To maintain its international outlook, Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU) hosts a number of exchange students from all over the world. We caught up with Peter Grudina who is visiting NDU as part of his Master’s in Urban Design and Planning.
Tell us a little bit about your background:
I went to school in Italy and did my undergrad in Slovenia which is much more convenient to study there. The quality is more or less on par with Italy, I studied Urban Design and Planning, for my Bachelor’s and Master’s as well, but I did an exchange in Paris, and now in Lebanon.
Why Lebanon of all places?
I was interested in doing a Master’s thesis in a project about a city that has heavy social divides. There was the option of going to Kosovska Mitrovica in Kosovo, which is half-Albanian, half-Serbian, so it’s something of a conflict zone. But then there was also this exchange with NDU. I had already talked to some students from the same faculty, who had been here before, and they told me it was a really great experience. I thought it was a great opportunity, although theirs has been different from mine: they were living here on campus and were doing a project in Zouk Mosbeh, whereas my focus was in Beirut.
So you came to NDU in part because of student testimony?
Of course I asked the students who had already done this before how it is, but I also met quite a few Lebanese people in France, and one of them studied at NDU, so I got some information from there. It was quite convincing. But one of the main reasons was my mentor, Dr. Christine Mady. I met her in Ljubljana, in Slovenia, because she came to give some lectures there, that’s where I first got the idea. I knew that in Slovenia I probably couldn’t find someone used to these urban segregation themes because it’s something we don’t have usually, or to a lesser extent, and I really felt that she was the right person to do my thesis with. When I came quite sure of what I would find here, I had feedback from other people, I knew the professor who was going to be my supervisor, so it was kind of easy.
Where are you based at the moment?
I was living the first two months on campus, but part time, because some friends from Lebanon who I met in Paris are renting out a flat in Gemmayzeh, and they still have space so they said, if I wanted to I could stay with them. And of course it was much more convenient, especially if you don’t have your own car. I’m not a party animal or anything like that, but I enjoy that feeling you get in a city.
How do you make it up to NDU if you don’t have a car?
Okay so this is something really interesting. Everybody told me that there is no public transportation in Lebanon, but that is not true. Thanks to my contacts here, I had a clearer idea of how it works out. I immediately understood that there was this class divide, public transport is mostly taken by immigrants and lower income people, but for me it’s totally fine. I get the bus number 2 which passes through Gemmayzeh and goes to Dora and then I take the other one to the motorway until the exit which goes to Zouk Mosbeh, and then I get a service up here. It takes me an hour more or less, which isn’t much more than a personal car.
On a somewhat separate note can you tell us about your time at NDU?
Here at NDU I have only other one course which was required for the Erasmus agreement, in addition to my Master’s thesis. So I come here mostly once a week for a few hours to have a meeting with my mentor. While I didn’t spend much time here, in the first weeks it was kind of hard to get used to a kitchen where you can’t store your own bowls. All the stuff you have to bring down from you room, which I found impractical. I understand the reasons for that, but it doesn’t encourage people cooking. Other than that, the dorms are completely fine. Usually in Europe you share your room with other people. Here you have your own room; here it’s a luxury for us. I met a few of the other students in campus in the beginning, but as I said, since I had my own contacts already, my friends were more in Beirut than here. So it’s been mainly educational. The course was good, and the work with my Master’s thesis supervisor was excellent, she is really professional.
Tell us a little about your project:
When I came to Beirut, I knew barely anything about it except for the East-West divide that I was reading about, but I imagined it would be better to ask some people about smaller areas, because you have to select a neighborhood. My mentor here proposed Karantina, which after a visit I realized was perfect for what I wanted to do, because although it’s in the center, it’s kind of isolated. It feels different, like an enclave. It also has its own internal divide between the Christian district and the Muslim one, mainly for migrants, Syrians etc.
Have you spent much time in Karantina then?
I used go there every two weeks, in the morning, to take pictures. I usually go there with a plan what I need to find each time. Now I’ve finished the analysis, and it’s interesting because you have industrial uses, commercial ones, and people living there, often live in quite appalling conditions. I will build some scenarios about how Karantina was developed, also with the upcoming mass rapid transit system and understand how it relates to greater Beirut and choose the scenario which seems the more appropriate to me.
On a more personal note what have you been doing outside of the academic, perhaps some favorite memories and moments which you will take back with you?
Friends in general, Lebanese people are really open. I’ve made some really good friends. Friendships that, although there is going to be some geographical distance I hope will continue and mature anyway. With the people I’ve been living with, and the other people that they knew, I would say that it was quite intense and that we enjoyed quite a lot of time together. We did some trips around the country, we are planning some more. I still need to go to Kadisha, in the mountains. I think this is going to be my favorite place, but I haven’t visited it yet. So far I really like the Shouf area, we went to see the cedars, when there was still snow.
Have there ever been moments of genuine culture shock?
I was impressed by the amount of cars. This is something we’re really not used to something like that. Public transportation was another one. I’ve already been in countries with similar systems – Armenia, Georgia, and Morocco – it was not new, but it’s still different when you live in a place. When you live in it and you have to engage with it every week. There were days when I knew I had to go to NDU and felt “OH NO.” It’s always fine, but the thing that bothers me the most is taking the services because sometimes they want to have a full car, and won’t start until they overload it, and this is really annoying. But apart from that, the amount of shops everywhere, and the fact that they are open until late, and on the weekends, and all the time. This is something different.
Something really positive is the fluency in foreign languages in Lebanon. Like the proficiency in general, I use most of the time French, with the people I know, here at NDU English, I’ve taken the basics of Arabic for services and bus drivers, but it’s very user friendly in this regard.
What are your next steps? What are you planning to do after this?
I’m planning another Erasmus exchange for an internship, because I still haven’t reached the maximum limit. I’m planning to do an internship for 6/7 months in France.