Study Abroad in Geneva: Picnics and Translation

A couple of weeks ago, we posted a blog piece by our recent graduate, Ruth Mahlstedt, about her life since graduating and we’re delighted to follow-up with another article by Ruth, this time about her experiences on Study Abroad at our partner institution, the Ecole de Traduction at the Université de Genève in Switzerland.

“Studying languages and learning more about different countries and their culture was always an interest of mine. I was therefore stoked to get accepted to study a BA (Hons) in French and Spanish at Stirling. During my four year degree, I learned a lot about a huge variety of subjects that I already spoke about in an earlier blog post. However, I only mentioned my semester abroad in a few sentences, and those six months as Study Abroad students definitely deserve a lot more attention than that.

One great aspect of the BA programme was that we were required to spend a semester abroad; something other students had to apply and go through a lengthy process for was a compulsory part of our degree. We started our selection process during the first half of third year and went on exchange in the second half. In 2012-13, Stirling offered an exchange program with the University of Geneva for the first time and I was drawn to it straight away, partly because I wanted to study somewhere I hadn’t been to before, but also because I had a big interest in translation and interpreting. Stirling University had a partner program with the École de Traduction et Interprétation at the Université de Genève, a school renowned for its in-depth studies of translating and interpreting.

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Since it was the first time students from Stirling had gone on exchange to Geneva, my fellow student Silje and I relied a lot on the support of our tutors in Stirling in order to get some handy tips and help to find housing, get prepared for the cost of living, etc. Both Jean-Michel and Cristina were great help before and during my time there.

Student housing was very difficult to arrange before I left Scotland. The University of Geneva has several locations around town that are specifically designed to host their students. I missed out on renting a room through the university and opted for finding something privately. When I was doing my research on the accommodation offered by the university, I found it interesting that some were only housing females, others only males; others were very similar to the residences on Stirling campus with shared kitchens and bathrooms. I made friends with people who lived in said accommodation in Geneva; some were living in Cité, others in Bastion, and I had one friend who lived in one of the houses only for female students, an old, beautiful building right in the old centre of Geneva. With only a handful of rooms, it was very different to the large number of students the bigger facilities were hosting and the massive shared kitchens often used by hundreds of people.

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I found my accommodation through a rental website. It was a privately let room in a family home in Étrembières, just over the border in France. Every day I walked five minutes to get across the border and caught a bus that took me to uni in about 15 minutes. Even though I wasn’t living right in the centre of Geneva, my rent was still very high: At €800 per month (or was it Swiss Francs? I don’t remember in which currency I paid my rent because my landlady spent most of her time in Geneva as well, but did her shopping on France), some of my friends were shocked when they compared it to their rent. I was living in the basement of the family home, though “basement” doesn’t do it justice: The family fully renovated the downstairs area, I had a brand new bathroom, well-equipped kitchen, and a very large room, sunlight… Looking at the size and taking into account that I was only sharing the kitchen and bathroom with one other girl, who occupied the second room in the “downstairs flat”, it does make sense it was more expensive than the rent prices for accommodation through the university.

I consider myself very lucky to have found the family I lived with. My house mate Maelle and I were always left in peace, had our own keys to enter through a different part of the house, we didn’t disturb the family and they never came downstairs besides to do the laundry. We had wifi, were able to use the washing machine, plates, cutlery, everything was provided; we each had a TV in our room, and we had a good relationship with our landlady who often took us to a large supermarket in France with her to do our groceries at a cheaper cost than what we would have paid at, for example, Migros in Geneva. Privately renting can also go wrong and I have heard very different accounts from other people. Some of my fellow students hadn’t even sorted out their accommodation until they got to Geneva.

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Before uni stated, I had a lot of time to familiarise myself with Geneva, which busses and trams to catch to get to places, time to organise my public transport card, find and compare supermarkets, suss out good cafés. They are all things that don’t require much effort in your home country. But when you stand in the public transport office trying to understand what the gentleman behind the counter is saying to you in French and all you want is a bus pass, it does take a little bit longer. I’d recommend to get to your exchange location a bit before your course starts. I had almost three weeks which was probably a bit too much. But because I rented privately and my land lady wanted to room rented as soon as possible, I decided to head over early.

The first few weeks at uni were very stressful: finding my way around, signing up for classes, trying out classes… I was very glad to see that we had a couple of weeks to try classes to see whether we’d like to properly sign up for them which saved me a few times as I had originally taken classes that were above my abilities. Some translating classes were solely aimed at native speakers; I signed up for a class of translating from French into Spanish, but it was the wrong one and meant for Spanish natives. When signing up for classes, it’s worth enquiring first towards whom they are aimed.

The number of classes on offer at the École de Traduction et Interprétation was incredible. However, if you aren’t a fan of translating, most of them will not take your fancy. But besides translation, I also signed up for a class called La Civilisation Française, a class taught in French focussing on French history, literature, politics and culture. I also did a class on French writing for foreigners with people from many different nationalities around me.

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We were encouraged to also join the Facebook group of the Erasmus program at Geneva University for that year. In the group, they organised trips, walking tours around town, parties, all organised through the Erasmus team at the university. With them, I went for a trip to Neuchâtel, took a train ride on the Panoramic Train to Lucerne, visited an Absinth distillery, all at discounted prices. Other trips they organised took people to cheese and chocolate factories and other towns and villages nearby. It was great to have the Erasmus Team as a go-to network and to meet so many other Erasmus students right away. The students running the team were all Erasmus students themselves at some stage and know how overwhelming it can be to arrive in a new country and organised events according to what they would have liked to get shown or told about when they first arrived in their Erasmus country. The walking tour they organised at the very beginning was a great way to meet people and familiarise ourselves with Geneva, learn a bit about the history of the city, which bars and clubs were worth visiting…

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Through the university and as Erasmus students, we were also entitled to take free evening French classes once or twice a week, something other students had to pay quite a lot for. Those classes were organised by level of French as well as competencies; grammar, debating, writing, whichever you felt like you needed to get better at. Mine was excellent and I found it very helpful to have a course like this amongst all the other classes in which I was expected to be great at French. This one was more like our classes back in Stirling, aimed at non-natives, going over grammar etc. I’d encourage anyone to take advantage of being able to take those courses for free. They are also held in a very beautiful older building belonging to the university in Park Bastion, architecturally a very different building to the modern construction I had all my other classes in.

Before I went on my exchange and people said Switzerland was going to be expensive, I didn’t quite believe it was going to be all that bad. But in all honesty, it is a very expensive place to live. Going out wasn’t something I could afford to do very often. However, other students were in the same boat and we always ended up making our own fun. Instead of going to restaurants and spend a fortune on eating out, we’d buy groceries at the supermarket and went for picnics. I have never been on so many picnics in my life! It was wonderful. Often, we’d bring instruments or juggling gear as well, or we’d organise a huge cooking event at one of the student accommodations a few of us were staying in. I made some really great friends that way, and many of whom I still speak to now on a regular basis even though I live in Australia.

My exchange in Geneva was a wonderful experience. I absolutely adore Switzerland, I love their culture, the beautiful landscapes. I loved that Geneva was the melting pot of so many different people thanks to organisations like the Red Cross having their headquarter there, the UN, CERN… I met many incredible people and always think back to my time there very fondly. But besides all that, the one of the main reasons we went on exchange was to live in a French speaking country and to get more comfortable with the language. And luckily, I also managed to do that and came home with a level of French I was proud of. Even though my Swiss-French was of saying “70”, “80” and “90” was frowned upon back home, it was appreciated that I tried to adopt the local dialect as much as possible. I look forward to going back to Geneva in the future and revisit all the beautiful places I walked past every day and discover this stunning city all over again.”

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Our partnership with Geneva is still going strong. They’re no longer part of the Erasmus network but we continue to send students there every year. Thanks to Ruth for this account of what it was like to be part of the first pair of students to spend their Semester Abroad there.

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