Academic differences from Semester 1, and all that jazz…

Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin

I’m just going to come right out and say it: a literature BA from FU Berlin, while similar in some ways, is actually very different (in this blogger’s opinion) from the version of the degree you get from, for example, Manchester.

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The anti-perks of studying abroad

Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin

As promised, my last blog was on the fun, positive side of Berlin and studying abroad (or a taste of it anyway). This blog is something a bit different – mainly because my study abroad experience certainly hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine all the way through. These occasional periods of negativity, which eventually lead to greater insight into myself and therefore a positive outcome, are anti-perks.

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Wherefore art thou, Berlin student discount?

Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin

Every time I write a blog, I wonder how to start it. I know that that’s kind of reasonable as I’m starting out on what I hope is a new idea, but I find that as I write, my ideas come to me a lot more naturally than at the beginning of a post. So, here I am, starting a post again. Wondering how to start it. So I’ll start by saying how amazing Berlin is for student discounts for cultural stuff! Yay!

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Worth the wait!

Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin

So. It’s definitely been a while. Like, a really, really decent while. Everything’s been quiet on the blog front while everything’s been hectic and busy on the ‘year abroad life’ front. I’ll start not by making excuses, but making a plan: this blog will be a general (hopefully interesting) ramble on things that have gone on for me recently on this period of time abroad – because it really is amazing in its own unique way. Then, there’ll be two blogs on all the fun things/hard things that have happened, all the stuff I’ve enjoyed (or not) and why/what I gained from these experiences, which I think is a pretty interesting topic, no?

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My post-Brazil, pre-Berlin (positive!) post-mortem

By Mitch Mainstone, English Literature (Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany)

So. Berlin is now a thing in my life. A big, leafy, musical, beautiful thing that up until a week ago I’ll admit I had no real conception of. I think that if I write that I feel that same way about myself, but reflecting back on myself as I am at the moment, in some future ‘conclusion of study abroad’ blog, then I think this year will have been a successful one!

I’ll start this by saying that both my uni-home of Manchester and my home-home city of Bristol have an incredible amount to learn from Berlin’s public transport system. Study in Berlin and you get an ID ticket that lets you use all systems of transport – Magic Buses seem almost barbaric in comparison, never mind the flaky monstrosities that pass for bus schedules in Bristol. I already love that if you want to get somewhere in the city as a student, the only thing you will really have to pay with is time. And, fortunately, that is something I have a lot of at the moment! When I met my new flatmates, because of this, I could actually get to know them instead of passing through the flat like some sort of crazed Erasmus orientation alien, which resulted in finding out that one of them is Brazilian! To others, this might seem pretty interesting, but to me, having up until three weeks ago spent six weeks volunteering there with AIESEC this summer, I CAN ACTUALLY USE PORTUGUESE AGAIN! I couldn’t really express how happy I was at that, because it was like I was combining a place that is already special to me (Brazil) with a place that I’ve newly started to call home (Berlin). The fact that he speaks almost no English, but amazing German, only helps the situation, as do my other wonderful flatmates who are brilliant, and from three other countries themselves.

That’s also one of the reasons I wanted to leave my first blog a little later, until I was half-way between being at home, and being fully immersed in FU Berlin student life, as Berlin has two weeks of orientation that are really not-quite-university but not-quite-home. That, as well as having all but a few days between getting back from Brazil, into the UK, and being in Berlin left basically no time for anything other than spending time out with my family! I feel like I’ve been doing the things that people talk about doing: the travelling, learning new languages and being freaked out a little by new cultural norms, and yet, here I am, relatively settled, happy, and wiser for it. This is where I’m at now: I haven’t completely left home in my mind yet, but I am most definitely in the thick of studying abroad, having paid my rent for this month, gone shopping, and gotten fully enrolled. My head felt like it was going to burst with how new all the sounds, sights and norms seemed to be here, and culture shock has proven itself to really be a thing, having been shouted at by one of the administrative staff, having signed my rental contract late! Anyone thinking of coming to Germany… get everything signed and sealed on time if you can!  But despite that cultural faux-pa, I’m trying to keep it in perspective as all a part of the learning curve of my year abroad fun, really.

These first two weeks are FU Berlin’s way of registering who is where, doing what, and when. The pressure to get yourself organised academically-speaking, and in terms of accommodation has more than replaced the pressure to go out in the first week at Manchester… a pretty different kind of “re-freshers” week, I’ll be honest! After this fun but paperwork-heavy bit, I have a boat-trip around Berlin organised by my university (bizarre, wonderful, costing only 5EUR), and, currently, nothing else.  There is this gulf of time this week where I want to do things, but don’t really have any clear idea what I could do. I already feel like study abroad goes at such a breakneck pace, so I want to at least make a big list of things that I can do, see, and get involved in, to feel like I have some influence over the feeling of displacement that I myself have gotten, and expect to get again, as my own personal facet of culture shock. But, I imagine, this blog will definitely help, as will making an effort to truly ‘live’ my year abroad, with all the difficulties and triumphs that are undoubtedly coming my way.

Tourist Tips

By Colton Hill (University of Heidelberg, Germany).

In this post I want to talk more generally for people who may be coming to visit or planning on staying in Heidelberg for a relatively short period of time. Instead of mentioning the major tourist attractions (which I may get to later), this will be slightly more practical.

Food may not be on everyone’s list when they come to Germany, aside from maybe a Currywurst (Bratwurst with spicy curry/ketchup sauce), and unfortunately when people have “eat Wiener Schnitzel” on their list for Germany, they may be slightly confused to find out the dish is Austrian. Do not be dismayed, however, there is good food here.

From my experiences, most of these old-styled German pubs, of which there are many in Heidelberg, have a reasonable mixing of foods from the three major German speaking countries (Germany, Switzerland, and Austria), such as Flammkuchen. So, if you’re less picky about the exact origin of what you’re eating, and simply want the “Germanic” feel, then these places are good choices.

German Pub

Several lay on the high street (Hauptstraße), have menus in several languages, and brew their own beer. People less interested in such cuisine also have options, ranging from Spanish Tapas, to Burritos, to Korean food. In all of my time in Heidelberg, however, I have only ever seen one curry restaurant!

Korean Food in HD

If food isn’t your thing, finding a drink in Heidelberg is even easier. Cafes and pubs litter the high street, often offering outdoor seating in the summer months. Sometimes you can find cafes tucked away down small alleys along with some in front of the large church.

HD Alley

Alternatively, several pubs brew their own beers or offer some of the locally produced product along with some larger brands. Despite a typical image of Germany, the area around Heidelberg also produces wine, with wineries offering tours. A later evening alternative is going to the Unterestraße or Lower Street. Located parallel to the high street, it offers a wide selection of pubs, most of which are full every night. Heidelberg also has its fair share of cocktail bars, sports bars, and Irish pubs.

Long term accommodation I’ve had my fair share of experience with, which you can read about in a previous blog post, but I hope I can also provide some tips about hotels/hostels. For several successive nights on a student budget, there are some small, out-of-the-way hostels scattered about Heidelberg. You just need to be careful about the public transportation connections to and from your hostel (you can also find this in a previous blog post).

An alternative is staying in a “cheap” hotel. Again, these tend to be rather small and possibly remote. The exception is the Ibis at the Main Station, which caters more towards businessmen/women. You should be able to find rooms in these hotels for under 80 EUR a night, although they may not be listed on major hotel booking sites.

Logically, the next category are convenient hotels, located close to the high street or on the Neckar. These are the best hotels in regards to avoiding using the transportation network at all, and often are of a higher quality. Occasionally prices in these hotels fall to prices comparable to the previous category, but typically range between 150-350 EUR per night.

For other interesting options, more suited towards a very short stay in Heidelberg, Mannheim is very close (20 minutes on the train), or even staying in Mainz (which I also talk about in a previous blog post) as a central location could provide cheaper/more flexible alternatives. “Couch Surfing” is also relatively common in Germany.

On a closing note, this blog post may have seemed oddly self-referential, but I thought this would be a good time to highlight some travel-friendly suggestions and information about Heidelberg that I have accumulated over several months. Good luck!

Auf Wiedersehen (Pet!)

Berlin, Jan 2013. Wearing approximately 8 layers.
Berlin, Jan 2013. Wearing approximately 8 layers.

By Joanna Harris (Freie Universitat Berlin, Germany).

The time has finally arrived for me to move to Berlin. When I applied to go on exchange over a year ago it almost seemed like it would never really happen… But now it feels like time has flown by!

So here I am. As I sit in the airport writing this I have such a strange mixture of feelings… a fuzzy flutter of excitement mixed with a small (but definitely noticeable) twinge of nerves. Firstly though, the excitement: I am so looking forward to being in Berlin again – I visited for a few days last year and loved it, despite the slightly chilly -15 degree temperatures. I had only paid to bring hand luggage, and found myself wearing every item of clothing I had packed, constantly, for the four days I was there. I’m so excited now to see Berlin in the sunshine, it all its graffitied glory!

Now the nerves: as I said, there is only a twinge. This twinge is almost countered by my excitement. Not quite though… What has been crossing my mind occasionally is: ‘you have a house and friends in Manchester. Why are you choosing to move to a place where you have no friends, and nowhere to live?’ This has worried me occasionally, but I also find it quite exciting. It’s a bit like a challenge. I know (or at least, very much hope…) it won’t be like that for long!

My mum sent me a text earlier which said: ‘Have an amazing time. I hope you won’t be lonely’. This, coupled with a card I received from a friend which concluded with: ‘I hope you make some friends’, has made me consider that perhaps I am giving off some sort of vibe indicating that I will struggle to meet people. I hope this is not the case (!).

I am waiting now to get on the plane and I wish I could cancel out all the travelling and just be there in Berlin. I hate the waiting around! I just want to get there and explore. I have booked to stay in a hostel, provisionally for 10 days, whilst I look for a room I can sub-let for a few months. I have heard this can be quite tricky in the lively areas of Berlin where I (and apparently many others, unsurprisingly…) want to live. But I am going to stay optimistic. My thinking so far has been along these lines: I’m definitely not going to live nowhere…

So in conclusion, I am: 1) Getting very impatient waiting for my flight; 2) A tiny bit nervous about my living situation; 3) Mainly just really excited to start getting to know Berlin in the summer! I have heard on the grapevine that a beach bar is created by the river throughout the summer months, and this sounds juuust lovely to me…

Bis bald! (See you soon!)

x

Ps. For anyone wondering about the title, ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ was a TV programme about Geordies living in Germany. As I am leaving my home in Newcastle to move to Berlin, this seemed quite fitting…

This is what Berlin looked like the last time I was there... lovely, but very, very cold!!
This is what Berlin looked like the last time I was there… lovely, but very, very cold!!

I hope I can find more stuff like this when I get there!

Question 1: Did you study for this exam?

By Colton Hill (University of Heidelberg, Germany).

When the University Library is your home and the Mensa (Cafeteria) your kitchen, exams must be getting close. As I’m writing this I am excited to say that this time is over.

In many ways it is immediately noticeable how the exam system in Heidelberg contrasts the exam system in Manchester. And yet, exams are meant to be a universal differentiation method, separating the students from one another. Perhaps internally, exams serve as a benchmark, however even year to year the difficulty of an exam can vary or the syllabus can change.

For those unfamiliar, Manchester gives students roughly four weeks of preparation time before the exam period in winter. I have little doubt that opinions vary greatly between too much time and too little time, however in Heidelberg students get one week to prepare. From the perspective of a student, this is unfavourable.

On the other side, a refreshing aspect of exams in Heidelberg is how lacking in bureaucracy they are. Students (in the Physics Department anyway) can show up five minutes before the exam, take a seat, write down their student number and begin. Before an exam in Manchester, it is smartest to arrive 20 minutes early, check your seat number ahead of time, and absolutely do not bring a calculator that has the A-Z buttons. I see both methods have merits, as formally outlining rules before an exam could prevent misunderstandings, but informality can help relax nerves.

During the exam period I also became acutely aware of how useful it is to own a bicycle in Heidelberg. One of my grievances all year has been that the transportation network slows down considerably after 19:30, often making it difficult to get home from the university, and that tram/bus services nearly disappear on Sundays. I understand several reasons why this is so, but lacking any other means of transportation, this is disempowering. Therefore, a bicycle becomes a very favorable means of transportation, especially during exams when students spend long hours at the library, studying well past the end of the tram schedule.

In the interest of fairness, I will mention that a late bus does pass by the university, however this is more of a last resort, as it is often faster to simply walk home. And during the peak hours, trams and busses run regularly maintaining them as feasible and sometimes convenient transport.

To elaborate on transport and perhaps even dispel some stereotypes, not all German trains run on time. In fact, the local transport network in Heidelberg is regularly 5-10 minutes late, even during the peak times. With the regional trains and “S-Bahn” you can get mixed luck. Sometimes they will all run on time, but other days they will be so late, the train is cancelled in favor of the next one. Lastly, the Inter-city Express (ICE) more often than not, from my experience, run on time or only a few minutes late. The most curious thing however, is that more than once an ICE has been simply cancelled, and passengers need to navigate some other way to their destination despite often paying between 50 and 100 Euros for a ticket. Alternatively, when an ICE is running on time, you will sometimes find that a carriage is completely missing, causing a full train to suddenly become very full, filled with angry Germans with seat reservations in the missing carriage.

Maybe this is slightly exaggerated, or that I have rotten luck, but this stereotype of “German Efficiency” may only be half true. Now if only all of the trains in England would run on time…

Heidelberg Housing Crunch

By Colton Hill (University of Heidelberg, Germany).

This time I want to dive into two annual Autumn/Winter occurrences in Heidelberg: The Winter Term Housing Crunch and the Heidelberg Christmas Market.

My personal experience with this Housing Crunch was much too close for comfort. I actually started looking for accommodation slightly more than 1 month before the start of term, hoping to avoid serious competition. Unfortunately, I had no success. Rather concerned about spending several weeks in a hostel, I turned to my only hope – university accommodation. However, this is before I truly understood the nature of finding a place to live in Heidelberg in autumn.

The first clue about this housing shortage came from the email sent back to me from the Accommodation Office, which went along the lines of:  “We can add your name to the waiting list for University Halls, but please do not anticipate a room. We recommend that you continue your search for private accommodation.” Thankfully, I had an extreme stroke of luck and did indeed receive a place in student accommodation. I was relieved to say the least, but it was once I moved in that I found out how truly lucky I was.

The mother of a previous tenant was helping remove the tenant’s belongings, when she revealed that she worked with the University Accommodation Office, stating that as of October 1st more than 3000 students were searching for a place to stay in Heidelberg. For some perspective, that is nearing 10% of the students at the University. It made sense then, that even ERASMUS and other exchange students couldn’t be guaranteed University Accommodation when it is so over-subscribed.

My recommendation to students who are considering studying in Heidelberg in the future is to apply as early as possible for the University Accommodation, in hopes of avoiding two weeks of sleeping in a gymnasium with several hundred other students.

Among other things, Heidelberg gets tourists from all over the world this time of year to experience the Christmas Market.

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People enjoying the Christmas Spirit despite the cold and wet weather

For some of the blog readers, the concept of a Christmas Market may be incredibly foreign, but this seems to be an element of Germanic culture that has diffused throughout Europe and in part North America too (Maybe even other places!).

The Christmas Market takes place in the main University Square where dozens of wooden stands are set-up, selling all sorts of food, drinks, and hand-made goods. This event usually lasts until the weekend running up until Christmas, drawing hundreds of people into the small area in the centre of the Old Town.

Especially during the heart of Winter, the Christmas Market is a great event to stay warm. From my personal experiences at several different Christmas Markets, I can happily say that the authenticity of Markets even outside Germany has a high standard. So, I recommend that if people have the chance, to visit a Christmas Market, even if it’s outside of Germany.

The Heidelberg Exclusion Principle

By Colton Hill.

“The Heidelberg Exclusion Principle: No Heidelberg Physics student can study and explore Germany simultaneously” – I’m expecting my Nobel Prize next year once this blog is published.

Term actually started about 6 weeks ago, so I suppose first impressions are long passed. Unfortunately my initial impressions were not the most positive, with most things being complicated in the way only German beauraucracy can be. For those who don’t know, it involves a lot of paperwork and different offices sending you to get someone’s stamp in a building across town, only for them to tell you they can’t stamp your sheet, because you have the wrong coloured form.

I was also rather surprised to find that students don’t generally decide on their classes too far in advance (aside from 2 or 3 core modules), because there is a good chance that one lecture will conflict with another. I can’t speak for the other departments, but the experience I’ve had so far with the Physics department, is that students are left to themselves. The only tips I got about the Physics department came from another 5th Semester student. Coming from The University of Manchester, where the staff actively communicate with the students this came as a surprise. I really wanted to take Electrodynamics and Theoretical Quantum Statistics this semester!

Thankfully, due to the Germans celebrating the 1st of November, I got a Friday off and spent it like an ERASMUS Student with free time would – travelling. As a student, I bought a “Semester Ticket” which runs for 6 months, allowing unlimited use of Buses, Trams, and the slow trains within the region (most of Badenwütenberg and parts of the neighboring provinces). So, I took the S-Bahn for free to Würzburg (which is actually in Bayern).

Würzburg is a rather small city, but has a lot of beautiful features.

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The city attracts a copious amount of tourists due to the 18th Century and earlier architecture.

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This region of Germany is also well known for its wine.

Although Bayern is typically associated with the consumption of beer, this region in particular near Würzburg actually produces (and consumes) a large quantity of wine. But be careful, the glass given to you when ordering wine has a 5 Euro deposit on it.

Dating back to the 4th and 5th Century, the city maintains, in many areas, a traditional European feeling, unfortunately lost in many modern German cities. I should add however, that most of the city was destroyed in World War II, and was reconstructed over time in the likeness of its previous state. Nonetheless, it has enough interesting sights for one day of tourism.

I may have to modify my theory to exclude Public Holidays.

“Roll Me Away”

By Colton Hill (University of Heidelberg, Germany).

First of all, for those of you who are familiar with the lyrics, I didn’t actually ride a motorcycle this summer. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with Bob Seger, you’re missing out.
Anyway, some students already abroad or local students reading my entry may be slightly confused when looking at the date of this post. To clarify, the University of Heidelberg officially starts lectures on the 14th of October this year. However, before anyone feels envious, this also means that the Summer Term finishes on the 24th of July. For me, this just means an exchange – gaining time this summer and losing time next summer, as the University of Manchester starts mid-September.

Almost by coincidence, this summer I interned at the University of Mainz, which is only a few hours by train away from Heidelberg.

Mainz_Heidelberg

Not only was this advantageous from a language-learning perspective, but also that I could get a taste of living in Germany. However, like in any country, the customs and cultures can vary widely over the course of only several miles. As a later topic I’ll revisit the specifics of life in Mainz and Heidelberg, comparing them to highlight some regional differences/similarities in Germany, and how they vary to life elsewhere.
But the reason why I mentioned my trip in the summer is that, my pre-departure experience and feelings have been severely altered from the norm, being pre-exposed to the culture out of the University context. I don’t feel any less excited nor do I think my experience will be spoiled, simply that the novelty and anxiety from the unknown has somewhat disappeared (for now).
This means the most significant difference between preparing for my time at the University of Heidelberg and my last two years preparing for term at the University of Manchester is how much I can bring with me (A theme which seems to be well documented in this blog!).
Packing is kind of like Black Jack. If you sit at 17, you might win, but you’ll probably have to buy quite a few things when you arrive. If you hit at 17 you might go over (your weight allowance) and have to pay anyway. But unlike Black Jack, you can cheat and weigh your suitcase ahead of time, carefully balancing size and weight to make sure you get 21 (or 23 kg I guess).
I’ll finish by letting Bob Seger roll it away:

“Stood alone on a mountain top,

Starin’ out at the great divide

I could go east, I could go west,

It was all up to me to decide”