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.


15 years ago…

This marks the first year that I’m not in the US on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. While I didn’t expect there to be any sort of reminder other than the interactions I made with the online world, I was surprised to hear tributes to victims and observance of September 11, 2001 on German radio stations.

Apparently, even though most of the world, contrary to US belief, hold reservations about the US being the best country on Earth, they still are very tied to the 9/11 Attacks and their history is tied to the US on this day. For example, there were also German citizens in the Towers and nearby in NYC on that day. Furthermore, the resulting “War on Terror” drew in various countries all over the world, and let’s not forget the growing threat of terrorist attacks since then.

“A thick bundle of black smoke is hanging outside the tower. It looks too heavy to hang there. An aeroplane comes in slow motion from the corner of the screen…” “The aeroplane comes again. The television shows it again and again.”- Brick Lane by Monica Ali, pg. 366

Since starting my PhD project dealing with intermedial references in contemporary literature to events like the 9/11 attacks, I’ve been forced to address the large amount of discussion in German intellectual circles about the event and its mark as a “turning point” in history. Arguably, having a massive symbol of western capitalism and ideology attacked and destroyed before the eyes of the world– camera crews were on hand to capture the second crash into the Towers–shifted “what is possible” and “how do communities react?” for the world as well as for the US.

Still, it’s a strange feeling to be a US native in a German city, hearing about this event both as a mature adult and as a representative of my country- for, despite how good my German is and how integrated I am into the social, legal, and academic structures here, I am still “the American.”  I like to think I have a special claim to memory and grief in regards to this event, because I was one of the millions of school children sent home early that day to find safety with family- since many US Americans feared even more attacks scattered all over the US. I was someone whose normal routine was interrupted by a call by someone who happened to catch the news and gave instructions to turn on the television news. I was someone who sat at home with my family, television news running in the background, trying to get in contact with people we knew who were in NYC and the Pentagon, wanting to make sure that at least the people we knew personally had escaped death and, if lucky, weren’t in the area altogether. I was someone who couldn’t understand why one group of people could hate an ideology so much, that they would be willing to take the lives of anyone who lived in it.

Now that I’m older, more critical of the world and the way public trauma works, I realize that there’s a lot of “black and white” understanding of these events and the subsequent reactions of the US and countries around the world. It’s actually thousands of shades and tints of gray that no one person could summarize in his/her lifetime. Still, 15 years later, I think we can all agree that it was not the end of the world. Time moves on. Wounds heal. Movies are made, books written, and thousands of interviews and conversations add more layers to understanding the attacks (or rather, continuing to try to understand).

Fifty-five years from now (I’m an optimist- I believe there will be a 2071, I imagine my grandchildren asking me where I was during the 9/11 attacks. What will we tell them? How will they learn about it in school? What is the timeline of events that will appear in the history books, before and after September 11, 2001? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ve learned what it means to despise an ideology- Islamist fundamentalism is a pretty nasty piece of business- and  I hope I’ll never to have find out whether I’d be willing to kill someone of that ideology. I suppose an individual can be justified differently than 3000+ individuals. But that’s not a thought I want to end this post with.

Rather, I felt the need to publicly reflect on an event that is such a key part of recent public memory. I know I won’t be the only one who feels that way today, though most people don’t feel the need to share their reflection with the world.

I am grateful to live in a world so interconnected that a US American can be inspired to reflect in Germany, and that US Americans are wise enough to recognize their role in the world and work on being a productive member of it, even if we often disagree on the methods they take to fulfill that purpose. This interconnectedness- another word could be globalism in the cultural, political and economic sense- is, as we’ve seen, a double-edged sword that we’re still collectively learning to wield. Good luck to us all.


Some Exploring in Berlin: Hoppegarten and the Botanical Gardens

I have some time on my hands when I’m not motivating myself to be academic or apply for yet another job, so I’ve taken a few trips around Berlin these past few days.

I ride my bike a lot anyway, partially to make up for the fact that I’m not running and partially to avoid public transportation costs. Still, I always end up seeing something really neat, even if I get lost more than I thought possible just by making one wrong turn.

On the other hand, when I set out for a trip on purpose, I can also get a little disappointed.

IMG_1248 (2)

This is my “I rode 20 miles for this?” face

Still, it was worth the ride and I saw a little bit of Berlin outside of Berlin.

Today, I visited Berlin’s Botanical Gardens and saw all the plants gardeners from around the state had brought for the “Stauden Markt.” Stauden are bushes and shrubs, and I would never have thought I would be interested in shrubbery beyond getting past the Knights of Ni in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but there were a lot of interesting plants being sold, and a lot to see in the garden itself.

IMG_1757I even brought my first lily! It’s tall, bearded, and called “Stairway to Heaven.” I can’t wait for it to bloom… though I guess I’ll have to (and learn how to keep a plant like that alive) until next June.

I’m having a pretty good time so far in Berlin. Then again, I don’t have the stress of school or a job yet. I have my first interview tomorrow, though. Wish me luck!


p.s. I finish this post just in time to start getting ready to watch Tatort, which is the longest running detective series in Germany and tradition on Sunday nights for many families.




Slow Solemn Drops on a September Day

I have a few post drafts on standby, waiting to be finished along with the half-dozen other projects I’ve started while waiting for school and a reply to my job applications. However, these have to wait and in the meantime I will reflect on something that I came across today. IMG_1741

I don’t live far from Theodor-Heuss Platz. It lies at the end of the Kaiserdamm, an extension of the famous Unter den Linden, Strasse des 17. Junis, and Bismarkstrasse. On a good day, you can stand about where that flame is burning and see the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate. Theodor-Heuss Platz used to be called Reichskanzlerplatz, Place of the Reich-Chancellor. From 1933-1945, it was also called Adolf Hitler Platz. Yes, you read that correctly.

Obviously, it stopped being called that after WWII, but it was not until 1955 that it got its new name: Theodor-Heuss Platz. Then, the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany (former west Germany) inducted the monument that honors the 14 million displaced Germans after World War II. These are not referring to the victims of the Holocaust, but rather the German citizens of East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, Romania, former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic who were forced out of their homes or interned in work camps as a result of the restructuring of the German nation and part of reparation payments. These people are not to be compared to the victims of the genocide, but they are worthy of remembrance and respect for the hardships they endured after World War II, forced to carry out heavy labor as a part of war reparations, or leave their homes and livelihoods and start new lives in places where the people often did not speak their language or want them. The monument consists of a block on which says

“Diese Flamme mahnt:
Nie wieder Vertreibung!”

“Displacement never again” and a flame that was not meant to be put out until Germany was reunited again.

As we know, Germany did get reunited again. But still, that flame burns. Now, it burns as a symbol of undying values:

 “Freiheit, Recht, Friede” (“Freedom, Justice, Peace”)

Designed by the League of Displaced People, this monument becomes a location of remembrance once a year around the Tag (day) of Heimat.

Heimat is one of those emotion-heavy words that means homeland–but homeland never just means homeland. And that’s why those wreaths are all over the space in front of the flame. I looked at the people who dedicated a few of them: the minister of Bavaria, the minister of Brandenburg, the President of Germany…

The beauty of this monument is that it stands for the past as well as for the future. It’s a symbol for the German duty to uphold these values for people who are forced to leave their homeland the world over. President* Gauck addressed this duty in his speech yesterday, since Germany is still struggling with the challenges presented by more than a million asylum seekers in the last year. Most Germans didn’t even know this speech was being held. I only found out because I wanted to know why all these wreaths were there.

Now that I know, I’m forced to reflect on the destruction of war and the horrible things that happen throughout and because of it. I’m reminded that Germany and the US haven’t had war on their soils in my lifetime or my parent’s lifetimes. We are incredibly lucky. And still, war is happening within the radius of our daily news and tweets and facebook posts. We can be kinder to those people who escape these wars, even if they don’t understand our “culture” or speak our language.

Some people deride public displays of remembrance like these, saying they don’t reach anyone and are a waste of resources. I disagree. I always thought the monument was specific for the Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust. I wouldn’t have related Germans as refugee seekers without this public display. I’m sympathetic to the asylum seekers anyway, but I am reminded more firmly that it is my duty to uphold the rights of these people when put in the position to do so, if I believe in these rights.

In line with these solemn reminders and thoughts, it was a dreary Sunday in Berlin, but it was still perfect for a little Sunday outing and a lot of desk work.

Hope you all have a great week!


*remember that the German political system is a bit like the British. There’s the representative head of state and the one who actually has power. Chancellor Angela Merkel still has the honor and responsibility of power. Joachim Gauck gets to hold all the important receptions and be all diplomatic.

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.


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 and, 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,


* 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.