A bit more than one year ago I was confronted with the decision between two courses of studies – one was Agro-ecology and the other one was forestry related. I had always had an interest for forestry and I had found it sad that it was not covered at all in agriculture related courses. I was specifically interested in tropical and agro-forestry though and the course would not have covered that. Besides, Agro-ecology was closer to my heart than anything, as was Sweden, so I could not have opted against it – which I have never once regretted! :)
However, when I got to know that we are free to choose any courses at any university in our last term, I remembered my interest in agro-forestry and found out that the only university in Europe which offers this subject as a master course happens to take part in the “Erasmus” exchange agreement as well – so, I applied for a scholarship and now here I am, pursuing the second course of studies which probably no-one has ever heard of. ;) What makes my “self-assembled” study path even more “unique” is the fact that there has actually been a misunderstanding, as the university normally only accepts “Erasmus mundus” students. So, I may be the first and last exchange student taking part in the agro-forestry programme. It is also lucky that as an exchange student, I can choose whichever courses I like, so I have chosen my modules with a lot of consideration and added a “Conservation Biology” module to two Agro-forestry ones, which has been extremely interesting and a lot of fun not least due to our highly motivating teacher. :) And last, but not least, I found a way to pursue two things I’d been hoping to be able to pursue here – my Hindi skills as well as my swimming ambitions. I found a girl from India who just finished the Agro-forestry programme and has been more than happy to give me Hindi lessons, and in that way, I made a great new friend too! As for swimming, I found out about a “university swimming club” (one of at least ten million university clubs I could possibly join – the choice is impressive!) which enables students to use the public swimming pool for free twice a week.
I do have to make this blog entry short (compared to what I’d wish to write, I mean ;)), but at least I wanted to finally give some impressions of Wales and post some pictures of the beautiful surroundings before it gets winter – the first thing which struck me when I came here was the amazing beauty of the landscape (the village where I’m living is very close the the Snowdonia National Park)! I also noticed many differences from Sweden – Wales is actually a rather poor country, and it also has issues with social exclusion and discrimination against minorities. Indeed, I have also noticed quite a different atmosphere at the university here, where hierarchy and formality seem to matter much more than in Sweden. (This is not as much the case in my department though.) People are generally much more individual (I am always amazed at what different types of people I come across every day on the bus) and at the same time more simple than in Sweden, which is something I like here. They are also more talkative and noisy, and much more “local”. People getting off the bus say “thank you” to the driver and many shopkeepers have called me “darling” so far, which I find pretty weird and amusing. Generally, I have experienced a lot of kindness!
Buildings are much older and things generally much more old-fashioned than in Sweden. A possibly related aspect is the love for second hand stuff – I have never seen as many second hand and charity shops in one place before. In a funny way, the British seem to share the love for nature with the Swedish, but at the same time, it happens in a very different way. Somehow people here love conservation (especially of birds ;)), but it’s more like a hobby than a general attitude. Also volunteering is very popular here, which is funny again because money is at the same time a big issue for many people.
North Wales and especially the area of Gwynedd where I am living has the largest proportion of Welsh speakers within Wales. The cultural identity is also taken very seriously and can even take on nationalistic scales (there also seems to be a traditional animosity towards England and the English). This is kind of confusing, because I can totally comprehend the delight in maintaining a culture which is a minority, but I cannot bring this together with hostility. Obviously I would not even know about this or hardly notice it if I hadn’t been told about it, which doesn’t make it less true for people who have lived here for a long time.
When it comes to food, I’ve been having difficulties to find “healthy” food in normal supermarkets – I have had to go to the “health shop” in order to find products without at least 20 different kinds of additives, and I have still not found anything which I would call “bread”. ;) (I did bake my own bread a few times but it turns out a bit weird due to the gas oven…) Another challenge is the left-hand traffic – I have lived here for several months now and still keep looking to the left before crossing the street, only to be almost run over by a car coming from the right… I did wonder why I never had this problem in India or Uganda and came to the conclusion that it must be because no-one acts accordingly to any traffic rules there anyway, so that I am much more attentive in general. (Btw, in Sweden I learnt that the changeover from left-hand traffic to right-hand traffic took place over one night in 1967.) It even makes a difference as a pedestrian – whenever someone is walking towards me, I have to think twice before I move to the left. :)
I am living in a village called “Rachub” which is about 20 minutes by bus from Bangor. I had got to know my landlady (and “flatmate” :)), Jan, through a Couchsurfing friend (who happens to be the creator of the online encyclopedia “omniglot” – people here like languages!) and could not have been more lucky – she knows everything about the area and is being extremely helpful. She is registered disabled and has been fighting for both her rights and the rights of other minorities since long (unfortunately she still experiences unfair treatment until today as well). She is also better at recycling than anyone else I know! Our third housemate is Philipp from China, who came here for the second time to pursue a master course in English. For a few days we even had the company of Simone, who came to visit me from Germany! I will leave the remaining stories to the pictures… Hwyl fawr! :)