Culture Shock: German student life and relationships
German relationships: on the pull by KelvinSnaps
Elen Roberts advises on student life in Munich, Germany, telling us about what it's like on the scene, both for work and play...Student Culture
Be careful what you wish for! I am a student at a university where most of my friends abide by the maxim of 'play hard, work hard'. This translates into a very alcohol-fuelled social scene and I have often (particularly when tackling an essay with a blinding hangover) thought the much-vaunted Continental approach to drinking (moderate, civilized, as an adjunct to eating, not drinking to get drunk, etc) had a lot going for it. Then I find myself in the beautiful city of Munich, jam-packed with students. I even find a flat right in the heart of the student district, Schwabing. My U-bahn stop is called Universität, for heaven's sake. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the short answer is, not much. I have a fantastic social life here, and have made friends for life. But the funny thing is, not that many of them are students. Don't get me wrong, I am not by any means claiming that the students here are boring people. I do have friends who are students and we always have great chats and a really good time whenever we go out. But the student culture as a whole in Munich is shockingly dull. There are two highly prestigious universities in Munich, both elite ('elite university' here denoting a specific title conferred under the German Universities Excellence Initiative, entitling the institution to extra funding). The workload is very heavy, but that doesn't explain it. I can testify to an insanely heavy workload in Oxford but that never prevents serious and dedicated partying. The few student parties I've been to in Munich were invariably held in cavernous, sweaty cellars and mainly filled with Spaniards and South Americans. Not great for a Germanist. It took me a while to work out what was even going on.
It turns out a very high proportion of Munich students tend to go home (i.e. back to their home villages/ towns, usually in Bavaria) at weekends, as they consider their ‘real friends’ and ‘real lives’ to be there. They see university as a necessary step between school and work, not as three hedonistic years of freedom and fun. This contrasts with us in the UK, where many of our strongest friendships tend to be formed at university. In Germany, your homeland or “Heimat”, as they call it, is a much stronger influence and seems to have stronger claims on young people than for us. During the past two years at Oxford, I went back to Wales (my homeland) so rarely that when I did pop back for Christmas, my Dad looked vaguely surprised to see me. I don't think I was unique in seeing University as the point in my life where I'd left home and set up somewhere else. Why would I constantly go back when my old school friends were at other universities all over the country? The upshot of all this is that a Munich student weekend is a pretty quiet affair. Like I said, be careful what you wish for...
Relationship dynamics are very different here, which I wasn’t expecting. I assumed that all over Europe, young people would get to know each other and find friendship or romance as they do in the UK – by going to the bar, getting so drunk you can’t even talk to the other person anyway, clubbing, and if you decided through the drunken haze that you fancied each other, making a move on the way to the kebab van. It seems I was wrong. Things here are a lot more evolved and civilized. Putting it crudely, the concept of going out ‘on the pull’ just doesn't really occur to my German friends. Friendships also tend to be a lot less casual. I have made friends through sports, language tandems, coffee dates and – wait for it – cooking meals together. Dear me. Not a kebab in sight. The whole process takes much longer and you actually have to work at it but eventually, you do form very strong friendships, whereas in the UK, I had many more people I could just casually go out with. Both scenarios have their merits but are very different as you can appreciate. My German friends were actually a bit confused when I told them about the Oxford traditions of college families, balls, crew dates and single-sex drinking societies. They didn't quite spell it out but I got the impression they thought it was a bit frenetic and juvenile.
As for romantic relationships, young people here seem to settle down very quickly. Most of the people I meet in their early to mid 20s have been in the same relationship for a good few years, 3 or 4 being very usual (the record was 10 years and the guy was only 25!). This I do not understand at all, especially as here it very often entails having a long-distance relationship as well. As the relationship very often begins in the last year or so of school (at 18 or 19), many of my German friends ended up at different universities from their significant others and spent all their uni years apart. On top of this, as Germans are great linguists and keen travellers, many of them spend one or more semesters in foreign universities, or do internships abroad, which makes the periods of enforced absences even longer. OK and this is what is really impressive (or scary, depending on your outlook): on the whole, couples seem to remain faithful to each other, even though they often don't see much of each other during term time.
The corollary of this, and an aspect of German life that I have grown to appreciate above all, is that it seems much more common for men and women to be just friends here. Most of my close friends were female in the UK, whereas here I'm just as likely to hang out with males. German men don't see women as just sex objects. They treat them as intellectual and social equals. This sounds perfect, and it is fantastic and enlightened, but every now and again I miss the ridiculous banter and the lairy flirtatiousness of British men.
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