Academics Abroad

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.

 

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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.

 

 

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen… Goodbye?

wordpress asks you to “share your story” here, when you go to write a post. But isn’t there some sort of rule against posts that are too long? Any story I chose to write ends up including way too much detail to be a “short” post. So, I won’t share my story, but I’ll share the drafts to it.

I’m going to spend the next several posts recapping my last weeks in Germany during my study-abroad time. I spent some time in Germany after leaving Hamburg, and already I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences there. I guess four words sum it up:

work hard, play hard.

People often describe their experiences as “adventures.” As much as the phrase is used (dare I say overused?) the newness, excitement, sharp gusts of dangers during extended stays abroad for work or study  do justify the use.

I’ve been on an adventure, and it will take me several posts to describe it all.

As I started this post, I was diving away from the city that hosted me for 10 months. I can’t really wrap my head around the difference between how I felt when I arrived, and how I feel now, but I need to acknowledge that I’ve changed while being in the city, and my experiences through the VDAC have changed me.

I am am stronger. This is to be expected. Obstacles, bureaucratic and otherwise are more difficult when in a country of different customs, habits, and language. If I’ve trained to run on mountains, of course hills will be easier. I’ve learned to be polite, but direct, when requesting things and to be patient, but know my rights. This came in handy today, such as when I had to make sure my transcript was ordered, reflected my recent status as a graduate, and was sent to the right office. The old me would have accepted that it would take a while and figured the bureaucracy would work itself out. The new me was able to walk out with the envelope that I could and over to the intended party.

What I didn’t expect is that I’ve become a better listener. When I first arrived, I was so occupied with my own plans, my dazed experience, and comparisons to the U.S. Throughout the year, however, I’ve been complimented by many close to me that I listen more to them, and am easier to talk to. I don’t know if I should feel insecure about how I must have used to be, but I am grateful to recognize that my experiences have made me secure enough in my own experiences and strengths to be more open for others. I think part if it is that I’ve learned not to jump to conclusions about people, and let them talk it out.

I want to write so much more, but I already said I would use several posts to catch up, and so I won’t give you too much to handle now. I just want to say that I don’t think leaving Hamburg is “good-bye.” Rather, it’s a chapter in my life that lays out the foreground for much of my future life (I hope), especially if I get accepted to a PhD program there. We shall see, and I’ll keep writing.

In the meantime, here are some photos of Hamburg/Berlin, where I spent the last weeks with my family after they came to join me!

The Berliner Dom

The Berliner Dom

Need I mention what this is? I took the photo while siting in public transportation, so it's not the best quality.

Need I mention what this is? But I’m sorry I took the photo while siting in public transportation, so it’s not the best quality.

My brother in front of the statue of Neptune in Altona, Hamburg

My brother in front of the Neptune fountain in Altona, Hamburg

The old Nationalgaleri where an exhibition of impressionist and expressionist artists were presented, side by side

The old Nationalgaleri where an exhibition of impressionist and expressionist artists were presented, side by side

10% Left to Go- Nearing the end of my VDAC Hamburg stay

Coupled with Thanksgiving, yesterday’s Independence Day marked the second day where I, without a doubt, would rather be in the U.S. than here. But that’s all okay, since there was a performance night at my dorm and people were partying. I also had a paper to write, and that can be done here as well as there if I can’t go out anyway.

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July 1st marked nine months in Germany. Ignoring the possible metaphor I could set up with conception and birth of a baby, let me just reflect a bit on what this means. First of all, it means 10% left. November 2014, I wrote a post about my first month here, and the things one should have done during one’s first month studying abroad. I noted how weird it is to divide one’s time into sections and grant it value based on which section it was, but I stayed true to my word and managed to metaphorically put the last eight months into one dazzling piece of uncut, multifaceted mineral. I did a lot of very exciting, life-affirming things, had a few rough spots (it ain’t living if it’s perfect all the time), and overall really enjoyed myself while being here.

However, 10% is the image on my TomTomRunner when I’ve set myself on course for a goal and I have 10% left of the time or distance I set out for. Usually at this point I kick into a high gear and elevate or hold through the end of the race. I suppose that’s kind of what I’m tempted to do now, with one month left.

I’ve got the academic end covered, with a hectic week of presentation, term-paper, and exam to complete. Once I’m left gasping for air on the shore of the first academic break I’ll have since Summer 2013, I’m going to take care of the last things on my list-a list I created for myelf, based on the suggestions of dozens of well-meaning Germans and people who know Hamburg, when I first got here. I still want to do some sort of water sport on the Alster, even if it’s just to paddleboat. I still haven’t been to the Heidepark (a sort of amusement park) yet, and I want to visit the Auswandere Museum. Seeing as I wrote my thesis on migration narratives, I think I should visit the museum that dedicates itself to the documentation of one of the largest points of migration in Europe.

That’s about it, though. I’m open to other suggestions, but I can honestly say that I think I’ve really taken advantage of the opportunity to live and study in Hamburg. That is not to say that I don’t notice or learn something new about the city everyday. Yesterday, for example, coming back from my run, I noticed the General Konsulat for South Korea. I’ve run past it at least four times a week for the past nine months, and the building is so inauspicious that I never noticed it until now. Things like that are welcome surprises. I also am in love with the roses in bloom all over Hamburg.

I’m trying to come up with some good things to talk about to close out the year here… but I’ll save those for after finals.

Hope everyone has a good week!

Some legitimate wandering- Braga, Portugal

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It is likely that there are more words to type out here than I have the time or energy to let flow from the jumbled collection in my mind through my fingers, but I will try a little.

2015-04-16 15.41.33The collection is jumbled because I haven’t thought of a way to summarize my trip. I guess I could say that I went for a conference based on one of my chapters for my thesis (it’s amazing what a 20 minute time limit and weeks of digestion can do for an argument; I almost wish I could rewrite the darned thing, but not really). On the other hand, I also went to see Portugal and learn something about a country I had never seen before. In fact, I haven’t been to a single country south of France, so I’m pretty limited in my world view. Ultimately, I suppose one could say I traveled, as we discussed at the conference, to learn a little about myself… but also to forget myself.

While in Braga, Portugal, which is/was the un/official catholic center of Portugal since the Middle Ages (there was a church almost on every corner), I learned to forget preconceptions, worrying about how I presented myself, how to greet and say goodbye to strangers or people who I spoke animatedly with for hours at a time. I also learned that it is possible to travel with very little funds, and that not having change rattling around in one’s pocket makes traveling more relaxed because one doesn’t have to worry about collecting souvenirs for others. Souvenirs are only pieces of displaced memories that perform the same work as photos, and photos are free. I took many photos, but also learned to leave my camera in my pocket and resist the urge to pull it out, taking in the images only for myself.

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Some things I noticed about  Braga is that the Portguguese like their lemon trees, roundabouts, tiled facades, and churches.

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What surprised me about Portugal was how strong the recent EU crisis and recession hit their country. I hadn’t been aware that the wealth of a city or country would reflect so strongly in its buildings. I found a ghost town just north of Braga’s university campus, and was struck by the contrast of natural beauty and dilapidation.

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This trip was different than my longer trip to Hamburg to study abroad because in Braga I was able to forget about myself. I think my first weeks in Hamburg were the same way, but eventually academic and social responsibilities brought me back to myself in a way that traveling to Braga let me release for a little while again.

I can understand how traveling can be addicting. One does not have to claim a productive presence as long as one does not stray too far outside the expectations of the culture. Not knowing the language is an excuse for any step out of line, and most people that are not irritated at themselves will be helpful and want to make sure you’re okay, are able to enjoy their country. I think people like tourists to some extent, because they validate the choice to live where one lives. One has to accept that if other people will travel to be where one lives, one lives in a pretty damn good spot. Of course, I don’t mean to say everyone should like tourists or look for validation. I just used the opportunity to think to a larger audience than myself for a while. Thanks for putting up with it.

Hope you’re having a good weekend and that the next week brings you something exciting!