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Korea, part I: Impressions

Снимок экрана 2018-10-25 в 11.41.28Korea. A land of obscure things in your plate, ironed cotton and upturned rooftops reflected in skyscrapers. It was the land that left me with complex impressions, few new things I comprehended and a lot to remember.

My acquaintance with Asia started in Hong Kong two years ago. I haven’t seen much of that part of Earth yet, but I feel like Korea brought me many steps closer to comprehending eastern cultural differences and their roots.

To make it clear from the beginning, my impressions of Korea will be based on what I saw in Seoul and Songdo. The country developed and changed so rapidly that I am sure there are parts of it that differ gradually. In this first part, I will try to focus on feelings the Koreans rather than landscapes gave me, not forgetting those concrete jungle of new Seoul that are important for understanding the nation, too. I decided to break the story into 2 parts, where this beginning will be more abstract and contain mostly my thoughts and observations, whereas the second part will be more about specifics places I recommend to visit and pictures.

So, let me start with what shocked me the most:

Cleanliness. It’s surgery room clean everywhere. What is shocking is not people taking care of their home (where I hope most of developed countries are already getting by now), but a total absence of trash bins. There are just none on the streets and in shops. I am not exactly sure why, since this is not a country with high terrorist threat which could be a reason for eliminating trash bins. Neither am I sure where all the trash goes. It wouldn’t ever come to any Korean mind to drop anything on the floor, but what they do when they have some trash in their hands and whether they simply carry it home – I didn’t find out. I had a clutch full of packages, bills and tickets all the time.

You can’t smoke on the streets either, there is a fine for that and you wouldn’t see anyone with a cigarette. Smokers go to smaller empty streets not to disturb by-passers with smoke and smell, even if there is no police on the horizon.

Fashion. Of course everyone nowadays knows that Korea is about to lead the world of fashion on Earth. It’s not only how good people are dressed in their simplicity what astonished me, but how natural it goes in Korea. No fancy boutiques with golden stairs, no “high class” brands (I mean of course there are luxury goods from the west, but Korean things are all quite within the same niche), no flashy shop windows and model-looking sells managers: all simple and minimalistic. I loved how they sell. Everything I ever learnt about marketing during my studies or in my girly life full of brands would be completely useless pieces of information in Korea. Some might say they don’t know how to sell and attract customers. I can’t tell, not knowing whether the shops that charmed me were considered successful or not. But I fell in love with their absence of marketing in our understanding. The well-known all over the world brands like Stylenanda, for example, adopted the western ways of advertising. But most of the best fabrics and finest styles are to be found in underground crossings (no kidding) or very humble tiny shops with empty walls and simple or no decorations. It’s relatively cheap for the quality. I bought cotton blouses of amazing quality for 5 Euros each. Either this accessibility makes the crowd looks good, or Koreans have a natural feeling for style. I loved watching people in subway and on the streets, how simple and elegant they are. Sometimes you look at a girl (or a guy as well!) wearing a white cotton robe and think: “Maaaan, in Vienna you would be a fashion icon!”

Another bit shocking thing: very often you can’t try things on. It’s a rule in really many shops. You can touch it, examine it, but you can’t try it on. I am not sure how to explain that, since when you buy something you always get a new packed and sealed piece from the stock, they never wrap you that thing you saw on the hanger. Maybe it’s some hygienic reasons, Koreans are quite determined with those.

Beauty. Well, this blew my mind even though it was extremely ready to be blown. It’s not just the most developed beauty and care products industry culture in the world, its a real cult. There is a wide range of any product for anything you can and can’t imagine. But be careful when beauty-shopping, our unspoiled mind tells us to grab every cute package, in fact half of them are not very useful. In the next post with recommendations, I’ll note a few shops and brands worth checking out 😉 Also, a lot of products have whitening effect. Koreans are crazier than 18th century aristocrats about not getting a slight sign of tan on their skin. Which is not that easy since the climate is quite sunny, so there are all variations of whitening napkins and creams in any tiny store.

What I found a bit weird is that most of products are for face skin. Ok, Korean girls have good strong hair and might not need much care for it, but why is there so little for the body? Europe is more crazy about body lotions, shower gels, mists and sprays. You also won’t find any Lush-like stuff like bath bombs, most likely because Koreans don’t have bathtubs. But they have toilets that maintain the seat warmed up for you.

What is also quite shocking for a western person is men wearing make-up. I mean, we accept it fine if its just a style of a certain guy or some event like Life Ball. But in Korea really a lot of guys wear quite visible makeup on a daily basis.

Beaches. To continue with the whitening topic. Koreans don’t go to beaches at all, I guessed for obvious from the paragraph above reasons – a desire to be white. Completely empty sea lines shock a European that had ever been to Barceloneta or on Italian coast in summer, where you can hardly see the sand. The most beautiful beaches of Jeju don’t attract the locals at all. Policemen wear uniforms with long sleeve under a short-sleeve shirt, not to get tanned I was told. So, my skin tone is not considered noble or fashionable in any way I guess.

Eating and drinking culture. Their complexity, to be more precise. From the technical side, i.e. metal chopsticks that even kids can cut kimchi with (guys, it’s impossible, I am telling you) to the dishes themselves. Korean cuisine is very interesting, unusual, rich in various flavors we can’t even imagine together! I will write a separate post on my favorite foodie topic, of course. But I’d just advise to be curious and brace and to try things, even though most of the time you will have no clue what you are eating. No English and no pictures on menus. Forget about consulting waiters as well. Just forget about English and life will become easier if you try other ways.

Streets never sleep. Seoul is so dynamic, with people in expensive suits walking Gangnam with serious faces; everything running, pizza being delivered even to parks at any time, that it comes as no surprise that there is a very intense nightlife. But, guys, I have never seen anything THIS intense, and I used to be quite a party animal. Going out is another cult. Teenagers are out all the time. I don’t know how they manage to combine that with Korean schooling which is one of the toughest in the world, this I didn’t put together yet. But clubs of Itaewon seem to never shut the music down. We were leaving at 6, 7 in the morning, and the party didn’t even start to calm down. You can drink pretty much anywhere, we enjoyed our soju from the bottle already at the supermarket. Walking with a bottle through party streets is fine, no paper bags and crap needed to cover up the obvious. And it’s just fun! People run from one club to another, socialize on the streets, everyone is super friendly, we as foreigners attracted A LOT of attention, but I didn’t see any typical drunk aggression once. Which is also a mystery to me since Koreans do get quite drunk and not everyone can take as much alcohol as a huge Scandinavian guy can, for example, but they still don’t give up. Drunk people are drunk people all across the globe I would think, but I didn’t see any fights, rudeness or harassment. A guy may try to get your attention, I got grabbed by my elbow few times, but if you look away and don’t express interest they leave you alone immediately.

I will write more about specific clubs and areas that I liked the most, but in general I wanna say that I was fascinated and shocked by Seoul nightlife. No Ibiza compares. It’s madness and it’s a must-experience in life!

No pin on credit cards. And the general highest level of social trust. Doesn’t matter what your bank is, you don’t insert pin, sign or show documents when you pay. If your card is lost it will be either returned to you or destroyed. You can leave your personal belongings anywhere and just leave. People occupy tables in restaurants leaving their cell phones, no kidding! I don’t know if they don’t steal at all and the crime rate is so low because of the regime, their values or cameras everywhere. But as a matter of fact, in Korea you don’t have to watch your purse.

Convenience. Putting stuff away in bars, clubs and restaurants – there is always somewhere to place it no matter how tiny the place is: puffs and seats which open up, boxes above your head, storage beneath tables. If you give something to garderobe in clubs, it’s gonna be wrapped in disposable bags.

Convenient packages for literally everything, from snacks (unwrapping a gimbap is a pure pleasure) and napkins at a supermarket to newly purchased accessories. Everything is thought out.

Social pressure. It’s very high. You have to meet the standards if you are Korean.

Schools are tough. Getting into universities is the highest pressure for Korean teenagers. If you don’t get in – your life is considered a failure. The suicide rate among school kids is high, so are the expectations of their performance.

You have to be skinny, so Korean girls starve themselves a lot. Have to look good in a certain universal way, that’s why makeup industry is so developed, and Korea is famous for its plastic surgeries on each corner. If a girl doesn’t fit into that standardized beauty image, she is not considered pretty. Fashion wise people try to stand out (still keeping up with the mass trends), but it didn’t seem to me as if being of extraordinary non-standard appearance will make you beautiful and unique in the eyes of the others. They admire Western appearance a lot.

Dating culture is quite weird, too. You have to have a partner. I heard stories how cab drivers were immediately trying to set guys up with their nieces when they heard guys were single, it was not normal for them and they felt like they have to help. A lot of dating clubs, apps, platforms and stuff. It seems like everyone dates just because it’s a must, I really hope the reality is different.

There are many more things that seemed obligatory in society to me, like you have to have that little white dog everyone has, etc. Koreans are constantly under high pressure, but they respect their traditions and values a lot, which makes them such a strong independent and solid society.

Some tough sides and a piece of advice for a foreigner:

  • Forget English. Better learn a few phrases in Korean, they are going to respect you a lot for that.
  • No cabs available in clubbing districts at nighttime. After 3 a.m. it’s really not easy to get out of there. Such Russian thing as all cab drivers gathering around crowded places tripling fares you won’t see. So we had to walk few times.
  • People are gonna look at you. Especially if you differ gradually from their appearance. Just accept it, they are all very kind and friendly, but they express interest a lot.
  • No heels in clubs outside Gangnam. It would just look weird. Korean girls wear very simple comfy shoes.
  • Try transportation apps. It’s very complicated since everything is in Korean only, but if you somehow manage – you are gonna love the ideal effective transportation system around Seoul!
  • Walk slowly in temples. It’s considered disrespectful to rush there. You can also rent traditional Korean costumes and then be admitted for free into any temple.
  • Don’t sit on seats designed for older people or individuals with limited abilities. Even if the train is empty, nobody does that unless they belong to the group for which that seat is designed.

Be respectful to everyone and you will get enormous respect and hospitality back. It is an incredible country that takes you on a trip to the past and to the future at the same time.


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Frohoho

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Frozen hello from unusually cold this year Vienna! We are expecting the coldest winter in 100 years, which is a big demotivator to such low temperatures hater as me. 

I am also a Grinch, to those who don’t know (if such people exist, as I tend to scream about it on every corner). So this is no adore-artificial-lights-and-sugar-with-hot-water-called-punsch post. I am really not a fan of all this Christmas fuss at all. Why don’t I spend winters in warmer countries, one might ask? Well, because I snowboard every free week I get. This is the only good thing during this season for me, definitely not crowds of people in shops and smell if cinnamon that I am allergic to. Ok, sorry, done with the Grinch vibe. I am starting with the season only in January this year, this means the first time in Vienna for the holidays for me. I am actually excited! Doesn’t matter where, matters with whom, right? And unexpectedly all my friends are staying in town as well, so we are already starting with our pre-parties and giving presents in couple days! The presents I like.

I don’t make any NY resolutions since few years, either. Honestly, I get a feeling that they are for the weak. Why do you need a list on a specific date to make your life better? I am such plans and fine organization lover on everyday basis, some would even call it a control freak. But those lists are something I don’t understand. I am not saying that all this “new year – new me” is bullshit, nope, it can be a very strong psychological incentive for changes. But why follow some stupid bullet points and put pressure on yourself, if you can just be strong enough to follow what makes you happy and what drives your personal progress. So, no “visit Paris this year” for me, I’ll just go and visit. 

Even though I am not trying to come up with random resolutions here, summarizing the past year would take me just few sentences. It was a happy one, because I ate a lot of good food, I traveled to a lot of beautiful places, I spent it with the person I love. Not much more I need. I really find all those talks about personal achievements boring, so I am not gonna bore you, if I haven’t already. 

So, spend the holidays with the ones you love, if you got the chance. Merry Christmas and talk to you next year! Prost! 🍸

P.S.: Time to share the most exciting event for us this year: Daniel opened up his own bar, Clandestino. Whenever you are in Vienna, come visit! You will be amazed 😉 I am very proud, the best feeling to end this year with.


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“È Primavera, Sarà Perché Ti Amo”

img_0660Happy Spring!

I actually do see the beginning of this season as a national holiday at least. All the sorrows are over whenever there is sun and one can relax on the terrace awaiting an Old Cuban rather than having to crowd inside bars having their nose tickled by countless fur coats of the other guests.
I waved hello to spring still being surrounded by snow; currently we are closing the skiing season at Cortina d’Ampezzo, an old famous resort in Italy about which I will write on my way back to Vienna. From my hotel room glass door to the backyard, I am viewing the mountains covered in snow while writing this, but there is significant difference between going on skiing vacation in December and in March. It’s so warm now, sometimes +10 even up on the peaks; the surface is much softer and even though it is more of a free-ride than sufficient distinct slopes – this is even greater for a snowboarder like me; and, my favorite part, – the sun goes down so much later. Still having it above your head even when you go down to the valley having had enough extreme adventures for the day makes one wanna stay outside, go for a walk, sit in the sun for lunch and just stay active rather than locking themselves in a warm hotel being scared to look outside and see severe winter there. I love spring for that feeling of constantly craving for more activities. It unites people somehow, too. I am feeling more than united with my travel companions now and am very satisfied with how this skiing season went. About to join the union for some seafood dinner, so I better wrap it up.
The winter wasn’t that tough I’d say, usually there are more negative events happening. For me personally all the sad stuff always happens during the cold season, this coincidence makes me even more alert whenever the dull months approach. So this winter was an okay one I guess, but nevertheless something unpleasant had to be happening, of course. February is usually the toughest. Somehow it’s always a break-ups month for me, whatever can be meant under the definition of a break-up. It’s all fine now, though. The great healing moment in spring other than nice weather is making plans for the upcoming summer. I have been doing this for the past couple of weeks and seem to more or less have an idea of what I will be doing this year. Excited juhuuuu! All the good things are already waiting just round the corner, right? Welcome, spring!

pics taken at Neusiedler See, end of February


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UPD: back on track

Hey, guys! I am alive and I am back to Europe. tulqqdt4vrcExactly a month has it been. I still have no way to write a complete story about my summer trips that has to also be followed by a lot of thoughts. And there are a lot of thoughts. What I saw and experienced this summer changed me a lot. I started appreciating such things as drinking water, to begin with. Living in a Cuban society interacting with people being stuck in such an unusual for the modern world situation literally blows your mind! I am inspired (I never ever use this stupid phrase!) by Cuba, I will talk about Cuba, I will always remember what Cuba taught me. And I miss Cuba.

I was also lucky to visit Mexico this summer. Was a short trip but I managed to see/eat/drink a lot of amazing things. And this I can’t wait to share as well!

As I returned to Europe, my friends flew to Paris to meet me there and spend some time in the city with less English and white people to overcome my cultural shock a little bit. It was a very useful buffer before coming back to Vienna. And Paris was just so sweet this time!

I am praying now that with my extremely tough upcoming semester I will have time and inspiration to write about my summer experience. Would be such a shame to just let the impressions slip away! I still can’t forgive myself for writing absolutely nothing when used to live in the US. Won’t let it happen again! Posts are arriving soon!

Meanwhile, happy beginning of the school year for everyone! It’s the first day of fall for us, but luckily we caught the last sunbeams and made a trip to the lake yesterday.

Hope you are all safely returning from the vacations that were just amazing and warmed you up enough to meet the autumn.


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Cuba: Observations

IMG_6859.jpgHola amigos!

It is my third week in Cuba now and I can’t believe time flies so fast! Seems like I had just arrived and don’t know where to go and how to behave in the streets. Now I know my way around havana very well and have already met quite few locals, too. But every morning as I open my eyes it still takes me a second to figure out where I am. I kind of like that feeling while traveling a lot in a short period, though.
So, let me share some more observations about Cuba here. To begin with, most of the things that I am writing here are applying to Havana only, as Santiago de Cuba or Trinidad, for example, are totally different. But several facts are common for the whole country, too. If you just go to Varadero, which most of the tourists do, you won’t find any Cuban authentic sights, so I highly recommend spending at lest couple days in the capital city, and better stay in la Habana Vieja. Some things that caught my eye:
  • it is very dark in the streets. Maybe not in the newest hotel areas in Vedado, but in the old city for sure. It doesn’t feel dangerous, though. As I already mentioned in the previous post, people want foreigners’ attention, they would whistle and yell something very often, but don’t get scared. I had never been touched or anything. Just keep on walking.
  • you have to make yourself very clear when speaking with the locals. They can ask you to buy them food; making up stories about babies, faking pregnancy, being extremely sweet and friendly with you and taking pictures to later have you buy them something is very common here, especially if you go to some market areas and shops for locals. Just be smart and don’t let them trick you. It is absolutely fine to say no in a harsh way. Another usual way to trick tourists is when you go out dancing: some guy will come up to you and start teaching you salsa, you have fun and dance with him for like an hour and then he requires 25CUC for a lesson. If you are invited to dance, just make it clear that you just want to dance and don’t want a lesson!
  • in general, salsa, ron, rumba, bachata and all kinds of latin american dances are a big thing here. Cubans are the best dancers in the world. At the same time, they have their own way of dancing most of the internationally popular dances. Mixtures with African culture and isolation from the continental latin America have had their strong impact on evolution of dancing culture here. Most of people who come here are salsa dancers back home. Almost any club is going to be a salsa place at some point during the night. So if you have no idea at all how to dance, you might want to learn some basics at least not to be left out. I am taking salsa classes at a place called Casa del Son and the instructors there are very nice and professional. Don’t think, though, that this much body contact means that the locals are trying to hook you up when you dance with them. It can be the case, of course, but a lot of flirting, touching and contact is a big part of their culture here, so just accept it and don’t freak out.
  • I like it here, like it a lot. And the people are part of an amazing experience, too. But I would recommend not to trust them. Especially the guys who are flirting with you (and they do that even being 80 years old). They may whisper as many sweet things as you had never heard before in your ear and they are professional at looking reliable, but always keep in mind that the culture here is very different from any western culture; people are being brought up with it being a social norm to be sneaky. They do lie a lot here, show off and just in general have a very different point of view on what’s good and what’s bad. You can become friends with the Cubans, definitely, they are very nice and extremely interesting people. But never forget that they all see foreigners as the key to escape from the country. And most of them desperately want that, even though they will never tell you as it is not accepted to express your point of view here. All Cubans say they are extremely happy here and they love their country. You will never know what they truly think, never. Enjoy it here, but don’t try to understand.
  • absolute majority of population and their parents and grandparents have never been abroad. Even though it became legal for them to travel couple years ago, no regular local can afford it. They are not allowed to even get close to boats, on top of that. When there was a sailing excursion, the Cuban guide wasn’t allowed on board. They would be constantly asked for their documents in the streets if they walk with tourists, too. Happens to us every single day. And the foreigners would be asked questions concerning their reasons of walking next to a Cuban, too. I learnt a lot of crazy stories of how somebody started dating a Cuban and would be chased by police, but I don’t think it would be correct to share the details on the web. Just be aware that the locals live a completely different lifestyle that any foreigner would have here.
  • they love Russians. Even adore them, I would say. So feel free to say «soy rusa/ruso» anywhere! If you speak good English, you might be mistaken for an American, which is sometimes not very pleasant here, as the tensions are still strong. So if you want good service and friendly attitude, make sure they don’t take you for a «gringo»
  • all of the above strongly depends on a person, of course. The locals are very interested in foreign cultures, they ask a lot of questions and really want to know as much as possible about you. Some would greet the Americans I was hanging out with very friendly, too. But we did have some unpleasant incidents with attitude to the Americans, too.
  • what I find very impressive is how people learn English on the streets. They are not taught at the universities or in some other way common for us. They indeed do learn languages from each other. And a lot of people in Havana speak more than decent English! Sometimes German and Italian, too. Older people can speak Russian sometimes, too, as they used to travel to the Soviet Union back in the days. No idea what the problem of Russia with learning English is, if even isolated people with no way to learn it speak so well.
  • you probably know that the Internet is not a common thing. It exists in certain areas and you can buy cards to get online, but it’s mostly accessible only for foreigners. The locals aren’t admitted to the hotels (I think government tries to do as much as possible to prevent Cubans mixing with other nationalities and leaving the country, so no locals are allowed in the areas where tourists stay) and it’s also not affordable for the most of them. If a teacher makes $22 a month, he is not gonna go spend $3 on an hour of using the Wi-Fi. But you still see a lot of young people gathering around hotspots. Since just few years they are allowed to purchase cellphones here, but satellite data isn’t possible, they are just for calling. Which is surprisingly not even that much needed I would say! People just somehow get to meet each other without texting as we would do to organize whatever! Everyone knows where to find whoever he needs; certain people go to the same places to hang out, so somehow it all works out. Like it used to 20 years ago for us, I guess. I run into the people I got to know here almost every day, for example.
  • even though it is very easy to meet people here, I wouldn’t recommend staying just by yourself, It is simply less fun. Even if you are traveling with friends, you won’t experience as much as if you cross paths with other foreigners living here as well as with the locals. I am staying in the hostel, but only with the members of the program that I am doing in Cuba. And it is just so much fun! We are a little family here; there is always a lot to do and someone making plans. This hostel is the best experience ever, I love having met every single person who stayed here! It is called Hostal Leonel, I highly recommend it if you need an affordable and cozy place to stay in Habana Vieja! Btw, the program I came to Cuba with is called Jakera, and the guys indeed are doing a good job! I am enjoying it here every single day.
I think this is it for now as another trip is already ahead of me – tomorrow I am flying to Mexico! But next week I will be back to Havana and will share a lot of things to see/do/experience/avoid on this astonishing island. Have an amazing weekend, everyone! Happy autumn!


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Bocconi

LUm2g1MgnI4Earlier this summer I was lucky enough to complete the summer course at Università Bocconi – a private university of Milan, a very respected one in Italy and one of the best ones in Europe.

I completed an «Economics of European Union» course but the university offers several more as Luxury management, Fashion management, Venture capital, Sports management, etc. The intense courses are offered in June and February. However, make sure to attempt to enter during the application period that is much earlier. The results are usually published ca. 1,5 months before the courses start. One can find everything concerning the application procedure on the Bocconi website.

The university itself is amazing. Well, it’s obvious that once you pay for education – you feel that you are a part of the private school now. Prosciutto, cheeses and croissants served for breakfast. Restaurant menu for lunch (yes, I start with the most important part of the experience). Modern campus, extremely friendly stuff that really helps. In my university you have to figure everything out yourself which is sometimes very tricky with all the bureaucracy procedures. At Bocconi they will make sure you know where and when to go, you feel comfortable and welcomed, you ain’t hungry and you are indeed interested in what the university offers.
The professors are jewels. I was doing a course with Stefano Riela and can say that he is really professional in teaching. Not that he is just a smart economist but he also knows very well how to treat his audience that way that the material is going to be absorbed by anyone.
We all had very different background there. Australia, China, Malaysia, EU countries, Great Britain and the States and many more. Naturally that means diverse levels of knowledge about the EU. Stefano managed to give it to everyone, have everyone interested, asking questions and participating.
We had group work as well. The main topics for research were TTIP (that I got), Brexit, Turkey as a EU candidate and Google abusive behavior using dominant position case. Imagine how interesting all four are and how much better do I understand what’s happening within the EU now, how the European Commission functions, what each country weights politically and how tight the ties in the modern society with trade areas and custom unions are. Splendid.
Other than lectures and presentations, we also had company visits. The companies differ from group to group and are related to the material of the course. We went to Mediaset, European Commission and Barkley’s. By the way, the main figures there are Bocconi graduates who enjoy keeping in touch with the university and with pleasure organize conferences with students like us. I am wishing now that I wasn’t on the plane that’s about to land and could share more about the companies now! The schedule was so tight during the course that I had absolutely no time to compose any feedback on what I was doing there. As a throwback let me just claim that I am very thankful to Bocconi for the experience. Their spirit gets you better than one of the American high school sports teams! Well-done!
Apart from studies and meeting very interesting people in companies headquarters, I also met a lot of cool guys from all over the world. Bocconi does cool things as common activities, team-building. cooking classes, aperitivo, staff dinners and all those things that make you feel a part of the big mechanism which functions only because you are a team. Last time I had this proud feeling so strong on FLEX reunions, So. Bocconi is definitely going to be an unforgettable experience for me just like FLEX has been since the very beginning 8 years ago.
And, well, having the whole terrace or cooking club rented out for you, being greeted with resect by people who have accomplished incredible things in their lives and now they treat you as even; showing your Bocconi ID card somewhere and immediately getting smiles and a lot of questions from random people around Italy – those moments make you feel special no matter how modest you are. And that’s the right way to feel once you experience something as Bocconi Summer School!
Grazie mille per tutto, l’Università Bocconi! A presto!