One Month in Hamburg

And so it is.

Exactly one month ago at almost this time (8:43 AM) I was in flight over Hamburg, Germany, about to touch down.

My program lasts for 10 months, so this means I am into my first ten percent of the time I’m going to spend here. If this were a race, my GPS watch would read the same thing it does when it buzzes at the ninety percent mark.

I did a lot this month, and if I multiply that amount by ten, I will end up with a very full, full-filling time here!

However, this post is less about the cataloging of time and more about what one should and does accomplish in the first month of a study-abroad program (I could number this, but I don’t want to give the false impression that the things need to be in any particular order):

  • settle into the new living space. If it’s a dorm, like mine, this includes getting used to the morning cleaning routine so that one can take a shower without disturbing the house-keeper’s order and getting used to the kitchen etiquette and floor-mates so that one can enjoy meals outside of one’s room.
  • figure out the local transportation. The best thing to do is navigate one time from “home” to the station/stop and one time from the stop back “home.” It’s okay to get lost; don’t be afraid to ask for directions/help.
  • figure out other transportation. If a bike is available, figure out the routes to the Uni and make sure the bike is prepped for nighttime riding. Driving with lights is such a relief from the harrowing experience of the threat of not being seen by car drivers and other bicyclists (not to mention, driving without lights of a certain standard is illegal in Germany).
  • attend orientation events. For me, the VDAC organizes a seminar within the first weeks of arrival so that students have a chance to get to know other scholarship recipients and learn from each other and from program alumni some of the key methods of initial survival in German culture and bureaucracy. Orientation events are also held by the universities for international students and first-time students. There are usually elaborate programs that one should try to attend at least a few events of. One of my favorite events wasn’t even university related, but rather involved a pub night with the other German Lit. MA students.
  • do some initial traveling. While it would seem more advisable to settle into one’s new “home”-base first, the time before classes begin is the most free time one has (other than the semester break) and it helps to get a larger perspective of the country one is visiting, and the role one’s new city has within that space.
  • take care of university registration issues-pay tuition and fees, notification of local address, internet and online portal logins, library cards, and of course, class registration
  • figure out how to use university services like printers, the libraries, and the cafeterias
  • figure out where the local get their food. Start shopping there. Find out where the most inexpensive food can be found in the area, start finding out where the kind of food one likes most can be found
  • buy local cell phone service if this hasn’t already been taken care of this issue in home country
  • be officially registered as a legal habitat of the area. This includes the residence permit and the visa
  • create a budget. Figure out funds and how much to devote to groceries, toiletries, clothes, travel, and leisure. Don’t forget things like school tuition and fees as well as sport/gym memberships
  • visit at least one museum and at least one “high-brow” cultural thing such as a classical music concert, a play, or a public reading
  • (since I’m a runner) figure out at least two good routes for daily running. One can be an out and back course and the other a pleasant don’t-have-to-repeat-everything-on-the-way-back route.
  • go to class. Seriously, this may seem obvious, but there’s also the constant consideration, at least at the beginning, that it doesn’t matter if one attends class and no one will miss one. But if anything, having a reason to leave one’s room should be taken advantage of
  • make plans of what to do over the coming months so that when classes and studies are not pressing, there’s something to do.
  • try to hang out with people who speak the language of the area as much as possible. It’s okay to
    hang out with other foreigners, and it can be very helpful to have people going through the same situation to talk to, but try to get as much integrated into local life as possible. This is a cultural-exchange opportunity, not (just) an observational platform
  • recognize that there are good and bad days, psychologically, just like there are good and bad days with the weather. Try to see the positive in the bad days and soak in the good ones. For me, personally, I noticed that while the second half of this past month has been overall good, especially since classes started and I’ve been kept busy by schoolwork, I still wake up some mornings and wonder what I’m doing here, or whether I belong. I have learned to recognize that if I want to be here, I belong, and finding the feeling of belonging with other people comes with the time one leaves one’s room to interact with the other people in the living space, the other students in the classes, and the other people in the city. It’s only a matter of time before they become used to me just as I need to get used to them.
  • Take pictures! Write! Try to document time abroad for future self, family, friends and possibly others
This is an old post-office building near the university. With the ivy growing on it, it is thus far the most beautiful thing I have seen so far.

This is an old post-office building near the university. With the ivy growing on it, it is thus far the most beautiful thing I have seen so far.

… and as you can see, I’m trying to do this last thing regularly! Cheers.

Things to do on a Friday night in Hamburg

On a Friday in Hamburg, there are several routes to take:

The Cultural Route or

The youthful/social Route

I’ve done both, and both are enjoyable for multiple reasons. My second weekend in Hamburg, I took the social route and went out to the Sternschanze quarter in Hamburg. During the day, this looks like a rather run-down area , rather boring actually with some kiosks and greasy fast food closets. There are a lot of bars, but they’re usually empty during the day. In the evening, this is the “happening” place for the less well-to-do people of Hamburg. The “well-to-do” head over to Hafen-City and get to sit in fancy white lounge chairs with blankets and watch the ships roll by on the water. Us students and left-wing idealists head over to Sternschanze and drink a few beers, attending open air concerts or the occasional evening demo. After that, some people head home while others make it over to Reeperbahn (the “red-light” district”) or some neighboring city centers where there are clubs and parties. I haven’t explored either of those yet, and I may never, because I’m a Victorian (not necessarily Oscar Wilde\) at heart, but they’re a good way to round out the evening. There’s also house and dorm parties put on by students to attend on the weekends as well, and all it takes is to bring along a bottle of wine to be warmly welcomed, meet some new people and have a pleasant evening.

This week, I took the cultural route.

After plans I made with a good friend fell through, I was forced to reconsider my plans for my Friday evening. Originally, it was going to be: go to a museum with my friend until the museum closes at 1800, then head over to her place for supper, conversation, and some Tatort. Tatort is probably the most unifyingly German thing. It’s a household name for a show that follows police detectives investigating a murder in one of many featured German cities. A different team/city is featured every week, and an original episode appears once a week, every week [except during the Sommerpause] on Sunday at 2015. I was looking forward to it, however, when I got the call from my sick friend, I spent a little while in the school Mensa on my iPod with a cappuccino, and thought about what I could do that would be equally enjoyable. I decided to visit the museum anyway, and as a follow-up, take full advantage of my Uni Frei Karte. I’ve had this for the past two weeks, but it took me a while to be in the mental space to figure out what to use it for. Snapshot_20141025

The Universitaet Hamburg (UHH) offers a cultural treat for the first three months of first time studies at the university. Basically, anyone just starting at the UHH is encouraged to take advantage of everything Hamburg has to offer, culturally, to its residents. This includes theater, music, art, museums, and ballet. The Frei Karte works with a valid UHH student ID to get into most Hamburg museums for free, and into most performances/events for free if there are tickets left half an hour before the show starts. Sometimes shows are sold out, and then one goes home slightly disappointed (or just heads over to Sternschanze), but most of the time, there are very good seats left. In fact, the play I decided to attend today at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus still had enough tickets an hour before the performance that the lady at the Kasse (ticket office) just gave me a ticket… eighth row, near the middle. It was a perfect spot!! It was a ticket that usually would have cost me 50 euro, and I got it for free. That alone was enough for me to enjoy it.

But let me backtrack to what I did before that.

The cultural route for me last night included a visit to a museum (the Voelkerkunde Museum) and a play. The Hamburg Voelkerkunde Museum (museum for ethnology) is actually the fourth largest of its kind in the world. It’s a beautiful museum. It goes through the early civilizations of the whole world, including New Zealand and Tibet, and it’s impressive in the amount of detail that goes into the displays. Entire gates and buildings are constructed to show how the people once lived and how the cultures survive today. I was able to sit in a Maori meeting house, Native American saunas… so much that I can’t list everything here. I was allowed to walk through worlds that I’ve only ever read in books and it was a wonderful experience. I didn’t get to go through all the exhibits in the 1.5 hours I had, but since the museum is not far from the UHH, I can return at any time.


I would visit this museum even if it wasn’t free, but the fact that it was made the experience even sweeter. I should mention that I didn’t even need to show my Frei Karte, since Hamburg museums are ALWAYS free to EVERYONE on Fridays after 1300. I know what I’m doing after my Friday seminar from now on.

Not only is the museum fantastic, the building itself is absolutely beautiful. This is the lobby.

After visiting the museum, I spent some time in the lobby deciding what to do next. I was hesitating about doing something else, wondering if I should have a quiet evening at home and get a head start on preparing for classes next week, but then I just decided to head over to the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, which, with its location near the Hauptbahnhof was the closest and most easy to find theater, and see if there were any tickets left for Wassa Schelesnova. I could have headed over to the Thalia Theater and seen Jedermann, but I didn’t feel like spending a long time to find the location. When I arrived at Hauptbahnhof, I spotted the Deutsche Schauspielhaus right away.

This is the facade of another beautiful building with an interior that reminded me of the past. The high ceiling of the theater had a painted mural of a god in a chariot rolling through the sky. There were reliefs on the box sets and curtain frames. It was beautiful just to look at this from the red velvet covered seats.

I stepped into the ticket office and asked how the Uni Frei Karte would work. The man behind the desk looked to see if the performance last night was accepting the Karte (something I hadn’t even considered would be a potential obstacle), confirmed it was, and then told me I would be able to show my card half an hour before the showing and pick a ticket up, if there were any left. This was about 1830, so I decided to bridge the time with a pretzel and a beer (a wonderful combination) and a walk. I saw the other side of the Hauptbahnhof (not the nice shopping district leading to the Alster), but rather the gambling, foreign food market, sex-shop side. I decided this wasn’t where I necessarily wanted to be on a dark Friday evening, and only spent a little time exploring, opting to go into the theater early. Turns out, as before mentioned, getting a ticket was no problem and I was able to attend a wonderful play.  I’d like to be able to see more with the same actors, and for the next two months, I can.  I also want to attend a ballet or two, some orchestra productions, and a lot of different museums. This weekend I’m making a plan for how to do this.

Finally, for those of you who were concerned that I am too much of a cultural snob, I did spend the rest of the evening after getting home around 1030 celebrating a dorm-mate’s 18th birthday. In Germany, 18 is the legal age for everything, including driving by oneself, drinking hard liquor, and signing all ones documents. I joined in on the party and got to know some of the people I live with here a lot better. It was a great way to end a good evening.

So that’s that. Another long post, sorry. But I think I’ve slowly covered all the main aspects of life here as a foreign-exchange student. Things are starting to settle down, and I am developing routines. A big positive smile from me to you this Saturday morning. Hope you have a good weekend.

A quick update on WHAT I’m taking

I realized that I spent time talking about taking classes without mentioning how the classes are structured or graded.

One can attend Vorlesungen or Seminare (lectures or seminars).

Vorlesungen are literally lectures that one could find in many larger universities in the U.S. I had little experience in lectures because I went to a small, public liberal arts college where the classes are capped at 30 and one always had some kind of discussion. By the time I made it to a larger university, I was in graduate school and the classes were structured a lot like I was used to. Basically, for a Vorlesung, the professor stands at the lectern for 1.5 hours and gives a presentation on the topic of the day, leaving some room for questions or inquiries. It’s very formal-ish and little contact occurs between the student and the teacher. It’s a one-way information transfer that takes some getting used to. Thankfully, I’m only attending one of these as an overview of German-language literatures from the 1600 to the present. I just took an oral exam (MA comprehensive) that required me to figure out this overview on my own, but I figured a little formal instruction to fill in some gaps I may have left wouldn’t hurt. Plus, I am not going to be responsible for anything except coming to class (no tests or papers), so it’s an hour and three quarters well spent every week, I think.

Seminars here are similar to those in the U.S. I don’t know how they are for the undergrads, but I’ll talk about those designed for MA students here.

The graduate course seminars in the U.S. run three hours for once a week. Here, they run 1.75 hours for once a week. Obviously, they seem incredibly short and somehow the same amount of learning has to be done. Where? At home. The seminars in the US leave a lot more room for teachers to give students contextual background of the material and to figure out a few confusions. Here, students are expected to do that on their own and come into class already prepared with things to contribute, not wait for the moments to come up with something. I haven’t actually done anything yet, but I know that I have to do a lot to prepare for my classes in the coming week.

As for how things are graded at the end, basically, here in Germany, there are three options for taking classes: full-participation and exam/paper at the end; full-participation; and simple sitting-in. To get the equivalent of three graduate credits in the U.S., one needs to earn 7 Leistungspunkten, that is, “effort points.” These 7 points are granted only if the requirements for participation are filled (i.e. missed less than three times, prepared a Referat, presentation, etc.) and a term paper or exam is written at the end. 2 Leistungspunkten are given purely for participation. I can read the texts, come into class prepared to talk about the texts and prepare one presentation and that will give me some credits. No Leistungspunkten are given if one just sits in the class and listens, but it can still appear on ones transcript.

Once grades are given, they are given for the quality of the participation, the Referat, and the paper. They are given on a 1-5 scale with 1 being the highest (an equivalent of an “A”) and 5 being the lowest (an “F”). I have heard that “A”s are more difficult to receive here, but my ambition is going to make me try!

As for course load, graduate students are generally expected to take 4-6 classes. It depends on the semester and on how much they’ve already taken.

I am taking three classes for 7 Leistungspunkten, two classes for participation credit (2 Leistungspunten) and two Russian language classes that I haven’t quite figured out how credit is given yet. Language courses in the German university are still something I need to figure out, so I’ll come back to that in the future.

Also, I’m taking one “German as  Foreign Language” course in something about academic writing, for which I needed to take an Einstufungstest, language skills classification test, and I have yet to see how that will be as well.

For now, hope these tidbits of info were interesting.


Two (to Three) Weeks in Hamburg

What? These past two weeks have been some of the longest in my entire life. There’s something to be said about the conception of time and how some people will tell you that the more different things you undertake, the slower time seems. Conversely, routine is the quickest aging mechanism, and yet, surprisingly it is routine that keeps most of us sane and gets us through life, so I won’t say that any method is more desirable over the other.

I will say, however, that different days everyday are unavoidable when moving to another country. Just the act of seeing new things everyday, even if it’s not the last time you see them, makes everyday seem new. Also, one does a lot more getting lost, and thus more seeing new things. Over the past three days, I’ve gotten lost thrice and seen new buildings, coffee houses, and bell constructions (there’s a bell series on the facade of one of the buildings in the Hanse Viertel that plays the “Ode to Joy” refrain on the hour; that was a nice surprise).

I really can’t list all the different kinds of things I’ve seen, but I wish I could because Hamburg truly is a city that one can fall in love with.

It’s balanced by a fine northern German bourgeoise attitude though. Since I usually spend my time in former East Germany and/or in Berlin, I am used to people being much less “nobility” conscious. I realized yesterday while “getting lost” that I live in a rather well-to-do neighborhood, and that the people who live here driving Feraris and BMWs are probably thinking of me as the “poor student.” This attitude carries over when I ask people for a little direction help in the street or on the bus and I feel patronized a lot more than I am used to in the States.

But I don’t blame people for labeling me as “poor” or “helpless,” because that’s how I’ve been/am. After arriving in the country with about 500 Euro and receiving my first scholarship stipend of 600 Euro, 300 were paid right away as collateral for the state of my room. Then 100 for “moving-supplies” (read, a mini-spree at IKEA–but I really needed a good lamp, yo!). I paid 200 for BahnCard50 and a train ticket to Dresden for the official VDAC opening seminar (that will be reimbursed hopefully soon). I also paid my Studium-Geburen (student taxes that are a joke of a tuition) of 250 Euro. Are you following with the math? I had 250 Euro left after those important purchases. Then, I used about 100 Euro for a new pair of running shoes that I DESPERATELY (you have no idea) needed:

These don't look like they've seen 605 miles, but they have.

These don’t look like they’ve seen 605 miles, but they have.

And 90 Euro for, wait, what’s that thing called? You know, one of those things that you need in winter in Europe but would look ridiculous wearing in Florida, even if it’s their coldest day? Oh yeah, a good “fall/winter” coat. Yep.

So how much money does that leave me with?

Not a lot.

Good thing food in Germany is very inexpensive. Some of the interesting conversations I’ve had with “natives” and other “foreigners” are about the price of food in Germany compared to in the US, and how this balances with the price of rent. It turns out, you can eat really well in Germany and still be homeless, but you can have a huge house in the US and still be starving.

That being said, I’ve had to really watch my food budget. Basically, I worked out that I can spend 2 Euro a day if I spend about 20 a week on basic groceries like apples, oats, yogurt, carrots, ham, cheese, some other fruit source, and occasionally some lettuce. 2 Euro sounds like nothing in the States, but here I can get a decent meal in the Mensa for 2-3 Euro plus a coffee in the student run cafe on campus (that I may, or may not, have been going to a lot; it gives me some sense of familiarity in my day), plus! I can also get a roll for dinner to have with my ham and cheese.

This miserliness is hopefully only temporary though. Next month, I pay my rent (wonderfully subsidized by the local German-American Women’s Club) of 125 Euro and then I basically have the rest of my stipend to save for travel and have a little more luxury with my budget (read: the occasional beer, perhaps?).

I’ve heard it’s bad manners to talk about money

Pretty sure talking about money is up there on the list with standing on your chair while drinking iced tea.

but I figured that it’s definitely part of the student experience and the study-abroad experience. Money is especially an issue when you are cut off from quick funds at the ATM machine (walking for hours to fund the ATM that has a partnership with you bank is not quick; also, note that Bank of America ceases to have a good relationship with Deutsche Bank, so it really isn’t more helpful to open an account with them before coming to a place like German. I have to pay a charge plus the exchange rate when extracting money now). Not to mention, if you’re not familiar with the exchange rate of the currency you’re using, it can be a bit of shock to see how much purchasing power remains the same despite paying five dollars for every four Euro. So finances are an issue while abroad, and it’s something to be prepared for when going.

But my life has moved beyond the realm of the free-observer of German culture and life and into that student-life, particularly.

I had been attending the orientation seminars the first two weeks and been among students. I also had been going out in the evenings to some of Hamburg’s best “pub”-quarters like Sternschanze or some pubs near the campus. [note: I’d like to write about the German “pub” culture sometime and how it’s much more similar to Britain’s than something like the “party-culture” in the U.S. is] Not to mention, I was in the process of submitting my MA thesis prospectus, so I was definitely academically involved. I just hadn’t been going to classes.

This week was the start of classes (again, my tardiness in posting means that I’m already into my third week here, but you don’t mind, right?)

Damn. It’s weird to sit in rows with other students facing a teacher or professor who will be the task-driver for the next few months. I haven’t done that since May, so I think, besides everything else I need to get used to, I need to get used to this again as well.

I was surprised to notice that classes are structured much like they are in the US graduate classes. The professors gave us a chance to introduce ourselves and our reasons for wanting to be in the class. Then organizational matters like online-webboard logins and class structure/layout were discussed. I don’t know why I expected something else to happen (maybe because I was in Germany or something) and I thought I’d have to get used to how things were done here, but really, I think I can handle this. I think the one major difference is that there’s less work expected during the semester from the students. I’m used to having a term paper be the main evaluation of a course, but that has been combined with weekly assignments or sets of annotated bibliographies or projects on the side. Here, unless one has to do a presentation (Referat) as part of the participation for the class, one is not responsible for anything except keeping up with the reading material and writing the paper at the end. Of course, one is expected to contribute to class discussions, but how to prepare for that is left up to the individual.

Only one of my classes is a “Vorlesung,” lecture. So I only spend my time in one of these for about 1.75 hours a week. The rest of the time is standard class setting with tables and chairs.

Another difference between classes here and the US (which I had been told about but actually only came across in two of my seven classes [no! that’s not a lot of classes. It’s only seven meetings of 1.75 hours once a week, so it’s not like seven classes in the U.S]), was the fact that teachers ask for input on how to run the course and which works to read. I’m used to having professors tell me “read these three works by the middle of the semester.” I’m not used to them giving me the freedom to suggest another work that may work well with the subject of inquiry. I think that student-input requires a trust that the students here have a better base knowledge of all subjects, which supports my theory that Germans generally leave school with a better Allgemeinbildung (general education).

Despite mentioning two big differences, I’ve already mentioned a lot of other smaller ones and could continue discussing them. But there’s time. 🙂 I’m here for another ten months. I also have some work to do, despite nothing being due next week, so I’m going to get on that as well.

First, another long-ish run on the Elbe is in order.

Happy Weekend!