No More ERASMUS for Switzerland?

So this is when direct democracy can really come round and bite you in the arse. If you’re reading this presumably you have an interest in Switzerland and/or ERASMUS, so you’ll know that the recent referendum on limiting immigration into Switzerland has resulted in Switzerland being excluded from participating in the ERASMUS program. Sad news for future possible Lausanne exchangers, and also more selfishly, sad news for me. What about my plans to retire over there???

The really tragic thing is that Continue reading

An International Education

Much as I love to study (hem hem), being on exchange has become more about getting a thorough instruction in the university of life (yeah, I said it). Rubbing shoulders with students from all around the world has given me a far better international education than any textbook ever could. Just in the past week I’ve been privy to snippets of an insider’s life in Armenia, took a crash course in Polish drinking ritual during a fondue party, and sampled some truly splendid (if incredibly oil-rich) home-made Columbian cuisine.

Though I came here to learn French, and take in a bit of Swiss culture, I think I’ve actually learned much more about other cultures. Like I said, reading about countries and customs is all very well but it’s all just words on a page. Speaking with real live people who talk with animation and emotion about their homelands is the best way to learn about a country.

Plus, it’s just quite fun to see the numbers of countries from which people you meet come racking up. The more unusual the place and/or circumstance, the better. I had never met anyone from Azerbaijan before, let alone danced Argentinian tango with them, until last semester. I had to look up the Cape Verde islands on google maps after meeting someone from there because I was clueless as to where they are located.

Once, I found myself at an all-Romanian party (just…don’t ask, no idea why), taking part in their traditional dance, and also for some reason performing the tango in front of a load of strangers (again, don’t ask). Mixing mulled wine and rum sounded horrific to me, until I saw how my German coloc did it, melting a huge cone of sugar into it with some special apparatus probably only found in Germany; it actually tasted pretty good.

It’s been a rather bitter pill to swallow, but I’ve learned that American English is far more widespread in the world than English English, and I’ve come to accept (almost) that my Received Pronunciation is frequently going to be met with blank stares in the international crowd. Adaptation, not articulation, rules when trying to communicate effectively!

All this exposure has made me realise, despite the multicultural-ness of London, just how much there is out there, and how little I know of it all. It’s nigh on impossible to know about even half of the cultures on earth, and it is important to never assume you do. One shouldn’t make the grave error of thinking that, for example, eating at an Indian restaurant means, even slightly, that you know the first thing about Indian culture.

What I’ve learned from this is that there is no “one way” or “correct” way of living and being. However it is wrong when you assume your own way is the only way, superior to everything else, which is worthless or pointless. It’s also made me realise that one new culture is not enough. I want to live them all!

Power to the Point! (Not the PowerPoint)

The Anti-PowerPoint Party is out to get your slideshows, and should they garner enough support, they plan to run in Switzerland’s October general election. I refer to an article I read about banning PowerPoint presentations in Switzerland.

It got me thinking about PowerPoint, and its ubiquitous presence in all forms of public address, from academic lectures to speeches at birthday parties. On the whole, I believe it can be a useful addition, as long as it is used for good, and not for presentation evil.

You know what I mean. The lazy-ass student who has copied a mass of text from the Internet and pasted it onto a single slide, too small to read from the back of the room, and who proceeds to intone the entire thing, which we all could have done just as well ourselves in silence. Often the information is generic, dull and comprises no analysis or work on the part of the student.

Then there are the distracting slideshows, containing dizzying flashes, spinning, twisting, fading and wiping texts and images flying all over the screen. One wonders if the creator wasn’t having the time of their life the night before, discovering the magic and fun that is transitions and animations. Or if their presentation is in fact rubbish, and they’re trying to razzle dazzle you into thinking otherwise.

What happened to cultivating good old skills of public address? Such as eye contact with your audience, and remembering what you are going to say, using only a few prompts from your bullet-pointed notes? We mustn’t fear the notion of simply talking to a room – essentially what a lecture is. With the right amount of charisma you won’t need anything other than yourself to hold the attention of your audience. Relying on slideshows dulls that magnetism and makes generic, PowerPoint-enslaved automatons of us all.

Whoever heard of a PowerPoint-accompanied inspiring speech? Did Alexander the Great need such aids when he rallied his tired troops on the verge of conquering India? Would Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech have been quite so stirring if the crowd were distracted by a big projection behind him detailing the major points of his argument? Would King George VI (played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech) have tried so hard to overcome his speech impediment if he had PowerPoint as a back-up? We’ll never know the answers to these questions and frankly I don’t want to because a slideshow just cannot compare to a genuinely inspired and engaging oration.

Obviously if you’re in an art lecture, you’re going to need the projections of artworks under discussion. But I reckon PowerPoints should contain pictures, names and dates, and little else. These are generally what I prefer to include if I have to give a presentation, and I present the bulk of my research in speech. Another problem I have with PowerPoint is it makes for very static speeches. Because of the need to always be by the computer’s side to click onto the next slide, you lose movement and dynamism, which can really add interest and stimulus to a presentation.

Still, I’ve often found having a PowerPoint gives you something to focus on if your lecturer is mind-numbingly dull; a visual back-up if you cannot stand to listen to their voice, allowing you to still pick up key points. Pictures or videos can often provide additional stimulation, as well as making your lecturer look well smart and up-to-the-minute.

Though I don’t think we need to go as far as abolishing PowerPoints, I do believe we need not rely on them. It has become basically compulsory for university lecturers to use them, but why? It may bolster a bad presentation but it can equally do the opposite to a good one. If the projector is not working (as often happens), lectures are delayed, relocated, or even cancelled. What a waste of time on something inessential to many lectures anyway.

So let’s all ditch our PowerPoints, vote for the Anti-Powerpoint Party and get stuck in to some Quintilian!

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.

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.