study 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.

 

Things I find myself doing that remind me I’ve spent a year abroad

I’ve only just gotten back from Germany, so clearly I will have a bit of jet lag (six hours time difference). But there are other differences in my behavior that make me stick out from other U.S. Americans like a sun-burned man in Ireland.

  • I write the date as day/month/year versus month/day/year
  • I use 24-hour time when telling people when to meet
  • I bring a shopping bag to stores and get weird looks when I use that instead of a cart or a basket, and I don’t go to get a cart because I don’t feel like looking for a coin that fits in the slot to release the cart from the cart in front of it.
  • I look for a way to stop the flow of water during the flush of the toilet. In Germany, there’s usually a way to raise the lever or push the slab used to flush a second time to make the water stop when the waste has gone down; it’s an effective way of saving water.
  • I want to separate my trash into paper, packaging, or waste. Thankfully, this is something the U.S. (at least public administrative buildings) are getting better at accommodating. It shocks me how much is thrown away here, much more than it did before I left.
  • I get confused when the teller or cashier is talkative or friendly… it’s almost overly friendly.
  • I need a dollar and start looking for a coin (at least, those do exist. Conversely, there is no such thing as a 1 Euro bill)
  • I avoid going to a public restroom because I think I’ll have to pay, and I don’t have any money on me. Not having to pay is something I appreciate!
  • I say “Tschüß” reflexively when saying good-bye to people. I may keep that.
  • edited to add: after finally getting used to the German keyboard, it seems that I’ll have to learn to get used to the English one again… especially when typing in German.

These are just a few things I’ve caught myself doing, but as the week goes on, I’m sure there will be more. Hopefully, nothing too embarrassing!

I could always become a bartender

I’ve done so many things this past week, that I will need several posts to catch up. It’s a good thing today is a holiday in Germany and I have the day off to write; though I do plan on going out on the town a bit too. Some near-future posts will therefore include what it means to join a sports team while studying abroad, the most recent VDAC seminar to Kassel, preparing a presentation or essay for German university courses, discovering sections of Hamburg anew, and transportation options in the city.

This post, however, I’m dedicating to a short blurb about the things I’ve done from my role as VDAC exchange student.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am here through the Federation of German-American Clubs, and the particular club that makes my stay in Hamburg possible is the German-American Women’s Club of Hamburg. They arranged my participation at the Uni Hamburg, my stay in a beautiful dorm not far from Uni campus, and various events for me to participate in, as well as a good amount of other things and all the details they pay attention to blows my mind.

Hamburg AlsterThe most recent event was a sort of charity/donation event for German-American Friendship Day at the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg, right on the Alster. If you don’t know Hamburg, let me explain that the Alster is a lake type thing that comes off the Elbe, and anyone knowing something about real estate can imagine what it means to be directly on this beautiful piece of water. Of course, the US Consulate had a spot there.

The exterior of the consulate is impressive, with a mixture of classical and more modern architecture that I’m sure engineer students could tell me a things or two about. The interior reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the White House: stately furniture, deep red and blue rugs with golden edging. It was really neat to be invited into the building, even if the security was a bit extreme. This picture does not show the five meters of no-man’s land and the two security buildings one has to pass to get to the front door.  photo IMGP0047.jpgStill, it was a treat just to go in.

Of course, nothing is for free 😉 My fellow US exchange student and I were asked to help serve drinks at the night’s event. At first, I had no idea about walking around with trays in my hand and I was nervous about offering people something. But then, I ended up behind the counter of the bar, and I was surprised at how fun it was to sere people drinks, receive the orders from the other students helping that night, chat a few times with the guests (a surprising amount of people liked the rhubarb/water Schorle), and generally have a quick moving, but non-stress pastime. I figure that if the academic career doesn’t pan out for me, I’ll just become a bartender.

What was even more neat was working behind the scenes of this building. I was able to go into the kitchen and allowed to use the industrial dishwashing machine. Three minutes! It only takes three minutes for 40 glasses to get cleaned with one of those boxes. Why can’t my family borrow one around Thanksgiving or Christmas back home?

Several speeches were given that got me thinking about contemporary German-American relations, and the event had been very well organized by the club ladies. It was nice to see a few of them again, some of whom I hadn’t seen since the Charity Bazaar in November. My time is winding down while here though. It sounds strange, but I will be sad to lose some of these opportunities to take part in these events.

Commuting in German

Life in Hamburg is pretty sweet. I’ve paid my rent for the month. Have groceries (of course, this makes it on top of my list of things going well! The convenience of being able to go to the kitchen and grab something to eat? So underrated). Classes have started up again and I’m generally in good health (sigh, sans foot issues). So what’s there to write about, in the new year of studying abroad?

Since it’s pretty easy to talk about things I do on a daily basis, I’ll share some tips I’ve learned about commuting in Hamburg. One can drive, use public transportation, or ride a bike. Since I don’t have a car, I’ll focus on the latter two options.

Public Transportation in Hamburg (S-Bahn, Bus, U-Bahn…Straßenbahn [those still exist?])

The S-Bahn and U-Bahn systems are really quite similar. Similar enough to not spend time describing both individually. The main difference is that the U-Bahn is designed to be underground (hence, untergrund Bahn) and the S-Bahn (Schnellbahn) is often designed to get you further distances slightly more quickly than the U-Bahn. I live half a mile from an s-Bahn station, which is pretty good considering that some people live up to two miles from a station even if they’re in the city.  My university is five sub-way stops and one change away from where I live, so I’d say I’m in an excellent location!

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common S-Bahn sign

Hamburg U-Bahn S-Bahn map

said colorful lines

My first experience with the S-Bahn was on my first trip from the university to my dorm on the first night. Since I’ve been in other major German cities and in the world, I know the standard layout of a subway system: there’s stops connected by railway lines and these lines, while not always overlapping or allowing for a three stop missed stop (i.e. woops, I should have gotten off three stops ago), will get you where you need to go. There’s usually a network, represented with colored lines on a background and a lot of foreign sounding names. There are copies of this network in nice large, I don’t need my reading glasses print at every station.

So as I mentioned before, I took on this network at 7 PM  on my first day in Hamburg after not having slept for 40 hours. But I knew which stop I was heading towards and the name of the line that would get me there. There are signs at the front and back of each entrance to the  platform showing the line that come and go at the platform, what stops are on those lines, and how long it will take to get from the current location to that stop. I relied on these signs to makes sure I was about to step in the right train. I still find these very helpful when I am unsure if I am heading in the right direction (which happens a lot). 

There’s also a sign overhead saying the final destination of the Bahn that is coming and how soon it will be there.

These tools are enough to help most people navigate around the city if they know the name of the stop they want to get to. For those hopelessly lost, there’s info-call boxes at every station as well. And finally, if one can stand the embarrassment, there’s almost always a Hamburger who is more than happy to help, or throw a few words at you over their shoulder while they run to catch the next train.  

A few things I learned as I used the system more is that some lines run at certain times while other don’t. Just like I only later discovered that at some stops, trains will coordinate their rides by waiting for another train to come in or, rather than having the opposite track be for the train going in the opposite direction from whence you just came, there will be connecting lines just across the track. This is especially convenient if you happen to be changing trains. I also realized that trains come at scheduled times (no randomness here!) throughout the day and I can avoid the feeling of a missed train if I time my exit from my dorm properly.

As I mentioned before, the U-bahn is similar in theory to the S-Bahn. A bus is a bus pretty much anywhere you go, except in Hamburg, they aren’t associated with the similar stigma there is in the US. They are just as clean and well organized (with electronic signs at stops telling you when the next buses are arriving) as all other public transportation in Hamburg (and Germany) and it really is a shame that the US never caught on to this trend of public transportation properly. There’s a lot of catching up to do!

hvv.de is a nifty site that allows to me to put a stop name or an address and it will give me the names and times of the quickest and least complicated routes, whether it be bus, trail, U-bahn, s-bahn, or tram (which is nothing like the old-school tram image I had in my head. It’s just an electric vehicle that goes on the street).

Bike 

Oh no. I spent so much time on public transportation, I’ve run out of steam (and you’ve probably run out of patience). But I’ll comment all the same about all the reasons it’s great to bike to commute in Hamburg:

  1. Bike lanes are for bikes only. And they’re most usually off the street.
  2. Bike riders often have their own crossing lights. These lights come equipped with a yellow, start-up light that tells you when the light is about to turn green and you better get those feet on the pedals, because the little kid behind you is going to run you over.
  3. You don’t have to wear a helmet (on second thought, that’s a negative aspect about riding in Hamburg, people here should take their brain bucket more seriously. I wear mine with pride).
  4. It’s absolutely normal to ride through the city dressed in a suit.
  5. It’s law to have functioning lights for nighttime riding. Most bikes have it and you can see other riders at all times- and be seen by cars.
  6. The weather here is often fine enough to ride. And even if it’s raining, there’s a lot of fashionable rain pants/jackets to wear over clothes to protect them.
  7. Cars here must yield to bike riders and are usually well-behaved enough to do so.

Need I say more? Bike riding in Hamburg is much more convenient and normal than it is in Florida or many places in the US. Plus, it’s a way to get out some much needed energy when, say, you can’t run.

So, tell me, how would you chose to commute?

In Review

My WordPress Reader has lately been filled with posts in which bloggers comment on their year 2014 and talk about what they hope for the year 2015.

While I am a fan of keeping private matters off the web (after all, the internet is not an ideal location for diary entries and clouds are not thick enough for nude selfies), I see a strong value in the work done to reflect and look forward. Ultimately, putting things in perspective is one of our defining actions as humans; our ability to think about moments in time and not just re/act “in the moment” is a distinguishing factor (as far as we know and can tell) “separating us from the animals.” Species-ism aside, I think that while such a post may be slightly boring for most readers, it’s hugely beneficial for the writer. The writer can articulate pride, anxieties, and issues that otherwise are left to float in champagne glasses that reflect the lights of fireworks in the sky. Plus, posting about it causes some desire to remain accountable about one’s goals.

So here are my articulations. I actually feel a bit apprehensive of starting a new year, because I fear that nothing can top the one I just had.

I feel like I accomplished so much to be proud of and have been blessed with so many positives, that I worry 2015 will be anti-climatic. On the other hand, I realize an equal number of things that I am not so proud of and have to work on, and those may be the things I want to improve upon in the new year.

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A Good Year – my best five experiences of this past year

5. Teaching university freshman. While this seems ages ago, I am grateful to have successfully completed two semesters of teaching. Since I plan to enter academia and have many more “first days of classes” where I have to learn all the student’s names and second-guess my authority every other minute, this experience will be something I can always look back on with pride. I especially enjoyed being able to design the syllabus myself and chose the works and pace my classes worked at. I kept a teaching journal, so I know there are a lot of things I need to improve upon, but I learned that I can feel comfortable in front of the classroom, and that makes me happy.  Honorable mention: I presented at my first conferences! One was inter-school, so the audience was not intimidating. The other was international! I try not to let that accomplishment inflate my ego.

4. I play forward for a German soccer team!! Of course, not the German soccer team, and not even a huge one. But, I am part of a group of women who play soccer competitively, and I’ve been placed in a great position. Usually relegated to midfield or defense (of course, no less positions that the forward), I have been given responsibility for the team’s success in a way I’ve never had before and, as my confidence slowly grows, I kind of like it. Honorable mention here (since it’s sport related) is running my first trail race in February and securing a PR in the half-marathon.

3. Sugar-free 2014. While it has been a struggle (sometimes more challenging than other times–especially at the beginning and around Christmas), I managed to cut out all sugar out of my diet. I did eat fruit and dairy, so I guess it’s not all sugars, but I cut out the majority of what one would consider sweet food. Catalyzed by a decent amount of self-loathing about how undisciplined I am around chocolate, and news from health professionals that I could be a happier and healthier person (and a better runner!) without it, I stopped eating sugar. No matter the benefits in physical and mental well-being I’ve gained from this move, the discipline I was able to hold is a source of strength from which I will be able to draw upon at any point in the future. I plan to continue being sugar free in 2015, but with a little less vigilance.

2. Based on the promise of my thesis prospectus, I was given permission to write a thesis. I am such a nerd, but I am really excited to be writing about my topic. I am comparing two novels (one English/one German) and examining the use of voice in the “migrant novel.” A better articulation about that here. I also passed my MA oral comprehensive exam. Now the “only” things in the way of my MA degree are completing my courses and the thesis. This work will be defining for my year of 2015.

1. Topping this list, of course, has been my first months studying abroad in Hamburg. This time last year, I didn’t even know if I would be studying abroad, and I remember being able to study abroad through the VDAC as being my main New Year’s wish on Dec. 31st 2013. Wish granted! I’m a student in Germany!!! I continue to be one through the end of the summer term 2015. Through this experience exploring another culture and possibilities than the one I grew up in, I learned a few things about myself that have made me a much different person than I was a year ago. While I hope I don’t have to experience such another transition anytime soon, I feel okay about having the chance to start the new year as more free-spirited and continue exploring.

A few hopes for the year 2015 (but not telling you my specific new year’s wish because I’m superstitious that it then won’t come true):

I hope I complete my requirements for the MA in time so that by the end of July, I have my degree!

I hope my brother successfully earns his BA degree.

I hope to attend another conference and to actually publish an article (or two) in academic journals.

I hope I will be granted a teaching position Fall 2015 as a adjunct somewhere while I wait to be able to apply for PhD programs. In a way, I’m glad I couldn’t make the deadlines for US applications for Fall 2015, because now I’ll have a bit of breathing room post-MA thesis, and maybe have the chance to get more experience teaching something like literature.

I hope I recover from my latest running injury in time to train for and complete the Hamburger Marathon.

I hope the move my family is planning within Florida (planning for retirement, empty-nests, etc.) goes well.

I hope my family and friends make it healthily and without major catastrophes through 2015 to 2016.

I hope the world has a better year than 2014. I realize that while my personal year has been incredible, for the rest of the world it has not.

Here’s to a good year 2015.

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A little bit of southern: A trip to Nürnberg

Despite being barely the size of Texas, Germany is a highly populated country with a largely diversified cultural and linguistic makeup. A lot of this is historically determined and would need a semester or two to explain, but it’s safe to say that Germany is much more than the stereotypical food and entertainment present at Octoberfest. Oktoberfest isn’t even celebrated in a lot of Germany.

I am studying abroad in Hamburg, so I did not experience the twirling dirndls and huge mugs of beer. Instead, I got the tour of the Hafencity and Sunday morning fish-roll at the Fischmarkt (but yes, also a few mugs of beer). Yet, it’s easy to forget that what I experience in Hamburg is not necessarily “German.” Rather, it often belongs to the special brand of “northern German.” I generally like this special brand, but I am grateful for the opportunity to see some southern Germany as well during my study-abroad year.

For the second seminar organized by the VDAC (fondly referred to as “V-dac”  by a lot of my fellow U.S. students), we were invited to spend a weekend in Nürnberg. Known as Nuremberg to non-German speakers, this beautiful, old city has a complicated, fascinating history- both good and bad. Since it is more than a thousand years old, one has to consider its significance far beyond the 1930s and 40s, though the city presents enough opportunities to remember and reflect upon the more recent history as well. Our stay here was arranged by the Nuernberger Frauenklub, and they organized a wonderful trip, including a cute welcome bag from St. Nick and a little gift in front of our doors on St. Nikolaustag on the 6th.

We stayed in the youth hostel of Nuernberg. It’s one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever stayed in… actually part of the fort at the top of the hill that gives Nuernberg it’s name. Formerly the emperor’s horse stalls, the building had been remodeled and renovated into a state funded hostel. I would chose sleeping here over a hotel in the city anytime… even if it did mean hiking up the hill to get back to the rooms from the city. Those sleeping in the upper stories of the hostel got a terrific view, but even sleeping on the second floor, I was in awe of being able to stay here.

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Since it was part of the entire collection of buildings from the Burg, we were actually not far from it.

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We were given a tour of the city by a very knowledgeable native Nuernbergerin from the Frauenklub. This tour opened our eyes to the wealth of history left in the buildings not destroyed by bombings in World War II. There are a lot of churches (more evangelical than catholic… surprisingly in southern Germany), bridges (Nuernberg is like the Venice of Germany), fountains, patrician houses and the house of the famous painter Albrecht Duerer. Nuernberg was an important city for the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, often referred to as an unofficial capital, since, among other things, because the Imperial Diet Reichstag) and courts met at the Burg. We had the opportunity on the second day of our stay to actually see the Burg from the inside and learn a little more about its history.

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Our guide explaining the significance of a certain building.

We also had many opportunities to go on the world-famous Christkindlmarkt (and I thought the Hamburger Ratshaus one was impressive!). I bought so much Lebkuchen for family and friends back home. I think at least five kilo of my luggage weight came from the weight of this delicious German Christmas cake/cookie.

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I also used the opportunity to drink a hot toddy at the international partner city Christmasmarkt, and watched a traditional Feuerzangbowle be prepared at another stand (seeing as it was used with sugar burned over rum, I wasn’t about to drink it though. But I heard it tastes delicious!

As already alluded to, however, Nuernberg’s history also has a dark side. I am grateful that we were given the chance to see both, since in the States we usually think of the city as being the location of Hitler’s Reichsparteitage prior to the war and then hosting the War Crime trials after the war. My fellow VDAC students and I were brought to the Dokumentation Center where the history of Nuernberg as the location of these two events and many of the events (deportation of Jewish people, communists, “gypsies,” dissidents) surrounding them was explained in a very well-done exhibition of the German population’s participation in these events. It was a sobering experience.

Overall, the trip was wonderful and perhaps even more enjoyable than the first VDAC trip to Dresden. It was more laid back and we all knew each other better. I look forward to the next seminar and getting to know a new city in Germany!