What Studying Abroad Has Taught Me

As I approach my final month in Berlin, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘Life Lessons’ to take away from my time abroad. It’s not easy to do this without sounding like a Gap Yah stereotype, but I’ve given it a go. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

1. I am not a natural athlete

I didn’t actually learn this from studying abroad, but undoubtedly the suspicions of every PE teacher that ever taught me have been confirmed. In attempts to naturalise myself to the city I bought a bike. I am yet to ride the bike without crashing into something or someone. Last week I managed to cycle straight into a pile of discarded building materials despite going at a speed of about one mile an hour. Whilst I lay there pathetically contemplating all my regrets, I thought that maybe cycling is not for me. Neither is bowling- on the two occasions I’ve been since moving to Berlin I have consistently managed to avoid knocking over any of the pins. I am however surprisingly good at UV Glow-in-the-Dark Crazy Minigolf, but I doubt Tiger Woods has much to worry about. Yet.

2. It’s okay to be scared

I am, on any given day of the week, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m pretty good at maintaining a glossy exterior that only hints at this fact, but those that know me well are probably aware that I am anxious about everything and anything. Even for an ordinary person moving alone to a foreign country is a pretty stressful experience, but when you get anxiety attacks just thinking about something as seemingly simple as making dinner, it seems completely incomprehensible to throw yourself into another world.

I was worried about not making friends, not understanding the language, not being able to keep up with the workload, getting hopelessly lost somehow in the outskirts of Berlin and being attacked by wild boars…but regardless of how crazy it seemed, I got on the plane and I came and everything went better than expected. What’s more is the fact I discovered that pretty much everyone was more or less as terrified as me about spending a year away from wherever they called home, which was comforting. Some of the best friendships are formed out of mutual fear. Yes, it’s scary, and once you admit that, it’s easy to laugh about it, and a few months later when you’re drinking beer with your new friends in a bar, you’ll look back at those tentative first few days (or weeks) and wonder what on earth you were thinking.

3. British supermarkets are the best

I don’t have much to compare them to, and I’m sure Asda and Tesco pale in comparison to the likes of Walmart and Trader Joe’s, but until I make to America, I’m going to go ahead and say Britain has the best supermarkets in Europe. As an insomniac I really enjoy being able to mosey around Sainsbury’s at two in the morning, and the fact no supermarkets are open on Sundays here can be a pain in the backside if you’re as forgetful and unprepared as I am. Supermarkets in Germany also tend to be a very stressful affair, with far too much crammed inside far too little space, confusing layouts and usually a horrendous queuing experience in store once you battle through the aisles and get to the tills. Although I’m all for consumer choice and love the fresh food markets that Berlin is so fond of, I really have missed this shamelessly consumerist part of British life.

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German supermarket Edeka had this as their advertising campaign for quite a while this year. There is an accompanying rap video that I highly recommend.

4. England is pretty poor at partying…

In Berlin pre-drinks don’t start until 11pm at the earliest. If you’re at the club before 2am you look too keen. If you leave before 10am the next day, the night’s been a quiet one. This really puts Leeds nightlife into perspective, where the latest you’ll be getting home is around 5am after a cheeky post-club meal at one of Leeds’ fine takeaway establishments. Berliners and the thousands of people who have immigrated to the city know the night was made for more than sleeping, and as I’ve always been practically nocturnal, this has suited me perfectly. It’s no secret that the majority of clubs cater for the techno and house crowds, meaning if you want to sing along to the latest chart toppers you’ve probably come to the wrong place, but if you approach Berlin with an open mind you’ll probably have the time of your life and find a new love for something you never would have experienced at home.

(Not to say I don’t miss Wire and Hi-Fi. Because I do. A lot.)

Arty folk looking to party will turn anywhere into a club, from ex-office blocks and boats to old power plants and swimming pools, meaning when it comes to unique experiences on a night out, Berlin’s pretty hard to beat. There are a few drawbacks of course; you’ll rarely be looking at less than 10 euros for entry to a big club, and the door policies in the city are legendary for being exclusive, but if you don’t take it personally when you’re turned away (and pretty much everyone experiences a rejection at least once) and remember that in Berlin there’s always another party round the corner, these are only minor details.

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The view from Watergate’s terrace at 8am. not exactly what you’d get in England…

5. …And public transport

24 hour tubes on Friday and Saturday, regular and simple night buses the rest of the week, and students pay a termly fee for a pass that lets them use any public transport in all three Berlin zones. The Berlin transport system is a thing of beauty. Granted, living outside of London and only having visited on three occasions, I’m comparing it to the woefully underfunded bus and tram systems in the North, but the old German efficiency really does win out.

6. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

I may not have paved Paradise and put up a parking lot, but Joni Mitchell’s old line is still appropriate. Time away gives you the space to really appreciate everything you love about home. You find yourself missing the strangest things- hearing your siblings in the bedrooms either side of yours arguing about computer games, watching terrible Sunday night television with Mum, bumping into people you went to primary school with in the supermarket and the ensuing awkward small talk. I don’t need to express my feelings about missing British food again- it’s still a sensitive subject. Emptying a vacuum, changing a light bulb, putting a new screw in the wall: all tasks I never had to do in Leeds or Sheffield that I’ve become accustomed to living alone in Berlin. Somehow I think living alone will actually make it easier for people to live with me in the future, and living in a foreign country is definitely an adventure even in the most mundane of ways.

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I particularly miss dressing up our cat, Tilly. Tilly probably does not.

7. German university is pretty great

I haven’t actually sat an exam in over a year now, since the end of second year in Leeds. Every class I’ve taken here is assessed through a long essay (which ranges in length from 3000 to 7000 words depending on the tutor) and perhaps a presentation or a few response papers, which is great for those who suffer from chronic exam stress and has also given me some practice for the dreaded dissertation next year. Essay deadlines tend to come a month after the end of the semester (at the earliest) and there’s often a lot of support available from your tutor. The biggest difference has to be the style of teaching; I haven’t had any lectures here, only weekly hour and a half seminars, with class sizes ranging anywhere from five to fifty students depending on the popularity of the course. It’s great in that you can pretty much take any course that takes your fancy without worrying about class size limits, but at the same time, it does mean you could have a very packed seminar.

Classes are also open to students from all years, so you can take a Masters class as a BA student if the subject interests you, and if you don’t want to take the exam or write the final essay, often tutors will allow you to just receive a minimum number of credits for attendance and participation. Many tutors are keen on very active seminars where everyone contributes to discussion, and it feels a lot more like a conversation than a lesson. As for content, I’ve found the English and History departments at the Freie Universitat to generally teach more specialised classes on a specific theme or one author, which is perfect if you find a course that piques your interest, not so good for giving general overviews of a subject, but it’s been a perfect system for me. There’s a lot that the Germans do right that England could really learn from.

8. Living in a capital city can make you lazy

Berlin is one of the most vibrant, interesting and exciting cities in the world. This isn’t just opinion- it’s fact. There’s more history running through any given street than I’m capable of comprehending, everywhere you look there’s some gallery or museum crying out to be explored, and that’s without even mentioning the incredible food, insane nightlife, thriving theatre and opera, and multitude of other delights that it has to offer. But after the first few months you get used to the fact you live in a super cool metropolis, and often thing ‘Oh I can go there anytime’ in regards to just about any exciting cultural establishment. I’m guilty of this to the extent I now have a very long list of places to go in the next month before I live. Carpe Diem- Seize the Day. A year isn’t as long as it seems at the start.

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An example of some excellent German art

9. The right friends will make everything alright

I’m not good at showing my emotions. I’m quite a stoic Brit, unless you sit me in a film and then I will probably cry because I get overwhelmed at cinema (I cried watching The Monuments Men, and not because of the woeful historical inaccuracies). I joke about how unaffectionate I am because I find hugs difficult (but I’m warming to the idea). But time and time again on this blog I’ve mentioned the friends I’ve made in Berlin, and I have to mention it here because it’s such an important part of studying abroad. I can’t work out if it was sheer dumb luck or all the stars aligning, but the friends I’ve made in Berlin are people I would be happy to remain friends with until we’re all old and senile talking about our year in Berlin as if we changed the world by our sheer presence. I didn’t have many friends in first or second year at university, and was actually facing third year in Leeds not knowing a single person before I came to Germany.

But I got lucky. I met some of the most interesting, fun, caring, intelligent folk ever. People that know how much of a neurotic wreck I am and hang out with me anyway. I doubt this year would have been half as brilliant without them, and I’m looking forward to the next because I know even if we’re scattered around the country or the continent and aren’t knocking back drinks every night in the big city, these are people I refuse to let escape out of my life. Like a human Hotel California, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

10. Rushmore was right

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For those that aren’t familiar with the Wes Anderson film Rushmore, it’s one of my favourite films ever and without wishing to sound incredibly cheesy, my year in Berlin has confirmed to me that one of its central quotations was incredibly accurate:

Herman Blume: What’s the secret, Max?
Max Fischer: The secret?
Herman Blume: Yeah, you seem to have it pretty figured out.
Max Fischer: The secret, I don’t know… I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life.

I’ve always wanted to write. Writing is the only thing I’ve ever consistently enjoyed, and as a result, it’s where all my aspirations have always been focused. Berlin is the kind of city where you feel you might be able to do the impossible, and for a girl from the middle of nowhere who grew up poor and struggles incredibly with procrastination, being optimistic about the future does not come naturally. I can only speak from personal experience, but my year abroad has confirmed to me that when you find out what it is you love to do, you should find a way to do that. When you love doing something, everything else has a way of falling into place. Or at the very least, it’s worth giving it a try.

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