Far have I travelled into the unknown, your average Welshman performing his own version of an idiot abroad – having previously never spent more than 2 weeks in succession in a foreign country and neither ever travelling further north than Leeds. A month ago I came here, to the northernmost university in the world, to Tromsø.
Which is why I’ve given you a map for those like me who’d never heard of the place before joining a friend on a fateful Erasmus taster meeting in Aberystwyth a little under a year ago. 69 degrees and 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, I was almost instantly labelled insane for even contemplating it by flatmates, and there’s probably some truth in that.
Now I feel like Columbus, having sailed my way over the endless bureaucracy of Erasmus paperwork I have reached my new land and report my first letter as a tale of paradise. Through this I wish to show you first why an exchange semester is a good idea and second – why on earth you should choose Tromsø when Prague or Paris are options.
Now I’ve travelled a decent amount: climbed the Areopagus in Athens, crawled through the Pyramids of Giza and stood in awe under the shadow of the Colosseum and the beauty of Santorini. But nothing compares to the natural magnificence of Norway, something hard to admit coming from the luscious, green homeland of Wales – but even I can’t argue with this picture I took only a week into my exchange.
Which brings me nicely on to the crux of my argument, the environment, both socially and literally here is spectacular. In an entire year in Aberystwyth I went with my flatmates to climb Pen Dinas once and Constitution Hill a couple more times – More popular activities seemed to be eating 4am kebabs, maybe play a little football. Climbing Snowden was a pipe dream. In a single month here I have gained a kayaking license, climbed mountains higher than Snowden after a day of lectures, spent days on end out in the wild, joined a cooking class, attended a gig headlined by Bastille, Jeg lærte å snakke litt norsk (learned to speak a little Norwegian) and been a part of an ever tightening group of 300 students from 67 different nationalities, making a friend from every single continent. By my second weekend here I was already on a 3 day camping/fishing trip with an Alaskan, an Icelander, a Slovenian, an Austrian, a Frenchman, an Englishman and myself from Wales (unfortunately we didn’t go into a bar for the start of a joke). But I was smitten by my opportunities – all camping, skiing, fishing and cycling equipment can be rented on a short-term basis for free in Tromsø, you can also camp, kayak and cook and wild fire anywhere, welcome to socialism in Scandinavia. It is as though this country is engineered to make you the fittest you can be.
Which is why you should pick Norway, tuition here is free for up to 3 degrees and a masters, once I pick up Norwegian then studying in Oslo is an alternative that would save me well over £10,000 and entitle me to live in what is statistically the best country in the world as it has topped the UN welfare table for the last 13 years. (http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr_2015_statistical_annex.pdf)
To counter this however, as much as I underestimated the beauty, I underestimated the price. Some things are around about the same, even cheaper. But a haircut will set you back £25, a pint of beer £15, a take-away £14 and you’ll be forced into vegetarianism by your inability to buy meat. Luckily, every student will be in the same boat, so expect copious amounts of home brewing as you taste the weird and wonderful at pre-parties, hording coupons, dumpster diving, stocking up the freezer with self-caught fish and the one guy who remembered to bring clippers becoming the designated barber in your new village microcosm of international students. And herein lies my protip – whatever you do, go for a year, not a semester.
This will automatically entitle you to a temporary tax card number that in turn allows you to get a job and start raking in the £15 minimum wage in a place where it isn’t uncommon to be offered jobs on the street – such is the economic strength of this country. I came here, to a town of 90,000 expecting a place with maybe a few more facilities than Aberystwyth. I found a city with a shopping mall larger than Cardiff’s Queen Street Arcade and a university that owns a ski jump. Be lucky enough to snag a job in the tourism trade and you’ll make £200 per day, stories of students earning £5000 a semester in part-time work are well known, while it’s theoretically possible to live off £8 per week on a solid diet of tuna and rice.
And you’ll have plenty of time for it with the longer terms meaning an extremely relaxed education, for this month I’ve had 3 lectures a week and 2 more of language classes, you aren’t even expected to read beyond the required list so no more endless hours of pouring through google scholar, most ‘exams’ are take home and spread over 7 days. Lecturers are also even more relaxed than in Aber, the idea of student and teacher being equal here is put into practice to extraordinary effect after being battered and bruised in many a seminar back home. Expect to have a noticeable advantage over other students purely for being a native English speaker too, although studies of Walt Whitman’s poetry are still indecipherable to me so I can’t imagine how the Norwegians find it.
But in the end an exchange isn’t really about academic progress, I’m not here to learn about the Japanese history that I want to specialise in. I’m here because an exchange is the ultimate test of independence, like an Odyssey, bearing the weight of Atlas and surviving. With this I will prove to myself that I can adapt and flourish – and with any luck, an employer will think the same. Therefore, this exchange so far has taught me one searing truth, determination. I will make more of myself, I will engage with cultures and languages, I will continue to put everything I have into academics and I will conquer the things I need and want to do. And it is though this life that I will get to live these experiences that most only dream about – like unexpectedly catching your first sight of the northern lights, surrounded by new friends, and making someone laugh in a foreign language for the first time.
Until We Meet Again,