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Diary of a Master’s Student Abroad: Month 10 (June 2017)

So this blog post is a several weeks late but… we’re over halfway through 2017! The end of June signified the end of my first year of the Master’s after exactly 10 months of studying. It’s true that my semester in Uppsala finished at the end of May, but there was one last crucial element of the course to complete in June before I could truly say I’ve passed the first year. So here’s the tenth 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’.

June was another month of living out of a suitcase as I hopped between London and Hampshire and hopped back over to the continent a couple of times, visiting France, Italy, Switzerland (albeit only briefly) and even Poland for the first time. Readjusting to London was helped by fantastic weather and the nice distraction of trips away to get some countryside air, an internet-free week in the Alps and a week in Krakow with all the other students on my course.

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

Where I’ve been in June

London, Hampshire, Chamonix (French Alps), Valle d’Aosta (Italian Alps), London, Krakow (Poland)

What I’ve been up to in June

After a brief spell in London straight after moving back from Uppsala, I escaped to the south coast in Hampshire with friends and I then stayed a whole week in the English countryside before travelling to the Alps for a week’s hiking and an attempt to summit Mont Blanc, followed by a week in London and then a busy week in Krakow, Poland. While 3 of those weeks were technically “summer holiday”, I was still kept busy with tasks and chores somehow, meaning it wasn’t all that much of a relaxing month after all!

  • On the studying side of things, I spent a week in Krakow taking part in an obligatory Intensive Programme for my Master’s, which is worth 5 ECTS credits. The main event for me was the presentation of my research paper on island mentality in Britain, which to my surprise went down really well, with the two tutors even deciding to nominate my paper for publication! You can find that here. We also attended 3 expert panels on the theme of ‘Visions of Europe’, and were given the challenge of putting together an exhibition of artwork and photography on that same theme. It was an exhausting week but also great to be back in an academic setting full of ideas, intelligent debate and different perspectives on Europe, as there were 101 of us students from a total of 33 different countries!
  • Aside from that, I received grades and feedback for all my courses in Uppsala which I was really happy with and we published the report on our ‘War on Truth’ conference here. Oh and my long-awaited article on colonialism and British identity was finally published in the peer-reviewed journal, the Honours Review! You’ll find the journal article here, and the longer 6,600-word version is also up here on The Well-Travelled Journal.
  • On the extracurricular sideI worked on the finishing touches for the Illicit Trade Summer School in Groningen, which took place at the beginning of July and was a huge success! I’ve been helping to organise that over the last 6 months as part of a team of 5 and as part of the Groningen Honours College, so it was exciting and satisfying to see it actually take place and to meet all the participants from across the world, although obviously also very tiring as an intense week of organising all-day classes and a 1-day excursion to Rotterdam Port, the US Embassy in the Hague and to a major bank in Utrecht. Aside from that (which was technically in July), in Krakow we had a career day with various career panels focusing on diplomacy and government, cultural organisations and NGOs, corporates and finally freelancers, and we organised the group exhibition that I also mentioned above. While crossing various borders daily in the Alps, I also finally came up with a concrete idea for the summer research project I’m working on (also for the Honours College), and I’m going to research and write a long-read piece on borders in Europe: looking into what they represent today, how they’ve evolved historically, how they impact people’s lives.
  • On the travelling sidethe first week of June was spent at home in Hampshire, full of walks around Mottisfont, horse riding around the New Forest, tennis with family, runs through country lanes and general preparations for June’s big trip: a week in the French and Italian Alps with my mother, climbing Gran Paradiso (4,061m high) and attempting to summit Mont Blanc. After acclimatising on the highest mountain in Italy, we headed up to the Tête Rousse hut at 3,167m high, to spend a night prior to summiting on Mont Blanc. The weather overnight surrounding our route up to the summit was cloudy, windy, rainy and eventually deemed too dangerous to begin an ascent that day and was paired with a week of too high temperatures on the Grand Couloir, which melts the ice and dislodges boulders and rocks that can kill anyone crossing the couloir at the wrong moment. So our guides decided it wasn’t to be this time, and we returned to Chamonix to instead go rock climbing and ice-climbing on the Mer de Glace glacier. After months of training and anticipation I was obviously incredibly disappointed! But apparently it’s very common to need a couple of attempts to catch the right weather window. Despite our disappointment, it was still a fantastic and energetic week up high in the mountains, away from civilisation and I really didn’t want to leave! I also took that week as my opportunity for a digital detox, with no access to the internet for an entire blissful week!
  • I spent the following week back in London seeing friends and catching up on the last 4 months’ news while I’d been away in Sweden, before flying to Krakow for a week. Poland was my latest “new” country and although I only visited Krakow, I really liked what I saw! Alongside the Intensive Programme, we also hung out a lot in the bars of Tytano, had a fantastic city tour by way of a treasure hunt and spent a surreal and  harrowing day visiting Auschwitz. The group of friends I was with in Auschwitz happened to include 3 Germans, so we also spoke about how post-WWII Germany had coped with its historical memory, and how almost every German family had someone to be ashamed of, a phenomenon that must have a huge impact on German society.
  • On the blogging side of thingsI managed to write a blog post about our training and preparation ahead of Mont Blanc, but other than that I barely sat still for 2 minutes to blog! Now that I’m on “summer holidays”, sitting down with my laptop to write seems to be impossible, as there’s been so much to do! At the very least I should have written a report from our Mont Blanc attempt.

June 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.

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Things I Learned in June

  • How to accept failure. My friends and family will freely tell you that I’m not exactly the world’s best loser and I truly do despise failing. I’m a perennial optimist, who always ignores the possibility that things won’t go perfectly as planned, and that in itself is a weakness! Our failed attempt to climb Mont Blanc in June really taught me to get over my high expectations, to let go of failure and not beat myself up too much. And this was hard enough when the cause of our failure was the weather (something completely out of my control!) so I dread to think how I’d have coped if we’d failed due to my own unfitness or altitude sickness… Looking back at my great-great-grandfather’s letters from 1879, his first attempt was also called off by bad weather, and I was later told that there’s only a 38% of making it to the summit of Mont Blanc, due to the weather. So I’ve learned to accept it (and yes we probably will try again!).

  • A bit of alpinism. While in the Alps we also learned to walk with crampons and ice axes, all roped together, and also did a fair bit of rock-climbing (which I really loved!) and we learned to ice-climb. Summiting Gran Paradiso definitely increased my appetite for tackling high summits, and after a great multi-pitch climb I’d love to do more rock-climbing!
  • Mountains are brilliant places to be in summer! They’re not only useful for skiing in winter.
  • The importance of staying fit all-life-long. My mother is such a role model for this, as no one believes she’s actually in her 60s when they see her or hear about the sports she does. She’s also an excellent example of how “old age” is only as old as you want it to be, and that age is nothing more than a number.
  • There will always be things to keep me busy, even when I’m technically “on holiday” from university. I’d hoped for some down-time and relaxing after my semester in Sweden ended, but actually I barely had more than a handful of lie-ins in the whole month of June! It gets me wondering how I ever felt on holiday during my Bachelor’s?
  • Small achievements are worth recognising and celebrating too – not just the big ones. In a month like June, when I spent two weeks just doing small bits and pieces and seeing friends, it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve actually done or achieved, or where the time went. I kept a daily record of all my mini-achievements and that helped immensely.
  • About all sorts of fascinating topics from my fellow students’ papers that I read and debated in Krakow: from Putin’s discourse about the EU to European classical dances practiced in Siberia, from perceptions of the UK in Japan and the EU in India to anti-immigration political cartoons in the 1900s’ United States, from separatism in Georgia to architectural mimicry in contemporary China (look it up – trust me you’ll be amazed!). The beauty of my degree is the freedom of choice that we have on the different topics we all individually want to research, and how these investigations and papers all enhance each others’ understanding of Europe and the wider world.
  • That human beings are not all inherently good people. Visiting Auschwitz was just horrific, and even though I’d seen films such as Schindler’s List and La Vitaè Bella (Life is Beautiful), and read books like Man’s Search for Meaning, which helped build a picture of the concentration camps in my mind, the Holocaust had always seemed something of a distant and far-removed concept from me personally. The reality and relative recentness of the Holocaust didn’t truly hit me until I was walking around the buildings where it really took place, and I struggled to comprehend the calculated brutality that other human beings unquestionably orchestrated less than a century ago.

June’s high points

Feeling immensely proud of my mother’s fitness, stamina and agility in the Alps! As a 63-year-old, she was the oldest of our group by nearly two decades, but she certainly didn’t look it! My mother is a huge inspiration for me, receiving compliments left, right and centre by amazed younger climbers, exclaiming that their own mothers would never dare half the demanding activities my mother managed during our week in the Alps! Summiting Gran Paradiso in the glorious 9:30am sun with an immense feeling of satisfaction as we overlooked France, Switzerland and Italy all at once. Getting back into playing tennis again! Seeing one of my academic articles published in a journal and finding out that another has been nominated for publication too. Escaping the internet for a week and feeling some of the peace I had in Nepal last year. Hosting friends down in relaxed Hampshire again, rather than snatched catch-ups in fast-paced London. Seeing long-lost old friends after nearly a year living abroad, and saying goodbye to other friends who are heading off to the other side of the world. Learning to rock climb. Visiting a new country = Poland, and exploring the beautiful city of Krakow! Meeting so many other of my fantastic fellow Master’s students from all over the world – making me  immensely proud to be part such an international, intelligent and talented bunch!

June’s low points

Waking up at both 1am an 4am on our Mont Blanc summit day, to be told that the weather was too dangerous for a summit attempt… Ending my digital detox week and my horror at seeing the flood of emails, messages, notifications and to-do list items overwhelm my phone all at once as soon as I stepped off the plane. Feeling ill in the week running up to Mont Blanc and panicking that my body wouldn’t be up to the challenge (thankfully I recovered just in time). The lack of sleep and feeling mentally exhausted after the Intensive Programme week in Krakow, yet knowing that I had another week of exactly the same over in Groningen! London’s heatwave (oh the irony and how I wish it would return now that there’s constant rain!). Missing my sister’s birthday while in Poland. The tense politicised vibe in the UK in the run up to and aftermath of the snap election, with heated debates and polarised views dominating the country. Receiving some news that affects my Mexico plans (which I’ll explain properly in another post).

June in a Tweet

Upcoming Plans for July

Given that we’re nearing the end of July, this section feels a little irrelevant! But I spent the first week of July in Groningen running a Summer School on Illicit Trade (a great success!), then I headed back to London for my birthday week, went up to Herefordshire for my friend Emma’s hen party, attended the incredible London wedding of my friends Lukas and Natalie, saw lots of my Exeter friends and then escaped down to the countryside in Hampshire for a week (where I am now). A few astute readers have also asked me about when I’m flying to Mexico… and I promise I’ll get to that in another blog post soon!

June wasn’t exactly restful, but full of exciting plans to keep me on my toes! Each week saw me in a different place – just the type of lifestyle I like best – and overall the many highs massively outweighed the two lows of Mont Blanc and my upcoming news about Mexico. The obligatory week in Krakow was a brilliant finale to the first year of my Master’s and it was overall a great month!

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