As I write this last entry, I am somewhere over the Atlantic flying back to Toronto via Frankfurt. These last few weeks since I returned from Georgia have been a whirlwind of activity. With final assignments due, exams to write and most of all, good byes to say, May and June just flew by.
One of the most memorable activities of second semester occurred in May. ESN Tartu (the international student organization), organized a paintball outing. While paintball itself is fun in and of itself, the venue was even better. During the Soviet Union, Tartu was both a university town and a closed city. This was due to a Soviet airbase located just outside of the city, actually about 15 minutes from my home for the past year. This airbase has been left to rot with little visually appealing qualities to it. However, among the three rounds of paintball, first with a small speedball match (my team lost), a capture the flag game (we almost won, but since neither team succeeded, it resulted in a tie) and a capture the hill challenge which we won in the last few minutes after a successful hill charge with my Estonian compatriots, all of whom ran out of ammo before we reached the crest. However, with a truly heroic dive by yours truly, we succeeded. All of this was done while being accompanied by our little buzzing friends, mosquitoes, which came out of the woodwork for all of May and June. An Estonian friend of mine told me that there were 800 different species of mosquitoes in Estonia and that only one bit, however, based on the number of bites everyone sustained, I question the accuracy of that fact.
A group of us also spent a weekend on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. There we saw the sights, barbecued, and fought with the mosquitoes. However, it was a great weekend with many great memories, including walking about 700+ metres out into the Baltic Sea and still being able to stand with one’s head above the water.
Upon returning, the real flurry of good byes began, with many friends going home. As of the morning I left (June 20th), there were probably about 20 exchange students left of several hundred. As a result, many group dinners were held, though you could definitely feel the difference, the spirit of Tartu remained, but the people did not.
Tartu is the city of good thoughts, the quintessential student town. With a thriving international student population populating the fourth floor of Raatuse 22, an exquisitely maintained town that is kept very clean, the thriving night life that the student population of 17,000 brings in a variety of venues and the always interesting interactions with the Estonians. You never know what they will do next, whether it be a boat in the middle of the Raekoja Plats at Christmas for no particular reason (the exact response we got when we asked the man in charge of putting the boat there at midnight on a cold Estonian night in December, to beach volleyball in front of the town hall, Estonians never disappoint.
The city, the students, the experiences, are what made this a truly unforgettable year. Through the ups and downs, I could always count on these amazing people I met to be there, whether the French with great food, the banter about Canada and America amongst the North Americans (of which Canada was severely outnumbered 2 to 12) and the Italians with their bewildering, yet endearing behaviour, to make anyone who was having a rough day smile.
For those that read this and are contemplating doing an exchange, whether for a full year or just the semester, just go for it, though of course I am more inclined to support the full year exchange, allowing you to get the most out of it, see the country in every way. I saw Estonia at 3-5h of daylight during the winter and 2-3h of darkness during the spring. I saw the city covered in snow one night when I went to bed and when I woke up, it was all gone. The little things you see over the year make it that much better. The friends you’ll make on such an exchange will be there for a life time and you will be able to stay in so many cities around the world for free with your new very international network. And lastly, a word of advice regarding travel during an exchange; while every budget traveler in Europe will extoll Ryanair and Couchsurfing (both are excellent, don’t get me wrong), do not forget the rest of the world. My entire exchange, the only ‘traditional’ exchange student trips I went on were 1 day in Stockholm, 2 days in Helsinki and a 9 day trip in the Netherlands and France to visit some friends. Go off the beaten track, discover something unique. Walk down Rustavli Street in Tbilisi, brave the bureaucracy and visit Red Square and get lost in the foothills (anywhere will do, just watch out for dogs). Not only will you be pleasantly surprised at what you discover but in the process you will meet truly amazing people (remember for example, Georgian hospitality). Though wherever you end up, make sure to get involved with everything and travel, but don’t forget the school work (it can sneak up on you).
Though the year is over and I now need to work towards finishing my degree in the next academic year, I am already working out a way to get back as soon as possible, preferably for a longer stint, maybe do a Masters abroad? And with this conclusion to the endless ramblings of a now former exchange student, I bid thee adieu with perhaps the most important Estonian word, Terviseks!