Live and let…

End of first year means many things: the end of innocence, nocturnal existence, and being unceremoniously booted out of halls and into the waiting jowls of private landlords. That is, if you were lucky enough to get a place in halls first time round (the term ‘lucky’ being a tenuous one, depending on which halls you were or were not blessed to be put in – see previous post).

To add to the trauma of the fact that the carefree, drunken times are over and it’s time to face the reality of your degree, toward which this year will actually count, second year brings with it the additional burden of living off-campus. For most, that means tackling bills for the first time in their delicate young lives, a commute lasting more than a 10-minute walk to lectures, and possibly the ruination of friendships due to rent- and bill-related skirmishes.

It’s all very well being able to choose who you live with this time around, potentially sidestepping any fiascoes caused by random groupings (again, see previous post). However, should anything go wrong now, you’ll know it was YOUR CHOICE to live with these freaks and therefore YOUR FAULT! And as most people tend to choose their housemates less than halfway through their first year, you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until it’s just too late.

If you’re lucky, those you have chosen to be your second-year cohabitants won’t suddenly transmute and you will live together in relative harmony. If you’re unlucky, you’ll discover once you’ve moved in (or even worse, before you’ve even moved in) that you’ll be sharing a home with a psycho. That’s a little extreme, but if you didn’t already live together in halls, you really don’t know who your friends are until you shack up with them.

It could be the best thing in the world, or it could be a drawn-out and messy end to a friendship. Faults you brushed aside or laughed off become magnified with daily exposure. Annoying habits you were unaware of loom up at you and attack your patience, or sense of smell, depending on their nature. And when it comes to splitting rent or bills…well, to adapt a well-known phrase, in pecunia veritas – in money is truth*. That is to say, one’s true nature is revealed when it comes to matters of cold, hard cash…

In addition, once you and your buddies from halls are scattered around the town, it might also spell the end of certain acquaintances. This seems all very pessimistic, but it’s not, really. If you are good enough friends, a extra mile or two won’t end something beautiful. And though it’s never pleasant being at loggerheads with someone you live with, it’s hardly permanent. So never fear, little ones, all is not lost.

Of course, personal relations aside, there are the infinite other pitfalls associated with private student houses, which do not normally receive the same amount of maintenance as university property. Extortionate rent, mouldy bathrooms, no hot water or electricity or Internet, rats, etc. I personally spent a very uncomfortable winter with a highly temperamental ancient central heating system, which was brain-rattlingly noisy (the radiator was right by my bed) when it did work. Plus the thermostat was in one of my housemates’ bedrooms. How convenient for all of us.

That being said, I would not have chosen to live in halls again for my second year. Though I lived at the end of a ridiculously long residential road, on a chavvy cul-de-sac next to a family with massive-sounding dogs who went berserk every time I went into the garden, who threw rubbish onto our front lawn, and liked to blare music through our walls; still I would not have chosen to live with Freshers again. Let them have their turn on the intense, intimate, and rather incestuous merry-go-round that is university halls. My time therein is over. Oh wait…

*A reworking of in vino veritas: in wine is truth.

Home is where the hubbub is…

To continue the theme of university housing, it’s one hurdle jumped once you’ve secured digs, but oh ho! Just wait for when you actually have to live there. Specifically, just wait till you see who it is you have to live with.

Over the course of my charmed student existence, I’ve had some interestingly nightmarish experiences in halls. I don’t count the usual quibbles, such as housemates who have never acquainted themselves with washing up liquid and sponge, the occasional (or not so occasional) noisy party, hearing noises through thin walls you’d really rather not, etc. No, I’m quite sure I’ve been blessed with some pretty unique housemates.

Just an average night in hallsThere was that lovely but harassed Japanese girl who had a rather public mini breakdown because we were apparently too noisy during Fresher’s week, chatting in the kitchen into the early hours of the morning. She, however, was nothing compared to the horror that was her replacement: a vile, asinine creature who filled the house constantly with marijuana smoke, loud trance music, drug dealers and buyers. Hated by everyone but those who got free drugs from him (and even they probably could only stand his company when high), this thing had zero self-awareness, consideration or concept of reality, convinced he was the hottest thing since sliced bread, and spouting accompanying myths of his imagined amazingness. He and his drug-addled companions would steal our things and sabotage our property, before finally being booted out. It became alarming at one point; they were offensive and would have been intimidating if they weren’t such cowards with it.

This is an extreme example, the nadir of housemates; nay, humanity. There were other more minor incidents, nonetheless disturbing in their own way. Such as the time I discovered the floors were so thin that the guy living below me had heard every word of a highly private, whispered, conversation held in my room. Or the girl who left her unfinished muesli on the kitchen table for so many days that it became a congealed mass of mould. Or that filthy stain on the toilet seat which nobody would own up to, and which lingered, intact and hardening, for almost a week before we cracked and attacked it with bleach for fear of being fined by the cleaners (thankfully we had another toilet, which we used instead for that week). Then there was being kept up past 5am because the police were in the house trying to subdue a suicidal housemate. All of which happened in halls.

Indeed, looking back I’m quite astounded by the level of madness I encountered in the two years I have spent in halls, and that’s not even counting the usual concoction of emotional turmoil and histrionics that brews when a group of young people are thrust together, with unlimited access to alcohol. So much for the drama, there are the usual oddities one will encounter. Like the Chinese exchange student (almost every house or flat has one): quiet, and stays in their room most of the time, but will venture out into the kitchen every evening to cook up a storm and fill the house with the smell of frying garlic. There’s the nocturnal housemate, who sleeps all day and emerges from their room no earlier than 8pm of an evening to have some cereal or toast. There’s the drunk one who is always, always out. These three types form the foundation of student halls population.

Having experienced all of the above, the questions begs, why did I choose to live in halls again? To be honest, until I wrote this post, I hadn’t really thought it through much… However, whatever else they might be, halls are certainly an interesting experience. And they’re not all bad; I’ve made some of my best friends from living in halls. Just please, please let me have quiet, normal colocs this time round…

Next post: the joys and woes (for me, mostly woes) of private housing

Gimme shelter

There’s an awful lot of talk about how expensive university is, but the focus is largely on tuition and not housing. Well, I can’t speak for the poor freshers of 2012 who will be paying thrice what I currently pay for tuition, but for students like myself who started university between 2008-2010, half of the cost of uni goes toward accommodation. As well as the significant financial investment, where you live often defines your university experience.

I bring this up because the housing situation in Lausanne is, to quote university correspondence, catastrophique. I have heard numerous horror stories from former exchange students, from being obliged to live in far-out (though luxurious) apartments at exorbitant rent, to being stuck in B&Bs for weeks on end. I recently received an email saying, not to worry, there is still space in youth hostels and camping sites for arrivals week, in which I might stay before finding somewhere more permanent. This was shortly followed by another saying, oh wait, the hostels are filled up, but there’s still space on the campsite!

I find it shocking that international students are being put in such dire straits. As if it wasn’t hard enough moving to a foreign country and starting university there, without plunking on the additional stress of finding a decent and affordable home in an area you don’t know and most likely have never even visited, wading through contracts, and all in a language you probably are not yet fluent in. Many UK universities, in my experience, also do not have enough space to accommodate the rising numbers of new students every year. However, most at least prioritise international students; so when they arrive, whatever else might (and probably will) go wrong, they will at least have a roof over their heads

Quality is another matter. I’ve always found it astounding how halls can swing from quite swish, newly built en-suite flats to dinghy prison cells with no access to a proper kitchen. There is a corresponding price difference, but accommodation is mostly randomly allocated anyway. Some halls even require the students to move out every vacation. What. The. Hell? Half, if not more, of the loans we are taking out are to cover the costs of where we live. True, the edge can often be taken off even the worst of halls if you are blessed with fun housemates, but still, let us live like human beings!

Let’s not start on private housing. That will require a whole other post.

Oh, just for the record, I’m sorted for housing in September. I managed to nab myself a place in university halls, though that didn’t come without a struggle. I went from initially being assured not to worry, I’d most likely get a logement, to being told six months later that actually, it was a definite NO. (Incidentally, the university housing association is called FMEL. Remove the E and what do you get…?) Well, I’m the type to kick up a fuss if I get short-changed, so I got myself a place in the end, but hundreds of other exchange students won’t be so lucky. Guess that means the flat party’s at miiiine!!

I’m kidding. I’m so, so kidding.

A month to go and yet I can’t speak French…

In a month’s time I will be jetting off to the land of euthanasia and fancy timepieces. That is, Switzerland. One full (free) academic year at university in Lausanne, by the graceful Lake Léman, to bring my level of French up from precocious six-year-old to actual undergraduate on the ERASMUS exchange programme.

“Why Switzerland?” is the constant refrain, “and not France?” Why not? is my response. So I may end up with (what my French friends regard as) a silly sing-song Swiss accent, and obese from molten cheese and chocolate. So I might return bankrupt, yodelling, and with a new best friend named Heidi. Still, I have yet to hear anything really bad about the place.  France is too close; there they are rude and don’t shave their armpits*  (stereotypes? Don’t believe in them…). I’ve been there a few times already. I’ve never been to la Suisse before and hey, I can’t think when else I’ll get a chance to live there.

The first thing people mention, without fail, is the cleanliness. Then fondue, skiing, and bank accounts. Well, these are all things I look forward to experiencing, but there is much more to Switzerland. It’s the picturesque home of diplomacy, my hero Carl Jung, the Red Cross, Lindt, St Ives face wash, that giant particle accelerator, Roger Federer, and, with four official languages, is about as international as you can get.

Yet despite its international activity this teeny tiny state is also highly independent and unique. It is not a member of the EU, and the role of “president” rotates yearly between the seven members of the Swiss Federal Council, who retain their role in government. The current president is Micheline Calmy-Rey, head of the foreign office and, yes, a woman. I like this place already!

Not bad for a country less than a third the size of England. It is very advanced, very wealthy (read: expensive, gulp) and very neutral. So I won’t need to worry about getting caught up in strikes or wars while I’m there, but I probably won’t be able to splash out on lavish fondue lunches everyday. Probably for the best.

I also look forward to getting the full Swiss university experience; as I understand it, university life is quite different over there. Apparently rather a lot of stock is placed in this strange concept, something hitherto unknown to English students: studying. And hard, too. Whether there is a student drinking culture to match old Blighty, I have yet to ascertain, but I suppose I’ll found out soon enough.

Yes, all in all I am greatly excited and looking forward to shipping off and being an exchange student in Lausanne. Now if only I could speak French…

*I am, of course, joking. France is a lovely place…but not as lovely as Switzerland.