Academics Abroad

a(n) (unfair) comparison between Cambridge and Berlin (part 1)

Despite being  unqualified to comment on differences between Berlin and Cambridge, since I’ve only been here for a month, I figure that’s more than a lot of people, so I’m going to go ahead and do it. Also, it may seem unfair comparing a small university town in England to the capital of Germany- but there you go, those are already the first differences.

I was asked yesterday what my favorite part about Cambridge is and after thinking about it for a second answered: how close everything is.

Now, don’t get me wrong- the public transportation in Berlin is amazing and for every point of departure and destination, there are at least 3 options leaving within 5 minutes or so. However, the city is quite large and the commute times can be a bit rough. My brother had an hour long commute for a year and mine to the university are always at least 35 minutes (if the connections are all perfect). In comparison, almost everything within Cambridge is within 1.5 miles and a 10-minute bike ride. I go home a lot more in-between classes, library work, and evening work or activities, which is a nice lifestyle change.

Another thing I really like about Cambridge is how everything feels like it’s designed to take care of as much of the extras of adulting as possible. People who live on campus in the US know this feeling of having meals and some housekeeping taken care of, but in Berlin, this is not a thing. I can have amazing meals in the Mensa (cafeteria) during the day, but on days I don’t go to the office or classes, I’m on my own. Even though I like preparing my own meals, if I didn’t I would still be much better taken care of in Cambridge.

That being said, the prices here take some getting used to. Maybe it’s the conversion that’s just making me anxious,  but after coming from Berlin, I feel like I’m spending twice as much a week on groceries. Thank goodness for Aldi, because that at least balances out 12 pounds spent on the cheapest entree and a beer at any pub around.

At the same time, in Cambridge’s favor (and being a student here), I do appreciate the housekeeping. Initially I thought it would be weird to have someone come in my room once a week to clean- I mean, my mother taught me better! I can do it myself! But now I do appreciate it. I don’t have to think about it and can focus on work- which is the idea, of course. I also am grateful that the communal kitchens are cleaned, because from experience I know that the chore charts only work as long as EVERYONE follows it.

Alright, that last one wasn’t Cambridge proper, mostly just dorm life, but since the life here seems to revolve around students (and tourism), it’s not a far stretch. That’s something I miss about Berlin- the diversity of people and diversity of the things people do. It’s the center of political and cultural life in Germany, and since those are two of my priorities, I feel quite comfortable and always engage in a lot of intellectual conversation there. Here in Cambridge, a lot of people do things other than studenting- there are tons of music and sports groups- but it feels like everyone has to do everything so well and people take themselves too seriously. They tell themselves they don’t take it so seriously, and try to be tongue-in-cheek about it all, but then they do seem ind of disappointed if you didn’t take it seriously. Furthermore, Cambridge gets a lot of credit for being an intellectual hub, but it’s like they only know how to be intellectual in theory. They’re missing some of the practicality of life getting in your face that I’m so used to in Berlin. Still, it seems like Berlin is facing its own challenges with increasing hipsterfication and gentrification, so who knows how long it is before I’m complaining about this in Berlin as well. I will say that for its small size, Cambridge offers more than its share of theater and music.

Let’s see; I’ve covered food costs, student life, intellectual life- I guess what remains to comment on is the feel of the city and its architecture and green spaces.

I can say that right now I appreciate Cambridge and Berlin equally- Berlin has so much innovation in its architecture and the mix of old and new just hits me every time I see it, but there’s something ultra charming about the old English houses and I also just keep stopping and snapping a photo when I see a new angle on one of the old colleges, or go down some new cobbled street. I so often feel like I can’t take a breath that’s not imbued with history. And don’t get me started on the Cam River- how clean everything feels- or the pretty flowers that are appearing everywhere.

it’s beginning to look like Spring. back end of King’s

I guess, as a runner I’m also grateful for the proximity of Cambridge to seemingly endless fields. I say seemingly, because as I discovered during my first runs in Cambridge, there are a lot of private fields and, in general, just a lot of fences in Cambridge. Colleges are closed off from one another with them, streets often end in more fences. It’s a bit frustrating, since even though Berlin is a concrete jungle, I can just keep turning another corner and almost never end up in a dead-end. Furthermore, Berlin has the Grunewald and the Tierpark and various other green spaces. Cambridge’s green is around the city- still very green, but you have to find it first. And it’s not many trees- just a lot of open fields- which is lovely until you’re trying to get across in 25 mph winds.

But I’m not complaining. I’m quite happy here and I’m getting done what I came here to do, so that’s the most important part.

On that note, here’s the lecture hall photo I promised. It doesn’t seem as novel as it did the first time I saw and sat in it, but it’s still pretty cool.

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Cheers, – Dorothea

 

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A week in the life of a visiting Cambridge student: Saturday

So, like any college student, I like to go out on a Friday night and sleep in, at least a little, on Saturday mornings. However, a) I’m a PhD student, so these generalizations don’t really apply. And b) how can I sleep in when there’s a parkrun to go to?

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parkrun is a really cool event that was initiated by British-Zimbabwean-South African Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004 that has spread out from his little local park in London to 1400 locations world-wide. It’s a free 5k timed race that happens every Saturday and while there’s a lot of glory involved (speed, how many you’ve run, how many you’ve volunteered, etc.), it’s not about prizes or being the fastest. It’s meant to be an inclusive event, and I believe it rather is. While it arrived to the US in 2012, no one has tried it yet in the swampy parks of Florida or the finicky forests of Berlin, so I haven’t had the opportunity to join in on the fun-yet. Last week I jogged across the invisible starting line along with nearly 500 others for the first time and had a great time. This week the same. If I don’t get pulled away by other events on a Saturday, the parkrun is definitely going to be a staple.

Another thing to do on a Saturday is take care of some shopping. This can involve a venture into the almost scarily busy city center for groceries and other supplies. Coming from my own personal Hogwarts a mile away, I sometimes think of the center as Hogsmeade (and the associations are not just mine!). I can see the appeal of Cambridge city centre on a mild winter day. There are a lot of great stores, there’s the market, and there are the gorgeous buildings all around to look at. I was tempted to pull out my camera to take a few shots, but I have an annoying self-consciousness of looking like a tourist when in a new area, so now my blog will suffer for it. When I’m no longer such a dork, I’ll take some photos, I promise!

Speaking of groceries: the first weeks after being in a new place, I tend to go overboard with buying food, mainly because I haven’t figured out my go-to shopping list yet (you know, the standards that one needs to have in the cupboard/fridge to get through a week). Some things I have bought over the last week to keep me alive and running are:

Crumpets, scones, Nakd bars, Cadbury chocolates, and the aforementioned microwavable haggis (I cannot emphasize enough that it’s actually quite good. I think it’s the spices that transform it from a weird mix of sheep intestines and oatmeal to something I actually look forward to eating). I’ve heard the expressions “tea and crumpets” or “tea and biscuits” for ages, but I never actually new what a crumpet was. It’s a small griddle cake that tastes great toasted with cheese or almond butter. I’ve already gone through three bags of them, and I could probably live off those for the next five months. The scones are self-explanatory, though I think they’re probably much better in a café than pre-packaged in a grocery store, and the Cadbury chocolates are a treat that I, unfortunately have to keep as far away from me as possible, because they won’t last a day in my possession.

But the Nakd bars are actually a pleasant surprise, because they are a no-sugar added fruit/nut bar that I discovered in Germany, but never wanted to give my arm for, so I never got them after I found them at a health food exhibition once. Here they run for 50 pence, so it’s easy to stuff a bunch in my backpack to have as a sweet snack during the week.

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from eatnakd.com

Once the shopping was taken care of, I spent a very boring, but productive! afternoon/evening in the library. It is a super nice working space and the lighting is much better than in my room. Not the most amazing way to spend a Saturday, but with some plans over the coming weekends, it’s actually okay to have a quieter one getting things done.

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I’d never seen the desks on the stair-cases before. It’s really cool to ‘perch’ at the desk on top. And during the say, the view outside is nice too. 

Now comes the main question. How did you spend your Saturdays while in school? I’ll admit, it’s only the convenience of having a 24/7 library within 5 minutes walking distance that gets me in a library on Saturday. I never did that in Florida (except maybe while living on campus as an undergrad) or in Berlin.

A week in the life of a visiting Cambridge student: Thursday

American pragmatism and opportunism are what happens when you take the sensibilities of the -English, used to taming their lands over millennia and their people over centuries, and throwing them into wilderness and self-governance. At least, that’s one way of summarizing it if one wants to generalize two completely heterogenous groups. But the point is, although the US and the English speak the same language, they are not the same people (and the fact that it’s the same language is also debatable).

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road on the way to King’s College, Cambridge

So, some things I’ve noticed, since being here for a week, range from the very obvious (driving on the left side of the road!) to the subtler and more unique to Cambridge.

Since these first weeks of being here are all so unique and there’s a lot to comment on, I’m going to break it down into daily observations.

Thursday:

The Cambridge University week begins on Thursdays. It’s how they set up their timetables and my guess is that it has something to do with Maundy Thursday in the Christian tradition and the Last Supper. It’s not a off-the-wall guess, seeing as the terms are named after Christian periods: Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter, but I could also be totally wrong.

There are lectures to visit all week, usually in the mornings, and there was one I wanted to visit today on “the creation of Britain and the appearance of “others.” My main take-away: the Brits were interested in religion more than blood-line when it comes to “othering,” though conflating skin color with virtue was starting to happen in the early medieval era. Unlike lectures in the US or Germany, which usually run 80-90 minutes, these are 50-minute lectures and involve, as it seems in the English faculty, a list of quotes that the lecturer incorporates into a general talk about a specific concept. My lecture today had the lecturer incorporate some questions to his students that even I, as the most senior in there, didn’t quite know how to answer.  But it was over quite quickly and I can understand now that this is just the impetus for students to go off and write their weekly essay for their tutor.

So, the afternoons in Cambridge seem blocked off for reading, writing, or for graduate seminars, for which I’m thankfully not signed up for this term. I used some of this “free” afternoon to get my bike looked at.

bike shops in cambridge

For a town as small as Cambridge, there is an unusually high number of bike shops. They range from high-end, bike sport enthusiast shops to the more expensive bike department store type place. And then there are a lot of second-hand bike shops that trade heavily in student bicycles. I had opted to find mine online, on a local Craig’s List type service, but I got my helmet, bike lock, and lights from a second-hand shop. The bike I bought shortly after arriving in Cambridge was put together by a guy who takes second-hand parts and builds his bikes from scratch and I have to say, it’s probably the best deal on a good bike I’ve ever gotten (other than a slight mismatch of the rear-quick release, which he sorted for me today). The frame and tyres (I like how the English write it this way) are excellent quality and I may even attempt a bike tour on them before leaving.

Since the bike fix went so quickly, I had time to meet with a PhD student I’d gotten in contact with while still in Berlin, since we are interested in similar topics. We met in the Buttery, which is a university-run café/cafeteria that can be found on all the college campuses and serves warm paninis (if you get them in time!).

I rounded out the afternoon with a visit to the University Library, which is an impressive building not far from the English and Modern and Medieval Languages Faculties. It’s hard to describe the library. One can tell it was built in the 1930s, but it smells of books and manuscripts much older than that. I really like walking up its narrow staircases and between the rows of books. It feels cozier than most libraries I’ve been to, and I’ve figured out the book-order system they have, which, although they have an online catalogue and requesting system, is still quaintly paper-bound in the physical room of the main reading room, which looks like those libraries you see in movies.

Finally, before heading home to do more work there, I stopped by Aldi. I love getting my groceries at Aldi in Germany, and it’s quite cool that it’s also in several locations in the US now, but it’s really good to have in Cambridge where the pound outweighs my other familiar currencies and I feel like I’m going broke, even though I know it’s just a side-effect of starting somewhere new on a mere 23 kilo of suitcase filler.

And now here I am, sitting in my room in a graduate dorm, having eaten my share of veggies and microwavable haggis (going to have to find the real thing at some point), and trying to figure out how I’m going to read all those books I’ve checked out in the past few days before they’re due back to the library.

Study Abroad Tip: Always try in-person

Just a quick note about something I’ve learned during this second bout abroad:

Always try to figure things out in-person or via telephone.

Getting anything accomplished relating to official business at the German universities requires patience and know-how. Being an Google-friendly society, many of us look towards search engines as providers to answers for life, the universe, and everything (though, I don’t know why they bother with the internet when it’s 42). The problem with the webby bureaucracy of German universities, whose administration offices are spread all over the place just like their classrooms, is that navigating the webs, analog and digital, is tricky.

For each thing that needs to be accomplished, use the web to find out where it gets done, and then spare yourself the trouble of navigating the websites. Call the number of the office or info-center and ask your questions in person- much less complicated. The good news, most people who answer the phone have to have good English to have gotten their position. It helps, though, to be able to express yourself in German.

I recommend calling, but visiting the office and physically showing someone what documents you have, don’t have, don’t know you have, makes things easier as well.

I like to think that Germans make up for their extremely low student fees by having minimal support for their students. I also think, part of their entrance qualifications is figuring out how to enroll in their school. It’s a rite of passage that I haven’t quite made yet, but I’m almost there. There will be champagne (or at least a really fancy beer) once I finally have my admittance papers.

 

Berlin studies: 3 options to chose from

When people say “I’m a student in Berlin,” you have to ask them which university they attend. There are three main public institutions (and a lot of private ones) in Berlin. I am going to focus on the Freie Universät,  since that is the one I am now studying at.

I’m not going to bore you with all the historical details, since interested readers can find that information elsewhere. But I do think it’s important to point out that the Freie Universität used to be part of the Humboldt Universität, and they split during the Cold War when the Humboldt Uni, located in the East, became Communist controlled. The Freie Uni split off, and it’s new name “free” refers to its status as an institution in a “free world.” Obviously, during the cold war, the Freie and Humboldt Universities both served students in all subjects, but primarily focusing in liberal arts and social sciences. The Technical University (TU) is where, in the west, most of the science students attend.

Institute for Mathematics of the TU- Image found here. The buildings that make up the campus are spread all over this area of Berlin, as is the case with most German universities. It’s practically on the same road as the Brandenburg Gate. 

Now that Berlin is reunified, the Freie Universität continues its brilliant representation as hub for political and international studies. The Humboldt Uni has a reputation for Geisteswissenschaften, primarily philosophy and literature studies. For those who don’t know, the Humboldt Brothers are very famous, contributing to knowledge about the mind and the world. Their university became a hub for some of Germany’s greatest thinkers and researchers. The building itself is very impressive:

As found in an article about the brothers and the university, you can see here a bit of the beautiful Prussian architecture

In comparison, the Freie Uni is not as impressive. It’s also not located in the center of Berlin, rather more in its suburb, Dahlem. However, its reputation is just as marked.

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Of course, being in Dahlem. it has close connections to the American occupiers during the Cold War. The surrounding streets all have names like “Marshallstrasse” or “Clay Allee.” The building themselves, built after the war, are often dedicated to US political or military figures. Because of this, I feel of course a special connection with the Uni, playing a small part in feeling like I deserve to be here.

While I always dreamed that if I would study in Berlin, I’d go to the Humboldt Uni, I’m kind of glad now to go to a school whose acronym is FU (if German universities had sports teams, think of the slogan possibilities!) and where, when taking public transportation, I enter and leave a building that looks like this:

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There are a lot of other good reasons to be at the FU- time will continue to illuminate them.

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Official Seal of the FU found here

The bureaucracy of getting into any of these schools, German citizen or not, is crazy- that’s information for another post-but I just thought I’d share a bit of info about the schools.

I should add, that as a student in Berlin, there’s always the possibility of going slightly out of the city into Brandenburg, where the University of Potsdam is located. Art students are especially welcome in the city of Prussian Emperor Friedrich the Great and all his castles.

 

A road to…

I guess three time’s a charm.

It took me three attempts to make it to my new university without incident… and now that I’ve figured it out, I’m looking forward to riding this route a few times a week to meet with advisers, instructors, and fellow students.

I  believe that the quality of our lives can be largely determined by the quality of the routes we take on a daily basis- to work, school, family members, etc. If the journey is good, the time spent traveling is well-worth it.

Now, I have a confession to make. This summer, I couldn’t stop comparing Berlin to Hamburg. This was a mistake, since Hamburg is by far the more elegant city with touches of sophistication. Berlin, with it’s “poor, but sexy” (“arm, aber sexy”) attitude actively tries not to meet up to the standards cities like Hamburg, Munich, or Dresden provide. However, now that I’ve been in Berlin longer and really see more and more corners, I have to admit that there’s just so many cool corners in this city. Surprising architecture and sites.

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Since I finally got my uni route down, I thought I’d share a few pictures.

Berlin in August

I haven’t even been in Berlin that long, but I’m already losing track of my experiences. It’s time to collect them and share them.

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What a coincidence I rode by this yesterday!

First of all, excuse me if this post seems a bit rushed. Knowing my writing style, that may actually be a good thing (and you may not actually notice). However, I had written a post and wanted to post it, and in the process of posting it with no internet, lost it somehow. Since it took me so long to finally write to begin with, I’m not having as much fun during round 2.0. But I hope it’s still enjoyable/informative!

August- After weeks of fall-like weather, cool and wet, Berlin was gifted with a midwife’s summer. Still, it wasn’t -fancy-hat-Sunday-picnic weather, more like oh-my-bottles-in-the-freezer-and-bikini-clad-jump-in-the-nearest-Brandenburg-lake weather. I won’t begrudge the Berliners their fun in the sun, but I prefer it cold.

On the other hand, when bicycling around the city to avoid public transporting costs, not having to worry about rain and poor visibility is nice.

These past weeks, I did several things I had never had to do before: sign up at a job agency, sign-up for internet service, volunteered at a race, and arranged for my water heater to be replaced. Some of these experiences I wouldn’t have minded avoiding, but they’re all part of living here.

On the day I decided to register for assistance in finding a job, I discovered that there are multiple agencies in the city that are meant to service certain regions. There’s also a difference between an agency and a center. The Job Center, apparently, is where one goes if one wants to register for Arbeitslosengeld (joblessness money). I think the rate right now is about 480 Euro a month, which wouldn’t be bad, but I actually didn’t intend to sign up for that. I want to see if I can find work first. Because of this approach, I was sent back in the direction of my apartment to the Agentur fuer Arbeit (agency). After only 10 minutes wait (I got lucky!) and 20 minutes filling out all the information one can find on and off my CV, I had a profile and appointment for personal Beratung, or advice. This appointment isn’t until Sept. 20th. It’s a bit late, and I hope to have work long before then. The online profile is useful though, and I use it along with Indeed.com and stepstone.de, as well as jobspotting, to search through and select jobs.

Finding an internet service was fine, and I won’t have to resort to WLAN thievery and prepaid accounts anymore. Replacing my water heater was less fun, but at least I now have contacts and know how to turn off my water and electricity in future events of water catastrophes.

Speaking of catastrophes, have you heard that the German government (some ministry I don’t feel like looking up) recommended a Vorratskauf? Basically, it’s the end of the world and Germans are being told to prepare for the event of a major terrorist attack by storing enough food and water for ten days in their homes. I don’t know which is scarier, this precaution being condoned after thirty years of peace in Germany and having to find a way to store 30 Liters of water in my small apartment, or the fact that such an attack could happen in Berlin where these precautions would be necessary.

On a lighter note, I had my first volunteering experience at a race. I was a helper for the Bambini races of a recent Sport-Scheck half-marathon and 10K designed to help Berliners prepare for the Berlin Marathon. Bambini is the Italian word for “kids.” Seeing the little kids run 200-900 meters, was soothing for my cranky-runner’s heart. In return for three hours of my time (and a 5:30 AM wake-up call on a Sunday), I got a free shirt, lunch packet, and $10 that were supposed to be transportation costs, but I used it for breakfast. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and I only just found out that I get to be on the course of the Berlin Marathon Sept. 25th as well! I’ll be handing out water near kilometer 30. If you’re there, let me call you out!

So that’s something to look forward to, but in the meantime I’m trying to prep for my own marathon, and since I can’t run (broken toe), I have to find creative ways to cross-train. The bad new is, it’s really hard to replace a 20 mile fast-finish run. It requires about 4.5 hours of cycling at more than moderate speeds. The good news is, the city is here to be explored, and so I went on a ride that I doubt many Berliners ever make- from the west to the far east.

Berlin ride

It was a really interesting tour through a lot of what used to be East Berlin and GDR IMG_1730Germany. I had enough reminders that I was in former east Berlin, from a general light shabbiness that seems characteristic of former east-bloc states to street names commemorating some of communism’s heroes.*

But I also had enough reminders that I was in a new Berlin, finding many of its monuments and old Berlin among all the new construction. There were too many moments where I was at a random corner or crossing, and I just couldn’t capture all of them.

I made time for new and old VDAC (Federation of German-American Clubs) acquaintances as well. I met the president of the Berlin German-American club, who is a delightful and inclusive lady. We met in the Himelbeet Cafe, which is a cafe grounded in a community garden in Wedding, a quarter in north  Berlin. I had never been in this region before, so the ride there as well as the few hours sitting with her, collecting the impressions of this community, was memorable.

IMG_1706On invitation from the student-exchange chair lady of the Hamburger German-American Club, I came to Hamburg for a delightful afternoon of Alsterlauf, conversation and sunshine with two lovely ladies. I collected enough impressions here as well, and found it slightly bizarre to be back in the city I had grown to love. I was struck by a lot of its beauty in the sunlight- the view of a ship, a metonymy for the city as sea-trade-capital, reflected on an adjacent building had to be captured.

So, bureaucracy, training, participating, Hamburg… there. I think I’ve reached the end of it. Berlin has a lot to offer in the late summer, and I couldn’t take advantage of all of it. For example, there was the long-night of museums, where 77 (or more, I forget) museums in the city were open with events and exhibitions from 6 PM to 2 AM the following day. There was also a Schlosser-Nacht in Postdam, neighbor of Berlin and capital of the state Brandenburg. This night of palaces is something I hope to take advantage of next year.

Looking forward to September– the International Literature Festival of Berlin is happening next week, I have several events I’ve been invited to by the president of Berlin’s German American Club, and I have several meetings at the university- school starts mid-October and it’s time to start getting in the academic spirit!

Happy last day of August,

Dorothea

* It is impossible to be in Berlin and not be reminded of its history. I’m not talking about WWII and the only history many US Americans seem to think happened in Germany, but the Cold War history. The city had been divided for forty years, and the divide is mostly stitched together, but by many different surgeons with many styles. One can find the scar of this divide, rigid and bumpy, not only in the landscape of the city, but in the mentalities of its citizens. My generation 25 and younger, don’t remember anything about this divide. However, anytime I talk to an older Berliner about the city, things to do, or traveling through it, I’m reminded that they experience/d the city in a much different way. The Berliner’s relationship to this history is complicated and fascinating. I hope to explore it more as I live here.