The Mole Diaries: Bielefeld

The Mole Diaries: Bielefeld by Robin Wood

This article was written by Anishaa Aubeeluck, published on 18th August 2016 and has been read 1411 times.

Anishaa Aubeeluck is in her final year of studying German at King's College London, and spent her year abroad as an English Language Assistant at a grammar school in a small town in Germany, called Porta Westfalica. She lived in the nearest city, Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, which is around 2 hours away from Dsseldorf, and an hour away from Hannover, and ran her own extracurricular English Club for all students. Here is her insider advice for living and working in Bielefeld.

The first thing my friends say to me when I said that I lived in a German city called Bielefeld for a year, is “Where is that? I’ve never heard of it…” In fact, Germans used to say that to me too, if they weren’t familiar with the beautiful area that is Ostwestfalen (A classic German “funny” juxtaposition, literally translated to “East Westphalia.” Oh Germans). Think of Bielefeld as being the Peterborough of the UK; you may have heard of it, and you may have been through it on the train on your way to a far more exciting city like Leeds, Newcastle or even as far as Edinburgh, but you have never been there, nor have you been recommended to go there… (The funny thing is that I am also from a small village near Peterborough. Lost and forgotten cities seem to be my thing).

There is a funny theory that is also quite famous in Germany. When I travelled through the country and told native Germans that I was living in Bielefeld for a year, they would laugh, slap their legs and say “Das gibt’s doch gar nicht!” roughly translated to, “But it doesn’t exist!” 22 years ago, a guy called Achim Held met another guy at a university party who said he came from Bielefeld. He posted then in an internet forum, saying that he didn’t quite believe it, as he hadn’t met anyone from Bielefeld before. However, he used the phrase that I wrote above, “Das gibt’s doch gar nicht!” which people took to mean “But it doesn’t exist!” So long story short, this theory spun way out of control, and people begun to spread that fact that Bielefeld actually doesn’t exist. This is what the theory consists of, according to Wikipedia:

“The story goes that the city of Bielefeld (population of 323,076 as of 2011), does not exist. Rather, its existence is merely propagated by an entity known only as THEM (SIE in German), which has conspired with the authorities to create the illusion of the city’s existence.

The theory posits three questions:

  • Do you know anybody from Bielefeld? 
  • Have you ever been to Bielefeld? 
  • Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?

A majority are expected to answer 'no' to all three queries. Anybody claiming knowledge is said to be part of the conspiracy or to be deceiving themselves.”

To this day the theory remains Germany’s most popular internet prank, and people still love to play on it, especially when they meet someone from Bielefeld. But I’m here to tell you that Bielefeld DOES exist, and if anyone decides to study at the well-renowned university, or gets posted there as an English Language Assistant, don’t panic! I know you will definitely fall in love with this small and characteristic city.

1. First Impressions

Well, the first thought I had in my mind when the Deutsche Bahn voice-over guy announced, “Wir erreichen gleich, Bielefeld Hauptbahnhof” (“We are now approaching Bielefeld Main station”) was “Thank God! It does exist!” Because in my mind, I had heard people say this so often to me before I even arrived in Bielefeld, that I was beginning to believe the crazy theory myself. My first memory when arriving at the train station was the beautiful smell of fresh bread from the bakery stands in the main entrance (German bread is the BEST). I was pleasantly surprised with how clean and friendly the city is, and the mix between city and countryside is really lovely (Bielefeld is situated north of the famous and dense Teutoburger Wald, the Teutoburg Forest). The districts surrounding the main city centre are family-orientated, quiet, and not far from beautiful scenery.

2. Arriving in Bielefeld and getting around with Transport

Ahh Deutsche Bahn. The one great wonder of Germany; a super amazing train network (when they aren’t striking, which is a lot of the time just FYI). But when everything is running on time; travelling around Germany and even neighbouring countries is a hugely enjoyable experience, and I can honestly say that I miss DB now that I am back in the UK.

Arriving in Bielefeld was incredibly easy. Because I was an ELA, I had to take part in a training session in Cologne, so I travelled from there to Bielefeld. Thankfully, Bielefeld is actually incredibly well connected to all of the cities in North Rhine-Westphalia; you can take one straight train from Düsseldorf (2 hours), Dortmund (1 hour), Cologne (1.25 hours), and Hannover (just under an hour). Bielefeld sits near the end of the main regional train line through NRW, so you will never have problems travelling to major cities surrounding it, and there are other branches to smaller towns and cities like Detmold or Paderborn nearby. High speed IC and ICE trains also go from Bielefeld to cities like Berlin, Munich, even as far to places such as Austria and Amsterdam. The nearest airport would be Dortmund, Düsseldorf City Airport (for the love of God, never fly to Weeze. It’s worse than the middle of NOWHERE), Hannover or Cologne. The journey was always incredibly straightforward.

Getting around the city itself is also super easy. If you’re living in the Innenstadt, or the centre of town like I did, walking is actually the best way to reach all of the shops, restaurants, and clubs and so on. Of course, cycling is one of the most used modes of transports, and it is much safer than in England. Cyclists are respected a lot by drivers, and usually there are always designated cycle lanes much bigger than the pathetic ones you see in London! So if you are able to take/buy/rent/borrow a bike, it will save you a lot of money and it’s enjoyable. If you live slightly outside of the city centre (there are 10 districts of Bielefeld), then there is a great tram service that you can use, and trams run extremely often and until very late at night/early in the morning. Buses are also a great way to get around, and they also run very often and pretty much 24/7.

Handy tip! In NRW, you are able to register with your local university (a given if you’re an Erasmus student), and for a fee of €250 per semester, you receive a Semesterticket which lets you travel for free on all regional trains, buses and trams in the whole of the state. It is the best thing ever!

3. The City

Of course, Bielefeld is not the prettiest of German cities (to me it is, but that doesn’t count). It doesn’t have a beautiful cathedral like in Cologne, or a spectacular view of the Rhine like Düsseldorf. But Bielefeld is an exceptionally charming city, full of people who are proud to be from the city or from the Ostwestphalen region. Like most German cities, Bielefeld offers an Altstadt, or an “old town”. These are usually the cute and quaint areas of the city, complete with cobblestones, old, timbered or stone buildings, posh cafés and chocolatiers, fairy lights; and at Christmas time the Altstadt in Bielefeld turns into a truly magical and sparkling Christmas market, complete with an absolutely enormous Christmas tree and the beautiful smell of roasted almonds and chestnuts. This was definitely one of my favourite parts of the city; particularly also in the summer when you can sit outside on the terraces and cobblestones enjoying a nice cool Hugo spritz and Currywurst.

Bielefeld by Michael Pereckas

Bielefeld by Michael Pereckas

One of my other favourite parts of the city was definitely the Sparrenburg Castle and the Tierpark (the zoo!) The castle is the landmark of the city, nestled in the Teutoburger Wald, surrounded by beautiful scenery. When you make it to the top, you can enjoy the fruits of your hard work and enjoy the beautiful view. The catacombs and the castle grounds are open to the public, which is very interesting. The free Tierpark or zoo is a 25 minute walk from the city centre, or a 7 minute bus journey, is open 24/7 and makes for such a fun day out. It offers more than 450 species of animals and birds, such wild cats, wolves, farm animals, and even two brown, grizzly bears. Other sights to see include a beautiful Botanical garden, the City Theatre, the well-renowned Rudolph-Oekter concert hall, an art museum and a few old and very impressive churches.

Being quite an industrial city, Bielefeld is home to a significant number of internationally operating companies, including Dr. Oetker (Bielefelders are very proud of this. Next time you buy a £1.99 Dr. Oetker Ristorante pizza from Tesco, think of Bielefeld…). One night during the year in summer, Dr. Oetker actually opens its doors to the public and gives away free pizza!

Oh, and Bielefeld is home to DSC Arminia Bielefeld, the local football team who are so fun to watch (by the way, I hated football before my year abroad…). They got promoted to the second league when I was in Germany! Football matches are really cheap to watch and make for a really fun day out, full of beer, sausages and shouting German swear words when a player misses the goal.

4. Shopping

I was really pleasantly surprised with the high street shopping; there is plenty to satisfy the shopaholics, whether male or female! There are many fashion shops such as Zara, Mango, United Colours of Benneton, H&M and so on. The Old Town offers many more upmarket and designer shops, such as Liebeskind Berlin. Hugo Boss and so on. There are plenty of cosmetic, perfume and make-up shops, that offer high-street brands such as Body Shop, and high end make-up and cosmetics such as Bobbi Brown and L’Occitaine.

Grocery shopping is the best in Germany – there are Aldi’s and Lidl’s in every corner. (I lived just opposite an Aldi near the train station). If you need a supermarket with bigger choices, there are Edeka’s, Jibi’s, Real’s, and everything else very nearby.

5. Food, Bars and Clubs

Food all over Germany is the best, I am truly a convert. Before I left for Germany, I was never a huge meat eater; but when I got to Germany, I could usually be found with some form of Wurst in my hand. I would always recommend having a true and authentic German dining experience, so in Bielefeld I would recommend Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht, Nichtschwimmer (my personal favourite and was located just opposite my flat!) and Kloetzer’s Kleines Restaurant for all of your schnitzel and currywurst needs. Yet, Bielefeld has loads and loads of restaurants with plenty of cuisines other than the typical German one, so this is a list of my favourite non-German restaurants and bars too (not in a particular order, I loved them all!)...

1. Vapiano
Okay, so I know that they have Vapiano in the UK too (one in Soho!) But I genuinely found out about Vapiano when I was in Bielefeld, and it quickly became our favourite place for get-together dinners. Vapiano is perfect for simple, delicious Italian food in a relaxed atmosphere. As soon as I got back to the UK, I went straight out to find the Vapiano in Soho, but it just wasn’t the same... The cool thing about Vapiano (oh and it’s also reeeally cheap, you could get a whole meal for under €10!) is that you go up to each station, either pasta, pizza or salad; order your food and wait to be buzzed to come and collect it, or you watch it being made freshly right in front of you.

2. WOBU
I loved WOBU so much, because the menu choices were so bizarre. They specialise in a mix of Asian and American food –the “WO” stands for Wok, and the “BU” is for burger. I would heartily recommend the Indonesian fried noodles, so delicious! They also do frozen yoghurt to take away, which I may have done a few more times than I should have…

3. Café Berstein (Bar and Restaurant)
The best thing about this bar/restaurant is the fact that it is on a rooftop! In the summer, you can sit out on the terrace and you get the best views of the city on one side and the forest on the other. The cocktails are amazing too and come in jam jar glasses.

4. Las Tapas
Probably the best tapas I have ever had; and it’s in Germany. Weird.

5. Nichtschwimmer (Bar and Restaurant)
The name is so weird but the food is amazing; they also serve traditional German food. The cocktails are also definitely worth the visit.

6. Dean & David
Although more of a “fast food restaurant” kind of feel, the food is so delicious. The cuisine is Thai, and everything is freshly made again in front of your eyes, and the food is super healthy.

Clubbing in Germany was an experience like none other I had experienced before! In England, you would probably be out clubbing until 4am at the max (if this isn’t true then clearly I am weak), but in Germany it’s not uncommon to be out until nearing on midday. No joke. But it is definitely an experience to have, if you are into clubbing. The best clubs that we found (all in the city centre area) were Elephant Club, Ringokschluppen, Stereo, Forum (for live music as well!). There are lots of good ones though, it depends what you like. But if you are more into a quieter atmosphere for drinks, there are thousands of cool bars in the area, like Mellow Gold, Bernstein, and 3eck. There are also a few Irish pubs in the area, if you want to feel a bit closer to home!

6. Accommodation

As always when searching for a place to live in Germany, WG Gesucht is your best friend. I found my flat in Bielefeld through this website, which is safe, easy and well-used throughout Germany. The great thing about Bielefeld is that it is a university city, and there are lots of safe student areas, and lots of cheap yet AMAZINGLY nice student flats. I lived in a block of student flats owned by the university, which was brilliantly located next to the train station (I travelled by train to work every day) and it was really lovely! The cost of rent was around €270 a month for all bills included, and I shared a whole flat with one other German girl.

The other great thing, and this goes for all over Germany, is that subletting is extremely common, which is great because you can find a room fully furnished already, and for the exact amount of time you will be in Germany.

Handy tip! Try and look for accommodation before you arrive in Germany, even if you have to Skype the landlord/sub-letter. If you are struggling, try to find help through German friends/colleagues, as they will understand all of the technical lingo and help to translate.

7. Top tips for your year abroad

  1. Obviously travel AS MUCH as you can, especially if you are an ELA with all that spare time on your hands! 
  2. Always ask your mentor colleague/personal tutor for help with things like accommodation, or if you have any kind of problem. That’s what they’re there for, and I received loads of help when things were going wrong from collages around me. 
  3. Make German friends! I made life-long friendships with people from around the world, but having German friends is great. You can go back and visit them, and even get them to check your fourth year German language coursework…*cough cough* 
  4. Keep speaking German, like all the time, even if people want to speak English with you. By the end of your YA, you will even be thinking in German and have perfect intonation. 
  5. Keep busy all the time, especially if you are having bad days. Just pick up your Semesterticket and head out the door and find somewhere new. Explore new restaurants with your friends. Get a bike. Blog – do whatever you want to make you busy and by the end of it you will be really thankful for it!

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