Now reporting from Portugal!

Cross posted at the Edinburgh Exchanges blog – most of this is insight for next year’s Erasmus students.

I thought it was about time for an update, it’s been a few months. This post will deal with how the exams went in Spain and my arrival in Portugal.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by how simple the exams were in Malaga. Although I am one of those swots who always manages to make it to class no matter how little sleep (or how much alcohol) I get the night before, on the whole even the people I hadn’t seen in class for most of the year didn’t seem to have that much of a problem with them. They were, however, quite different from exams in Edinburgh. Most obviously of all, apparently the phrase ‘exam conditions’ hasn’t made it into the Spanish vocabulary yet. There were people quite obviously whispering at the back; in translation we were allowed to use the internet; I know a few of the Spanish students in my class managed to get away with reading their notes during the exam; in one of my exams a student got up to go to the toilet, and took his bag with him full of his notes, then came back in and started writing again; and in one of my friends’ exams the teacher even left the room to do some work in their office next door! In the one essay I had to hand in during the year, there didn’t seem to be any plagiarism control and we didn’t have to reference anything, and in a presentation some of the students had to do, I recognised the text as C&V’d from Wikipedia! So it’s considerably less formal.

The standard of the exam questions was also a fair bit lower than I’ve been getting used to at Edinburgh. The literature essays were more like GCSE or A Level standard questions, often something like ‘comment on this section of the text’ (so you can get away with writing more or less anything). In none of the exams were we required to make any kind of argument at all, just regurgitate what we’d learnt. There was an awful lot of reading in one of the courses and for one of the novels I didn’t read even one page. Instead I read a few articles about it off JSTOR, and the question turned out to be so vague that I managed to write a 2-side essay very easily without even knowing the storyline. Now the problem is that there was no continuous assessment throughout the course, so we had no idea how we were getting along until they put the exam in front of us at the end of the semester. I managed to get an 8 out of 10 in translation, which will probably still be a first even after it gets marked down on the way to Edinburgh (that reminds me, make sure you read the handbook carefully – there are some things in there that will come as a surprise), although I know others who got a 1, so they don’t exactly give the marks away. Bottom line: do the work, show willing and the exams should be no problem.

So after my last exam, I had a whole two days without any work to do before I had to go to Portugal. You might think that’s enough, but the day I had to leave also just happened to be my 21st. Fortunately the bus wasn’t until 9pm yesterday so I had time to half-recover from an outrageous hangover and grow back the lung that I must have puked up the night before. Loads of people came out for it and I was suddenly hit by the sheer number of really good friends I’ve made in just a few months. I’m really sad to have had to leave.

The journey here was a bit weird. Like I say I went on the bus, because I don’t like making short flights and because it meant I could buy the ticket later, handy because I didn’t know when I had to leave. From the ticket it looked like it would be a direct 10 hour journey to Coimbra with some other stops on the way. Of course it wasn’t. No-one told me that I’d have to change at Lisbon, neither when I bought the ticket or when I got on the bus and they asked me where I was going. What I thought was my arrival time was actually the departure time of the second bus, printed in the wrong box on the ticket, so what I thought would be a 10 hour journey turned into a 14 hour journey, because it was 3 hours to Coimbra from Lisbon, and that second departure was in Portuguese time, and I forgot about the time difference.

After crossing the border, we went to a bus station in Faro, where the bus was surrounded by about 15 police officers with massive guns (as in firearms, not biceps), and then plain clothes police got on and started going through a few people’s passports. Those who weren’t Portuguese had to get off the bus, small groups at a time for some reason. Strangely, when I got off the bus, I wasn’t directed to the left or right like the others had been, so I just stood where I was. After a couple of minutes, a policeman came over and asked where I was from so I told him, and he asked me where I was going so I told him, and without even asking to see my passport, he said I could get back on the bus. I could have been lying through my teeth for all he knew. We were at this border check for about an hour, it seemed like such a waste of time.

Portugal is beautiful. It was pitch black most of the way but when the sun came up this morning I was surrounded by lush forests and mountains, which makes a big difference from the scorched earth and gnarled olive trees of Andalusia. Cities just seemed to be nestled in within these mountains, and every town we passed had more greenery than any city I’ve ever been to. Not just sections set aside like Holyrood and the Meadows in Edinburgh, throughout the whole city. Some of the architecture’s a bit Eastern Bloc but I like it.

The people are also ridiculously helpful. For the first month I have a room in a university residence, and even though I woke him up as I came in, my roommate immediately showed me around, and told me about a really good deal he’s seen on mobiles, and took me to the centre on the bus. He had other things to do so he asked the bus driver if he could tell me where the phone shop is at the last stop, and instead of that, the driver went to the end of his line and then actually drove me to the shop whilst talking to me about when he saw the Liverpool side with Iain Rush playing against a Portuguese team back in the 80’s or something. The guy in the phone shop was also really helpful, translating between me and his colleague because I didn’t know any of the vocab in Portuguese. The only thing that’s a problem so far is communication. It’s become pretty clear that what we’ve done so far in Edinburgh is really inadequate. I can make myself understood well enough, even if I just speak Spanish with a dodgy accent, but understanding other people is very difficult. This is quite alarming because I’ll be starting classes before I know it, so I’m going to work hard on that, and it looks like I’m going to have to sign up to the Portuguese language course.

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