Studying Scandinavian Style

Alice Logan, English Literature and American Studies, University of Copenhagen

After completing the first half of my semester abroad I thought I’d do a blog post on the differences between studying in England vs Copenhagen, as the scandi culture seems to have a massive influence on the way that the Danes study and has changed my approach to studying.

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South Campus looking very pretty in the sun ☀️

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Two Weeks in Copenhagen

Alice Logan, English Literature and American Studies, Univeristy of Copenhagen

After just two weeks in Copenhagen, I already feel at home in this beautiful city and am slowly acclimatising to the depths of Danish winter.   I defy anyone to not have positive first impressions of this incredible city.  Copenhagen boasts beautiful architecture, both modern and Renaissance, canals to rival Amsterdam, a multitude of ornate gardens and the most beautiful harbour that’s so colourful it can cheer you up even when the sky is grey (which it is 90% of the time).

 

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Candid Nyhavn photo as modelled by my parents

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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.

Zwarte Piet/ Black Pete

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By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Hi, so I’ve written a short journalistic styled opinion article on a hot topic in the Netherlands. The issue is around a tradition which involves white people black facing. Any comments or feedback is more than welcome, let me know what you think.

Over the last few decades there has been the rise in what can be described as unintentional racism and even ‘hipster racism’. Unintentional racism is exactly that, racism that is both unintentionally racist and unintended to cause offence. Hipster racism is the idea that we are so far past blatant outbursts of racism and racist attitudes, that we can now use it again as a means of satire. You know when an British-Asian comedian does a rib-tickling impression of a typical Asian accent, that’s hipster racism. In my opinion neither should really be accepted in today’s society and we should strive to eradicate both, yet both are omnipresent in Western Europe.

So what is the problem? Hipster racism is often ‘just a joke’. Aside from this it actually reinforces the negative stereo-types associated with racism. I mean who can really suggest that hipster racist anecdotes are always interpreted as satirical, there will undoubtedly be some recognition of negative differences between race consciously or not. In addition laughing about how we, the then white supremacy ‘used’ to be racist, while still these hierarchies exist, is detrimental to the minority.

A more complex issue to overcome in my mind is unintentional or accidental racism. How do you stop something from happening that was not meant? The first step in my mind is acknowledgement. Take the Dutch example of ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Pete’. Zwarte Piet is part of the traditional Christmas celebration, started Centuries ago, where Saint Nicholas is accompanied by black faced helpers. It is supposed that the helpers face became blackened by the soot coming through the chimney to deliver presents and that Zwarte Piet’s skin was all ready quite dark as he originated from Spain. Despite this likeable fairy tale, Zwarte Piet is presented as having a black face and large red lips, big gold earrings and curly black hair. It is therefore hard to deny that Zwarte Piet is actually a descendant of Europe’s colonial past in the slavery of black Africans. Additionally Zwarte Piet is traditionally foolish and silly, unmistakably tying in with white perception of the barbaric and simple Africans who were colonised.

Since the millennium Zwarte Piet has been met with much more protest and controversy. White Dutch in large parts seem to want to neglect the idea that it is racist. Many as kids enjoyed the celebration and never considered racist; something typical of neo-racism and of course unintentional racism. They think that by banning the tradition they are admitting it is racist and that they are racist. However I would like to point out that you are not necessarily a racist for having committed a racist act and that the two should be viewed separately from one another.

Other support for the tradition comes from those who feel a ban is a threat to their own culture and tradition. If these native dutch (mostly white) feel their culture is under threat from non native (black people) who disagree with Zwarte Piet, then there naivety is beyond me. It is not an attempt to destroy tradition, only to alleviate and prevent the reminder of a colonial order and white supremacy which conversely is being carried on in the reinforced in the tradition and in the whites majority to neglect the desires (the banning of the black face) of the minority. This essence of white dominance, is what comedian Russell Brand tarnished “a colonial hangover”, and is particularly evident in the recent court ruling of the discussion of ‘Black Pete’. An Amsterdam judge in 2014 ruled that Zwarte Piet “is a negative stereotype of black people and the city must rethink its involvement in holiday celebrations involving him.” However the festivity continues, as does the black-facing.

Both these objections to the ban of the tradition are typical with neo-racist ideologies and the Dutch who are known for tolerance and relatively liberalism in Western Europe,are not exemplified from this form of racism on an institutional and regional level. In my mind it is about time we put and end to Zwarte Piet, not by removing the holiday all together but by changing it so that perhaps none of Saint Nicholas helpers are white people pretending to be black. This should hopefully pave the way towards a post neo-racist era.

The example of Zwarte Piet a hard example to compare with. There are few instances if any in Western Europe, where apparent racial stereotyping, is embedded in such an old tradition. Therefore when we look at solving the problem you may think that a particularly complex solution is needed. However like many slurs of untended racism or hipster jokes, the solution is quite simple. Realise that what is being done or is being said is in itself a racist act. This does not mean you are a racist, but what you are doing is reinforcing negative stereotypes. This is turn will help to reduce those who are offended by accidental racism and help to bring equality for minorities in an social environment where white privilege is dominant.

I will conclude by reiterating what has just been said. Like the Dutch with the case of Zwarte Piet we need to look at our society and the more subtle forms of racism, intended or not. Initially by realising how our actions can affect minorities and how they can reinforce negative stereotypes can we hope to achieve a society with less racist actions and of course a less ethnically segregated society.

Assessment and teaching style at the UvA

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

In general, assessment at the University of Amsterdam is more constant with midterms and then finals with the ability to do a compensation exam. A compensation exam is like a retake of the course, but includes everything from the course; something you want to avoid. Having exams more frequently but less intense is, of course, beneficial in the sense that there is less to prepare for. However, it also means that you have to cope with having a lot on your plate more often, which can be stressful. At Manchester there is a more gradual build-up to the intense stress of exams, where as here it seems to come around the corner every 4/5 weeks, without much time for preparation. Similarly, because midterms are often worth 50% of the course, you put yourself under as much stress as you would the final exams.

A more specific criticism of the University of Amsterdam is that each individual lecturer chooses how the class is assessed. Whilst for the majority this means a varied form of assessment ranging from opinion style articles which encourage a journalistic style and creativeness, that make for an exciting break from the academic rhetoric, to the ever tedious group project and presentation. There is one particular assessment format I detest, this is the ‘take home exam’. The format is that between a certain a time you have anywhere between two and twelve hours in the comfort of your own home to answer several questions once they appear online. The problem is you never nearly have enough time, and because you are ‘at home’ you are expected to answer the questions as though you were writing an essay with proper referencing and complex structure. However, under the timed pressure, this for me and many others who I have spoken to, is sometimes quite impossible.

All of this is not to say I don’t like the assessment at the UvA, and being a student I could probably find holes in any assessment format. There have been some that I have liked, such as the opinion articles and essays that are pretty much identical to the Manchester ones, but there have been ones I don’t, particularly the take home exams, much like I how I don’t particularly like Manchester handwritten exams, when I only write by hand for these occasions. However, both at the UvA and Manchester, the exams in my mind justify the means.

Something I have really enjoyed is the teaching style. For me I have been lucky that all my classes have been in classrooms. No more hiding away in large lecture halls. Classrooms for me have meant that concentrating for three hours is a lot easier, not just because you feel less distant from the teacher, but also because classrooms breed more discussions, making it easier to ask questions, and I have found that debates break out between students much more. This could also be part of the Dutch mentality or due to the teachers I have been fortunate enough to have, but debate in class and discussion-based learning is for me much more engaging. I would point out that there have been one or two classes where this doesn’t exist and lecturers talk at you for three hours, in a far less engaging manner.

This brings me onto my next point, lecture length. Here at the UvA most of my lectures are three hours long and some extend to four. These of course can test concentration, but if you have an interesting lecturer then in some ways it is beneficial to have all your teaching at one point in the week, leaving you with the freedom of deciding when you want to work outside of these hours.

A hitchhikers guide to Berlin

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

This isn’t so much as a guide but an interesting story for me nevertheless.

Our journey (me and my flatmate) to Berlin started at a bleak 6am by Amsterdam South Station. Here we met with the organisers (International Student Network) whose instructions consisted of the direction of Berlin and a mere “Good luck”…

Boycotting our initial attempts to get picked up in the pitch-black, we took to the train in order to make some headway. Not getting very far, the hitch-hiking began.

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This is Zwarte Piet, a Dutch Christmas tradition. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, is a helper of Santa Claus, but is swarmed in racial controversy, with many but not the majority protesting against it.

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Suffice it to say, hitch hiking is no easy feat and darkness had again crept up on us by the time we finally got to Germany. It had taken a train, two cars and a lorry to get here, and when we arrived we were dropped by petrol station stocked with all your essentials; knives, air guns, CS spray, axes… you get the idea. It wasn’t until 11pm that we arrived in Berlin, thanks to array of strangers.

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Berlin is an amazing city, both for street art and, of course, history. We were guided around some of West Berlin (the former Soviet side) where independent shops now rule the roost and corporate companies struggle. On our tour, we saw much of the famous illegal street art as well as the commissioned work on the Berlin Wall.

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Of course, Berlin is famous for its nightlife as well, and we didn’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. Initially having being rejected for being English by some rather pretentious Berliners, we moved to another spot, quickly forgetting the earlier rejection.

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Not in the best of shapes the next morning we took to the streets again and visited the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial, completing an amazing 48 hours in a must-see city.

My first few weeks in Amsterdam

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

So I’ve bought my bike, a must-have living in Amsterdam. It took me a week to find, scouting about the many markets for a cheap bike that still had both wheels. So when I found mine, a golden shambles of a bike, I snapped it up for just €40, a bargain! However, on cycling my bike home the pedal broke off and I discovered the brakes didn’t work. Next time I think I’ll be test riding it…

As far as the university is concerned, it has taken me a while to get used to locations of the many different buildings that are embedded within the centre of the city. That’s not to say that I’m irritated by this at all, walking and cycling around the city is a real joy, and getting lost normally just means a walk along what have been sunny canals. Although, being a tourist or somewhat not used to this city can be frantic, with trams, buses, cars, hundreds of people, thousands of bikes all waiting to ring their bells and shout at you if you get in their way. I thought the Dutch weren’t meant to be liberal, but when it comes to transport there far from it.

I have all ready taken the opportunity to travel out of Amsterdam, travelling to Zandvoort Beach just 25 minutes away to make the most of the uncharacteristically hot weather. Whilst the water was freezing, the imported sand made for a comfortable spot to relax and reflect. We were also lucky enough to see more of the amazing art that the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, has to offer, through the medium of sand:

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Two weeks have passed now and I’m starting to relax in my apartment, but I am still filled with enthusiasm for what’s to come. My flatmate and I have planned to run a 10k race and I am genuinely excited to see what the city and university have to offer.

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!