Some would say that I dodged a bullet. I’d say that I bit it.
There is never a better time to write about your experiences than six months after the fact. Like they say, hindsight is 20/20 vision. In all honesty, I thought about keeping a journal throughout my travels, but seeing that many of my counterparts fade into oblivion in a mixture of school, travel, and “discovering yourself”, I simply couldn’t put that kind of stress on my readers. So welcome to my humble adventures, six months late, but here nonetheless.
Is there a point to recollect my hazy memories of romanticized Europe and all of its glory? My answer is yes. I have a knack for recalling even the faintest of events (i.e., my neighbour’s impeccable rendition of “Let It Go” during a heated trade in a game of Catan). I also have the photos to prove it – photos of my adventures, not the karaoke version of Disney songs. So here I am, sitting in my cozy home, across the ocean from the topic of my choice. I hope you’ll stay and read, but I also hope you’ll stay and learn. Cheers to adventures told and to be told!
I’d like to start off with my home. If you bothered reading the “About” page on this silly exposition, you’d know that I hail from the big city of Toronto. I’ve been very fortunate to travel during my non-university years, aka The Good Years. Having ventured through Europe a decade ago, I had an idea of the places I’d like to see again. During The Good Years, I made a bucket list of things I wanted to accomplish during my time at the University of Toronto, aka The Bad Years. In all fairness, The Bad Years weren’t so bad; it was the soul-sucking environment that made it unbearable. I digress. One of the points was to go on exchange. Originally planned for third year, I had picked up an extra major and pushed back my dreams. During the application process, the Centre for International Experience at UofT made it very clear that the repercussions of attending exchange this late in the game would be detrimental for my graduation status. I ignored these warnings because (a) I had already prepared to bypass these obstacles and (b) I was being a little shithead. In all seriousness, I planned meticulously for my exchange program and finished my degree early in order to have a hassle-free semester. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the CIE for their support and would highly recommend their services to any UofT students interested in studying abroad. After some logistics and a lot of indecisive “which city would be more Instagrammable”, I chose ETH Zürich! Shout out to Karolinska Institutet of Medicine in Stockholm for being a strong runner-up. And there I was, packing my bags for a foreign land, while my friends packed beers for their last semester. Nothing ventured, nothing gained? Am I right?
I remember first landing in Switzerland, a land that I would soon call my second home and my second love. Arriving in the dead of winter, I was surprised by the lack of snow. I’m sure everyone else was surprised by this little Asian girl dragging two enormous suitcases up the hilly streets of Zürich at 07:00. I was wearing a heavy down jacket, a Canada Goose to be exact, and sweating buckets under the morning fog. I wish it were socially acceptable to write this blog post as a novel because only then would I be able to describe the innocent awe I felt for this foreign land. I often travel alone to places where I could speak the language and readily ask for advice. This was not the case. Although I’ve come to realize that the majority of Switzerland has a working knowledge of English, silly ol’ me could only mutter a “danke” and “nein” during her first few hours in the German-speaking portion of the country. In later posts, I am sure, I will recollect my inefficient travels the first morning of arrival. It will make you chuckle, if not laugh, at my inability to use Google Translate. Eventually arriving at my residence, the adrenaline waned and the jet lag hit. So in all logic, I climbed up those stairs, faked a Frosh-ready smile, and greeted my roommate. I was the first to arrive out of the new attendees, but that didn’t deter me from waking up my soon-to-be-best-house-buddy-ever at 08:00 so he could help me with my luggage. One by one, the flat filled and the four of us settled in. More on them later because honestly, they really deserve a novel (in the best of ways)!
After unpacking my bags and updating my family, the next 24 hours in Zürich were meshed into a sleep-deprived blur. Logistics and wifi aside, I found that the first couple of hours quickly established the friendships you’d make during exchange. Starting in a foreign land, although exciting, can be unfamiliar at best. I found myself latching onto familiarity, whether it came in the form of English-speakers or just plain old demographics. The truth of the matter is, as much as we want to step away from our home and grow, there is always comfort in finding something that grounds you in a new place. I’m so thankful for those couple of interactions during my first few hours in the city. I probably would have never known about the logistics of the Halb-Tax or the closest grocery store without their help. You’ll hear more about them in sappy posts to come.
Quick tangent, which is never quick, to the logistics of moving to a new place: make sure to establish a network immediately. Especially in an expat-dense city, such as Zürich, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Whether it be your immediate roommates, a family friend in the area, or the classmates/coworkers you meet next week; I found that once I made connections with people that could help, it was significantly easier to integrate myself into the daily workings of Switzerland. Within my first two weeks, other than impromptu travels and intensive German courses, I opened a Swiss bank account, purchased travel cards, signed with a telecom provider, joined a rewards program, and most importantly, notified the government officials. By the end of the month, I was a true Swiss resident.
So now that I was fully integrated into society, what do I do? I get out of the country. In truth, I probably spent more time outside the country of Switzerland than in it. The joke was that a weekend away would cost less than a weekend within. I had planned out my school schedule to allow late night departures on Thursdays and early morning returns on Sundays to make it for my Monday classes. Would I recommend this schedule for everyone? No. Would I do it all over again? Yes. Am I a masochist? Possibly. With one-worded jokes aside, although I was attending one of the top universities in the world, international exchange is synonymous to unprecedented travel in most books. So opening up that book, you have this blog! If you’ve made it to the end of this long-winded rambling, I want you to comment below with “Grace, are you sure you’re a biochem major?” Quickly, go!
In posts to come, I’ll be recollecting the 18-something countries and 50-something cities I’ve visited in the past six months. I’ll be reflecting on the friendships I’ve made, the adventures I’ve embarked, the love I’ve experienced, the heartbreak I’ve endured, the passion I’ve gained, and many more emotions that can’t be described by the English language (but apparently possible in German?!). Overall, I highly recommend you peruse through these posts as opposed to waiting religiously for a new notification. Busy grad student life will sometimes get the best of me. That is a fact, not a prediction. So I leave you with probably 20 minutes shaved off of your life, but also a curiosity of what I’ll write about next!
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