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Diary of a Master’s Student Abroad: Month 7 (March 2017)

Hello spring! After some deep, white-out snowfall in Uppsala we’ve finally re-found that foreign, forgotten feeling of sun on our skin, as the ice melts in Scandinavia after a long winter… I’m now halfway through my stint in Sweden, which I can barely believe as it’s flown past so quickly. So here is the seventh of my monthly updates (here are the others) that I’m writing throughout my 2-year Master’s, partly to keep a record for myself of my experience doing this degree to look back on in future, and partly to give you all an idea of what the life of a student abroad is like, what I’m learning on my course and what I get up to. If you’re curious why I’ve moved abroad to start a Master’s, find out more about that here: ‘My Next Steps: Why I’m Emigrating to Europe’.

After a month of being a ‘newbie’ and settling into my new life in Uppsala in February, March has been a month of adopting the role of ‘local’ guide and showing Sweden to various friends who have visited me, which is an odd transition to go through. The month has also involved a lot of looking forwards and planning the rest of 2017, as I do love to plan! I may have slightly overplanned however, as I’ve felt almost as hectic and busy as I did in Groningen last semester, despite having far fewer contact hours and commitments than in Groningen. But I’m now back to my normal busy self and enjoying that feeling of focus.

So here’s the seventh blog post of the series, covering March 2017: the seventh month of my 2-year Master’s in European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.

Where I’ve been in March

Uppsala, London, Stockholm

What I’ve been up to in March

In contrast to last semester, studying and university hasn’t dominated my month as much as it did in Groningen – which is a positive thing! I found time to pop home to London, I saw various friends from the UK here in Sweden and in general I’ve done a much better job of breaking out of the university bubble. With a more flexible structure and fewer classes, I feel more chilled and frequently lose track of the date and day of the week, which feels really liberating!

  • On the studying side of things, the month began with a reading week – always a good start! Since then I’ve been occupied with choosing research questions for my two main papers. I always wrestle with this task but have finally settled on two topics. Firstly, I’m going to write a research paper on the role of the sea in British Euroscepticism (looking at concepts and theories like island mentality, exceptionalism and core-periphery dynamics) which I’ll be presenting at our Master’s conference this July in Krakow. And secondly, I’m going to write about the importance of macro-regional labels (eg. Baltic / Nordic / post-Soviet) for a country like Estonia, in terms of geopolitics and security issues. I had originally wanted to somehow research organised crime and corruption in Russia, but it’s such a mammoth and undocumented topic, plus I’m sure my parents would rather I don’t end up flagged on some Russian blacklist! In other news, our class are busy inviting speakers, panellists and organising a 1-day conference called ‘The War on Truth: Is Europe Next?’ on the 15th May in Uppsala, and I’ve learned quite a lot from my methodology class on various research approaches such as qual vs. quant, mixed methods and critical discourse analysis. And lastly, I was thrilled to find out that I’m officially going to be published! An article of mine on the role of colonialism in British identity has been selected for publication in the Spring 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal the Honours Review. Getting my work published was a key goal for me so I’m absolutely over the moon!
  • On the extracurricular side, I’ve got a number of Groningen Honours College-related activities underway. Firstly I’m still managing the communications and marketing for the Illicit Trade Summer School at the University of Groningen (applications are currently open!), and secondly, I’ve received approval for my independent Honours project as well: to do a research field trip across 3 European countries this summer to investigate civil society’s attitudes towards globalisation and European integration. A professor I really respect from Groningen’s Politics department has agreed to mentor my project too, so I have high hopes for what it might produce! (Once the plan is fully fleshed out I’ll blog about the project in more detail, as I’ll be looking for potential interviewees and contacts in France, the Netherlands and Poland). On a more relaxed note, my training for Mt Blanc is going okay, although I’m suffering from some very sore calves and I’m shocked that I can’t find a sauna nearby to relax in, as I thought sauna was the main Swedish past-time!? The landscape in Sweden is actually pretty flat, which is not ideal for summit training… The Norwegian fjords however are the place to go for hiking up mountains with spectacular scenery, although I’m yet to go myself.
  • On the travelling side, my big news is that I’ll be moving to Mexico City later this year! I’ll be spending my 3rd semester studying on the other side of the pond for 4 months, from August to November, re-awakening my Spanish and eating one hell of a lot of Mexican food – yummmm… I’m really excited to immerse myself in a completely new part of the world, as I’ve never been to Central America before. I’ve also been on flight booking spree (my favourite type of shopping) and booked flights to the Netherlands, Poland (for the first time), the UK and very excitingly my beloved Italy for Easter, as I have another reading week in April! In terms of actual travel this month, I explored some more of Uppsala by visiting the Viking burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala and hiking around the beautiful frozen Ekoln Lake to the south of Uppsala, and spent a few days in nearby Stockholm with school friends, exploring the city islands of Gamla Stan, Skeppsholmen, Kastellholmen and Kungsholmen. I also flew home to London for a great, sunny long weekend back in the sociable, excitable buzz of a major capital city.
  • On the blogging side of things, I wrote a guide to skiing in the stunning Swiss ski resort of Mürren, as well as writing about my move to Mexico, and I published some heavenly photos from my trip to Zanzibar a few years ago in a blog post about the Illicit Trade Summer School. Over on the The Well-Travelled Journal I published a short critical review of an academic article by Aleida Assmann on history, memory and collective identity too. I’m still struggling to up the number of blog posts I write, and it’s not necessarily just writer’s block… I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the future of blogging, as a lot of people move over to ‘vlogging’ instead – something that doesn’t really appeal to me. I still really enjoy keeping up this blog and engaging with the travel blogging world, but I also see that there are lots of much bigger topics and more pressing problems out there that need working on too, and I struggle to divide my time between the ‘hobby’ of travel blogging and the ’serious work’ of the broader issues and causes I feel strongly about. Two little things that have helped my blogging motivation however this month are: having an article published in a print magazine called Blogosphere and being included in a list of the top 17 volunteering blogs! This last one was especially surprising as I don’t think of myself as a ‘volunteering blogger’, but I suppose I do have a whole host of posts from my time in Nepal, so I’m glad they’re not just lying unread in the endless archives of the vast internet…

March in an Instagram

Here’s the most popular photo from my Instagram this month. If you don’t already follow me, then you can find me at @vstuarttaylor.

Things I’ve Learned in March

  • The importance of helping others. (Not that I’m claiming to have done much at all myself). Early in the month I watched this fascinating TED talk about 2,000 New York Times obituaries, and one of the most common words in those obituaries was “help”. I felt inspired by it and noted it down in my daily journal, to remember it. Later in the month this point about helping others really proved itself, during the terror attack on London on the 22nd March. A friend of mine happened to be there and was the first person to rush to the stabbed policeman, give him first aid and co-ordinate the air ambulance. Mike gave a heart-wrenching account of the whole experience on the BBC (a video which I highly recommend you watch all 8 minutes of) and his selflessness in the midst of that chaos truly stunned me. The policeman eventually died from his stab wounds but the way Mike tried to save him, and put helping others above his own safety, was really inspiring.
  • Quite a bit about the Baltic Sea Region: identity determination of the reindeer-herding Saami minority; gender and ethnicity issues in Sweden; educational policy in Finland (one of the best in the world); cross-border conflict with the EU’s four fundamental freedoms between Sweden & Latvia; welfare chauvinism and far-right anti-immigration sentiment in Sweden; the human rights of Roma beggars in Scandinavia; and Europeanisation of Poland; democratisation of post-Soviet states; linguistic relations and the use of English as a neutral lingua franca in the region (among lots of other topics).
  • How not to write academic articles. Uppsala University places little emphasis on contact hours, and lots of emphasis on reading articles and chapters, which has given me ample hours of boredom while struggling through poorly written and un-engaging academic articles. So when I do come across a compelling piece that grabs my attention, I’ve leaped for joy! It’s shown me that I want to be one of those writers who keeps their audience engaged with storytelling, unusual or unconventional examples and real-life case studies, instead of boring them with a dull, unnatural academic register just to make the article sound more lofty, intelligent and elitist. It also makes me want to attempt something of a longer writing project (eg. a book, although I think I’m too daunted to really admit that to myself!).
  • How to actually “do” primary research. Putting my methodology class into practice by planning my research field trip this summer has forced me to actually think about doing scientifically reliable research. Not since I was at secondary school, investigating sexism in tabloid journalism (in A-Level English Language) or surveying locals about nearby shops and facilities (thank you GCSE Geography), have I done any sort of methodologically planned primary research. My odd journalistic interviews here and there don’t really count as rigorously scientific.
  • The art of Swedish meatballs, served with mashed potatoes and Lingon berries. I can highly recommend Prinsen in Stockholm as a great place to try the national Swedish dish, and the following week after eating there I was even taught how to make them myself, following a recipe in Swedish too!

March’s high points

Going running while surrounded by gently falling snowflakes in a picturesque white-out. Snowy scenery and frozen rivers bathed in sunshine, against deep blue Swedish skies. Getting into the countryside by walking around Ekoln Lake and picnicking in the forest. Taking the train from Oslo to Stockholm through beautiful frozen landscapes (I do love long scenic high-speed train journeys – they feel so indulgent – see the video below). The relief of finding out I’d been accepted to study in Mexico City for a semester, after my niggling doubts about the alternative work placement option. Introducing various school and uni friends to Scandinavia and feeling proud to show them my new home. Our 8-hour-long night out in Stockholm’s nation, drinking far too much and feeling like carefree Bachelor’s students again, reminding me of the endless partying involved in my Erasmus the first time around, when I was 21 in Spain and Italy, compared to the heavy workload now! Seeing my sister and friends in London on a really sunny spring weekend, taking advantage of London with the Banff Film Festival and the great local Tara Theatre that’s opened near my flat.

March‘s low points

Realising how brutal the world can be and how fleeting life is. This month not only was a friend of mine involved in the London attack (see above), but another friend of mine tragically lost a parent unexpectedly. 99% of the time I take life – the very essence of being alive in the first place – completely for granted, and I felt completely helpless in the face of these two tragedies, not knowing how to react or what to do to make anything better. Article 50 being triggered, which I’m slightly in denial about and would rather forget about to be honest, as I find it altogether too depressing for words. I learned that having so few contact hours at university really doesn’t suit me – I prefer learning in a group rather than through solo study. I’ve also found myself frustrated in overly philosophical seminars endlessly discussing abstract theories and concepts, which to me just seem like a lot of hot air that achieves nothing nor teaches anything! While I’m managing to keep up my stronger languages (Spanish, Italian and Portuguese), I’ve categorically failed to maintain my weaker languages (Russian and Dutch), which I had such good intentions for when I first arrived in Uppsala, as I disappointingly can’t find the time needed to dedicate to them. And finally, I miss London’s culture of eating out, which Sweden really doesn’t have!

March in a Tweet

Upcoming Plans for April

April kicks off with two uni friends visiting me here in Uppsala and then after that I’m barely in Sweden at all! During another (!) reading week, I’ll pop back to Groningen in the Netherlands for a few days, before spending Easter in Milan (hopefully including Lake Como). I’m then hosting my sister and a friend in Sweden before heading back to London again for a few days, principally to run an annual event on Women in Leadership that I’m involved in, before flying back to Uppsala in time for the famous Swedish celebration of Valborg! And somehow I’ll have to find time to write two papers and organise a summer school, a conference and a research field trip as well… A busy month!

March has been super sociable and I’ve loved seeing lots of my UK friends, to match the new friends I’ve made here in Sweden. The rather relaxed Swedish academic culture means less of a focus on studies and academia than I would have expected, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I’m enjoying the freedom that gives me to study what I’m actually interested in!  I’m rather terrified of the workload I have ahead of me in April, but with plenty of travels on the horizon and the weather just getting nicer and nicer I can only be happy!

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