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Exchange in the Arctic Circle

Prepare for some legal tangles when choosing your school, | but also moments like this. Photo by Matthew Ritchie

Arriving in Iceland at six in the morning from a plane that took off the night before in Boston is a slightly surreal moment. The howling winds and blowing snow replace the grey-green warmth that was Massachusetts in January. The elaborate customs bureau is now merely a passport check and a sign indicating where new arrivals turn down a corridor if they’ve got anything to declare. Signs with unfamiliar lettering crowd the hallways.

Outside it is dark, apart from the airport lights and the snow-covered ground. I’ve worked four months to get here and this cold, alien country is where I plan to pass the next four months. From the initial application process to the frantic rush to get my student visa before my departure, this has been my target. Now that I’m here, it’s a little unbelievable.

I’m no stranger to moving around, having moved from Acadia University to Dalhousie University in my second year, and from Ontario to Nova Scotia in the first place. But the newness here is that of a different country, a different language and a different status as a foreigner. In this place with an unfamiliar language, going to the store or setting up a library account is now a new foray fraught with danger, and asking a question requires a surprising amount of explanatory hand gestures. But in the house where I’m staying, the native languages of the other students are Polish, German and Italian, and we’re all equally clueless about how to get by in Icelandic.

Being only a few degrees below the Arctic Circle also lends itself to certain unique challenges that are at once exciting and exhausting. Mid-winter is a dark time here, and an eleven o’clock sunrise is baffling to southern sensibilities. It can be difficult to walk to school in the middle of a northern sunrise, as the clouds slowly light up over the lake. There ought to be a warning sign indicating the dangers of the urge to stop and stare. I am convinced that this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Of course, it isn’t all breathtaking moments. Aside from the language barrier, there is a great shock for me on my third when I walk by a cafe and see a baby carriage—baby within—unattended outside. The girl at the nearby souvenir store clears up all possible confusion; it seems this practice is not uncommon in Reykjavik. Little things, cultural quirks, are the extent of culture clash so far, but it pays to be prepared for any eventuality.

Administrative tangles are one example: obtaining a student permit can be a month-long fiasco. In my case, it took until the eleventh hour—the day I was leaving—for my permit to be approved, due to unforeseen misunderstandings. Getting the legal matters dealt with as soon as possible can save you many headaches. International Student and Exchange Services at Dalhousie is helpful in terms of finding out information and pointing students in the right direction, but it is ultimately up to the applicant to make sure these documents are sent. And it is worth starting the process of obtaining them the minute the nomination for an exchange arrives in case problems arise.

The process of applying for an exchange begins with an application to the aforementioned office, followed by their nomination and a direct application to the school, and then a few legal matters as each country’s student residency laws vary. It is a long road, but made easier by the office’s assistance.

With the first two weeks over it’s hard to know what to do next. I’ve got the whole country to explore and much of the city to see, so it’s hard to know how I’m going to make time for classes. That is perhaps the ultimate challenge of an exchange student—to try and balance academia and the newly opened opportunity to travel a foreign land. (At least one of my classes has field trips).

Now, if the paperwork would only sort itself out, I’d be ready for anything.

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