STUDY IN EUROPE ON A BUDGET: TIPS AND ADVICE - with Freya Sawbridge
ABOUT THIS INTERVIEW
Freya and I met at Otago University, while we were both doing a short presentation about our exchange semester (study abroad) in Europe. She had just come back from her first exchange in Bergen, Norway and I could feel how happy it made her to share her experience - I was drawn to her vibrant aura and positive energy. Thankful that our paths crossed, we had each other to reminisce on our exchange stories. Freya was also a huge influence behind my decision to go on a second exchange to Stockholm. She made the ‘impossible’ sound like a piece of cake, and somehow persuaded me to leave my cushy corporate job for yet another year of adventure - which has somehow progressed to ‘indefinite’… at least for now.
In this interview, Freya shares some of her tips and lessons she learnt while on exchange. She also talks about the challenges both during and after exchange, how she financed them through scholarships and cutting down costs while studying and travelling in Europe. It just goes to show that you don’t need to be rich (or have a rich family) to go on exchange - when there’s a will, there’s a way! You just have to be willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort here and there, for a reward that is so much more satisfying and those beautiful memories of wild adventures with amazing like-minded humans stay with you forever.
1. What inspired or motivated you to do an exchange in the first place? And what made you go on a second exchange?
I was driven by the possibility of a scholarship. I had seen the Prime Minister’s Scholarship to Asia and actually had a few meetings with an exchange advisor about the application process. In one of my meetings, my exchange advisor asked “Is it definitely China you want to go to?”. I replied, “No, I’m not bothered where I go… I just want to go somewhere”. She then told me that a scholarship to Norway had just come through to her email and that it was mine if I wanted it. Apparently, she had sent it out to other students, but no one had shown much interest. I accepted the offer and left 2 months later.
After such an incredible first exchange, I decided to go on a second one because I was itching for that exchange high again. My life philosophy is:
“Always take the opportunities available to you right now, because once it’s gone, it’s gone - and you may never be presented with that chance again”.
You can only ever do an exchange while at university and I think it would be extremely sad to forgo such a unique experience.
2. How did you budget or finance your travels both before and during exchange?
I was incredibly fortunate to have received scholarships for both exchanges. I got $9000 NZD for Norway and $2000 NZD for Germany.
For my exchange in Germany, I actually attempted to Couchsurf for the duration of my exchange. For those of you who don’t know what Couchsurfing is, it’s a platform where locals open up their homes/couches to passing by travellers and host them for free. (You can read more about Couchsurfing and how it works here: Couchsurfing 101)
They are mostly short term stays (a few days max.) so I was very lucky that my long-term stay request worked out. I stayed with a German student for a week in the heart of Tübingen before moving in with a family who lived out by the surrounding hills for 6 weeks. When the partying became a bit more frequent, I decided it was best for me to move out and so I found an apartment in the neighbouring city of Reutlingen where I stayed for 1 month and paid just 100 Euros for it. When that Couchsurfer moved back, a university student was leaving her student hall and so I took over her tenancy and paid just 280 Euros.
I’m also naturally good at saving money which helps a huge amount. Here are the few things I did to save money when travelling:
Staying in airports overnight instead of paying for accommodation
Buying all my food in Germany (where supermarkets are far cheaper) before crossing over into Switzerland for a week
Dumpster diving in Copenhagen so my friends and I could eat for free
Only buying second-hand clothes
Only packing carry-on luggage to save airfare and queuing time
3. What are the top lessons you learnt from your first exchange to Bergen?
Connect with as many people as possible
Venture to have coffee with as many new minds and different personalities. They teach you so much and even if you don’t get on, the encounter will broaden your mind which is never a bad thing. Be brave and go and talk to that girl with the interesting skirt on. Go and ask your lecturer what their opinion on the death penalty is (even if they snub you in front of your 200 fellow students). Say yes to going for a drink with that weird boy from the bar. You will never be in any worse position for having reached out to people.
Use your youth-currency
Flirt to get that free drink in the bar, spontaneously hop on trains or go camping. You simply can’t get away with the same cheekiness when you are older, so may as well do it now.
Don’t miss any orientation events!
I decided to travel for an extra two weeks at the start of the university semester, which meant that I missed all the orientation events for exchange students. This was a huge mistake as it led to me spending those first 8 weeks alone because I didn’t have the same opportunity to meet others. People form friendships very quickly and typically stick together for the entirety of the exchange. Seriously, go to EVERY event, even the weird ones like speed dating.
4. What are the top lessons you learnt from your second exchange in Germany that you didn’t get from your first exchange?
Be stronger than your excuses
I wasn’t meant to go on a second exchange because of the way my papers at university were structured. But I pushed and pushed and was eventually given permission to go. It’s easy to make excuses for things that happen in your life and play the victim but taking responsibility will help you find solutions instead of excuses.
Try and speak the language
It helps phenomenally with your ability to understand the culture and people. In Norway I only learnt one word (plastic bag) which was offered to you every time you went supermarket. I made an effort to speak German on this exchange and it made a big difference in my appreciation for the people and country. It even helped me get into clubs in Berlin and came in handy when I hitchhiked in remote parts of Switzerland where no one could speak English.
5. What are three tips you would give to students going on exchange?
1) Try not to have expectations
When I first went to Norway, I spent the first 7 weeks alone. At the time I just got on with it and saturated my day with podcasts to curb the loneliness. On my 8th week I heard about a party that was happening downtown and decided to go alone. It was pretty embarrassing and awful but I did it. I sat on a couch with two guys called Marcel and Marvin and thought they hated me. They were very stand-offish and I left soon after that encounter.
A few days later, Marvin messaged me and asked if I’d like to play a game of pool. I agreed and after that first meeting, he took me under his wing and invited me into his group of friends. We had dinner every night together and spent the days picnicking, swimming and hiking in the nature around us. It was pure bliss. I have never felt so loved and happy or laughed as much in my life as I did those few months.
My point is, you don’t know how your exchange will turn out. I know people who have gone into exchange with soaring expectations that it will be a whirlwind of heated one-night stands with beautiful Swedes and sangria-soaked evenings only to find themselves isolated and homesick watching ‘The Office’ on a Saturday night. It’s the disjoint between expectation and reality that causes problems.
When I did my first exchange, I only had 3 months between receiving the acceptance letter and leaving for Norway, which meant I didn’t have time to fantasise or come up with unrealistic expectations. This was a blessing in disguise, as it helped me accept many things – whether that was being lonely for the first 8 weeks or finding my group of friends a few months in. Either way, it was good enough for me because I was learning and growing without the prior-conceptions taunting me.
2. Don’t be in a relationship
Being in a relationship takes you out of the moment and dilutes fun and inhibits spontaneity.
Richard Curtis, the director of “Love Actually” said if he could change one thing about the world it would be to make every couple in their twenties break up after a year because it would mean: “you could just get out of all those relationships that aren’t the right one.. then if there was one you loved when you were thirty you could choose them” and if it was meant to be, they would also choose to be with you.
In reality, we put so much emphasis on relationships and as a result we unduly sacrifice our own autonomy and desires for the sake of companionship. Apart from a slim minority, everyone I knew who was in a relationship during exchange either ended up cheating or compromising on social events to Skype their partner every night - and regretted it.
3. Explore the country you are in
I was so excited to be back in Europe for the first time since I lived in Scotland as young girl, that I spent all my time jetting off to different countries. I hardly explored Norway despite living there! I really wish I’d spent more time travelling in Norway.
6. What were some of the toughest challenges you had to face while on exchange?
Dealing with loneliness during the first 8 weeks in Norway when I didn’t have any friends
In all honesty, I didn’t struggle that much on exchange. I didn’t suffer from culture shock and knowing it is all so fleeting eliminates any problems that may arise staying in a place long term - like rent, work, visas, insurance, health etc. Everything is typically sorted in your home country before you go.
7. How did you adapt to normal life after exchange?
I was really shocked how little interest people have in your experience. I guess you go through something so intense and incredible that when you come back to normal life you arrogantly expect others to recognise what you’ve experienced. In reality, they weren’t bothered and asked very few questions about my experience. Since no one wants to be the “oh have you heard? I’ve just got back from exchange..” person, the best way I dealt with the sadness and adjustment was keeping in touch with my exchange friends and talking to them about my memories.
I also tried to combat the nostalgia for exchange by telling myself the experience is not replicable or sustainable in real life. In no other time in your life can you simply wake up whenever you want, amble down to the supermarket to buy some bread rolls and a crate of beer. Go down to the river, hire boats and spend the day drinking and rowing around with your best friends. "Knowing that my experiences could never be relived again or replicated, are the very reasons I ached for them. Accepting this reality, my yearnings eased the more I appreciated the impermanence of it all."
8. What are some of your favourite places and why?
I’m weary of choosing favourites because it’s all a matter of perspective and linked to your own personal experience. Most places I’ve been to have been amazing however, there are a few particular places that truly stand out for me.
The South Island of NZ is incredible when you consider the variety of landscapes you pass through in such a short time. You can go from beaches and rough coastline, through forests and mountains, to the next city all within a few hours. Queenstown has incredible scenery, food and vibes. It was my go-to destination with my boyfriend during university and a gate-way to my favourite national parks: Mt Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park.
Since my first New Year’s visit in the cold winter of 2016, I have visited this vibrant city about 8 times. Even though it was miserably cold and lots of typical “Berlin” places like Mauerpark weren’t open, there was still an allure. I kept going back and it just seems to get better every time. On my last visit, I house-sat for a lovely couple in Charlottenburg district and spent a wonderful week walking around the whole city exploring amazing kebab shops and quirky bars and venturing to the lesser known areas such as Krumme Lanke in the Grunewald forest for peaceful walks in nature.
It’s surprising how few tourists there are, despite the stunning landscapes and highlands. People seem to prefer Ireland or England. The best part about Scotland is that there are no camping restrictions, so you could literally camp in the middle of Edinburgh city if you wanted. Security may try make you scarper but they have no legal authority to do so. There are so many stunning and varied places - I love Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and Isle of Skye.
9. Do you prefer solo travelling or travelling with friends?
By default, I mostly travel alone due to the very fact I cannot find someone who likes doing the same things as me. But if I could, I would prefer to travel with someone I get along well with - experience is better when shared. Even when I travel alone, I often arrange to meet up with friends along the way, and this allows me to have the best of both.
10. What are 2 traits you find in people that inspire you - and why?
My friend Marcel doesn’t even think twice about being generous. He does the most thoughtful things like bringing a spare jacket for me when we go hiking (because he knows I get cold) or paying the bill for a group of people he has just met or meeting me at the train station EVERY time I visit him (even if it is 5am). I am naturally not a generous person but I am learning, through people like him, that it is an exceptionally kind and gracious way to be.
The other day I was out with a Dutch guy who said, “your hair looks bad”. I laughed and thanked him - what a refreshing thing to say and hear! Because it’s true, I won’t always look good. Having a balance between being truthful and being kind builds up a good rapport.
Thanks Freya for sharing your thoughts! If you have any questions for us regarding exchanges or living abroad in Europe, feel free to drop us a comment below. You can also reach Freya via her website where she shares many of her own written pieces, interviews and photographs.
Freya’s Website: www.freyasaw.com
Freya’s Instagram: @freyasawbridge