MILSA Blog 2017
Reflection on an aspect of life in the host country
I am doing my semester of study abroad in the north of Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia. I have been in Bielefeld for a month now.
Typical stereotypes about German people are the following: they are punctual, precise and cold. I would like to say something about this.
Firstly, I experienced that the metro is not always on time. In a week it can happen once or twice that the metro is late. For trains it is the same. My cousin came to visit me on a Friday night and his train arrived half an hour later than it was supposed to come. On a Sunday night I also experienced the same thing. My first train was 20 minutes late, I missed the first train and the connecting train was also 25 minutes late, so I arrived an hour later than expected. When I spoke to a German friend and asked him if it is often so, his answer was that yes, it indeed happens every now and then. How does he feel about it? Angry, because German people like to be punctual, but when they cannot control it, it’s frustrating, which is why he prefers to ride his bike. I totally understand him. In Switzerland I also prefer to go by bike or take the train earlier just to be sure that I will be on time. Even though in Switzerland it doesn’t happen as often, it still makes me feel angry when it happens. I like punctuality. Here in Germany, since I know that it is more common for that to happen, I am not angry, because I already expect it.
Secondly, I noticed a precise layout in the swimming pools in Bielefeld. In the pool in the city centre, you first have to undress yourself in a cabin, then you can go to the lockers, put your clothes and all your other stuff in and enter the swimming pool area. I didn’t like it because I had so much stuff to carry with me to the lockers.
At the university swimming pool, on the other hand, you can choose if you want to undress in a cabin or in the public women’s locker room, but it still remains really organized. However, in this pool, people have to swim on their own lanes without any spatial restrictions and there are many people who aren’t able to do that. It makes me feel angry when I am swimming! It makes me realize that I like it when there is order, like in Swiss swimming pools. Also, I don’t like it when I am not given a choice of how to do things. In Switzerland, you can choose if you want to undress or put your things in the locker and if you want to swim freely or in a lane.
Thirdly, I have met some German people, like my roommate, or a hairdresser, or a woman in an open-air museum or young people in the metro. They were all so friendly and talkative! It is amazing how spontaneous and open people can be. I was really positively surprised and enjoyed the conversations. My roommate talks to me about personal experiences, values and emotions. The hairdresser told me some funny things about Bielefeld, about the people from here and what they think or know about Switzerland. The woman in the museum explained what she had already read about a topic, about which my friend and I had been wondering. Once the metro suddenly stopped and we didn’t know what was going on and started to talk to each other, making all kinds of assumptions. It should always be like this, that we can talk about what is happening with whoever is in front of us, without barriers. In Switzerland most people don’t even talk to each other when sitting opposite of each other while travelling for four hours by train. That is sad.
Marker of Identity – Northern Ireland and its Sensitivity towards Flags
Flags are omnipresent in Northern Ireland, and especially in West Belfast. Historically rooted, people identify with various flags depending on their political and religious background. Walking along the Falls and Shankill Road gives an impression of how present the history of the Northern Ireland conflict, locally called ‘The Troubles’, still is. Countless memorials, brasses and mural paintings line the roads, all of which are arranged in a very touching manner by the use of pictures, poppy wreaths, inscriptions, and most importantly, flags.
The conflict, which was mainly based on a dispute over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, divided the country into two sides, both Protestant and Catholic. The Protestant side (Unionists/Loyalists) considered itself as British and wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom (UK) whereas the Catholic side (Nationalists/Republicans) saw itself as particularly Irish and argued in favour of a reunited Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Hence, flags were used back in the day not only to indicate one’s religion but were also an important symbol of self-identification. At the same time, the pressure on people to live in designated areas for Protestants or Catholics increased rapidly and flags took up a new function as territorial markers.
The sensitivity of the Northern Irish towards flags can be traced back to these days. Although the active violence, which was so present during ‘The Troubles’, started decreasing in the years after the Good Friday Agreement 1998, the staging of the conflict proceeded on a political level. The agreement stated that Northern Ireland will remain (at least for now) part of the United Kingdom and established a power-sharing government between the two opponents (unionist and nationalist parties). Nevertheless, the symbolism of flags maintained its significance for several reasons until the present day. First of all, flags were always seen as carriers of identity in Northern Ireland. During ‘The Troubles’, hatred towards the ‘enemy’ was projected onto their flags. The flag itself became a metonymy for the opposing side, a view which is still deeply ingrained in the memory of the people, not only because nearly all of them lost family members, friends or acquaintances in ‘The Troubles’ but also because lots of murders remained uninvestigated. A change of this attitude does not seem to be possible until a new generation takes over, particularly in politics.
Secondly, people feel intimidated by flags very easily, as they are often used to provoke members of the other religious community, especially in shared facilities such as schools or public spaces. Thirdly, Northern Ireland, which needs to be rather described as a statelet than a country, has no uniform national flag. Thus, the Union flag is used to mark official buildings which is intimidating for Catholics who consider it the ‘flag of the British occupier’. As a result, the display of the flag is limited to designated flag days.
Finally, Northern Ireland has as a statelet no official national day. Protestants celebrate ‘The Twelfth’ (victory of Protestants over Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne 1690) in July, usually along with bonfires and the burning of ‘Catholic flags’. Catholics on the other hand, celebrate St. Patricks Day on 17th March. Also, flags are waved on memorial days relating to important events in each religion’s history. Catholics for example display flags as part of the remembrance of the Easter Rising 1916 whereas Protestants specially celebrate the Battle of the Boyne. Hence, national identity in Northern Ireland is not bound to political borders but to sectarian loyalties and allegiance to Ireland or the United Kingdom which makes it difficult for the two communities to agree on a common flag.
Therefore, both sides make use of various kinds of flags for supporting their viewpoints. Unfortunately, not all of them are easy accessible to foreigners. Along with the Union flag, Protestants are most likely to use former paramilitary flags, the Ulster Banner (former coat of arms of Northern Ireland) or the Scottish flag (as a sign of their Scottish ancestry). On the contrary, Catholics use along with the Irish Tricolour the Sunburst flag (flag of Irish nationalist) or the Starry Plough (flag of Irish nationalist socialism). Less evident in its meaning is the use of the Cuban flag to sympathise with the revolutionary acts of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Last but not least, the Israeli (Protestants) and Palestinian (Catholics) flags are adapted by both sides to show sympathy and underline parallels between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the current situation in Northern Ireland.
Flags and their meaning are not always evident for visitors, but spending some time in Belfast, you get to learn very fast that knowing flags and their meaning is crucial for communication. Identifying a flag allows you to address your opposite in the right manner, e.g. you know what you are allowed to say and what not. For instance, you should better avoid talking about Orangemen and the Battle of the Boyne in front of a member of the Catholic community. What is more, it helps you to avoid misunderstandings as for example one guy mixed up the flag of the Ivory Coast on a t-shirt with the Irish flag and punched his opponent in the face. Flags are used, especially in West Belfast, to exploit the Northern Irish history and its consequences. Walking along the Falls and Shankill Road was one of the most impressive but also emotional events during my stay abroad. All those memorials along the streets are very touching as they are not just a display of lists of deaths, but they show that these were real people who died. People with names, a face and who had caring families. They were fathers, mothers, sons and daughters and anybody could have suffered the same fate, also myself, if I had been at the wrong time in the wrong place. Remarkable is also the way history is dealt with which is omnipresent in Northern Ireland and affects daily life very much, be this in politics, sports tournaments or even university. Although a foreigner might think at first that cross-community sympathy seems to be much better nowadays, a closer look still shows how much communities are divided. In one of my classes, for example, most of the Catholics are sitting next beside each other in the right half of the room, Protestants on the other. It took me a while, to figure this out, as I was not enough aware of their religious affiliation. Had I paid more attention to flags or other symbols, I would have recognised this much earlier.
In my view, Switzerland has a completely different way of dealing with flags. First of all, national identity rather than religion is important for identification with a flag. Secondly, although every canton has its own coat of arms, Swiss abroad would usually identify with the national flag rather than the cantonal coats of arms. Furthermore, they would refer to themselves as being ‘from Switzerland’ unless they talk to other Swiss. In contrast, as identity in Northern Ireland is not bound to political borders, people would rather present themselves as being ‘from the UK’ or ‘from Ireland’. Although history is similarly exploited in Switzerland, it is rather used as a means to create national identity (e.g. festivities Battle of Marignano) and cross-community solidarity rather than the single identity of a religious community. Nevertheless, it would be very interesting to compare the way of dealing with the history of Swiss cantons during the Reformation with the current affairs in Northern Ireland.
„Tutto con calma“
To be honest, I was incredibly flustered about travelling to Italy. Not because I was afraid of meeting new people and neither of staying in another country. I was very nervous simply because I was going to plunge into another culture with different habitants and I was not sure how to manage with all my problems and fears for paperwork at the beginning. But “tutto con calma” as the Italians say. Every event has to be taken step by step. Therefore I chose to write about how I have experienced the Italian culture so far for my first blog. At this point I have to note, that I indicate some kind of stereotype of the Italian culture, nevertheless I would like to tell you more about how I experienced “tutto con calma”.
This slogan is actually a good way to describe the Italian culture. For sure, not all over in Italy the people are the same and I can just write about my own experiences and how “tutto con calma” impacts me so far. So it is important to mention, that I merely can report about my own adventure in this area of Italy where I am doing my Erasmus Semester, which is Cesena in the Province Emilia-Romagna.
Coming back to “tutto con calma”; thus far as I got transmitted this motto, is not only saying that you do not need to rush or hurry, in fact it means more. The people I met seem to have a very sensitive awareness of life, in sense of appreciation. I make some examples, what I mean with this; my first experience concerns the time planning. Arranging an appointment is taken some kind of relaxing by the people I come across with. Compared to my environment in Switzerland my surrounding field in Cesena does not take the arranged time for an engagement that precisely. Being five or even ten minutes late is really no problem here whereas compared to my surroundings in Switzerland it is a really no-go being late for an agreement. Even the lessons at the university sometimes start five to ten minutes later as it is written in the schedule. So the first time I went to lesson and arrived 5 minutes before the lesson started (as I have been used to do it in Switzerland), I found myself with just maybe five to ten other students in the lecture hall and the Professor was absent. I immediately started to check if I was at the wrong place or the lesson maybe does not take place. But neither of my apprehensions had be right, so I decided to wait. After some minutes I waited, I was a bit fraught not sure how long I should wait or if I should leave, the Professor and also some more students arrived in the hall. Finally with a delay of some minutes the lesson started as if it was completely normal starting lessons with a delay.
Another example refers to the “aperetivo” here in Cesena (and so far as I have been told, this is all over in Italy the same). When work or university finishes and there is nice weather in the afternoon some people arrive at the “Piazza” for having a restful chat with each other during drinking a beverage and eating some pieces of “antipasti”. The first time I went with some of my friend for an “aperetivo” I was very surprised that it is normal, that you get some “antipasti” or other morsel of food for free besides your ordered drink. So when I meet for an “aperetivo” I am not only go for a drink, but also for some food for free just naturally next to my beverage and enjoying time together and having some nice chats.
All things considered the environment and also the people here in Cesena give me the sensation of feeling home and comfortable where I live. For me it has been amazing to see that life works even if sometimes you take things not always this serious and this precisely. My stay helps me actually a lot to appreciate things that I sometimes take for granted. Overall I really enjoy my time here and I am excited for every new experience which still awaits me.
Perceived differences between my home university and the university abroad
In this blog contribution I compare the university system or some aspects of the University of Bergen (Norway) with my home university in Berne.
I experienced the university system in Bergen as being different from ours in Switzerland. After the two introduction days in the very beginning of January, my first course called ‘childhood and parenting in diverse contexts’ began just the following week, on January 9, 2017. In Switzerland we usually start only in the middle of February. However, not every course I attended started that early. My other psychology lecture began towards the end of January. In the beginning I thought that’s really early and wondered if the semester would last until the end of May like in Switzerland, because then it would be much longer. When I looked at the schedules of my courses, I realized that they stopped at different times and also much earlier than they do at my home university. Of course the end of the semester also depends on which lectures one attends.
The course I began with was a mixture of lectures and seminars, which was not common in my studies in Berne. I either had lectures or seminars with the exception of one course where we had to conduct an intelligence test with a child besides attending to lecture. Another difference was that e.g. the course ‘childhood and parenting in diverse contexts’ did not take place on a certain day and time every week, but on two days per week in a period of five weeks. This lecture reminded me of the ‘Ringvorlesung’ in my first semester in Berne, because different professors were teaching us their specialist field. What I found special was that we sometimes changed the room even though the same professor lectured the next lesson. Before the end of all lectures we could already start to write on our essay, which was the major course assessment. I was astonished that we had to hand in a draft of our essay so one out of three assigned professors would give us feedback. We could even choose between receiving a written feedback or a personal feedback meeting the respective professor. This was not common either in my psychology studies at the university of Berne. My other psychology class also took place quite randomly, differing from once to three times a week. The end of the lectures was already by the end of March. Besides the lectures we received a really long reading list containing several chapters or articles for every single lecture. I think it is important to read besides going to lectures. However, I expected also more information of certain professors. The assessment of this course will be an electronic exam where we have to use our own laptops. We’ll have to download a program so we cannot cheat. It will be an essay exam where we have to answer just a few questions. In Berne I was more used to multiple choice exams or exams with a couple of open questions. I don’t know what I will think of the electronic exam after having written it. But given that there is the possibility of technical problems, I would prefer a paper-pencil exam. In my opinion this would be less complicated. Like in my other psychology course, we had several lecturers. The way of presenting their material differed quite a lot, from rather listening to the professor to discussing a lot. Since these two courses did not begin the same week and were distributed quite randomly, the problem of overlapping existed. I did not have problems to deal with this. However, I prefer the way it is at the University of Berne where all the lectures usually take place every week on a certain time and day.
In contrast to the psychology courses I attended, the Norwegian language course took place regularly and always on the same time and days.
At the university of Bergen they use a similar platform like Ilias where one can download the presentations, write e-mails or professors can make announcements in case of important information or changes regarding lectures. There’s also a calendar, which shows the upcoming lectures one has signed up for. Grades are registered on another page. In contrast to Switzerland, grades range from A to F and only F means fail whereas in Switzerland we have different levels of having failed. A friend I met here in Bergen found this way of grading strange and said that if you failed you just failed, why should there be different marks to show how bad someone was at an exam. However, I think the levels of having failed give you an orientation of where you ‘stand’, if the failure was marginal or if you should learn much harder for the resit.
In general, I did not have problems do accommodate to these differences; it was just new. I felt comfortable with this system. Some things might look different if I attended to more lectures and studied here for a longer period and not just one semester.
My life in the dormitory halls in Prague – a balancing act between cultures
It is very difficult to find only one topic to write about, because there are so many things and stories happening in Prague. But I decided to write about my life in the dormitory halls, because this is the biggest influence on my current life here.
My plan was to stay in the dormitory halls for the beginning of the semester and then to move to a flat to live with Czech people and to learn the Czech language. But as I started the semester living in the dormitory (which at first didn’t look very nice, more like a prison than a place to live in), I got used to everything after few days. I got used to the noise during the night, to the searching for a clean toilet, to sharing all my kitchen utensils with everyone, and to the people I hardly knew in the first days. Furthermore, searching for a room in a flat in Prague is not that difficult if you are willing to pay about three times the price you pay in the dormitory, but it takes a lot of patience. Patience I did not want to have in this time, already falling in love with the life at Vetrnik, my dormitory hall.
The population in the dormitory halls is quite multicultural, which is not surprising, seeing that Prague can be described as the most famous student city in Central Europe. But also a lot of Czech students from the countryside are living here, if their parents’ home is too far away to stay there during the week when studying in Prague. I think there is hardly a nationality which is not represented among the students studying at Charles University in Prague. On my floor, where there is space for up to 40 students, most of the people are from Spain, and most of them came in September and stayed here for a whole year. I would do this too, if I had to choose another time for my study time abroad, because five months is quite a short time to live in another country.
There are a lot of things happening all day long in the dormitory, but I would like to write about an incident which happened on a Sunday evening. As I am living with Spanish people, the kitchen is mostly used between 9 and 10 pm, because normally nobody has dinner before 10 pm. I was reading a book in my room and my roommate was there as well, when suddenly the light went out. We checked if the other lights were functioning, and found out that the whole area had no electricity. Never mind, after a few minutes the electricity worked again. Going out to the corridor, I realized that something smelled burned. And I was right, my neighbours were in the kitchen because they forgot that they had something in the oven when the electricity came back. The next funny incident was that shortly after, some policemen showed up in the kitchen, accompanied by the Czech woman from the reception. My first thought was that the smoke triggered the alarm. The woman asked me something, but as they always speak very quickly and in Czech, I couldn’t understand her. So she just went to the next people on the floor, asking them who had called the police. Afterwards, we realized that someone in the dorms must have called the police, because they knocked on a lot of doors asking the same question. Until now nobody knows who called the police that day, nor why they did this.
When coping with situations like this and many others, everyone behaves in a different manner. Some like to share everything up to their food and others prefer to cook on their own. These are differences can be seen in dormitories as a mixture of different personalities and nationalities, but also in Prague as a multiculturalist town with a lot of immigrants, foreign students and tourists.
Vienna and Feminism
Before I started Erasmus, I chose some lectures and seminars which I want to visit during my semester in Vienna. Amongst other things, I decided to attend a lecture that is called “gender and deconstruction in literature” and the seminar “trans*: gender in literature”. When I look back at this choice, then I realize that this selection is typical for the city: Gender and especially feminism are big themes in Vienna. I live together with three art students and one of the first things I learned from them about the Viennese art scene is that there is a group called “Burschenschaft Hysteria”. It is a normal Burschenschaft (with strict clothing rules and things like that) with the only difference that all members are women. Only women! One of their demands is, for example, that men should have fewer rights. Of course, there is a lot of discussion about this group (probably also because of the popular Austrian writer Stefanie Sargnagel who is a part of the group) but this should not be the topic of this text. Another moment when I realized that feminism and gender are important themes was when I saw a lot of feminism posters in front of the university. And one of the most important things is a little black book with the title “Feminismus und Gender”. This book contains all lectures, readings, seminars etc. at university or without the context of university (for example events at the Wiener Festwochen) which take place in the next months. And you can believe me: there were a lot of events! Of course, my gender-lecture and my trans*-seminar were also listed. I am really surprised that feminism is such a big theme here and I think, it is more currently more present than in Switzerland. For me, it is a good opportunity to think about feminism. So, I will try to use the little black book as much as possible. Thank you, Vienna!
I am doing an exchange semester at the University of Exeter in England. I am living in accommodation provided by the university. It is a large complex with lots of apartments each containing a living room and around 5 rooms. In my block there are living only exchange students. So my apartment is very multicultural which I like a lot. But as a consequence I am not living with British people but with two Australians, a Canadian, an American and a German. So I am not writing about local cultural practice but about a mix of the cultural practices of the mentioned nationalities.
I was raised to do the dishes immediately after the meal. So directly after the meal we would get up and clean up the kitchen. While studying in Bern I first lived with my grandparents who handle the washing of the dishes exactly the same way as my parents do. But when I afterwards moved to an apartment which I shared with friends from university, I first encountered a different way of doing the dishes: So after the meal we used to continue talking or do some leisure activities. The dishes end up being done before going to bed or on the next day. And not all of us had the same mental model of when to do the dishes. So I used to do them earlier, whereas one of my friends was very reluctant to do the dishes soon.
Here in England I encounter yet a different way to handle it: Generally, the kitchen is in a really disgusting and chaotic state. So the mental model seems to be something like ‘clean up before you cook’. For me this is too much of a mess. I prefer a mix between my parent’s and my friend’s way back home: So after the meal you do not have to get up immediately to do the dishes so one can enjoy the evening. But the dishes for sure have to be done before the next meal is going to be prepared. This comes with the advantage that you can cook straight away and do not have to worry about washing up first.
Deducing from my experiences, I think it might rather be a question of the age of the people than of the nationality. So the older people typically do the dishes immediately and the younger people are typically too lazy to practice this habit.
Here I am reacting to the dirty kitchen in the way that I dislike to cook here. So I am eating my warm meals at university. At the apartment I often just eat cereal, which do not require lots of interaction with the kitchen. I probably also react this way because I know that my stay is limited here and the prices for meals at the university are not too high. If these points were not the case, I probably would have to argue with my flatmates in order to find a solution concerning the cleanliness of the kitchen with which I am happy too.
Reflection on language
How English Changes in Everyday Life – Belfast English and its Derivation from Standard English
Having studied English for more than 10 years, I didn’t expect communication to be difficult during my stay abroad in Northern Ireland, although I was a bit afraid of the accent I would be confronted with. When I finally arrived in Belfast at the end of January, I had to take a taxi from the airport to the university campus. This was my first interaction with locals and their accent. The taxi driver started a conversation with me right away, but I literally understood nothing and even asked myself whether he was actually speaking English. He spoke very fast, made use of a lot of idioms and used the word ‘wee’ like three times in one sentence. I asked him several times to repeat what he had just said, but after a while I was so exhausted that I ended up nodding in the hope that he wouldn’t realise that I didn’t understand anything. This first confrontation with the heavy and fast Belfast accent was very frightening for me and I expected my university courses to be very difficult. But luckily, this first impression deceived.
It took me some days to figure out that there is not just one ‘Northern Irish accent’ but that the accent is very dependent on which area of Northern Ireland people are from. Especially people living in rural areas, where most taxi drivers come from, are difficult to understand. I had no troubles at all to follow my lecturers or communicating with my classmates. The only challenging part was the different pronunciation of Standard English words (e.g. the word ‘face’ [feɪs] is pronounced [fe:s]) which made it difficult to understand the word in some contexts. Now that a few months have passed by, I am able to understand the accent quite well in everyday life although I still struggle sometimes with certain taxi drivers. But even native speakers (international students from the US and Canada) seem to have trouble in understanding them, which really reassures me. In the past three months, I learnt a lot of idioms and local expressions such as the word ‘wee’ which is a former diminutive and means ‘small’. Nevertheless, it is used in sentences of any kind as a ‘marker of politeness’ and does not mean anything at all. For example, if you order burrito the seller is likely to say ‘Do you want sauce with your wee small burrito?’ although its size is huge. At first I perceived the use of 'wee' as a very annoying habit as it is kind of a 'nonsense' word that could be left out without making any changes to a sentence. My view changed after observing its use for a while when I recognised that Northern Irish are not so direct in their speech as Swiss are and usually make longer sentences to express their view (it seems more polite to them). Living in Belfast for nearly three months now, I catch myself every now and then unintentionally using the word myself. Another difficulty I had to face with was the word ‘ish’. Although I looked it up in several dictionaries, I didn’t find out about its meaning. Finally, I found a blog entry which explained that the former derivational affix -ish became a free morpheme in urban language and can now be used independently. Instead of asking ‘Do we meet around eigthish?’ they are likely to ask you ‘do we meet around eight, ish?’ which seemed quite weird to me at the beginning. Since I made some research on this topic, I am more aware of its use and it always attracts my attention when somebody uses it and in which context. Regarding my own communication, I experienced that people easily understand me and even if I don’t know a word, I am able to circumscribe it or look it up quickly in an offline dictionary. Locals are usually very understanding and help you find the word you are looking for. For example, I was trying to rent a grill for a barbecue a week ago, but the woman at the counter didn’t understand the word ‘grill’. She was asking me repeatedly whether I mean a ‘barbecue’ and I said yes, I want to rent a grill to make a barbecue. It took me quite a while until I found out that Northern Irish use the word ‘barbecue’ as a metonymy for grill and that we were both speaking about the same thing.
A bit different is my communication with other international students if we failed to express something in English. That’s when we usually switch to another language both of us are able to speak. For instance, I started communicating in Latin with my Italian flatmate as it is a kind of lingua franca for both of us. Nevertheless, I often look up the ‘missing’ words afterwards as this is the only way to extend my vocabulary. Knowing other languages such as German, French, and Latin in addition to English is a very helpful skill for communication in this regard. It gives me the confidence of always being able to express myself, regardless in which language, verbally or non-verbally. If communication fails on all verbal levels, I usually google for a picture to support my point.
In the last few months I not just learnt that there is always a means of communication available to me but also that communication is not only speaker based. The receiver of the message is equally important and it facilitates your communication very much if your counterpart is helpful and understanding. What is more, communication does not always need to be comfortable. For instance, I asked other international students, whose native language is English, to correct me as this is the only way for me to improve my English. Although it takes some willpower to correct another person, probably out of the fear to be perceived as ‘wiseacres’ or because it could offend the counterpart, this obstacle has to be overcome for the benefits of the other interlocutor. Only if I am aware of the mistakes I made I will be able to avoid them in the next conversation. It is thus not only uncomfortable for an interlocutor to correct another speaker, but also for the person who is being corrected. Hence, it requires a certain effort to get out of one’s own comfort zone for the good of a higher goal: the improvement of language skills. Having this in mind, it changes also my attitude towards foreigners and international students at home. I know now how I have to change my language towards non-native speakers for facilitating communication, like speaking more slowly, avoiding idioms and building easier sentences. I lost a lot of inhibitions in communicating in English and I am much faster in writing and reading than before. This is a very important skill for any future job as English is the main lingua franca used nowadays. Lastly, once you have managed to understand Belfast English, you will understand every kind of English which provides me with a lot of confidence for future communication.
Ricco e intenso; il linguaggio italiano
Just to start with my reflection on the language task I will first write about some short facts concerning the language “italiano”. In a second step I will carry on with reporting the difficulties I have to face, how I cope with the language, what the most concise differences between the languages Italian and German are and finally how all these experiences affected my skills and knowledge for further life.
The Italian language belongs to the category of the Romance languages and is guessed to be approximately spoken by 66 million people as a mother tongue all over the world. Unlike most other languages belonging to the Romance category, Italian maintains Latin’s contrast between short and long consonants. Besides, as in most Romance languages, stress is characteristically. However, Italian is seen as a major European language, being one of the official languages of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
To head on to another country, doing an Erasmus, means not only variations in country or culture, it also means learning how to communicate in this country or in this particularly region. In my case, I had to get used to the Italian language, which in my view is a very rich and intensive language. I will explain why: first of all, as already indicated above, in the Italian language it is all about stress. It is not just about how you pronounce the words; it is how you actually play with the prosody of each sound. I already had some lessons in elementary school and later as well in high school, so I already knew a bit what I would be confronted with. Still, living for a long period of time in the context of this language is far from the aspects treated in school context. I was very tense during my journey to Italy. My head was full with thoughts like “What if I do not understand anything or anyone”, “what if I forget all my vocabulary”, “what if...”. I even tried to prepare myself by arranging some sentences for responding exactly and in a correct way to any given question. However, when I arrived, every-thing turned out to be different as planed; I was so excited to see my flatmates, I immediately started to stammer and to rummage in my mind for the prepared sentences. I thought they would not understand me or even dislike me because of my bad language skills. But instead, they listened to me very patiently and tried to give me the feeling of not being lost. It turned out for me to be way more easy to make myself understandable than I had expected before my arrival. I can already small talk fluently and I do not even have to think about any translation anymore, it. Furthermore, the non-verbal communication such as mimic and gesture have turned out to be very useful instruments to interact with others. With my arms, hands, fingers and my entire face I do not only underline my verbal communication but also provide some vocabulary which I have not yet been able to.
It is a very valuable experience to see how easy and still complex communication is. Easy in a sense of how well others understand me, even though the grammatically complex issues are necessary for profound communication. With profound I refer to the fact that even after two months of staying here and being confronted with the Italian language on a daily basis, I am still learning every day, every moment and in every different situation something in addition. Considering that I do not have a lot of time here, I try to gather as much language learning as I can get, write down flowers of speech, phrases or just words I meet in any kind of situationand enjoy every day or hour here with this language “ricco e intenso”.
Of course, the language differences between Swiss German or High German and Austrian German is not that big and for me, it is not a problem to understand the people here. I do not have to learn this language. I just speak High German and everybody understands me. But that does not mean that there are no differences at all. There are. And for me, these little details are very interesting and just wonderful. That’s why I won’t write about big language gaps, rather than about the nice little trifles. “Wolln Sie a Sackerl?” I think, the world Sackerl was the first typical Austrian word that I heard just when I arrived in Vienna. Sackerl (not Tragtasche/Beutel), Semmerl (not Brötchen), Geldbörsl (not Geldbörse) and many more are those cliché-words with the typical rl ending – and the important thing is that the article is das (for example: das Geldbörsl, nicht der Geldbörsl). For me, it was not a problem to understand these words - but to pronounce them. This rl is really “uncomfortable in the mouth”, so it tooks some weeks till I could pronounce it like an inhabitant. The most differences can be found in the food terms. For example: Melanzani (not Aubergine), Paradeiser (not Tomate) or Topfen (not Quark). All these are special word terms but of course there are also whole sentences which I never used in Swiss or High German. One of my favourite is: “Das geht sich aus.” It means something like: “Das reicht zeitlich noch” or “Das passt gut.” But you would never say in Austria “Das passt gut.” In that case, you just say the geht-sich-aus-sentence or much easier: Passt. There are a lot of special terms and it would take a lot of time to write about all of them – but I want to write about something different: I notice that when you do not use those Austrian terms, you get labelled as a foreigner and the Austrian people often do not like the German people and that is why they sometimes become a little impolite when you do not use those terms. So I realized that it is better to adjust the language or to speak with a Swiss German dialect because they like the Swiss people more than the German people. So, before I went to Vienna, I did not think that there are that many language differences and I was especially surprised that they are so important for being a part of Austrian society. So, I also did work on my language and I have to say: Passt.
Reflection on the languages used when studying in Prague
My reflection on language is not only the reflection on the Czech language, but also a reflection about all the other languages I can use with the people I am living with. It is a topic I like to write about, because it is one of the most challenging things here for me. Furthermore, I really like it to learn languages. So it is quite perfect to live with people who speak different languages, although it might be confusing as well to switch all the time from one language to another one.
First of all, I am really trying to learn Czech, but it is quite complicated. I am doing one course, but the progress is not very fast. I have two tandems which teach me Czech and I teach them German. This is nearly the only possibility to speak Czech, because in Prague people, above all young people, speak English very well, so that it is much easier to speak English, also because my Czech skills are quite poor. Sometimes when I listen to people speaking in Czech, it sounds as if they were speaking in Swiss German. They say for example “jo” in the same way I would in Switzerland.
With the people which I am living with I speak mainly Spanish. But at the beginning it was quite confusing, because my Spanish was South American Spanish, which is a little bit different from the Spanish Spanish. But I already got accustomed, and now we can communicate quite well. What I noticed about Spanish is that it is usually not spoken quietly, and the same thing happens to me: When I am speaking Spanish, my voice is louder.
Then I have some friends from Germany, with which I can speak German. This obviously does not confuse me, since Swiss German is my mother tongue. But most of the time I speak English, because this is the language that all the students understand, although hardly anyone is a native English speaker. I really like it to speak different languages and to switch the languages often although it is quite challenging. This is a challenge which is for me quite nice.
What happens to me is that sometimes I am not aware of whether I am speaking English or Spanish (or occasionally Czech), and I start to speak and then realize that I am using the wrong language for the people around me to understand me, and then I switch the language.
Reflection on German and English language
How I am coping with the foreign language during my Erasmus?
First of all I have to say that my mother tongue is Italian. I am from the south of Switzerland, the Italian speaking part of the country. At school I had to learn French, English and German. Then I decided to study at the University of Berne, in the north of Switzerland. It has been almost five years now that I am daily confronted with the German language. So here in Bielefeld (Germany) the language is not a problem. My German skills are really good. Nonetheless I had the possibility to further improve them by taking an intensive language course in C1 level before the beginning of the semester. Furthermore, many people notice my dialect and talk to me in English, or ask if I am from Switzerland, or where my dialect is from. Still, nobody asks me if I am Italian.
Another language with which I am confronted in my Erasmus semester is English, because there are students who come from all over the world and aren’t so proficient in German. So I would like to reflect about English. In the last years I have been reading literature in English, watching television with subtitles or listening to music, but I have never been speaking it. Now I can speak almost fluently, but at the beginning of the semester, two months ago, it wasn’t so. Sometimes it is difficult to know which verb tense is required and why. I don’t remember the grammar rules anymore. Where I can improve the most is the vocabulary. There are many words for foods, objects, animals and parts of the body that I don’t know yet. The pronunciation can be a reason for misunderstandings. The most difficult is to have a conversation with many English speakers, but from different countries. Like from Ireland, Australia and America. I have to ask so many times to repeat what they just said that I feel a bit ashamed, stupid and excluded. Sometimes I give up asking without understanding or I just listen without saying anything. These are the moments where I feel the language barrier the most.It is easier is to have a conversation with people whose mother tongue isn't English, I can understand them better, because together we speak slowly and both ask to repeat, patiently. Interesting is to me is to see that as a communicator in and speaker of a foreign language, I am more direct than usual.
I have observed and developed other ways of facilitating my communication. I sometimes gesture in combination with speaking (especially when I am not sure of the words that I am using). Or I just gesture, when I have no idea of how to say something. Other strategies that I have developed to overcome communicative differences are to say the word in other languages (maybe it is similar), to use the dictionary, to describe the missing word, to do a similarity, or to show pictures of it. If I will ever travel in a country of which language I don’t know the language, I will return to these strategies.
On the one hand I think that communication can open many doors, facilitate the exchange of information, friendship and integration. I observed that in the Erasmus group there are smaller groups of people by language. The Italians party with the Italians, the Spanish with the Spanish and for example my travel partner is a Swiss girl. On the other hand, language is not all. If there are similar interests, point of views or personalities, then language doesn’t matter so much. People can understand each other also with little gestures or mimics. I met an Indian guy who I can talk really well.
Dutch & English
Maastricht is a small city which has a big famous University with a lot of exchange students. All the lectures are in English and everyone speak English here. I can really tell that my English is improved since I got here because English is almost the only language I use to communicate, which also means that I don’t really get in contact with Dutch as a language. After meeting a lot of exchange students who are from all over the world, I can really tell where the people come from based on their accents while speaking English. I don’t really have any problem speaking or understand English here. What I noticed is that people who speak the same language tend to hang out with each other more. The Americans, Canadians, Australians are always in the same group, so are the Latin American and Spanish. Especially the Spanish-speaking students, they often speak Spanish to each other when they are in class, the same for German students who always speak German together. That’s why the university has a strict rule for every tutorial: only English must be spoken, even in the break! Sometimes. when you’re the only non-Spanish-speaking person in a group, you can easily feel left out. But of course in the hallway or at the school entrance, you get to hear every kind of language. Since a lot of students are German, I also get to hear/ understand a lot of conversation in German too. I have heard from my friend that sometimes, when a group has a German majority and the tutor is also German, they even explain things in English AND in German, which is very annoying for non- German- speaking students.
Dutch as a language is similar to German, which makes it easier for me to understand, even though I don’t take any Dutch course at all. Until now, I haven’t had any problem with Dutch. Sometime it’s difficult to understand the announcement on the train or at the train station, but I can always ask somebody who is next to me to translate it into English with no problem. At grocery store, I kind learned some necessary words in Dutch which help me when buying food. Sometimes, if I really don’t understand something important, I can just ask my friend Google Translate. Everyone here speaks English very well and they answer very nicely if they notice that you don’t speak Dutch.
The funny thing is, because Maastricht is close to Germany, so I’ve been to Germany a few times. And to be honest, I feel happy and comfortable whenever I can understand signs because they are in German. It’s not that I feel uncomfortable in Maastricht, it's just that it somehow makes me feel more at peace knowing that I can understand everything written in public spaces. Maybe I should have joined a Dutch course a the beginning of the semester.
Ky Duyen Le
When confronted to Danish, English feels like your mother tongue!
During my stay here in Denmark, I am confronted with two foreign languages at the same time, namely Danish and English. As I did not know any Danish when I came here, my primary communication language in everyday life is English. Also my university courses are in English. Nevertheless, I take some Danish classes – the Danish state offers free Danish education to everyone that moves to Denmark – and try to learn the language. I like learning languages, but it is a challenge. Although as a German speaker you understand quite a lot of written Danish, the spoken language is on a whole different level. There are not only very strange pronunciation rules (for example that a written “d” can be pronounced as something that could maybe be described best as a mixture of “l” and “th”), no, they also swallow almost half of the letters, so that you cannot hear them at all! Understanding Danes speaking was completely impossible for me in the beginning but in the meantime I got a bit more used to the sound and I am able to understand parts of a conversation. And if I know the context of the conversation, I can even figure out somehow what has possibly been said. I never thought that I could get that far in such a short time!
Most of my Danish (understanding) skills I did not learn in the classroom, however. I joined a volleyball team at the university where I am the only international student, so they speak Danish all the time and even the trainer explains everything in Danish. Of course, whenever I do not understand what to do, I can ask and someone will translate it into English for me. But it has become a nice challenge for me to try to understand as much as possible and we were all a bit impressed how few questions I had to ask after some weeks.
In contrast to understanding, my spoken Danish is very poor and did not improve a lot over the same time. Outside the classroom I manage to answer some simple yes/no-questions but that’s it. I am still astonished how hard it is to pronounce the things right. Once I tried to tell someone my address (I had asked a Danish friend before how to pronounce it right and I really thought I did it the same) but obviously I did it that wrong, that I ended up spelling it letter by letter. This has been a bit discouraging, I must admit. The result is that if someone asks me something in Danish, I do not have to ask the person to repeat the question in English anymore, but I will answer in English as I am really not able to give a good (and understandable!) answer in Danish. Most people are a bit confused in the first moment because I apparently do not speak Danish but I have nevertheless somehow understood their question. Despite of the “Babylonian confusion” the people seemed to be happy with my answers so far and thanked me politely every time.
Compared to the struggle I have with Danish, speaking English feels like speaking my mother tongue. In the lectures – and almost everywhere else – I do not have to make an extra effort to understand. I know that I make some mistakes in writing and even more in speaking but I can just talk. It is much easier than I thought to speak fluently. What helped me a lot in the beginning is to know that – although their English is very good, in general – also the Danes speak English as a foreign language and therefore they won’t be immune against making mistakes either. Understanding that I am not the only one whose English is not perfect was a very important trigger for me to just start speaking and not worrying about making mistakes too much. I doubt that my English is now the best I ever had in terms of correctness but it is definitely at its most fluent! This ability to talk light-heartedly is one of the most important skills that I can hopefully take home from my stay abroad. Sometimes when my thoughts are completely in English I even find it hard to talk in German to my German friends. This is something I definitely never experienced before and I kind of feel “at home” in the English language now. And who knows, maybe I will even be able to have a conversation in Danish by the end of the semester..
Communicating in English
As I am doing my exchange in England, the language is not such a big problem for me. If I had done my semester abroad in France or Spain, for example, the situation would have been different. Although at school I learned French for eight years and English only for six years I feel much more comfortable in the English language. As my mother tongue is German, this circumstance is probably not very surprising. German and English belong to the same family of the Germanic languages. French however, along with for instance Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, belongs to the Romance languages. There are lots of similarities between languages within the same family in both grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, I guess that in general it is easier for a native German speaking person to learn English than any Romance language.
But out of the foreign languages I speak I came in touch with English the most frequently also before my exchange. First, because I am studying Computer Science and most of the terms used in this field are in English. Secondly, I watched lots of TV shows in English. Therefore, both because English seems more natural to me than other language and because of my previous experience of the language, my level of English was quite acceptable.
During my exchange at first I had problems understanding accents I have never listened to before. The ones that caused the most problems were the Singaporean, Chinese and Scottish accents. The Singaporean and Scottish accents were difficult for me because of the very distinctive pronunciation and the high talking speed. My problems with understanding the Chinese people probably came from their use of certain words in an unexpected content and sometimes because their grammar had some holes. This is probably due to the great difference between Mandarin and English. During the term, my understanding increased as I got accustomed to it and hence I had to ask for repetitions less frequently.
Mathematics and Computer Science modules generally do not require the reader to have great language skills because mostly the grammar is simple and the vocabulary is limited. So, of course I had to learn the mathematical terms in English at first, but after two weeks reading comprehension was no great problem anymore.
As in writing does not figure largely in Mathematics and Computer Science modules, my writing skills have not been used a lot.
I think the principal problem in my language skills was and is speaking. Generally, my English is fluent, but when I want to talk in an elaborate way, I lack the right vocabulary. Furthermore, I have been told that my grammar contains some errors, but my problem is that I do not recognize when I am making one. And regarding the pronunciation, I was told that my Swiss accent is still very clearly audible.
Of course I feel more confident as a communicator in the English language after the exchange. I think I made the greatest progress in understanding various kinds of different talking styles and accents. I also got in touch with some of the English habits connected to language like being called sweetheart, love or darling at the supermarket’s counter or like being obliged to say ‘Sorry’ when someone steps on my foot. These usages might sound a bit weird and overly polite to us Swiss people. But I liked them a lot because I think they, along with saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’, contribute to peace in a society.
Familiarizing the unfamiliar
The political engagement at the University of Vienna
“Gegen Rassismus”, “Make Marxism great again” or “Wir reden nicht über links oder rechts, wir reden mit DIR – Jetzt AG wählen!“ These are just some slogans on posters in front of the university – there are many more. When I arrived at the University of Vienna (and it’s important to know that I study in the main building because it is especially intensive there), then it looks like this for example: First, I get a flyer from the green student party, then I get a Fairtrade coffee from an environment organization and then the newspaper “Der Standard”. And that happens almost every day. For me, that was a completely new experience. During my first two weeks in Vienna this was really unfamiliar for me because at the main building in Berne, there is not a spectacle like this. Of course, I never thought that it is bad but at the beginning I thought “is that not too much?” I mean, I get that many flyers, things or information that I never could or would want to read all of them. And often they also want to talk to you and to be honest: Often, I just need to go to study and do not have time for talking. So, at the beginning I just thought that it was a little bit exaggerated and I could not understand why they made such an effort. After a little time, I found out that there will be the ÖH-Wahlen when you can elect your student and university agency. So, all the parties do a lot of advertising, spread out some flyers or they give you pencils or stuff like this for free. You also get a lot of e-mails which ask you to go and vote for your party. A friend of mine also told me that a lot of people who are active in university politics often stay in politics and later, they do professionally. So, a lot of Austrian politician make their first step in the university context. When the election came closer and closer, of course the amount of posters and flyers increase. The whole street in front of the main building was completely full of advertising and there was a huge banner at the facade with the words “Es koat oanfach mehr gwÖHlt” (= people should more vote). For me, such a big political engagement at university was completely new. All students were in voting mood and there were a lot of events like political discussions. I do not know this from the University of Berne and every day, I liked it more. For me, it was so interesting to see how that many students are that active in politics and make that much of an effort for it. Now, I do not find it strange and I do not longer think why they are doing this. I am just overpowered about that big commitment and I like the attitude of the students, meaning that they think they can change things – and try it.
It is important to complete that after the ÖH-election, there are still a lot of people in front of the university who spread out things like for example brochures of Amnesty International or Green Peace. So, even when the election is finished they try to activate a lot of students for doing some political stuff (of course, they also just do advertising and want you to donate some money). All in all, what I first found a little bit strange and unfamiliar becomes familiar and maybe even more of that: I am really a fan of this political engagement and think I will miss it at the University of Berne – not just the coffe for free, also the attitude of the Vienna students.
The Significance of Religion in Northern Ireland
Although I had some prior knowledge about Northern Irish history and the religious conflicts which characterised the preceding centuries, I was surprised how deeply rooted religion was in everyday life in Northern Ireland. When I first arrived in Belfast, I did not pay much attention to people’s religion because it did not matter to me but I have learnt quickly that such affinities matter to locals. Not only does religion play an important part in building friendships but it is also important for communication in everyday life. If you know your counterparts’ religion, you can address him or her properly without uttering any provocations and it allows you to prevent misunderstandings, especially in regard to political affiliations. Thus, locals seem to have a very detailed knowledge about who has which religion and they acquire certain techniques to find out if they don’t know. The longer you live in Belfast, the faster you acquire these techniques by yourself as it makes your life easier. The subtlest one is to ask people for their names. If it is an Irish pre- or surname this gives you a first indication that the person you are speaking to might probably be Catholic. Another indication gives the name of the school the interlocutor went to: if the name contains the word ‘Saint’, he or she is definitely not Protestant. Also, the number of children people have is considered as indicator as it is believed that Catholics generally have more children that Protestants. In my view, this indicator needs to be differentiated very carefully as it is rather stereotypic. The same applies to the following strategy: it is said that Catholics pronounce the phoneme ‘h’ as /haitch/ instead of /aitch/. If you want to find out, whether somebody is Catholic or Protestant, let them pronounce a word for you. Well, all of this sounds very easy in theory but it is rather difficult to put in practice.
As indicated earlier, one of the main reasons why religion is so important in everyday life are politics. It seems, especially in comparison to Switzerland, that no secularisation has taken place in Northern Ireland. Politics and religion are still deeply intertwined. Hence, voting for a political party means in most cases voting for party members who have the same religious affiliation as you. Although there are a few exceptions such as the Alliance or Green Party, their influence in the Northern Ireland Assembly is marginal. What is more, the whole education system is based on religious education in one or the other way. Nearly all children start their education in an either Protestant or Catholic school. Their circle of friends is mostly restricted to people of the same religious confession and this does not change when people start studying at University. It seems difficult for them to overcome these habits. Even within the class, people group according to religious affiliations. These are just two examples of how religion impacts everyday life in Northern Ireland, but obviously religion is more present than I expected it to be, be this in politics, university, sports or even your clothing.
Unfamiliar for me was not only the impact of religion on everyday life but also the importance of religion in general. As I am not a religious person myself, it was kind of difficult to feel with the locals, their traditions and their thinking. Northern Irish display their religion much more than Swiss do (flags, signs, etc.) and they are proud to belong to a certain religious confession. I was especially surprised by the unsecularised political system in Northern Ireland which was very elusive in comparison to the Swiss semi-democratic system I am used to. What helped me to further my understanding for this ‘religious thinking’ was to occupy myself with the topic. I did a lot of research to find out more about the political system and parties. The more I knew about the system and the people, the clearer I understood why religion is so important to them: People grew up with religion in every part of their life and they do not know anything else than this.
Experiencing Northern Irish politics showed me once more the advantages of our Swiss political system and how much influence the general public has, regardless of each individual’s religion or background. The omnipresence of religion in Northern Ireland limits in my view the diversity of the community and presses every single action or event into a uniform right-or-wrong scheme. I have learnt that both observation and knowledge are the key factors when developing a strategy to deal with unfamiliar things. Firstly, you have to identify a cultural practice or habit. Secondly, you have to gather further information about it, try to understand why it is the way it is and finally to understand that it is different from home and to accept how it is. In conclusion it can be said that unfamiliarity should not be considered as bad or even derogative, it is a chance to familiarise yourself with something new. Every cultural practice has its own right to be there and is worth it, because it is valuable for the people who live it. It was very interesting for me as an exchange student to explore these practices. Furthermore, it not only helps you to get in contact with locals but they are usually very pleased if somebody is interested in their traditions, history and way of living. Familiarising unfamiliar practices can thus be considered as a regular means of communication.
Eating Habits in Denmark
When I had a first look at my timetable for the semester at Aarhus University, I already wondered whether the Danes did not consider lunch as an important meal during the day. This is because two of my three classes took place from 11am to 2pm. At home, I am used to having lunch as the biggest meal of the day – and now I was supposed to basically not have lunch at all? As the canteen served lunch exactly between 11am and 2pm, there was not even a possibility to have a very early or a very late lunch before or after class. Having no other possibility I started to do what most of the Danish students did: Run to the canteen in one of the two 15-minutes breaks and grab some food to go, usually some salad or a sandwich – and then eat it during class. In the beginning I felt very uncomfortable eating during class as I considered it rude, particularly because we were only a small group of students. In fact, it turned out to be quite usual, at least tolerated if not welcomed. There was this one guy who always got himself the full menu in the staff canteen and used to bring the whole tray to class. It was even not uncommon to see our lecturer holding the lecture while eating a sandwich. The first few times I had lunch during class I tried to be very careful and as quiet as possible because I somehow felt ashamed although I was not the only one eating. During the course of the semester I got more and more relaxed and in the last few weeks I did not even give it a thought anymore. Having lunch during class has become a routine on lecture days.
But the having lunch during class issue was not the only eating habit that I struggled with during my semester abroad. In compensation of the small lunch it seems to be common in Denmark to have a big and early dinner. Many people go out for dinner but, nevertheless, most restaurants close at 9 o’clock in the evening. It is absolutely normal to have dinner at 6 o’clock or even before. At home I was used to having dinner not before 7 o’clock. Until the very end of my stay in Aarhus I never really got used to this. I always had to force myself to go out early in the evening in case I wanted to have dinner somewhere in town. So most of the time I used to have dinner at home – sometimes alone, sometimes cooking with friends, but never before 7 o’clock! And to bridge the gap between the small lunch and dinner, I used to try some of the excellent Danish sweets in the afternoon…
When I reflect on the described eating habits, I come to the conclusion that I did not fully adapt to the cultural practice I observed. I did not mimic it. Instead, I found my own way to live with it. I somehow managed to become familiar with the new cultural practice without giving myself up.
The beginning of a long-lasting Italian friendship
My stay in Italy was an amazing time. Even though it was “just” three months, I experienced a very intense and instructive time in Cesena. Intense, because it was merely three months when I had the possibility to see life in Cesena and to become familiar with some unfamiliar aspects of a different lifestyle and culture that were unfamiliar to me before. Instructive, as I got the chance during my stay to broaden my mind and to go beyond myself thanks to interesting acquaintance which I made as well as diverse challenges I had to cope with. It is really startling how fast I got used to or became familiar with circumstances and people, both considerably foreign or unfamiliar to me at the very beginning of my stay. For that reason I would like to write about a person I met, how I perceived her at the beginning and how our relationship during my residence chanced. From my viewpoint I am going to reflect this intercultural relationship, how I felt or observed the first contact between us and how this process of a very valuable intercultural encounter changed my self-perception and in some aspects even my attitude towards life.
I will start at the beginning of my Erasmus adventure; searching for a room in a flat share. On the facebook group “affitasi offro/cerco stanza Cesena” I came upon an interesting offer for a chamber and there I got the first time in contact with Katia, an Italian girl who studies in Cesena. Katia seemed a serious but very helpful person. She patiently responded to all my questions I had and organized everything with the renter who I had to pay my rent and all the other accessory charges for the room. Knowing that I was going to live with Katia, an obliging and organized person, had a calming effect on me and my tensity about the arrival. I was concerned about my language skills then still, Italian is not my mother tongue and misunderstandings are always the risk in a foreign language and who knews how well I would finally be able to cope with that. But as mentioned before, Katia gave me a released feeling for my concerns about all the uncertainty which I got confronted with.
Finally the end of February arrived, the day of my journey to Cesena. My feelings where mixed with excitement, nervousness, confusion, anxiety and curiosity all at the same time when I rang the bell at Via Uberti 53, my home during my residence. After all arrived in the flat, I met all my room mates; Alice, Lucie and the girl I already knew by writing Katia. All together we had a small chat about the journey and how the rules work in this shared flat and then everyone disappeared in their rooms. It was strange the first time in my room in Cesena, the room was huge and I felt lonely but happy at the same time as I was excited about my three months of Erasmus.
The first few days in my new flat with my new home mates were very different from what I already knew in Bern and from what I expected. I was used to cooking together, eating together and often having nice chats together in the kitchen. I missed that very much at the beginning and Katia, who I expected to be very a lovely chatty person, was rarely at home and very often in her own room. However, that chanced after a few days. More and more often Katia and I had breakfast together and after she had her coffee had gorgeous chats about everything that bothered us. Day by day we got closer and we talked, we laughed, we teased each other, we studied and had a lot of fun together. She showed me some particularly Italian behaviour patterns and I did the same for the typical Swiss manners, which always made us burst out laughing. Eventually I went out with her, met her friends, went with her for shopping (which was always a real jamboree), ate pizzas and gelatos, went with her to see her family in Cento and to sum it up in short, we enjoyed it very much together.
The acquaintance with Katia did enrich me in so many ways. The most momentous lesson I took out of this beautiful experience is that I have to give things time to develop and not to judge someone or something at the very first moment. I will definitely carry with me the message to be open to everything and everyone, to language, new habits and various lifestyles. I think I could experience the feeling of going beyond my own borders, to be more open-minded about things I do not know, for things that are strange. As you give all these aspects time, patience and a chance become familiar and invaluable.
Living my Erasmus in a city
My life in Prague is in many ways different than my life in Switzerland.
One crucial difference is that in Prague, I am nearly never alone. Whether I am at the university, in a park or in town, there are people everywhere. In the dormitory I am nearly never alone either, because since in Prague it is normal to share a room with someone, I am hardly alone at home. Often people are visiting and stay in my room, or the other way around: I visit friends in their room.
I do not spend a lot of time at the university, but when I am there, it is quite crowded. And the same happens with the city center: Since Prague is quite touristic, there is no place in the center where you are alone. A possibility to see a little bit of the nature and to relax is to go to one of the parks, which are not difficult to find in Prague. But here as well, you will not be alone enjoying nature, there will be a lot of people hiking, taking their dog for a walk and so on.
When I arrived from Switzerland, I could never have imagined that I would be able to live with someone in the same room, always staying together. I was quite accustomed to have a lot of time for myself, staying alone in my room. But I must admit that it was a lot easier to live in a dormitory than I thought before, although it was not at all familiar to me.
Living in a village in Switzerland, this is my first experience living in a city as big and as pulsating as Prague is. Although I first had to get accustomed to the fact that the city is always in motion, now walking through crowded places in the city is nothing special anymore and nor is coming home, talking the rest of the day with neighbors in the dormitory.
Another thing which is quite related to the many people I met here in Prague and which was also new for me was that every day there was something to do and people who wanted to meet you. I had to insist when I wanted to stay at home, what I really did, especially when I had classes the next day.
When I will be back home, I guess it will be very different for me again. It will be a lot calmer, but probably also less interesting. One thing I know for sure: I will miss my life in Prague and all the friends I met here, but I will never forget what it felt like to live here.
Confronted with the Unfamiliar
My ability and confidence to communicate with people has evolved. When I am confronted with new people, I am calmer than I was before, I talk more about myself and my feelings. I am also more interested in listening what the other person says, whatever it is. I can talk more about a topic, without fearing the silent moments of a conversation.
During the first weeks in Bielefeld I got to know many international students and so I was confronted with a lot of cultural acknowledgments that were unfamiliar to me. I learned something about Swiss, France, Ireland, Finland, Turkey, Greece, South and Central America, Japan, India. Being told about unfamiliar practices I understood that the unfamiliar can become familiar so fast, but that the familiar can also become unfamiliar quickly. In Switzerland I didn’t know much about the French part, like that in Sion they learn Mathematics in German, not French. So I learned something really unfamiliar from a country that is familiar to me (learning Mathematics in a foreign language). From an Indian guy I know that Indian people don’t drink much alcohol, not because of the religion, but because they want their body to be one with their mind (like in control). That is something I agree to. So I didn’t know about it, but I share this practice.
When I saw the Indian guy for the first time he was unfamiliar, because I didn’t know him and I superficially thought that he must be very different from me. Then after a conversation and spending more time with him I realized that we have a lot in common. We agree about food, interactions with others, values, understanding of what is nice and good, what bad and unhealthy. It is astonishing to know that someone you might think has nothing in common with you understands you better than someone you thought should.
Talking about unfamiliar practices in Germany, I don’t have seen so many. What I found the weirdest, but also practical, is that you can cut your bread in the store. For me now it is common ground. You can choose the bread which you want, not depending on the size, but on the taste, without worrying if the bread is too big. I think it is a really good idea to reduce food waste and to give the customer more chance to choose.
I decided to do an Erasmus with the motivation of getting to know new people, from all over the world, of being confronted with other cultures, seeing new places, going out of my comfort zone in order to see how I can cope in different new situations. Then, to experience how my topic is taught in another university, to learn more in a practical than theoretical way. Furthermore Germany is supposed to be be like my second home, because my mother is German. Nevertheless I hadn't been to this country so often. So I took the opportunity to get to know my relatives better.
My self-perception changed during this international experience. When you are confronted with new people you talk about basics: what do you do, what do you like, what do you want to become and so on. So it helps to have a clearer idea about you. I understand better what kind of a person I am in the interaction with other people (from the answers I give). Also which are the people I “chose” to become friends with and what I decide to do in my free time says something about what I like and don’t like. My travel partner plans, organizes, is funny, she likes arts and healthy food. There is a group of people with whom I always laugh a lot. With other friends from the Erasmus I share common activities like dancing, watching movies or walking in nature. I don’t hang out so much with people who party, drink and smoke frequently. The more I experience or decide not to experience, the more I get to know myself and my limits.