Planning and the first month:
Friedrich Kreuser and I are currently on exchange in Switzerland at the University of Zürich (UZH). Before departure, we obviously had to go through all the normal steps: get a visa, check whether we require vaccinations, book a flight, inform my bank that I will be in a different country and find out what the costs of transactions will be and so on. I don’t know anything about visas, but I have found that on the two trips which I have made to Europe that Pick n Pay travel offered the lowest prices on flights. You can find them at http://www.pnptravel.co.za/. I also use only my credit cards when travelling overseas and withdraw cash upon arrival at the nearest ATM. There is always an ATM at the airport, so exchanging money before hand is not really necessary, although it is safe.
The coordinator at Zürich University (UZH) gave very clear instructions with regards to registration, application for courses and all the necessary preparation surrounding academics and housing. Therefore, we did not need to worry about this at all. Initially, we searched for accommodation on the various online bulletin boards, websites and so forth provided by UZH, but all we could find were really expensive apartments (around 1200-2500 CHF per month, which equates to R14 400 – R30 000 at the time of writing). This is completely unaffordable on the stipend which you receive from the university. I also applied for housing at several of the WOKO houses (you will receive an email with a list of available houses, just mail all of them). Two of these houses offered me a room, but by then I had already accepted a contract with ETH housing at Meierwiesenstrasse 62 (545 CHF per month – really cheap), which is where all future South African exchange students will most likely end up. The point is that it’s not very hard to find accommodation, so wait until your coordinator begins suggesting options before you apply – going it alone won’t really help.
We arrived two weeks early because our contracts at Meierwiesenstrasse 62 began on the first of February, while class only started on the 17th of Feb. This gave us the opportunity to settle in and to complete an introductory intensive German course, which turned out to actually be intensive. Afrikaans speakers can give this a skip, unless they intend to proceed to more difficult German courses. The problem with learning German in Zürich is that the courses are on High German, while the populace speaks a dialect which is quite different, particularly in the pronunciation of words, so it’s not easy to practice.
During the first two weeks there is a meeting for all new students: it doesn’t last long and you are not given any new information, but you do receive a folder with some semi-important papers so it’s kind of compulsory. Everyone goes out for beer afterwards. This period can also be used to figure out the basic necessities of life, such as where to buy food, how to wash your clothes, and where and how to buy train tickets and airtime/sim cards. Food can be bought at Coop, Migros, Denner or Aldi. Forget about Aldi though. Denner is the cheapest, but their vegetables are terrible. So we normally buy most of our fresh produce at a large Coop or Migros – there are three close to Meierwiesenstrasse and one on the way to class – and buy meat, drinks, snacks and so on at Denner. Sim cards are the best value for money at Lebara and cost around 20 CHF for a top-up sim, which includes 15 CHF airtime. Data deals come in two varieties: 1 GB for 15 CHF per month and 125 MB for CHEF per month. Train tickets are cheapest when one buys a month pass, at 60 CHF per month. The initial pass should be bought at an SBB office (found at most train stations, including at Altstetten which is closest to Meierwiesenstrasse). Once you have a pass, you can buy a new month ticket at a ticket machine. A day ticket is around 8.90 CHF, so month passes are a must. Many people will also suggest buying a half card for longer journeys. However, you should definitely work out approximately how much you plan on travelling in Switzerland and then check whether a half card is really worth it, as they are not cheap.
According to the university website, all students have to write an email to the coordinator of each course which they wish to attend and ask for permission to take the course, but we found that this process isn’t taken very seriously. You should still do it, of course, but don’t put in too much effort. You should also apply and register as early as possible for all the courses which you might want to take and then drop some of them later on. Many of the more popular courses fill up quickly.
The Swiss are phenomenally likeable people. They are friendly, but respect your privacy, and they are fun, but efficient. This means that everything in Zürich works perfectly, the streets are clean and the trams on time, but you are allowed to j-walk and there aren’t any pedantic officials preying on unsuspecting tourists. Most Swiss also speak good English and seem to be born with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their city, which makes encounters with officialdom pleasant and allows for easy management of the regrettably voluminous bureaucratic responsibility with which inhabitants are saddled.
Zürich is an amazing city in which to live. The weather is fantastic: it’s cold in winter, cold enough to go skiing while not being uncomfortably cold, and pleasantly warm in spring. I suspect summer will be great too. The nightlife is better than that of Stellenbosch, particularly if you’re more into clubbing than joints such as Bohemia and Aandklas and if you think Catwalk and Nubar are sad compared to clubs in Cape Town. There are also many opportunities for other types of social interaction such as boat rides on the lake, picnics in the many parks and fields and short hikes. The Opera house is also worth a visit and offers discount for students which makes it pretty affordable. Then there are many museums and art galleries, ballets and other arty concerts, the possibility of travel to nearby cities for day trips or weekends, skiing, rock climbing and a free university gym (I’m just saying, it’s not meant to be included in the list of social activities). As Zürich is also quite central in Europe it offers easy access to other popular European cities – see http://www.easyjet.com/en/. Friedrich and I went skiing twice in the beginning of the semester, once with students from the residence and once with ESN (European Student Network), both of which were incredible experiences. Skiing is fun not only because of the adrenaline rush and the good feelings which you get from exercise, but also because you are treated to panoramic views of the Alps and lunches (and beers) in restaurants situated right at the top of snow-capped mountains. On both occasions we went to Flumserberg, which is an hour from Zurich by train. Skiing is unfortunately quite expensive at around R2000 per day when one does it the way we did, which is by buying a combined snow and rail pass and then traveling in for the day. If you have your own equipment it’s around R1000 per day.
With regards to academics, Zürich University is very similar to Stellenbosch University. The class format is similar, except for the more technical subjects, which Stellenbosch does not really provide in the Economics department. I am taking three technical subjects and one soft subject. The three technical subjects are Causal Analysis, Analysis of Microdata and Computational Economics and Finance. They are definitely more technical than any of the subjects which I took at Stellenbosch during masters or honours. They also require more work in your own time, for tutorials and assignments. Students in these courses are expected to read up on the details of applications by themselves and to follow the more technical aspects of the modelling procedures in the textbook, rather than being spoon-fed as is often the case with the more technical courses at home. However, I have also taken courses for which I have no prior experience, which may make them feel harder than they really are.
As a result of the high work load, I have been struggling to balance work and leisure and I’m not finding as much time to travel and socialize as I would like. I’m not neglecting my social life completely and actually socialized more during the beginning of the semester than I usually do at home, but lately I have been caught up in work and am too stressed to enjoy other activities. I have asked some of the other students in my residence and they have all agreed that the courses here are more difficult than at their home universities. Therefore, I would advise future students not to take too many courses or courses which they suspect may be outside their comfort zone.
Within my residence there are one or two things which have begun to irritate me after three months. I suspect it’s a version of the tragedy of the commons problem, but the diffusion of responsibility amongst 150 students means that one has to deal with an exceedingly unhygienic kitchen, the loss of kitchen utensils, unclean toilets and frequent violations of the 22:00 cap on loud noises. I have found that the easiest way to circumvent the dirty kitchen problem is to cook a large meal in the afternoon and then just heat it up later on.
Returning to South Africa:
Departing from Zurich was relatively painless. As I found a subtenant for my room at Meierwiesenstrasse 62, I did not have to worry about any pre-departure checks or my deposit as he was made responsible. This meant that I only had to cancel my insurance and residence permit. In order to cancel insurance, most insurance companies require proof of cancellation of your residence permit in any case, so you have to do that first. It took me 15 minutes to do this and cost 20 franc. Once I had proof of cancellation I only had to email my insurance company and inform them that I want to cancel my insurance and mail them the official document which states that I am no longer living in Switzerland. If you opened a Swiss bank account while here, which I did not, you would also have to cancel that, and any other contracts (gym, clubs, phone, whatever). You require a copy of the proof of cancellation document to cancel most contracts, so it’s important to ask for enough copies (they’re free).
After our semester was done, Friedrich (the other South African guy with whom I did the exchange) and I went on a short trip to Austria, Hungary and the Balkans. I definitely recommend exploring Europe to anyone who goes on exchange – this goes without saying really. We organized the entire trip by ourselves and did not make use of any agencies or companies such as Contiki or Topdeck. I think the trips offered by companies such as these are overpriced and have several drawbacks: you spend large chunks of your time on long boring bus rides and (if you’re an introvert like me) you have to spend more time socialising with random people than you want to at times. Friedrich and I were able to meet and party with many people while travelling by ourselves, could take cheap train and flight options whenever it suited us, could stay for exactly as long as we wanted at each place and were flexible to make the most of any opportunities which came our way. For example, while in Split, we met some Australians who were travelling using a rental car. They were planning on making a trip to Krka national park (which is really beautiful and worth a visit) and invited us. It was a fantastic trip and would not have been possible if we were travelling with a company. Of course, package trips have many advantages too. With regards to our destinations, we really enjoyed Vienna, Budapest and Dubrovnik, but we found Zagreb boring and Split was overcrowded and not special in any way.
Overall, our experience of the entire exchange was amazing. Zurich is now my favourite city in the world (apart from Cape Town, maybe). In fact, upon returning from our trip we realized just how special Zurich is by comparing it to the other cities we visited during this trip and on previous travels. Even though it’s not the best party city, or as good as Berlin for example, it has enough places for a good party while being centrally located and offering fantastic winter and summer activities. The efficiency of the city is also spectacular: the public infrastructure is superb, businesses are supremely competent, the people are friendly and well informed (and most speak English) and the universities are very good. If there were two words to describe the city, it would have to be “moderated luxury”.
All our experiences of the University of Zurich were great. Our classes were challenging and informal. The lecturers were accessible, astonishingly knowledgeable and entertaining presenters. Our courses were not too cluttered and focussed on the most relevant topics in sufficient depth and provided a balance of theory and practical applications which we found particularly useful. We also met incredible people at our residence and made good friends. All in all it was a fantastic experience.
I have been back in Stellenbosch for a week. It feels strange to be back; it’s very familiar, but I see things from a different perspective now and I’m aware of how many opportunities there are outside of South Africa of which I wasn’t previously aware. Academically, I only have to submit a thesis to complete my MCom, so my experience of returning to Stellenbosch will differ from many other students. I’m not under stress and I haven’t missed any classes. But, it is fun to be back and meet up with old friends. Yet I can’t wait to explore another country and travel abroad some more.