Erasmusts. A guide to the year abroad.
So you’ve chosen to take a year out-wonderful idea! It is undoubtedly one of the most amazing opportunities offered to you during your university career. However there are certainly ways of making the most of your time abroad, so I’m going to offer a few tips based on my own experiences to help you take advantage of your expedition overseas. Of course I can’t generalize, and no doubt many of you will be exposed to completely different environments to those of my Erasmus year, however I hope that I can provide a brief insight into some of the trials and tribulations, but also extremely enjoyable and eye-opening occurrences which come part and parcel of the Erasmus package.
My Erasmus year has been divided into two parts. During part 2 I will be working in Paris and I’m spending my first 6 months (well technically it only works out to be 4 months) at the german University of Tübingen. A small, rather quiet and traditional university town, Tübingen is situated in the south of Germany in the Bundesland Baden Württemberg, about 30km from the state capital Stuttgart. A few things for which this place is famous for include a castle, a regional market, chocolate festival, pretzels and of course the fact that 'hier kotzte Goethe' (Goethe chundered here). That last one isn’t actually true as I later found out, but apparently he lived in the room next to where he’s said to have done the deed. Exciting eh?
Part 1: Arrival and Set-Up. The Boring Bit.
I’m sure if you’re gearing up for your year abroad at the moment then you’re already experiencing or about to experience the royal ball-ache which is the mound of paperwork you have to send to your year abroad coordinator, then receive back from your year abroad coordinator, then have to send to your host university who send it back to you and you forward it to your year abroad coordinator, then you receive it back as your host university have forgotten to stamp it so you go through all the rigmarole again until you think it’s all finally complete!!! ...and go abroad.
It doesn’t end there.
You will now find, despite having filled out more insurance, approval of placement provider, health and safety and course registration forms than you thought necessary, that you are bombarded with yet more bureaucracy. The Germans are probably the worst for this. Amidst having to set up your bank account, registering at the Bürgeramt, getting your health insurance forms stamped and actually ensuring you can pick up your keys so that you have somewhere to live, you have to think about registering for your courses. You probably thought this was all done in advance when you were back in England when the world made sense. Unfortunately not. Despite the fact that you have applied (and been accepted!) to study a certain course means jack. Time to do it all again. After going to about six different buildings to pick up these new forms you now have to matriculate. You go to the office. Closed. Opening hours: 10:30-11:45. 13:15-14:30. Closed on weekends, thursdays and friday afternoons. I started to wonder how the bloody Krauts get anything done! But then I realised that there’s no place for such xenophobic comments, especially on a year abroad, and went on my merry way. Finally I’m an official student of Tübingen University (although my student card won’t come in the post for at least two weeks). Time to OFFICIALLY register for courses. I have an appointment for 3 o’clock. I arrive.
‘Hello I’m Tim Blore, I have an appointment for 3 o’clock to register for Deutsch als Fremdsprache’.
‘Ok Mr Blore let’s arrange another meeting for you next week at the same time when you can speak to a course advisor, goodbye.’
Did that really just happen? Did I just attend an appointment in order to schedule another appointment?! Apparently so. This is of course nonsensical to the average Brit but it seems as though this is a necessity for the hyper-bureaucratic Jerrys.
‘Hello it’s me again! I have an appointment for 3 o’clock to register for Deutsch als Fremdsprache’.
‘Ok Mr Blore please take a number and wait until you are called by an academic supervisor’.
Apparently this isn’t an appointment at all! It’s a free-for-all where all students looking to study ‘Deutsch als Fremdsprache’ have been forced to congregate and fight over remaining courses. My name is called and I greet the severe looking woman sat opposite me.
‘What is your level?’ She says.
‘B1, B2, C1?’
‘I’m sorry I don’t understand’.
The woman rolls her eyes and explains, ‘how good is your language?’
‘Oh I see, umm...medium to good?’
I see her scribble B2/C1 on my form.
‘These are the courses available for those levels’.
‘Okay’, I say, ‘However I’ve already picked some preferable courses to make up my Erasmus credits so-’
‘You can only take 3 courses’ she interrupts.
This doesn’t even account for half of my Erasmus points so I’m in a bit of a sticky wicket. I decide to take her offer and do a runner. After all, this woman is looking increasingly like she wants to spit at me.
‘May I please take Deutsche Geschichte im Spiegel der Literatur please, Wortschatz please and Neue Sachlichkeit. Please’.
‘Deutsche Geschichte and Wortschatz are full. Do you want to be on the waiting list?’
No. Not really.
‘Yes please. Could you recommend any other courses which are free?’
...and so this conversation continued until I had finally, officially and indisputably registered for 3 Deutsch als Fremdsprache courses. I’d got somewhere at least. Still lacking 14 out of my 30 Erasmus credits but at least I was studying something. Friends of mine turned up the next day and had struggled to get anything at all, and they could forget about finding anything at an appropriate level for their language skills. A few top tips would therefore be to work out, through taking a test online or by taking advice from your seminar leader, which level of language you are at before you go abroad and my god by all means be punctual. If you’re not there then they won’t care. It’s not all set up for you like at home, you’ve got to do everything yourself. You’re at big school now. Try also to be flexible. It’s most likely the case that you can’t study all of the modules that you want to so take what you can get and even try something completely new. You can always make up credits later by attending random lectures where you might not understand anything but gain 2 credits for attendance. Like one I’m taking on travel poetry on Rome, written by German poets of the 18th century. In German. In fact I wouldn’t recommend that particular module...
Check your Ability. Punctuality. Flexibility.
Part 2: Going Native
Now you’re registered. You’re a member of the University. You have classes. They don’t start for two weeks. What do you do now? Time to establish a comfortable living environment. The last thing you want is for everything to feel foreign to you so make sure you make your room as homely as possible, despite what the nasty house master said about not blu-tacking the walls (by a stroke of delicious irony, my horrible Hausmeister goes by the name of Herr Fröhlich meaning Mr Happy. Hilarious!). Next step, contact with other people. Like it or not, you’re going to have to live with about 4-9 other students in your flat, most of whom, if not all, will either be from your host country or somewhere else around the world (there are huge numbers of other Erasmus students in Tübingen). Unfortunately, therefore, you don’t have the same, wonderfully simple introduction to your housemates as you do when arriving at an English university for the first time which consists of:
‘Hey, I’m Tim’
‘Met the others yet?’
‘Fancy a beer? I brought a crate with me’
‘go on then’.
Easy. Job done. You’re drinking, you’re talking and soon you’re all pissed together screaming Spandau Ballet lyrics in the nearest student nightclub. This will most likely not be the case with your newfound foreign companions. First of all there will definitely be language barriers. Your own language skills will undoubtedly be a bit ropey to begin with. Combine that with natural nerves which come with meeting new people and the outcome is a lot of awkward laughter, repetition of the same dull questions such as ‘what do you study?’ ‘which part of Germany are you from?’ ‘sorry I’ve forgotten what you study?’, which will eventually result in: ‘I’ve just got to go call my mate/mum/girlfriend’ in order to avoid any agonisingly prolonged silences and saving you both from further discomfort. Don’t be disheartened by this as I can assure you it is the same for everyone. The best thing to do is get out and about. Look out for Erasmus student bar crawls, student club nights, coffee sessions or even Erasmsus trips and you will soon meet people in a very similar position to you. They might introduce you to people they’ve already met and soon you’ve got a little group going. Try, however, not to just latch onto the first English speakers you meet. The chances are that you might not have anything in common (apart from your mother-tongue) and you end up speaking English for the whole of your year abroad, which really defeats the point.
When I arrived I spent the first day at the Stuttgart Bierfest in Bad-Cannstatt with my parents and my brother. It turns out that sinking a few ‘Maßkrüge’ (liter jugs of beer) whilst singing along to eurotrash with locals clad in Lederhosen makes for a wholly enjoyable introduction to German culture. However, after they left I realized that being alone is not very fun. So I knocked on the door of the flat opposite mine (my flat mates hadn’t arrived yet). Pier came to the door. Pier is an Italian with shoulder length hair and 9 piercings who loves heavy metal music. We’re now extremely good friends. Being relatively conventional in every respect, I would not have imagined this, however I soon discovered that approaching people with an open mind, and the balls to knock on their door, will lead you to appreciate more about others and indeed yourself.
<< Pier and me on day 4
Through Pier I met lots of other students of different nationalities including a girl from Albania, a German guy called Matthias, a Scottish girl who lives in France, many more Italians and a drunk girl from Singapore who we scraped off the pavement one evening and took to bed (but that’s another story). Of course in such an internationally diverse assemblage there will naturally be some cultural variation. It’s terrible to stereotype, but some stereotypes ring true. Italians are by definition very loud, gesticulate incessantly and are obsessed by (good) food. Continentals do not know how to queue or wait for people to get off public transport before they shove their way on, and as for us Brits, the assumption seems to be that we drink a bucket-load and have zero culinary expertise. I’d say that I’ve witnessed sufficient evidence to support many of such generalizations. However, it’s best to forgive your foreign friends their un-britishness and realize: that’s how they do things. Try to join in when they all sing their national anthem at 3 in the morning outside a club, and go along with it when they banish you from the kitchen in case you ruin the risotto. You just have to accept that such culture-clashes are inevitable and by showing a willingness to appreciate their differences, you will undeniably broaden your own horizons.
Students of other nationalities do, however, have one thing in common. They can all speak English (albeit to varying degrees). This is the biggest threat to the progression of your language skills. Fight the temptation to natter away in the Queen’s finest, even if their English is probably better than yours and even if they ‘love your British accent’. There’s something wholly unsatisfying about speaking to a German in English in Germany when you’ve been studying German for god-knows-how-many years. Lose your inhibitions, don’t be embarrassed and go for it. In fact insist upon it and your language (and confidence) will improve hugely. This goes for all of your Erasmus chums and not just the natives, or you might find yourself in a situation where they’re all jabbering in Italian about the different layers of lasagne and all you can hear is ‘bibidibabidibubidi!’
Foreigners are different. Be open-minded. Speak the lingo.
An inter-lash-ional experience
Part 3: Filling the Void
As an Erasmus student, you will have a lot of free time. Great! You can get gazeboed every night and sleep in for as long as you want. No parents! No bedtimes! No vegetables! Whilst this lifestyle is great for about two weeks, you eventually start to realise that you spend a lot of time sitting in bed watching Friends (like a vegetable) and that you’re not making the most of your ‘glorified gap year’. There are easy ways around this.
1. Join a sports team.
No matter where you are in the world, practically every university offers its students sport courses. There tends to be a vast variety available and they encompass all abilities so you can’t use the excuse that ‘you don’t really do sport’- Try something new like ‘floorball’ or climbing, or do what I did and find a group of German theology students who are up for a kickabout once a week. Although saying prayers before our matches does seem a little strange...
2. Music, Drama, Dance...Knitting.
One of the first things I saw as I entered my apartment building was an advertisement from a band called ‘the Bunny and the Playboys’ who were looking for a frontman. Now I’m not saying you have to become the next Mick Jagger (stroke Hugh Hefner regarding this particular band), however it’s an example of a large number of extra-curricular diversions on offer, both through and outside the uni. Joining orchestras, big bands, choirs, dance troupes or drama groups is a great way to meet others and distract yourself from all that nothing you’ve been doing. I’ve even tried my hand at illegal fossil hunting in a german quarry! Some friends of mine and I signed up for German theatre classes which involves a lot of clowning around (in German of course) and we even get 4 precious Erasmus credits for it. Of course you could always be like my friend Ruth who has been teaching her pals how to knit...and they’re hooked! (sorry for the crochet related pun). She now spends thursday evenings fashioning scarves and drinking tea. She developed the nickname of ‘oma’ very quickly.
The Globe-al Theatre: International Thespians
Since arriving in Germany I’ve been to Cologne, Bonn, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. And I’ve been here for 3 months! Use your weekends and your numerous days off from lectures exploring your environs. Many universities offer trips for Erasmus students through internal organizations at discounted prices (Basel christmas market for €19!-Bargain!). Even if none of your mates want to come with you, create your own little excursions and see as much your host country as you can. Even long distance public transport tends to be far cheaper on the continent so whether you want to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural differences within your host nation or you just want to see that big wall thing in Berlin, it’s well worth investing time to satisfy your wanderlust.
School Trip! To Cologne
4. Make your own fun!!!
If you still find yourself spending the majority of your day scrolling through Facebook and waiting for the next Buzzfeed post to show you 26 pictures of dogs wearing shoes then you’ve got to start being proactive. More than anything, being a home-bound hermit can make you homesick and miserable so invite people over for dinner, go to karaoke or throw a cocktail party for your other Erasmus buddies who will no doubt jump at any opportunity to socialize rather than re-read their notes on adjective endings. Birthdays and themed nights like Halloween serve as great excuses to make a fuss, and if you’re feeling really creative you can spend the best part of a day baking an ‘Erasmus cake’ like we did for our friend Matthias. Of course if you’re completely at a loss you can document your Erasmus experience by blogging or maybe by writing an Erasmus guide-but only losers do that, right?
Part 4: Class
At some point you will eventually have to drag yourself down to the University. Depending on what you’ve decided to take, you will probably to find that the set-up over in whereever-you-are is not at all similar to the one back home. For lectures, you tend not to sign up and instead just rock up to one of the first sessions and write your name on a sheet of paper. This means you can take practically any course you want. It’s therefore suitable to make up your erasmus credits with lectures that actually make sense to you and suit your language level, otherwise you really will just be drawing pictures of the fit girl in row three on your hand every week. I’d suggest attending more lectures than necessary in the first week so you can then drop the ones which don’t excite you or are much too difficult later on.
Also be aware that some lectures go on for far longer than most lectures back home and can sometimes eat up about 4 hours of your time and clash with your seminars/tutorials. I find behaviour of german students during lectures extremely surprising. Unlike in Britain, they seem to feel free to get up and leave at any point just because they feel like it/need the loo/cannot stop laughing at the lecturer’s beard. Also, despite only understanding about 75% of the lecture, I still found myself the only person in the vicinity scribbling down notes. Apparently Germans have photographic memories. I would recommend taking notes, as even though you might not have any exam or marked work for that lecture, it’s very easy to let yourself drift off to the professor’s dulcet tones if you don’t attempt any active absorption, which will not help your language skills.
The strangest thing I noticed was that the students start knocking on their desks at the end of lectures. If you’re going to Germany, don’t worry, you haven’t just been indoctrinated into some strange cult. This is in fact how the Germans show their appreciation for the speaker at the end of the lecture.
Part 5: So long, fair well, Auf Wiedersehen, NOT Goodbye!
Leaving your Erasmus chums really sucks. Although it may only have lasted 4 or 5 months, you will have got to know them all extremely well and to not have them there after living in such close proximity makes you feel like you’ve lost little foreign-speaking, spätzle-munching, lasagne-baking, salsa-dancing parts of yourself. When it comes to it you’re going to hate having to move out and probably even consider sacking-off uni, taking up an apprenticeship in the local kebab shop and staying there forever! Alas, you will most likely end up valuing your higher education over turkish takeaways and force yourself to move onto the next chapter. However, the book’s not finished! The eras-must go on!
The great thing about Erasmus is that you will have made friends from all over the world, so not only can you all plan reuniting at your host university but you can go anywhere - and stay for free! You have essentially created a personalised couch-surfing network, so as long as you make the effort, your friendships, your traveling and your Erasmus experience never ends! Having left Germany two weeks ago I’ve already booked a flight to Milan and one to Rome - e ho provato a imparare un po' d'italiano ;)
Trying to find a way to sum up my Erasmus experience is hard. I guess it’s easiest to put it into numbers:
4 months in Tübingen =1 Pair of Lederhosen 1 home-made Goulash 4 Dreadfully awkward conversations About 40 DMCs until 5 in the morning 8 Sleepless nights €1300 Erasmus Grant 100ish cups of tea thousands of Tortellini -1 Girlfriend 8 Big arguments 2 Piercings 1 Night in a gay club Many (not enough) salsa lessons 3 Road trips 11 Theologists vs 10 Theologists +1 Englishman +1 Girlfriend Countless nights to remember A few I can’t remember Many new acquaintances from all over the world 5 Friends for life Too. Many. Kebabs.
In the meantime I’m hopping-off to Frogland to start Erasmusts Éditon Deux. Wish me luck dans la merde...
To find out more about the Erasmus Programme and other opportunities available to you during and after your studies, check out our British Council Study Work Create page, and take the quiz!