Category Archives: Year Abroad

The Estonian Sauna

On the blog this week, French and Beginners’ Russian student, Catrin, tells us all about the wonders of the Estonian sauna, and her experiences of using them while on her year abroad last year.

The Estonian sauna is a weird and wonderful place.

Photo belongs to Catrin Mackie

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our Beginners’ Russian cohort was told we would be going to Tallinn instead of Yaroslavl’, which had been the destination of choice for decades. I had no idea what to expect from Russia’s small north-eastern neighbour. Tallinn truly surprised me, and one of the things I miss the most is cold water swimming and the sauna culture that accompanies it. My favourite Russian word that I learnt on my year abroad was моржевание (morzhevanie); a specific, one word translation for “cold water swimming” or “winter swimming”, that comes from the word “morzh” meaning “walrus”.

Tallinn is a coastal capital, sitting on the shores of the Baltic Sea, which meant any ‘morzhevanie’ I would take part in would be, well, baltic. I was sceptical. However, when told that the Estonian way was to swim in the freezing cold water and then run straight back to a cosy, boiling hot sauna, I was more convinced. The ritual of the trip to the sauna became part of my life in Estonia- a friend and I went every Sunday through the winter swimming season, which lasts from the beginning of November through to the end of April. Estonians and the international community alike can buy season tickets for their favourite sauna for a discounted price, much like football fans would do in the UK.

Sauna culture in Estonia is sacred. There are approximately 100,000 saunas in Estonia for a population of 1.3 million. In the capital, it may be a somewhat trendy novelty that tech employees and Erasmus students dabble in for the period of their stay, but a more traditional kind of sauna, namely the “Võromaa” smoke sauna tradition in southern Estonia, has warranted cultural heritage status on the UNESCO list. It is part of a wider Russo-Scandinavian sauna tradition, with slight variations from Estonia to Russia to Finland to Sweden to Norway. Some of the most burning questions include: is it a wood-burning or a steam sauna? What sticks do you hang in the sauna to hit your body with to increase circulation? Should you wear a little felt hat to regulate your body temperature or not? And, for the sauna fashionistas amongst you, what colour should the little felt hat be?  

A testament to its cultural heritage and importance, saunas are now being delivered from Estonia to Ukranian soldiers on the front lines of the war by the NGO “Saunas for Ukraine”, and the movement is garnering support online to send more. It has provided battalions of the Ukranian army with a place to wash, convene, and boost morale. The modern Tallinn sauna is part conference room, part cool hangout spot, part extreme sport training centre. During my first trip to the sauna- a repurposed small shipping container in the trendy, harbourside Kalamaja district- it was full of people who were attending the same technology conference which didn’t officially start until the following day, but business discussions had clearly begun as they scurried as a pack between the sea and the steam.

In the following weeks, we became regulars and noticed that the French embassy in Tallinn ran a group trip to the sauna every week; a mixture of diplomats and NATO soldiers who challenged each other to stay in the freezing sea as long as they could (one soldier managed 8 minutes!). I heard friends conversing in Estonian, Finnish, Russian, English, Spanish, French and Portuguese (that was just on one Sunday afternoon in mid-January). The sauna was a very international space, and a great place for cultural exchange.

Photo belongs to Catrin Mackie

One of the most memorable conversations we had was with two of the chattiest Estonians my friend and I had ever met (Estonians are famously quite reserved), who, upon hearing that I was Welsh and a Welsh-speaker, immediately asked “can you tell us that really long Welsh place name?”. I obliged before even thinking how incredible it was that two Estonians knew about the name of a tiny village, which happened to be my grandfather’s birthplace, on the complete opposite end of Europe. In exchange for my consonant-heavy declaration, we were told an Estonian phrase that was made up almost entirely of vowels- “on the edge of the ice” in Estonian is “jää-äär”.

On other visits, the sauna was completely silent, and a place for meditation and reflection. Desperate not to miss our habitual “ice swimming Sundays” on a trip around Scandinavia, we found the most intense group of cold water swimmers in Kemi, Finland (a mere hour outside the Arctic circle!). The sea was completely frozen over. The sauna was boiling hot, and very quiet.

The relaxed nature of the cold-water swimming community in Estonia eventually left me wondering: what kind of place would the world be if all diplomatic and political negotiations happened in saunas?

– Catrin Mackie, French and Russian student

Montreal, the forgotten Francophone city?

In this week’s blog post, current French and Linguistics student, Josh Winfield, talks about his time in Montreal, a trip funded by his college. Over to you, Josh!

Photo by Josh Winfield

In March 2022, I was lucky enough to secure a travel grant from my college (St Hilda’s) to go to Montreal for 10 days. This blog aims to recount: what I found in Montreal, both from a touristic and student point of view; why I would recommend Montreal as a potential location for the year abroad; and to explore how Oxford colleges can help with course-related study trips.

If you were to look at the last ten years’ worth of year abroad archives, you would not be blamed for thinking that France is the only option for this exciting part of your degree course. When writing this blog, there were only a few students in the archives who had gone elsewhere. Whilst France is the potential obvious choice, considering its proximity to the UK, and the focus of French language courses on metropole French, I will aim to highlight some of the many advantages of Montreal as the location for your year abroad, or at least to inspire you to travel there as a student of French!

I have been interested in the French speaking region of Canada for a long time, particularly Quebec, using the question over its sovereignty as the focus of my Independent Research Project for my A-level French exam. However, I had never had the opportunity to actually visit it. When I started my course, I was shown the extensive list of bursaries that Oxford students could be eligible for, and as one of these, the travel grant (which is not just a Hilda’s thing, many colleges offer travel grants1) This generous funding allowed me to journey to Montreal, and paid for my accommodation. There are many funds available for undergraduates, with different colleges having differing amounts available, but for course-related travel, a well thought-out application is normally quite successful.

The language of the region

The breath-taking interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica. Photo by Josh Winfield.

This is obviously one of the most important factors in the choice of the year abroad location, especially how much you are able to use it and learn.

Montreal, and the broader Quebec region are quite unique in the fact that they are both officially bilingual. And, whilst the news and nationalist politicians might make you believe that the speaking of English is minimal here, this is contrary to my experience, in fact the city operates as a melting pot for both French and English communication. 26%2 of the Montreal population acquired neither French nor English as their maternal language, and both Spanish and Chinese are commonly spoken here, making French a lingua franca amongst speakers. This phenomenon means that it is very easy to use French in day to day life, and that there is no presupposition as to which language you are going to speak. When I was there myself, at least 80% of the time I was greeted in French and spoken to in French as if I was a native speaker. This makes it very accessible for learners, and gives you the confidence to use the language more often.

Furthermore, the dialect in Quebec is very interesting (particularly for me as a Linguistics student too!). The accent is not only different to the standard metropole French in terms of pronunciation and slight lexical differences, but it is also not unusual to hear (even native French speakers) switch from French to English in a sentence for certain words, and even phrases. Despite the difference, after a few days there (and some YouTube videos) I got used to this, and didn’t have any trouble understanding people.

Worth considering too, is that the written language is almost exactly the same, making signs and menus easy to read for French students. What I have just discussed about the language may be off putting to some people , particularly the presence of English, but as a student with a disability myself, I am comforted by the fact that in a worst case scenario, doctors, hospital staff, and the majority of the public speak and can understand English. (Plus all the visa applications can be in English which is a huge bonus!)

The atmosphere of the city

One of the many green (or white!) spaces in the city. Photo by Josh Winfield.

Despite the fact that the city was just resurfacing from years of strict COVID regulations when I visited, the city life was still vibrant. There is a plethora of restaurants, night-time activities, sights to see and museums. At every turn there is something historically fascinating to see, an amazing piece of architecture, or just natural beauty. With a thriving Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal and International Quarter, Montreal defends its position as one of the most diverse cities in Canada.

The city is passionate about inclusion and diversity3, and feels very safe, with the Economist naming it the 4th safest city in North America4. There is also a large Gay Village, which hosts many aspects of LGBTQ+ life, including Drag Shows and Montreal Pride. As well as the city life, or is worth mentioning that Montreal has some beautiful natural areas. In the centre of the downtown, Mont Royal (the city’s namesake) occupies a near 700 acre park, boasting beautiful views of the entire city. All around the city there are green areas, allowing you a break from the city feel of Montreal.

Travel and pricing

City view from Mont Royal. Photo by Josh Winfield.

Inner city travel in Montreal is cheap, easy and fast. Operating on three lines, the majority of the city is only 15 minutes away from a metro stop. For a one way journey it was (when I visited) $1.60, $3 for a return. The metros are clean, open and easy to use. I used it the whole time I was there, and found it easier than the tube in London. In more general terms about cost of living, the city is of equivalent cost to Oxford and London pricing. However, when you take into consideration the exchange rate, the cost of living is not necessarily something to put you off (I also did live like a tourist for my time here – residential areas will no doubt be cheaper). With a student visa, most people are allowed to work up to 20 hours whilst studying which can help with the cost of your time there.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, with three excellent universities5, a welcoming accessible environment to speak and learn French, and an exciting and different city life, why not consider Montreal for at least part of your year abroad (or perhaps a shorter trip with a travel grant!).


Footnotes:

1) https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/fees-funding/international/scholarships-exchanges

2) http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2006/as-sa/97-555/table/A7-fra.cfm

3) https://montreal.ca/diversite

4) https://www.jechoisismontreal.com/fr/vivre-a-montreal/vit-on-en-securite-dans-le-grand-montreal/

5) https://etudes-au-canada.net/liste-des-universites-a-montreal/

Why Study Czech?

In this week’s blog post, recent graduate in Spanish & Czech from St Peter’s College, Joe Kearney, reflects on his decision to study Czech at Oxford and where the journey has taken him…

I chose to study Czech at Oxford because I wanted to try something completely different. At school I had studied French and Spanish, and I wanted to learn a language from a totally new language family.

Exploring Štramberk, Joe Kearney

The first year of Czech was certainly the challenge I’d been looking for. I sat in my first language class of the year, in front of the Czech lady (Vanda, she is lovely) who had been tasked with teaching me and my three classmates Czech from scratch, and wondering how I was ever going to learn what any of this stuff meant. The learning curve was steep, but incredibly rewarding. We started with the absolute basics: how the alphabet works, how to introduce yourself, how to order food in a restaurant. By the end of my first year I’d read my first short stories in Czech and I’d been to Prague and worked for a couple of months as a waiter in a pizza parlour! Learning a language from scratch is fantastic for anyone who fancies a bit of adventure.

We spent second year developing our speaking, listening, writing and translating skills, as well as reading more and more literature in Czech. Because Czech is a small course, with just a handful of undergraduate students every year, the course is really flexible. 20th century Czech history and literature fascinated me, and I was able to shape all of the rest of my degree around it. I learned about the interwar period in the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Czech experience under communism, and the Czech journey out of communism in the 90s and 2000s. Writers like Jiří Weil, Ludvík Vaculík and Bianca Bellová captured my imagination, and I was able to take my newfound interests with me on my year abroad, where I studied New Wave Czech film, a history of Czech photography, and modern Czech politics at the University of Ostrava.

View over the aptly named Smrk mountain, Joe Kearney
Skiing in the Slovak High Tatras, Joe Kearney

In Ostrava I got a job as a waiter in a tearoom (the best language training anyone could get!), I went climbing in the hills with my Ostravák friends, and I travelled with a great group of Erasmus students. One of the best things about the Czech Republic, we quickly found, is that it is a fantastic basecamp from which to travel all around Europe. I visited France, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Poland, and even Sweden that year, as well as making use of the ridiculously cheap trains to get all around the Czech Republic. Some highlights were České Švýcarsko (Czech Switzerland), Skiing in the Slovakian High Tatras, and visiting Kraków, in Poland, and Stockholm, in Sweden. 

My love for Czech grew immensely on my year abroad, and final year went by in a blast. More learning, and more opportunities to take the voyage of discovery further and further.

I would highly recommend learning a new language from scratch at Oxford. My Czech degree was a fantastic awakening to a new world of culture, travel, and wonderful people. I have never looked back!

View over the Beskydy mountains, Joe Kearney

A huge thanks to Joe for sharing his wonderful experiences of studying beginners’ Czech as well as the stunning photos taken on his year abroad in Ostrava last year (2021-22).

If you’re interested in following a similar path, you can find out more about Czech at Oxford here.

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Paris

Third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) has been sharing updates on her Year Abroad travels. Following on from her earlier post about her time in Munich, she is now in Paris.

Even before coming to Oxford, I knew I wanted to spend some time living in Paris, having caught glimpses of the city on family holidays and on a day trip during my French exchange. It’s potentially the least original of year abroad locations, but I really do think there’s a reason for that!

A lot of people come to Paris to do an internship during their year abroad, but I’d chosen to study for this semester, and was quite excited to get back into the academic world after having taken time off from studying in Germany. That’s one of the great things about the year abroad: it gives you time and flexibility to try out a few different things, and mix and match between your studies and the big scary world that comes after university.

Oxford has an exchange programme with La Sorbonne, and I was lucky enough to get a place to study there for the second semester of this academic year. Oxford aren’t very prescriptive about exactly what you have to study if that’s what you opt for on your year abroad, so as long as I do the right amount of credits, I’m pretty much free to choose whatever modules I like. I’ve stayed in my comfort zone so far, with modules from the department of ‘Littérature française et comparée’, but I also know people who’ve branched out into history courses, philosophy, and even Greek. I think I’ve managed to get a really good mix of modules that relate directly to some of the topics and texts I’ve covered in my course at Oxford, alongside some entirely new topics, and some language classes to keep that grammar ticking over.

I say I’ve stayed in my comfort zone, but even when studying a topic area that’s familiar to me, transitioning to a French university is far from simple! Academic systems are unique to each country, and I already feel like I’m beginning to get a flavour of what French university life is like and how it’s different to England, or at least Oxford, on the academic side of things. At the moment it’s harder to get an idea of what the social side of things is normally like, because there are far fewer social events on campus than there would be in ordinary circumstances. In this respect, though, I’m quite lucky that I’ve chosen to au pair alongside my studies, because it means that I have daily contact with a family, and a homely environment, where I have purpose and a little bit of my own space in the city, which might otherwise be a bit big and anonymous.

Living and spending time with a French family really gives you a sense of the difference between speaking French and becoming French. More so than when I was in Germany, I have the sense that I’m not just learning the language, but am also getting  used to the French, or at least the Parisian, way of life: shopping at the local market, eating well, exploring the city at weekends, and, in a few weeks, heading off to the Alps for a winter break, courtesy of the family I’m staying with. Once the COVID situation starts to improve a little and things open up again, I think there will be even more opportunities to soak up the cultural aspects of Paris, its museums, restaurants and libraries, and I can’t wait to experience the city in summer.

It’s hard to capture in a blog post the excitement that comes when you set up your life in a new place for the next six months, knowing that this is the place you really want to be, and having a stretch of time to do and see everything you want to, make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, and work your way towards becoming, slowly, a little bit more French (or German, or Spanish, or Italian), as you get accustomed to a new way of life and find your place linguistically, intellectually and personally. But it’s definitely been a feeling I’ve experienced on my year abroad, and I hope you do too!

by Beth Molyneux

(Image credits Beth Molyneux)

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Munich

This week in our occasional series on Year Abroad adventures, third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) reports on her term in Munich.

A visit to Neuschwanstein Castle

I’ve known since I first began looking at universities during sixth form that a year abroad would be a part of my degree, wherever it was that I ended up. It was always something there in the background that I’d have to plan at some point, so it was pretty bizarre when the time came to stop romanticising about possibilities and actually decide where I was going to spend the next year of my life. Studying French and German (both post A-level), I knew I wanted to split my time roughly equally between the two countries, but so far that was my only response to the first question everyone asks after you’ve told them you do a languages degree: “Do you know where you’re going on your year abroad yet?”. I’d been faced with this question since the start of my first year and had a standard response: “I’d love to see the Christmas markets in Germany, summer in the south of France would be a dream, and I’d probably like to spend some time in Paris, but I’m not sure about Berlin.” I really hadn’t thought beyond that. In first year it was easy to dismiss the question (almost exclusively posed by non-linguists) as showing friendly interest but no idea of when you actually need to start planning these things. But once it got to midway through first term of second year, people’s curiosity felt more justified and I started to seriously get my thoughts together.

The summer after my first year at Oxford, I decided I wanted to spend a month in each country to feel more comfortable with spoken language, and I thought it would also be a good chance to try out au pairing (this is when you live with a family and in exchange for a given number of hours of childcare a week, they give you accommodation, board, and sometimes will pay for a language course or a travel pass). It’s supposed to be a kind of mutual cultural exchange, as well as an inexpensive and authentic way to travel, or at least those are the reasons it appealed to me. None of the Erasmus options in Germany grabbed me (for France it was another story, but more on that in my next instalment!), and quite honestly the idea of searching for a family to live with appealed to me far more than seeking out an internship, going through various application processes, and then trying to organise where to stay. I had plenty of friends who were doing this, and it is more than manageable, but having tried out life as an au pair, it seemed the right option for me.

The original plan was to spend some time over summer doing shorter placements, before starting my year abroad ‘proper’ around October, at the start of the academic year, and then splitting my time into four roughly three-month chunks, alternating between France and Germany. But 2020 really wasn’t the year for original plans, and once COVID hit, my summer plans were down the drain. Which meant that I was left with a blank canvas, only one term of second year to go, and a global pandemic raging. For someone who likes to plan in advance, this is not how I thought I’d be starting my year abroad!

Marienplatz

After that everything is a bit of a blur; I started looking seriously at au pairing options and found a family in Munich who were looking for someone as early as July, and, before I knew it, term was over and I was heading to Bavaria for the first time, to stay for 5 ½ months. At the start, getting out to Germany was something of an escape, because much more was open here, which meant that getting abroad was a chance to regain some of the independence I felt I’d lost at home. Independence is definitely a key word for the year abroad – setting up life in a new country really does require you to do quite a lot of things you’ve never done entirely on your own before, although I always felt well-supported by my friends and family at home. With video calls and messages, I never felt too far away, but it takes some adjustment (especially after lockdown) to not having that close network of familiar faces around you day to day. That’s one of the reasons I chose to au pair: I think it’s less isolating than other experiences could be, because you’re living with a family. At the same time, it’s not your own family, and living in a house with people you’ve only known for a few months presents a different set of challenges. 

On the linguistic side of things, I think I’ve been lucky with German exposure. The family talk to me (and amongst themselves) exclusively in German. Having spent some time abroad last summer, the  learning curve wasn’t too steep when I first got here, and I was actually surprised by how well I coped linguistically in my first few days and weeks. I think this is because the German I’m surrounded by is household German rather than any kind of specialised vocabulary. What definitely has improved is my confidence in the language – I trust myself now (at least more than before I came) to judge whether something ‘sounds’ German, and there’s a certain amount of core vocabulary that I now use without a second thought. There are still obviously gaps in my German, but I have the tools to talk around them better after my time abroad. I think I’ve made most progress in day to day encounters in shops and restaurants: when I first arrived these were the kind of conversations I found most stressful – short, functional, often in busy or noisy places (with masks making things harder to understand!) I’d find myself fumbling for the little phrases that come so naturally in your mother tongue. But I quickly learnt that fluency isn’t some magic process which alters your brain, nor is it a snap moment, it’s a steady process of essentially learning to copy other people. As you hear the phrases native speakers use, and notice which ones come up more often,  once you’ve heard something a few times you then feel confident to use it yourself, and suddenly you sound German!

Marienplatz decorated for Christmas

Munich is a really cool city, and I’ve enjoyed exploring it, especially because location wasn’t my main deciding factor. I’ve been able to discover traditional Bavarian culture, as well as some more student-friendly, modern areas of the city, which also has a lot of green space, is walkable, and generally very aesthetically pleasing (this last one counts for the whole region). Munich has served as a great base to explore other towns in the region, and even do a few day trips for hikes and country walks, taking in the Bavarian and Alpine landscapes along the way. Spending almost six months here has given me a view of the city both in summer and in icy-cold winter, and neither has disappointed.

Enjoying my first Bavarian beer!

So I’ve made linguistic progress, I’ve discovered a new city and surrounding region, and I’ve gained practical life skills, but I think the best thing about the year abroad is the pause that it gives you between second and final year. Not only does the pace slow down, giving you time to expand on reading you’ve enjoyed and engage with language in a less academic setting, but it also gives you a chance to do something other than studying for a year. I know that I’ll appreciate my final year at Oxford so much more when I come back after time away, but that I’ll also return having had new experiences which will make my final year at Oxford slightly different to those years when I’d come straight from school. The year abroad gives you the chance to dip into the real world outside of university for a little bit, to get an idea of what you do and don’t enjoy doing, and where you might or might not want to live. It’s definitely more than just a linguistic experience, and for me has managed to balance both personal and academic development.

by Beth Molyneux

Editor’s note: You can follow more of Beth’s adventures abroad over on her personal blog.

Image credits all Beth Molyneux

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Vienna

In the first in a new series of posts written by undergraduates on their year abroad, third-year Modern Languages student Alice Hopkinson-Woolley (Exeter College) reflects on spending a term in Vienna.

A weekend trip to Graz before lockdown

“Not an ideal year to be abroad, eh?” A question I’ve been met with countless times when people ask what I’m doing here in Vienna in the midst of a global pandemic and one to which I always reply: “Or perhaps it is!”

This year, my third studying French and German, was always going to be memorable – full of novelties, challenges and successes – but given the coronavirus situation, I’m hyper-aware of its transience and this incredible opportunity I have to not only travel but live abroad. Granted, lockdown isn’t ideal when you’re trying to explore a new place, maintain fresh friendships and ultimately, practise German. But after 6 months at home, I came out here so raring to go that I’m pretty sure I did more in the first few, blissfully-free weeks than I would have done in the whole 9 months of my stay in any other, normal year.

My dream to live in Vienna pretty much coincided with my decision to study German at University – I came out here on a school trip a few years ago in December and left with all but a finished personal statement. (Whether the Christmas markets, snow and numerous glugs of Glühwein had a role to play, I’ll never know…!)

Arriving here in early September this year was just as exciting, for I experienced and delighted in the city during summer, then watched as autumn arrived and am now writing by an icy window – winter has properly set in. I was lucky to meet lots of new friends in the first few weeks, through a mix of Erasmus events at the Uni, other language assistants and friends of friends (some of whom are from French-speaking Switzerland, here to learn German, and thus provide me ample opportunity to eavesdrop on their French conversations and learn the odd nugget of Swiss slang).

Coffee and Strudel at Cafe Hawelka

Working as a British Council teaching assistant was the best decision I could have made and although I know it varies from country to country, region to region and certainly school to school, I can relay nothing but positives. Apart, that is, from the horrifically early commute. But then lockdown happened and learning moved online, so really – only positives! Some say it’s futile to be teaching English when I myself am meant to be learning German but the truth is, much more time is spent in the staffroom than the classroom and speaking with the other teachers provides great exposure. What’s more, the job is only 13 hours a week, so really does only take up a small part of my life out here.

So, on to language learning.… Before leaving for Austria I was jovially warned by various tutors and multiple fellow German students: “You know you’ll have to relearn Hochdeutsch for exams after speaking Austrian-German for a year?” Truth be told, I didn’t consider this factor at all when applying and assumed they were just exaggerating, jealous not be spending a year in the land of Kaffee und Kuchen themselves. Although lots of people here do in fact speak Hochdeutsch, initial struggles to understand the dialect left me without train tickets for the first few weeks, unable as I was to make out the ticket seller’s words through both his thick accent and obligatory blue face mask. A couple of months later, and learning new pieces of dialect is a highlight of my daily life here – much to the amusement of the Austrian students I’m living with. Never again will I say “cool” as many Germans do but rather, “leiwand” or even better – “urleiwand” for emphasis! My true favourite however is sadly not that useful in everyday interactions; “Fichtenmoped” (literally, fir-tree-moped) is an upper Austrian word for “chainsaw”. At least it provoked hysterics and won me some cred when I announced my newly acquired word to my students!

My favourite spot in Vienna, at the top of Kahlenberg

It would be remiss of me not to mention the brutal terror attack of November 2nd, the night before our second lockdown. Along with the rest of the population, my friends and I decided to have one final knees up on Monday evening, opting for a pub just south of the city centre. The choice was quick, lazy and barely thought out – we’d been there before, it’s a short walk from the 1st district but far enough that it would likely have free tables. As our final two friends arrived, reporting police on the streets, it was a matter of minutes before the notifications starting coming in. ‘Stay inside and avoid the Innere Stadt’ was the consistent advice.

That Vienna was the target of a terrorist attack is hard to comprehend. As the saying goes, “When the world comes to an end, move to Vienna because everything happens there twenty years later.” Tuesday’s events have clearly shocked the city but (in a clichéd way) certainly united it. The outpouring of solidarity both within the capital and from abroad goes to show how special this place is and that is something which can never be shaken or destroyed. Tributes now stand to the victims in streets I’d walked almost every day and outside pubs I’d sat in just nights before. The newly born motto which has come to express the city’s reaction, summing up the unique dry wit of the Viennese and their fierce loyalty to the city is the phrase screamed in thick Austrian dialect from a man on a balcony to the attacker below: “Schleich di du Oaschloch!” (I’ll leave you to look up the translation for yourselves…) The days following the attack were naturally strange but the city’s response confirmed my admiration and love for this place. Just one day later the 33m Christmas tree was raised outside the town hall and is, to quote Vienna’s mayor, Michael Ludwig “Ein Zeichen des Friedens” (a symbol of peace).


First snow of the year in Stuhleck, 90 minutes by train from Vienna

Austria’s latest lockdown is ending soon and I can’t wait to get back out and explore the city. There are still hundreds of galleries, museums, parks and cafés left on my bucket list, not to mention trips further afield to Salzburg, Hallstatt and Innsbruck to name just a few. A 2020 year abroad was never going to be plain sailing but so far it been pretty urleiwand!

by Alice Hopkinson-Woolley

Editor’s note: You can also follow Alice on her travels by reading her personal blog here.

Image credits all Alice Hopkinson-Woolley.

A Year Abroad on the Côte d’Azur

This post was written by Charlotte, who studies French at Worcester College. Here, Charlotte tells us about her year abroad in France.

2018 was an exciting time to be in France for a year abroad. Over the summer temperatures rose in France with the thrill of the World Cup. Bars were brimming with enthused fans, roars matched every goal and with each win the streets became crowded with waving flags, trumpets and cheers of “Allez les bleus!”. In Montpellier, French football fans climbed on historic monuments and beeped car horns throughout the night. When I was caught watching a football match on my computer at work my boss sat down and joined!

In Montpellier there was a heatwave, or canicule, that summer so I spent my time between the beach and a natural lake, both of which were easy to get to by the tram system running through the city. It was warm enough to swim in the ocean up until the end of September! Every Friday in August there was a wine festival Les Estivales with live music and a range of food stands, every Wednesday there was a firework display at the beach, and every evening in the park Peyrou students relaxed in the cool evening, sometimes playing sport or dancing to music.

Autumn was an important time for me as I was working in a yacht brokerage, and autumn is the season of boat shows so I got to work on the marketing of several yachts across various regions in the South of France. September is also the season of Les Voiles de St-Tropez, a sailboat race in St.Tropez which attracts yachting teams from across the world to compete in.

Winter in Montpellier is very special. The Christmas markets opened at the beginning of December, and their opening was celebrated by a huge light show which saw historic buildings lit up with dazzling light projections.

Winter season also coincided with the beginning of the gilets jaunes movement in France, an important event which saw the President, Emmanuel Macron, cave to the demands of the protestors. A year later they are still to be seen on the streets of Paris. At a practical level, it meant that there was less food in the supermarket and it was more difficult to drive to places. Some students I met there got involved with the protests, it was a chance to engage in French social and political issues beyond reading about them in Le Monde.

Years abroad are not a holiday – I was working a full-time job! – but they are an opportunity to make the most of local events and culture which is not always possible in Oxford with the workload and tight deadlines. Towns and regions have different personalities throughout the year, and living abroad allows you to see and experience them all, getting to engage with language and culture beyond the textbook.

A year abroad in Jordan

One of the joint degrees we offer at Oxford is in European and Middle Eastern Languages (EMEL). Unlike most of our students, who take their year abroad in the third year of their course, EMEL students go abroad in the second year (the same is true of those studying Russian from scratch). In today’s post Sarah, who studies Spanish and Arabic, tells us about the Arabic part of her year abroad in Jordan.

Only a few months ago, my friends and I went out for our very last meal together in Jordan. We had been there for around nine months, give or take a few weeks, and I think we were all genuinely upset and a little bit tearful to be leaving. It was sad to go, but it also felt a bit strange, given how much time we had spent there, and the many wonderful experiences we had had together in that beautiful country.

Our year in Jordan began in early September, when the weather was still warm and our Arabic still a little bit flimsy. We still spoke to the taxi drivers in formal, fuṣḥā Arabic, the kind of Arabic you hear in news broadcasts and official speeches, but not in the street. But as the heat ebbed away, and the weather turned so cold we started wearing blankets and coats even indoors, we learnt more dialect – both in classes, and through going out in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

At the suggestion of our teachers, we tried mansaf, Jordan’s national lamb and yoghurt dish, at traditional restaurants. We often ate baklava, and the cheesy dessert kanafeh, as a treat on Thursdays (the last day of the working week in Jordan, as it begins again on Sunday). We visited the towering malls of al-Abdali, haggled in the downtown markets and souqs of Wasit al-Balad, felt sophisticated eating cake in classy Jabal al-Weibdeh.

We travelled further afield, to the cities of Irbid and Madaba, to the Red Sea city of Aqaba, to the Roman ruins of Jerash, and of course to Petra and the Wadi Rum. Some of us had the opportunity to visit other parts of the region, and saw the wonders of Lebanon, Egypt and Oman. We met so many kind people, of whom perhaps the kindest were our teachers. They were so generous and shared so much of their lives and culture with us, and we are so grateful. We had so much fun.

I think we also grew more confident, as we were forced to leave the bubble of Oxford. We were living in a different country, with a different culture and a different language that we were trying our best to learn, and it could get hard at times. We had to rely more on each other, and I was so fortunate to share a flat for almost a year with three amazing women, each unique, but all so intelligent and kind. Being abroad built stronger friendships between us. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, but I think we could all enjoy the year so much because we had each other. Soppy, I know, but true.

It was for all those reasons that we felt so sad to leave at the very beginning of June. I was, and continue to be, so grateful for the opportunity we had to live in Jordan for nine months. It is why I am so jealous of the students going abroad this year. I wish you all luck; a little part of me wishes, too, that I was going with you.

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 2

Last week, we heard from Hector, one of our undergraduates in French and Spanish. Hector spent his year abroad last year in Chile and Paris. You can read about his Chilean adventures here and here. When we left off last week, Hector was telling us about his stay in Paris, where he lived in five very different areas of the city. Today, we bring you the final instalment in his year abroad adventure.

My stay in Paris was nothing if not diverse: next stop, the 10th arrondissement* A.K.A. l’Entrepôt (‘The Warehouse’). Famous for containing the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin and two of the busiest train stations in Europe, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I could feel the vibrations of the trains through the floor of the ground-floor studio apartment I was renting from an out-of-town colleague. There is a significant Hindu diaspora in the 10th, which celebrated the birth of Ganesha in magnificent style with the Ganesh Caturthi festival and street procession in August.

For the month of September, I rented an attic room in a coloc (‘flat-share’) on rue d’Aboukir, named after Napoleon’s victory over the Turks during the Egyptian Campaign. The 2nd arrondissement is one of the most typical of Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris, featuring wide boulevards, small parks, and neoclassical façades. My French-Portuguese housemate, an investment banker by profession, was sports mad and introduced me to the delights of the Top 14 French rugby union league, on the condition that I support his team which, being from the Gironde, was Bordeaux-Bègles.

There’s a reason Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world, but it’s not the picture-postcard clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Louvre. Rather, it is joie de vivre. Far from the stereotype of being blasé, Parisians know what matters: they eat well, drink well, and invest their time in worthwhile pleasures – be they higher or lower. Although I did experience a good number of quartiers, they were all rive droite (on the right bank of the river). Hopefully it won’t be long before the rive gauche (the left bank) is on the itinerary.

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 1

Last year on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we heard from one of our students, Hector, who was on his year abroad in Chile. Because he studies both French and Spanish, Hector split his year abroad between French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Over the next two weeks, Hector tells us more about the French part of his year abroad, spent in Paris…

It was not by design that I ended up living in five different Paris quartiers* over the summer of my third year abroad. But it gave me an insight into the City of Light which I wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with my excursions by day as a runner-people-watcher, and by night as a keen flâneur**. After a year teaching English in Chile for the Spanish half of my degree, the French half was immediately indispensable as I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to my first digs.

These were a single room on the fourth floor of a hostel on Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th of the 20 Parisian arrondissements***. My colleagues at the production company at which I was interning, HENRY TV on Place de la République, were somewhat shocked when I told them where I was living, since the area can be ‘chaud’**** come nightfall. Sure, I saw (and heard) a certain amount of that from my window on Friday evenings, but variety is the spice of life in the 18th: the African markets of the Goutte d’Or are cheek by jowl with such iconic sights as Montmartre, the Sacré Cœur, and the Moulin Rouge.

The African theme continued at my next residence: flat-sitting for friends in the Grandes-Carrières quarter, also in the northern 18th arrondissement, where there is a significant population of Senegalese origin. It was in a Senegalese restaurant when my parents were visiting that we enjoyed our best ever dining experience. Instead of just talking amongst ourselves, as is the norm when going out for an average meal in the UK, we were engaged in conversation and banter over delicious fare by other diners keen to share their culture with us, an unusual addition to the clientele.

As well as flat-sitting, my third pied à terre involved cat-sitting and plant-sitting for friends on holiday in Italy. The Parisian-born cats, Attila and Maurice, though initially somewhat sceptical of me on arrival – as were their human counterparts – warmed to me, and Attila even became quite affectionate despite his war-like name. The flat’s central location in Le Marais (‘The Marsh’) of the 3rd arrondissement, offers far more than its name might suggest. One of the most historic and traditionally aristocratic parts of Paris, the Marais now boasts vibrant LGBTQ+, Jewish, and East Asian communities, as well as plenty of trendy bars and some of the only remaining medieval architecture in the city.

Check back next week to hear about the rest of Hector’s Parisian adventures….

Explanation of vocabulary
* quartier: Each arrondissement (see below) is split into quarters, or ‘quartiers’. There are also historical ‘quartiers’, which often do not map onto the administrative ‘quartiers’ – it all adds to the fun of navigating the city!

** flâneur: a stroller or walker. This comes from the verb ‘flâner’, meaning to stroll or saunter. The ‘flâneur’ became a famous figure in the nineteenth century, associated with people watching and urban exploration.

*** arrondissement: Paris is split into twenty administrative districts, called ‘arrondissements’

**** chaud: this can have several meanings in French, but in this context it means that the area can be a bit risky