My name’s Josh and I did my third year abroad at l’Université de Genève, in Geneva, Switzerland. I’m on the BSc Mathematics with Intercalated year degree. I’ve tried to make this useful for those wondering whether or not to do ERASMUS, and those who want to do it but haven’t decided where they want to go.
The Jet d’Eau is the famous symbol of Geneva
ERASMUS: Should I stay or should I go?
In one of my very first lectures at Warwick (Vectors and Matrices), Graham Wright came in to talk about his year abroad in Grenoble. That was the first time I’d ever heard of Geneva. I’ve always wanted an adventure, and that speech planted a seed in my mind, which grew and grew until, when ERASMUS application opened in second year, I knew I wanted to apply. I’m sure some of you are sold on ERASMUS already, but for those who aren’t quite sure yet, here’s my (non-exhaustive) list of why you should do ERASMUS!
1. Broaden your horizons. I come from a small town and, before Uni, my life was pretty much contained in a 500m radius from my house. I feel that coming to Warwick has broadened my mind massively, and that’s definitely a positive thing. Moving abroad for a year has broadened it even further.
2. Experience more of the world. Remember how you moved out of the bubble in second year and couldn’t believe how small it was, and how isolated it seemed? The same thing happens on a year abroad. There is so much more to this Earth than the UK (and that’s coming from someone who is proud to be British).
3. See things from a different point of view. With the proposed UK in-out EU referendum, it was really interesting to go Switzerland, outside of the EU, to see whether or not it matched up to the idea we have in Britain of ‘The Swiss approach’. Even if you don’t go to Switzerland, remember that nothing can do as much to put you in someone else’s shoes as to move somewhere where they’re not even called shoes!
4. Get another perspective on Maths. It’s taught differently everywhere, and learning abroad can help teach you things that might not have occurred to you in the UK – an advantage of those who stayed put. A year abroad can also help solidify knowledge that you already had. Returning ERASMUS students tend to do better in final year exams!
5. There’s a grant, and in my year it was equivalent to a maintenance loan but was completely free!
6. Learn another language. Immersion is hands-down the best way to learn another language, and not just learn but retain it!
7. Boost your CV. ERASMUS can really set apart an application, and is a great thing to talk about in interviews. It takes a lot of determination, and bravery, to move to another country. Add this with the extra language skills that you’ll develop and you can see why ERASMUS students are well-liked by employers.
8. International friends. ERASMUS is a great opportunity to meet people from all corners of the world. We are so lucky in that many foreign people can speak English, so even if your language skills aren’t the best, you will almost certainly make some international friends whilst on a year abroad. It’s really interesting seeing how different, and similar, we can all be, despite, or because of, the distances between our countries.
These are just an overview – www.thirdyearabroad.com has loads more info and reasons to go ahead and do it!
Note- ferris wheels have a seasonal timetable
Geneva is a really unique place, but life as a student there is completely different to life at Warwick. If you had a full time job and a family, I imagine it’s a bit of a paradise, but as a student with limited means, it can be difficult! I’m going to do a few positives and negatives of it here, and hopefully, if you’re considering going abroad to Geneva, they will prove useful!
- Skiing. From Geneva you can go skiing really easily, to both the French and Swiss resorts, and Italy as well, really. I missed out on the royals by one week at Verbier!
- The University in Geneva is really well regarded, and especially for maths. One of the lecturers there has a Fields Medal (which all of you Good Will Hunting fans will know is like the Nobel Prize for Mathematics).
- Transport links. Geneva is like the midlands of the Alps in that there are plenty of train, plane and automobile links from the city. This makes visiting places in Europe quite easy, even if it’s a bit expensive.
- Amazing old town. The old town is really pretty and has a great vibe (but is quite small!)
The old town (Chez ma cousine is to the right of the couple walking downhill)
- Chez ma cousine. Best value resto in Geneva. There are 3, but the old town one has the best atmosphere. A whole half chicken, chips and salad for 15CHF is an unheard of bargain in Geneva.
- The lake. The lake is amazing (but cold). A few of my friends cycled all the way around it. If my shoulder wasn’t injured whilst I was there I would have swam in it every day. I’m not sure why but I was surprised there was seaweed in it. Watch out for the Paquis side of the lake though – pickpocketing is common.
- Clean air. You could tell the difference in air quality immediately after leaving the airport. It really did make me feel more healthy just breathing it in. The same could also be said of the water in Geneva – tap water is like mineral water (which isn’t surprising, seeing as Evian is so close it’s signposted!).
- Le Salève. Big mountain next to Geneva (but in France) which you can paraglide off of! It also includes a lot of mountain trails and walks etc. Just don’t get stuck up there in a thunderstorm like I did!
- Gaillard market (Saturday mornings, take the 12 to Moillesulaz, terminus), where you can buy half a brie, filled with truffle and made from unpasteurised milk, for 3€.
- As I said, the rumours are true, Swiss public transport is amazing, clean, there are stops almost everywhere and it is all, somehow, pretty much always on time. I once took a Swiss train to Slovenia that took over 14 hours and arrived exactly on time. Swiss trains also look a lot like playmobil trains (and come to think of it, they use their figures in advertising), with which I was obsessed when young.
- L’Escalade – festival that celebrates when Geneva was almost invaded, but a lady poured a bowl of soup on the attackers, raised the alarm and the city was saved. Huge chocolate soup pots are sold in all the supermarkets at this time of year, and young people run around the city in costume singing the Escalade song. - It’s a short train ride to Lausanne which is an amazing night out and great city. Try and make friends in Lausanne – trust me, it will provide some of the best nights out of your ERASMUS year.
Verbier – some of the best skiing in Europe is within easy reach of Geneva!
- Very expensive. Cheapest drink in java (club) is water at 25CHF = £16!!! That is known as the expensive club though. It is possible to live on a moderate budget in the normal supermarkets (or you could even just shop in France), and even though it is quite expensive you would be hard pressed to find anything of poor quality for sale in Switzerland.
- Very hard to find accommodation! A lot of people on Erasmus move out to the city at the beginning of term to find accommodation. This is practically impossible in Geneva, and to be brutally honest the University of Geneva’s accommodation office is of no help, especially if you are a guy – a few of the girls on exchange got their Universities to write/complain to them and that helped, though. All I can say is try and organise before, and when there visit the foyers as much as possible, even if they say you’re on the waiting list, they probably have lost your file and will give preference to those physically there. Beware of Landlords charging exorbitant rents! I and many other students had to live in France like I did for a bit and face the 40-minute commute to lectures.
- Not much nightlife. In summer there is a lot more, and it really is very good. But this finishes before the academic year will start. It pretty much shuts down in winter.
- ‘Very transient’ – the city is incredibly international, which is a real plus. However, a lot of people are on short-term contracts which means they don’t tend to mix as much with people outside their apartments/jobs. That’s not to say making an effort won’t find you friends, but it’s well known Geneva is not the friendliest city to newcomers. It’s also quite tough to make Swiss friends – they are known as being very discreet. However, I did make some and they were really nice – you just have to make a really big effort!
The United Nations has a big presence in Geneva, as do various other NGOs
These are the positives and negatives as I saw them, but again, everyone is different so do your own research and see whether you think Geneva would be a good fit!!
Often, ERASMUS experiences start with a romantic vision of a backpacker, breezing into a new town with no accommodation, just hoping for something to turn up, before finding a brilliant colocation with awesome locals for no money. I am warning you now, NOT IN GENEVA. Geneva is as expensive as some pricey parts of good old London, and flats in general are under-supplied, let alone cheap ones. The University has nowhere near enough rooms for students, and they certainly don’t guarantee any non-Swiss students a room! My advice is to apply to the University’s accommodation service, the BLRU.: http://www.unige.ch/batiment/division/service-batiments/prestations/loger.html and to be honest I’d try and get Warwick’s help in this. The only English ERASMUS students who got uni accommodation were those whose Universities helped them out.
The system with uni accommodation in Geneva is farcical at best (a lot of ERASMUS students were turned down from one specific accomodation, and it turned out some rooms were being let to a brothel). I can honestly say it was the most frustrating parts of my year abroad. There is usually a list of accommodations on the BLRU’s website that are not run by the University, but are for students – apply for these too. Sorry for the shock first thing, but it’s better to know here before you go!
UNIGE – L’Université de Genève
The University of Geneva is world-renowned. The Maths department in Geneva is really strong (there’s a Fields Medalist!). It’s mostly known for its International Relations course, though (sometimes it seems like everyone there studies IR). As such, it’s really international, just like the city. It’s a city University, which means it’s spread out a bit, although most buildings are fairly close to each other. Unfortunately, maths is a bit separate, but only one stop away on the 15 tram.
Uni-Bastions, the older part of the University, where ECLF modules are taught
Obviously these depend on your personal preferences and previous modules you’ve studied, but UNIGE has a similar range of modules as Warwick, and they are definitely as challenging! The man who won the Fields medal for his work on the Maths involved in Statistical Physics, Stanislav Smirnov, teaches some modules, so if you’re interested in those then you should definitely take the opportunity! It’s important to realise that naturally, the years at Warwick don’t line up exactly with those at Geneva, so it’s probably best to try modules before committing. The best thing to do is to chat with your ERASMUS tutors both at UNIGE and Warwick (Warwick will usually have the final say in which modules you can do). Once you get to Geneva, there is a leaflet in the maths building with plenty of information on all the maths options.
For French modules, which I would recommend taking some of whilst in Geneva, as an ERASMUS student you are entitled to 2 free courses a term (there are 2 terms) of French tuition at the ELCF, which is a part of Geneva. These courses are really well taught and very useful, and can be counted for credit (they are worth around 4 CATS each). The Translation department also runs a number of French courses that can be helpful if you want to improve your French further.
Even though Switzerland is slap bang in the middle of Europe, it is not actually in the EU and so its currency is not the Euro but the Swiss Franc (CHF). When I was there it was about £1 = 1.5CHF. I’d advise getting a postfinance account when you’re out there, which you can get from the post office, because other banks tend to charge for accounts. You get a card that works in most bancomats and the bigger shops. These accounts are also really useful as they let you draw out Euro as well, which is useful when travelling. Getting a Swiss bank account is not as tricky as you would imagine, but you do have to have an address in Switzerland first. I will say as well that the online banking system is not quite as easy as in the UK. In general, actually, the UK is a lot more ‘internet friendly’ than Switzerland. I’d recommend getting the ERASMUS grant paid into this bank account, as opposed to an English one, as otherwise you get two conversion charges as opposed to one.
Natels (Swiss for Mobile)
With phones, it’s a tricky one. I used an English pay as you go all year because it was quite cheap – 8p a text. Apparently we are really lucky in the UK to have such cheap mobile phone contracts, because they are really expensive in most other countries. I did look at getting one in Switzerland (and some of my friends did) but I thought it was quite expensive and it was also a bit of a faf so I didn’t. The University and my flats always had wifi (as does the centre of Geneva, free of charge!!!) so whatsapp and viber are really useful, as is facebook in general. A quick note though – it seems our country is obsessed with facebook, as others don’t seem to use it as much. So if you’re planning an international event, make sure you text some people as they may not see the facebook invite/message.
If you want to shop in Geneva, Lidl and Aldi are the cheapest. If these are too far (there are less of them than the other shops), go for Migros (M budget stuff is good value, but Migros does not sell alcohol). Coop is ok if you suddenly need something, and Manor is amazing but very very spenny (although they have a great restaurant on the top floor). If you can bear the journey (about 30 mins from centre of town), go to Gaillard, just across the border in France, where there is a Casino, which is much better value than things in Geneva.
Though Geneva (and Switzerland in general) is very expensive, I do have to say that it is very hard to buy anything of poor quality. The ‘Tesco value’ level of products (i.e. spend very little, get something basic) doesn’t really exist – you have to spend a bit more, but even the cheapest stuff in Swiss supermarkets is very good. It’s worth noting that the 24-hour shop concept doesn’t really exist in Geneva, or Switzerland in general, so planning shops is a good idea – often I’d get back at around half five, bus to the shops only to realise that they had already closed. On Sundays, everything closes; so definitely don’t leave shops to the end of the week!
Food & Drink
It’s true, Swiss cheese and chocolate is amazing. Even the cheapest stuff in the supermarket is comparable with some of the best stuff here. There is no point about abstaining from the admittedly quite heavy food in order not to gain weight, just eat whatever you want all the time. Fondues (melted cheese/food of angels) should be done at least monthly! They are really simple to make at home and make a nice event to invite friends to
Everyone loves fondue. They’re not even that heavy – although it is possible I just grew accustomed to them.
Swiss wine is quite cheap and, though if you spend under 5CHF on a bottle of wine it’s not going to be amazing, it’s probably comparable to something for maybe £6 or £7 in the UK.
Eating out in Geneva can get insanely expensive, so I didn’t do it loads, although I can recommend these places as good value:
-Chez ma cousine. On the Place du Bourg-de-four, in the old town. Simple but ooooh so good. And the cheapest served meal in Geneva!
-Feuille de Banane. Chinese food, quick service and good value and quality. Just between Plainpalais and Pont d’Arve tram stops (and the uni).
-Manor restaurant. Top floor of Manor, which is like a big department store near to Gare Cornavin. Rated the 2nd best thing to see in Geneva on trip advisor. A serve-yourself, buffet style affair. Great value and you can make your own pizza. Sometimes hard to choose as there’s so much there!
-Les bains de Pacquis also apparently do really good fondue – I never went there myself but have had it recommended to me several times. It’s hard to beat fondue
Not being in the EU
Please note, I’ve written these forms from the perspective of a Brit, so if you’re from another EU country/an international student some of the form information may be different for you (particularly the Health Insurance ones). Not being in the EU means that you have to fill out forms when living in Switzerland. These tend to be quite scary when sent out (a bit like the TV licensing reminders that get sent out to uni halls in Warwick). Though not impossible, these forms can be quite tricky and often will say things like ‘You have to pay 50CHF for this’ when you actually don’t. Usually, an email or a phone call will help sort things out, but sometimes these go unanswered – be persistent.
The main ones you have to deal with are ‘Permis de Séjour’ which is like a studying visa, and the SAM, which has to do with health insurance. With the first I think you have to send a passport photo of yourself, and the second a photocopy of your European Health Insurance Card and possibly passport to prove that you’re British.
Swiss public transport is exactly what the stereotypes say. It is quick, clean and always on time. Everything about is just seems better than public transport in the UK. I once took a 14-hour Swiss train and it arrived on the minute. If anything is more than 2 minutes late people start to get angry and say things like ‘This is UNBELIEVABLE” and “Well, I mean REALLY”. If it’s more than about 3 minutes late the driver will apologise. It really puts the U1 into perspective. For travelling around Geneva, I recommend getting the abonnement unireso ‘Tout Genève’, which lets you on all the trams, trains, buses, trolleybuses and boats, yes boats, in the centre of Geneva. There are maps online at http://www.tpg.ch/fr/web/guest, the website of the Genevois travel network, and also a travel planner, which is really helpful. This cost 45chf a month for students when I was there, and though this is quite a lot it was definitely good value compared to the bus passes needed for say Leamington or Coventry. It also occasionally lets you get cheap tickets to cultural events around the city.
The Swiss train system is a bit pricy. If you’re planning on travelling around in Switzerland a lot I would buy the ‘Demi Tarif’ and ‘Voie 7’ which give you half price off of all rail travel (and some city public transport) and free train travel after 7p.m. respectively – definitely worth having! I saved a ton on train travel by using these. A yearly pass is not worth it, as I think it runs into thousands and thousands of CHF. www.cff.ch should have all the information on how to get these. The best way of getting any of these cards is to go to Gare Cornavin, the main Geneva train station. There is a SBBCFFFFS shop (3 national languages always gives hilariously long acronyms) and a TPG shop as well.
Something great that the city does is give tourists free travel cards – great for when family or friends visit. You have to book into a hotel in the city centre to get these, but they’re useful. Also, the airport gives all arrivals 90 mins free transport (which should be plenty for moving in), and all trains from the airport go to Gare Cornavin in about 5 minutes.
I remember being quite worried about my level of French before I went to Geneva. I’d done Learning French 2 at the language centre in second year, and then I did a language course at the University of Geneva the summer before my year started. I’d definitely recommend a language course, but I’d say 4 weeks is probably the most you should do – Geneva gets really hot in the summer, and second year exams had only just ended before I left, so I was a bit knackered. For all of those that read the paragraph above and said “They speak French in Geneva?”, a brief introduction to the magical mix of languages in Switzerland.
Map of languages in Switzerland
Switzerland is complicated linguistically. Basically, as their native language, 30% of the Swiss speak French (Geneva is in the French part), 80% speak Swiss German, 10% speak Italian, and about 35,000 speak Romanche as their first language (and yes, from those statistics you can tell there is some overlap). Most Swiss people can speak at least two of these languages fluently, plus English. Casually tri-lingual toddlers abound and their language prowess is impressive and a totally legitimate reason to weep at your lack of language skills.
For anyone thinking of doing an exchange to the German-speaking part: Swiss German is only spoken and not written, and is quite different to ‘High German’ (i.e. the German spoke in Germany). However, all people who speak Swiss-German can speak and write in ‘High German’ as well, but I think lectures are usually in Swiss German, and I know a lot of Germans view Swiss-German as a foreign language (although this changes with how Southern a German is, I think). Swiss German is also apparently different from town to town.
In Geneva, French is spoken. Luckily, Swiss French is mostly very similar to regular French (although apparently Parisians wouldn’t agree). The difference is only the accents of the language, although a few words are different, e.g. natel = mobile phone as opposed to portable in the French of France, and they borrow a fair few German words, e.g. action for a sale in a shop. However, I didn’t know of any of these before I got there, and they certainly never proved a stumbling block in conversation. The only time anyone ever called me out on it was when someone sneezed, I said “A tes souhaites!” and they said “Non, ici on dit ‘Santé!’”, which I did from there on out.
I’ve been told by someone who lived in the North of France for her year abroad that when people have the Swiss French accent, they sound like they are going to burst into song when speaking, and I can kind of see where she’s coming from – it definitely is more ‘up and down’ than the ‘French French’ accent. I personally think that it’s a bit easier to understand than regular French, in no small part due to this melodic way of speaking, but mostly because Swiss people speak a bit slower than French people in general.
I should say here that as Geneva is a very international city, a huge proportion of the population speak English to a really high/native level (mostly of the International school/American accent), and so often find it easier to talk to an Anglophone in English than in French (especially if they aren’t a natural Francophone themselves). I found this meant that even though my listening and reading skills developed a lot, my speaking skills didn’t quite catch up. That’s not to say that people never speak in French to you, but you will find you speak more English in Geneva than you would in say, France. However, don’t use that as an excuse not to learn French! It’s definitely appreciated if people make at least an effort to speak French, and your lectures will be in French too!
English can pop up in unexpected places
Tips to get the most out of an ERASMUS year
This is the equivalent of World at Warwick – they organise great trips and events for reasonable prices. This is a great way to meet not only fellow exchange students in Geneva (be they ERASMUS or from further afield) but also the whole of Switzerland! Try and go along and get into the ERASMUS spirit – when I was there, ESN organised trips to go skiing, boat parties, and tours of chocolate factories (which is an absolute hands-down must whilst in Switzerland).
The answer is, of course, ALL THE TIME
Getting involved in a sports team is a great way to meet locals (there aren’t really University sports clubs in Geneva). I joined a fin-swimming club when I was there and learnt loads of new (hilariously specific) French words, which was great, and also had the opportunity to go to meals etc. with the club. It’s definitely a great way to meet Swiss people in a city where this can be quite difficult! On a side note, swimming in Geneva is really cheap (they chose one thing and it was this), and the pools tend to be really nice, so no excise not to be ski-fit!
My number 1 tip is to get involved. Try and say ‘Yes’ to everything: you will only get this experience once. Saying ‘Yes’ last minute got me to Slovenia to play Underwater Hockey for the Swiss team, on numerous trains to various amazing parties, on skiing trips and very often to some really tasty Swiss food. The thing you don’t want to regret on coming back to the UK is thinking that you could have done more!!!
Leave these at home! It's really tempting to blame everything that goes wrong on the country you're staying in, or the people of that country. This is the easy way out! Of course, some things in different countries are different, and different cultures can lead to some tricky situations. Instead of trotting out stereotypes, try and put yourself into someone else's shoes. It'll help your understanding of them, and means you won't make the same mistakes again!
Boat party, Léman style
If you’re thinking about Switzerland, but are capable of going to either the German-speaking or French-speaking part, here is the (very limited) knowledge I have of the differences.
Sorry to bang on about the Swiss languages, but they really help to form the different identities of the different parts of the country and make the country unique. The different parts of Switzerland are very distinct, and all have their own idiosyncracies. I’ll try and give my general impressions, but I’m by no means an expert, so I apologise to any Swiss people in advance if I’ve got any of this wrong!
One of the things always mentioned when talking about these differences is the Röstigraben, which means Rösti trench (Rösti being a kind of shredded potato dish that’s a Swiss-German specialty). This describes the imaginary barrier between the French and German parts of Switzerland. The general gist (from the French side) is that the German side is more uptight (which I have to say is pretty rich coming from them). The German and French parts tend to vote differently (there are loads of votes all the time in Switzerland, it has a really interesting democratic system that I will leave you to Wikipedia, but in some towns the men still have to vote with their military knives). I would say the French part tends to be/vote more ‘liberal’ – for example, when the country banned Minarets, the French cantons were mostly against it. This causes some tension, as I think internally the German part has more power, and tends to overrule the French part. It also means that German music is often at the top of the Swiss charts, which I don’t think the French part is too keen on.
The French side like to take the mick out of the Swiss-German language (“It’s like German, but spat.”). A Swiss Comedian does this well, Marie-Thérèse Porchet (he’s a bit like Dame Edna – youtube some of the performances, it is a good example of Swiss differences and Swiss French!). The thing I always thought was a bit strange, and a bit of a shame, was that, even though German is taught in the French part, is it ‘High German’ and not Swiss German. I understand why, but I know it’s a sore spot: news, TV shows etc. from the German part aren’t understood in the French part, but it works the other way.
The Swiss Banter (Chanter) that I’ve heard from pretty much every single Swiss person that I’ve ever met is that the ‘real’ Switzerland is essentially his or her hometown and everywhere else is not Swiss at all – irrespective of when their home canton (or state) joined the Swiss Confederation. I think Geneva is viewed as especially different, but then Geneva often calls itself ‘The Republic and Canton of Geneva’ which probably doesn’t help. I think Geneva tries to self-style itself as the Paris of Switzerland as well, which invites derision from both Paris and Switzerland. Geneva gives back some stick too, though, as it is apparently common to call anyone from the French part but not from Geneva ‘peasants’.
General Advice/culture shocks
It’s tempting to think that ERASMUS will just be a paid holiday, but remember, there will be studying (in another language, at that) to do! I know I’ve just spent an entire post going on about how great ERASMUS is, and I stand by it – it is an experience that I am so glad I did. However, think of it like University. University is a brilliant experience: I have loved my time at Warwick. However, when you get a tough assignment with a quick deadline, things can get stressful. What I’m trying to say is, it is perfectly natural to experience downs as well as ups whilst on a year abroad. It’s fine if you miss home, and it’s fine if you don’t. You will almost certainly get very frustrated with at least something on a year abroad, and this is ok too.
Moving countries is not an easy thing: if it was, no-one would ever stay put! The important thing is to try and take it in your stride – better to laugh than cry! Overcoming some of these difficulties is one of the things that I am most proud of myself for when thinking back over my year abroad, and what makes it so valuable. My best advice would be to go without any preconceived ideas, because a year abroad is something that’s impossible to predict, and there’s no point getting upset if things don’t work out the same, then missing out on real experiences!
If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact me (the ERASMUS tutor will have my contact details).
Switzerland, in all its glory
Here are a couple of pictures of Switzerland that demonstrate how beautiful it is! Gruyère – where the cheese comes from – is a stunning place Bern, which is the capital of Switzerland Lucerne, which is even nicer in the Sun View of the Lake from Lausanne
The view towards Geneva from Le Salève
Gruyère - home to the cheese
Bern - the capital
Lucerne - the bridge on the right is called 'The Bridge of the Dance of the Dead'