credit card more and more, because you don't want to be this "guy from a backward country who still uses bills and coins". You integrate into their daily payment routine. Resistance is futile. Sooner or later, the country's custom gets you. And I guess sooner or later this custom will also be the usual one in Switzerland and the rest of Europe and maybe one day the whole world. I don't know if I personally like this development. I like cash and I think you can calculate your expenses way better with cash than by just taking out your card and slipping it through the crack. But if I like it or not; at least after this Sweden experience I can say; I'm already used to it.

Severin Siegenthaler

Having a beer with my professors in Quebec City

Having spent almost two months in Canada now, I have many striking experiences worth narrating. The big portions at the supermarket which make it difficult do groceries for one person, the excessive overuse of and dependence on cars which make it difficult for exchange students to get by without a car and the extreme distances in this big country are only a few examples. The one I would like to focus on here, however, concerns one of the first things I noticed at my exchange university – Université Laval in Quebec City: The communication between students and professors, which is based on a much more familiar atmosphere than what I am used to in at my home university.

To start with, most professors and students are on a first-name-basis. Not only do most professors and students address each other by their given name rather than by their last name, but also communication is based on “tu” rather than “vous”. Whereas at my home university in Bern, I am used to being on a first-name-basis in the English department, this is not the case at all for the French department and student-professor communication is rather formal. This is why this is something I still have to get used to and I keep catching myself wanting to address a professor by their last name or by a “vous”.

Further, professors and students – especially the respective assistants – seem to work very closely together and share much time together. One the one hand, there are so many activities in which students and professors work together. One example being a language program for exchange students led by professors and students of the linguistics department. On the other hand, there are many field trips or events professors and students participate in together: Our literature seminar will take us to the film festival in Quebec and with the same seminar I was very lucky to have a field trip in my first week of classes, which helped me get to know the students better. After the field trip, the professor suggested to take a scenic route back to university, so that me and another exchange student would be able to take in the views and learn more about that part of Quebec. After the excursion, we ended up all going out for dinner and beers – with the professor of course.

Finally, this rather relaxed atmosphere definitely changes the way seminars work. Whereas professors back home struggle to keep the students motivated to participate in group discussions, here, active participation is not only on a daily basis, but also highly mandatory as it is in fact reflected in the final grade. Participation is further reinforced by the fact that professors know their students very well and are thus able to ask them about their individual situation. As an example, in my bilingualism seminar, I often get asked to share how I experience a particular phenomenon in Switzerland, a multilingual country.

Whereas I am usually not the type to share many anecdotes and my opinion on every occasion, I am slowly getting used to and more at ease with participating more actively in class. Connected to the fact that the atmosphere is rather relaxed, laughter and sharing of funny anecdotes is on a daily basis and student’s opinions are highly valued, I feel more comfortable in classes here than at home.

As for now, I can say that I appreciate the relaxed atmosphere, as it helps me participate better in class. However, I am not too sure yet how I will be able to handle this intimate relationship with the professors once it comes to handing in papers and being graded by people who I went out for beers with. I have a feeling that in the end, I will be happy to go back to my home university – with a strengthened sense of sharing my ideas and opinions in class on the one hand but also heading back to my professors with which I share a hierarchical relationship, on the other hand, a relationship I apparently I still value.

Tamara von Rotz

The Nations - A Student's Home Away from Home

Although the flight doesn't take too long from Zurich to Stockholm-Arlanda, I was quite tired upon the arrival. The university's welcome desk at the terminal and the coach bus standing ready to take the newly arrived students to Uppsala was most appreciated. After all the administration had been done at the university welcome center in Uppsala, each student was brought to his/her residence - what a luxury!

What until now had begun in a very satisfying and promising way got at least a brief setback as soon as I opened the corridor my room was in: A smell of insipid air and rotten food was lingering in the hallway, the yellow linoleum floor was covered in stains. The kitchen, a run-down little room covered in dirt and expired food did not look more promising. Two of the five fridges standing in the kitchen and corridor were not running, covered in fungus. One even contained green meat, emitting a smell of carcass. Entering my room wasn't much better, a stain-covered sheet on the bed, rusty water dripping from the faucet in the little sink and dirty windows and a dust-covered floor describe my new home pretty precisely.

After two and a half days of cleaning work, I did manage to clean the worst things. Nevertheless, I did not want to spend too much time in the corridor - ugly and dirty as it is, the other cohabiters only arrived shortly before the beginning of the new semester. Luckily, the student city of Uppsala offers institutions run by students for students - the so-called Student Nations - the solution to my problem!

Dating back to the 17th century, the nations were originally founded by groups of students originating from the same region. That is why all the nations are named after different provinces in Sweden. Their goal was to offer the students an all-round service for networking, meals, libraries, studying places or just a cozy place. So to say a home away from home.

While the identification with the name-giving geographical region has diminished, the social aspect of the nation is still central for the students. I was most grateful to have the possibility of joining such an institution to participate in social events, make new friends, have the possibility to get a warm meal for a student's price and even work for some loan. I am now a member of Västgöta Nation, the oldest of the 13 Student Nations in Uppsala. With its 1'000 members, this nation is rather small, compared with the bigger ones (8'000 - 10'000 members). Nevertheless, the activities are great fun! The big advantage of a smaller institution like this is the familial environment, where people know you by name.

Although quite some things have changed since its over 300 years, some special - one might even say odd - traditions have survived. Back in the old times when fencing was not just a sport but a competition that could lead to serious or even mortal injuries, the nations all bought their own graves at the city's graveyard to bury deceased members that could not afford to have their corpses brought back home. The right to be buried in the nation's grave exists to this day.

Some less morbid traditions like the nation's own songs (there's even a hymn!) which are sung from the songbook at every so-called Gasque, the way of cheering and the uniforms worn by the elder men also survived all this time. The mentioned Gasque can be compared to a banquett, where the nation's kitchen equipe prepares a several-course dinner and cultural groupings as the nation's choirs and theatre groups preform in the nicely-painted main hall of the nation's building. Dresscodes here must be strictly followed as a participant, ranging from casual all the way to formal where women dress up in the evening gown and gents showing up in smokings.

In my opinion, nothing in Uppsala is more characteristic for the students' life than the 13 Nations with their broad offers. After all, they represent your home away from home, especially when your housing is off-putting as mine is!

Yannick Hunziker