ERASMUS programme 2010 to Albert Ludwigs University, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.
ErasMUST- why more students should take part
What’s the German word for ‘quail’? How does a high Catholic Mass sound ‘auf Deutsch’? How do you explain the subtle aromatic differences between Assam and Darjeeling teas to a group of Austrian tourists?
Sitting in my tutor’s study the summer before I left for my ERASMUS year abroad in Freiburg, Germany, I never thought I’d be asking these particular questions. To be honest, I was ‘having doubts’. I am normally a confident, open person who can manage most challenges but the idea of sitting in lecture halls and history tutorials with a group of German students and having to contribute filled me entirely with fear. I spoke to many students just returning from their years abroad all banging on about it ‘being the best year of my life’ and read every report, review and book I could get my hands on. But the thought of being lost in a place I didn’t know and, more importantly, having to complete essays and presentations in German made me feel sick. ‘Just try it. We’ll be here to help with whatever issues you have’ smiled my tutor, waving me out of the door. ‘Easy for you to say’, I mumbled, ‘they probably didn’t even have ERASMUS in your day’.
The thing you have to realise about the ERASMUS programme is that it’s not just about work. This is the year where, once you’ve got into a routine at your University or place of employment, you are free to explore and really get to know the country you’re living in. I was prepared to spend my life in the library (assuming I could find it) sweating over the smallest grammatical points in my essays. Why waste the time? Surely you can learn a lot more having a ‘Freiburger1’ in the ‘Biergarten’ with a group of friends (and maybe bring along the essay to ‘talk it through’). The first thing I did was take a tour of the City, using my Dad’s presence as an excuse to have it in English. Once you’ve got your bearings, know where you’re living and can get from A to B either on a tram (very expensive) or cycling (on a bike I found abandoned in the river), you’re pretty much set. Set up an account (look scared and they’ll shower you with free gifts), buy a cheap mobile (mine could bounce off the floor) and find the best Schnitzel restaurant; the rest sort of falls into place.
Once I’d discovered the University element wouldn’t be taking up as much time as I’d anticipated, I started to search for other things to occupy myself. I auditioned and got in to the Chamber Choir in Freiburg Cathedral. This involved singing in very serious German/Latin Masses whilst robed in a white dress. The first service I sang flat throughout (I didn’t know what ‘flat’ was in German so couldn’t respond to the conductor’s lip-reading) and got my heel stuck in the aisle, holding up the entire procession. Come July, I was being asked for German translations of the English pieces we were singing in concerts, going on tour to Switzerland and being introduced to the local Bishop as the token ‘English girl’.
Get a job! You’ve got time, you’ve got lots to offer in the way of languages and you’ll get out of the ‘student bubble’. I got a job in a Tea and Chocolate House. There were two hundred and fifty types of tea to memorise, describe and attempt to serve to customers. I was most probably employed due to my English-roots and thus great love of tea, but this didn’t help so much with the very specific and technical vocabulary needed. Nevertheless, I got on with the job, made up half the information on the teas based on the vocabulary I knew and by the end I was being called down to the shop itself to assist with a group of Italian tourists (being an ERASMUS student, you’re treated as a linguistic genius).
My flatmates provided me with a wonderful ‘family’ feel- so much so, that I’ve brought one of them back with me to live in Edinburgh. I lived with four Germans and a Japanese girl in wonderful student halls. We quickly acclimatised to each other’s cultural sympathies- I demanded a Christmas tree so my flatmate cycled thirty kilometres to the Black Forest, cut down a seven-foot tree and cycled back with it strapped to his back. We spent hours learning about the differences in the education systems, discovering that no German knows what ‘The Sound of Music’ is and judging Marmite against Sauerkraut.
In between working at the Teehaus, singing in concerts and rushing out the odd essay or presentation for my History course (now perfectly comfortable presenting ‘the Reformation in Germany’ to a group of natives), I taught three little girls English and became a Sunday School teacher. My first Sunday, I had to translate (on the spot) the story of Moses leading the Jews through the desert. When a four year old asked why God gave them fifteen hundred quails on their journey, I replied calmly that they were provided as pets. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have given false teaching purely out of fear of a screaming four year old German child. Nevertheless, the Church has offered me a job for when I graduate, so I don’t think they’re holding it against me.
If you’re lucky enough to be offered an Erasmus place, you simply have to do it. You face you fears and get stuck in. Don’t worry about the work, getting lost or simply not following the teaching, it works itself out and there are always people to ask. Chat with anyone and everyone, whether it’s about the dodgy music being played at the ERASMUS Welcome Party or the sailing gear you’ll need for a trip to Lake Constance. I learnt to ski, was on German TV and very nearly applied for ‘Das Perfekte Dinner’ (‘Come dine with me’) due to the contacts I made from just turning up and getting to know people. The ERASMUS grant is a blessing- paying for your skiing lessons and chickens for the endless roast dinners you’ll be forced to make once people have discovered you’re English, and the friends you make, really are friends for life. To be honest, it’s a stranger experience coming back. I felt everyone could suddenly read my mind as the surrounding babble of voices was in English, not German and I’d lost that feeling of contented isolation and privacy with my own thoughts and language.
If you do one thing this year, sign up for an ERASMUS exchange. Pop it on your C.V and watch your employer’s eyes light up with the promise of an employee with fantastic inter-personal and linguistic skills as well as intercultural awareness and independence. Tell your friends and they’ll be bombarding you with requests to visit, knowing they’ve got free accommodation. Let your parents know and they’ll be so happy/sad you’re gone for a year that they’ll probably pay for your flights. Meet with your tutor or ERASMUS officer and they’ll hand over a lovely sum of money to help with those skiing lesson costs- I mean, books and dictionaries.
Just take a deep breath and jump- who knows what questions you’ll be faced with during your year? Just don’t tell the four year old the truth about those quails.......it’s ‘die Wachtel’, by the way.
1 Type of beer, unsurprisingly very common in Freiburg