MILSA Blog 2017/2018
On this site we publish the blog contributions our participants are writing for the MILSA mentoring. Currently participants of MILSA 2017/18 are abroad. For the blog contributions from our previous participants, please visit MILSA Blog 2017 or MILSA Blog 2016/2017.
Reflection on language
Yes, I didn’t choose Berlin as a host country because of the language. The Bern University of Applied Sciences has only a few partner schools that offer the same areas of study. I chose Berlin because I was fascinated by this lively city.
Berlin is multicultural and it accommodates students from all parts of Germany and many students from other countries. In the hall of residence students from all over the world are at home. The language you start a new conversation in is mostly English. For me it’s good exercise to speak English, because I didn’t practice it much after my exams at school and already lost most of it. To get more used to it, I borrowed some English novels and audio books at the library. Some nights, when I can’t sleep, I read the novels out loud for practice.
My room neighbour, called Elena, is a Moldavian girl. She is a native Romanian speaker and learned English, Russian and German as foreign languages. The goal of her studies in Berlin is to improve her German so that she can work in Germany or Switzerland afterwards. We chat with each other in German so that she can practice what she is learning at the courses. In return, Elena is teaching me some Romanian, like counting and everyday words. One evening, we sat together on her bed with a cup of Moldavian wine and, in a good mood, I said “Prost!” to her. First, Elena furrowed her brows and then she laughed. Still giggling she told me, that “Prost!” is also a Romanian word for “stupid.” So I understood why she had looked at me so puzzled in the first moment. Please think of this if you drink a glass of wine with some Moldavian or Romanian Friends.
I always thought that my German wasn’t that bad. But nearly every new person I get to know identifies my dialect as Swiss. There are many words I didn’t know that aren’t German. Swiss people are specialists in modifying their own words with a German pronunciation and use them as German words. An example is the often used “Hahnenwasser” instead of the German word “Leitungswasser”. Mostly I recognize these mistakes just the moment they drop out of my mouth. It is not easy to correct your own accent, because it is difficult to test it when speaking. The first time I recognized how strong my Swiss accent was when I listened to a voice message I had recorded. It was awful. But when I excused my accent, most people answered “No, keep your cute accent, it is a part of your personal identity!” This attitude of thinking is one of the reasons why I love Berlin and its habitants. Most of them accept and value foreigners and their cultural background.
Corinne aus der Au
More than a Belgian “Röstigraben”
When it comes to language, Belgium is truly an exciting place to reside. There are three official languages: Dutch (about 59 percent of the Belgian people), French (~40%) and German (~1%). These linguistic communities represent political communities at the same time. However, they are not to be confused with Belgium’s three regions, namely Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Wallonia (French-speaking and German-speaking) and Brussels-Capital Region (French-speaking and Dutch-speaking), which respectively represent a political community on their own. Thus, Belgium altogether comprises six different political communities (i.e. governments). Needless to say, the intertwining of linguistic and regional diversity makes Belgium’s political and governing system a complex one. Its history has been accompanied by conflicts and tensions ever since Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830. Hence, I would like to reflect more on those antagonisms later, which constitute clearly more than just a linguistic conflict, but first start by describing my personal situation in the city of Leuven with regard to language.
Leuven is located about 25 kilometers east of Brussels, the capital city of Belgium. Although it lies close to the Brussels-Capital Region, Leuven is fully part of Flanders, which is why the city’s official language is Dutch. Before my arrival, I did not have any major reference to the Dutch language, let alone any experience with it. I had only been to Amsterdam once for a city trip, but other than that, the Netherlands and Belgium (where Dutch is most widely spoken) were a completely new territory for me. At least I knew a little about different Dutch dialects co-existing across the territory and that Flemish would be the one predominating in and around Leuven. However, neither was I able to comment on the actual discrepancy between written Dutch and what is spoken in Flanders (it is mostly about pronunciation and tone), nor did I attempt to learn Dutch intensively during my semester abroad in Leuven. The latter was mainly related to the Dutch language courses offered by the university taking up six hours a week, which would have been too time-consuming considering my other engagements during the semester.
Let us hop from my point of departure into the presence, which marks at about three months after my arrival in Leuven. I have acquired a few basic expressions in Dutch, which mostly support me during grocery shopping, restaurant or cafe visits and very brief small talk, for instance back at my student residence, where I am the only international in the hallway. In the case of longer or more complex conversations, however, switching to English is the thing to do to overcome communicative differences. And it is surprisingly easy – Flemish people typically have profound English skills and are not inhibited at all to prove them at any point in time. This does not only apply to Leuven, where you can find an internationalized environment anyway due to the large university campus, but also to the remaining Flemish cities (e.g., Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent) that I have visited. From what I heard from international peers who attended Dutch language courses, it may remain hard to enter proper conversations in Dutch even though one has acquired a sound basis of vocabulary. This is particularly interesting for (Swiss) German speakers because the Dutch language typically seems to be within close reach for us, as we often arrive to somehow make sense of Dutch words and phrases that we hear or read.
Another interesting thing is that switching to French instead of English is not really an option in conversations with Flemish people, although they learn it as their first foreign language at school. Overall, the Flemish relationship to French tends to have an uncaring or even negative connotation, which most probably has to do with their dislike for Walloons. For instance, my Flemish hallway mates did not hold back with generalizing and stereotypical statements (“They are lazy.”, “Their cities are filthy.”) when I asked them about Walloon people. Regarding the socio-economic development after the Second World War, Flanders indeed gained an unprecedented lead over Wallonia. Today, Flanders shows a about 20 percent higher productivity per inhabitant while the unemployment rate in Wallonia is more than twice as high. However, this has to do with industrial and market developments rather than with the temper and nature of people. As any stereotypes, they are not necessarily untrue but never complete. For instance, when I visited my first Walloon city, Liège, I immediately got a different vibe but I liked it a lot. It reminded me of the rough edges that I know and appreciate from cities in the Romandy back in Switzerland.
As I happened to grow up around Fribourg where the “Röstigraben” is located real-symbolically, making a comparison seemed appropriate. But soon I realized that while the “Röstigraben” mainly functions as a term to describe exemplary differences in the voting behavior between German-speaking and French-speaking people in Switzerland, the situation in Belgium is a way more severe and serious one. Besides the recent reinforcement of regionalism and separatist movements in Belgium, the lack of interest in the other community’s culture is what strikes me the most, as experienced during the conversation with my hallway mates. Relating to the latter, I plan to have this conversation a second time with a Walloon person and hope to gain further insights into this really important matter – important because it is transferable on a large scale to the current sociopolitical climate in Europe and is about the fundamentals of diverse cultures working and living together.
Icke bin keine Berlinerin
Reflection on language… at first, it was hard for me to know what to write about in my second blog contribution. Being in Germany as a native German speaker, I don’t have to cope with a foreign language as the majority of the other Erasmus students have to. In fact, often when I’m asked where I’m from and I answer that I come from Switzerland, people react surprised and ask me why I decided to go to Germany for an exchange if I already speak German. I realised that going abroad for an exchange semester is often reduced to learning a foreign language even though there is so much more to this experience: studying at an unknown university with new professors, subjects, classmates, living in a new city in a foreign country, in another culture.
Adapting to the German speaking environment in Potsdam has been very easy for me. Still, I had to notice especially in every-day situations that the language here in North-Eastern Germany is quite different from the High German we use back home in Switzerland. For example, when I was cooking dinner with my German neighbour and asked if he liked “Randensalat” (beetroot salad), he had no idea what I meant and laughed at me. Also when I invited some friends for an “Apéro”, at first no one understood what I was planning for them. There are many more examples of these so called “Helvetisms” and not only some vocabulary is different, but there are also differences in syntax, pronunciation and rhythm that almost immediately give away that you are from Switzerland if you don’t pay attention. So even though German is my first language, it still takes a little bit of an effort to speak High German here and it sometimes does feel like speaking a foreign language. Many people here also think that it is Swiss German when Swiss people speak High German – and are surprised that they understand it so well. I then have to explain that this is “only” Swiss High German and that we would normally speak in our respective dialects, even though German is the country’s official language. This made me realise how in Switzerland, the Swiss German dialects still have a much stronger role compared to the different dialects in Germany. Talking to my German friends here, I found out that even though there are many different dialects in Germany as well, their use is limited to speaking to people from the same region in a rather informal context and generally, they are being used less and less. Also, there is no such thing as a common understanding between them and if people from the North meet people from the South, they communicate in High German. High German is also used – and expected to be used – in all more or less formal contexts. In contrast, Swiss German is used in almost all situations in daily life, regardless of context, region or social class…
Within the academic environment in my classes here, but also with my friends from University, I therefore do not really get to hear local German dialects. However, living in Potsdam and visiting Berlin quite often, it is inevitable to be confronted with the famous Berlin dialect – the so called “Berliner Schnauze” (literally Berlin muzzle, examples here: https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/berliner-schnauze-zehn-redewendungen-und-ihre-bedeutung-22696376). In my time here so far, I have made the experience that speaking with a Swiss accent in Germany is often associated with being polite, charming, but also a little bit reserved. The Berlin dialect, however, is known for its very direct and straightforward way of saying things, and - just like the city itself - is a bit rough and dirty with a dark sense of humour. Recognizing some of these traits in the Swiss, respectively the German/Berlin, culture, living in Germany has made me realise how language reflects much of the “spirit” of a city, region or country. This is an aspect that you cannot learn in a few months, even though you can speak and understand a language perfectly. So unless I stay here longer, it looks like I will stay the polite and charming Swiss girl that makes people laugh with her funny expressions sometimes – but I can imagine worse things.
Sweden - in English
When preparing for my exchange semester by reading travel guides, asking former exchange students for recommendations and searching the web, I soon became aware of the good English skills of Sweden's population. Language wasn’t a concern at any time. Nevertheless, I was eager to understand Swedish and speak it as far as possible. When registration opened for the free Swedish course Uppsala University provided for us exchange students, I was among the first ones to sign up. And so I attended classes two times weekly for two hours, practicing pronunciation and learning vocabulary that wasn’t so different from German or English after all.
The class was the most international one I have ever been to: In the beginning, we were a bit more than 30 students from 28 nations! But that was only in the beginning. Each week, fewer students showed up. When the course started in September, I was sure that I would be able to keep up my motivation until the end of it and then take the final exam. Unfortunately, the slow pace and the rather boring structure of the course as well as the temptation to do other things with friends during the four hours of repeating sentences and filling out gaps in the grammar book made me quit the course some weeks before the final exam.
Looking back, I think I made the right decision. As I am only here for one semester, I’d rather invest the time in enjoying time with friends, studying for uni or working out. The only annoying thing are everyday conversations when people consider me Swedish and I have to ask them to repeat in English what they have just said. Apart from that, I have are no problems at all concerning language. The woman at the cashier in the movie theater even smiled when I asked if the Hollywood blockbuster we were about to watch was in English. “Of course!”, she said. It is seen as something abnormal to synchronize English movies.
Nevertheless, I still try to speak some Swedish or learn a couple of new words every now and then. My Swedish friends are a big help here, for everyday phrases as well as for specific things: When we are out fishing, mushroom picking or bird watching, I always ask for the Swedish species names. Just for curiosity. And when we are then eating a freshly caught pike (gädda) or a hot mushroom risotto with self-picked autumn chanterelles (trattkantareller), we wish each other a “smaklid maltid!”, referring to the Swiss-German “ä Guetä!”.
What surprised me a bit (or at least I did just not think about it) is that my stay here in Sweden has had a great effect on my English. As I literally speak it all day long (excluding those few sentences in Swedish and the chats with my German corridor neighbor), it is the best practice I can get. All the reports, presentations and lectures at uni are held in English, too (logically), so I will go back to Switzerland with a more confident use of the language.
Still, if there are some words I do not know in English, it is always an option to just go for it and say the word in German. With big probability, the word is similar or even the same in Swedish, which solves the problem of communication right away. In that sense: Hej då fran Sverige till Schweiz!
Au Québec, on a des « blondes » et des « chums » !
“You’re not gonna understand them!” – “It’s a whole different language!” everyone told me when I had made my decision to go to Quebec for my stay abroad. I was well aware of the fact that the “Québécois” speak had quite a distinct accent and I was extremely looking forward to this challenge. Having studied French for quite a while before my stay abroad, I was already quite comfortable with this beautiful language, especially when it comes to my listening and reading skills. Being in Quebec now, I’m having heaps of fun experiencing Quebec French. I have already learned many expressions and I must say that I have grown quite fond of the dialect, even though it’s still extremely bizarre for me. An example are the expressions “blonde” and “chum” for girlfriend and boyfriend. Also, what makes this whole experience difficult is that not only the pronunciation and some vocabulary is different, but that there are also differences on the level of the syntax, a fact I was aware of before coming here.
What made my arrival easier was that one of my flatmates spent quite some time in France. Therefore, she automatically changes her accent to a rather European French as soon as she speaks to me – to the extent that her friends make fun of her when she speaks. Also, as the people here are very well aware of the fact that they speak “differently” and, also thanks to the fact that there is a great rate of international students at Université Laval, it is usually not a problem if they are asked to repeat a certain sentence or to speak more slowly. Finally, when it comes to me speaking, there is always the final option of switching to English for a word because most young people speak English quite well – always keeping in mind, however, to ask for the French word in the end, so that I can retain it.
Every now and then I catch myself wishing that it was only European French I had to deal with here, which would already be enough of a challenge for me. Trying to understand Quebec French can be very tiring, even for francophone exchange students, as they confirm almost on a daily basis. On the other hand, it is very nice for me to notice how easily I now understand my friends from Belgium and France as compared to my understanding of people from Quebec. This encourages me extremely and makes me notice my learning progress despite the difficulty with the local accent.
After a month in Quebec, I am currently in the phase of “I’m getting there”, especially concerning face-to-face contact. What is still very difficult for me is communication over the phone, where gestures and mimics are absent. A further difficulty are group discussions – be it with friends during dinner or during a seminar at university. This will still need some time to get used to. Further, every now and then I experience frustration, especially when it comes to not being able to express exactly what I wish. Usually, in these situations, I try to start the sentences again and then mostly it works.
As a linguistics student, Quebec is the perfect place for me to be. Not only is the local language very interesting, as already mentioned, but also the entire language situation including language policies and people’s opinions and attitudes towards Quebec French or also towards English, the major language of the country. I am very lucky to be in a seminar concerning bilingualism, as it is highly interesting to learn about and discuss the situation here and to compare it to the situation in multilingual Switzerland.
Finally, I guess the experience of Quebec French has thrown me back into the shoes of a real language learner. With English, I never felt as a learner anymore and usually also with French I felt quite comfortable, because I usually understood almost everything and I did not have to speak actively as much in my daily life. Therefore, feeling like a learner again is a great experience for me to be put back into, especially when thinking about a possible future career as language teacher. Furthermore, I feel like coping with Quebec French makes me listen much more attentively in general, which is a great thing.
I am happy to have chosen Quebec for my stay abroad and I look forward to the time when I will be able to speak with my Quebec friends at ease – perhaps even with a slight Quebec accent myself?
Tamara von Rotz
English - the easy way
It's pretty much common knowledge that all the Scandiavian languages are similar to each other and that people from Norway, Denmark and Sweden understand each other more or less like the Swiss and Germans do. What I didn't know was that Swedish, as a Germanic language, is not that far away from German either and has furthermore some things in common with English, which is another but more different language with Germanic roots. Nevertheless it is another language, and for me a totally new one. Luckily, the University of Lund offered an Introductory Swedish Language Course (SUSA) in the first two weeks after the official Arrival Day, which was set two weeks before the start of regular university courses. In this course, which comprised 10 lessons of 3 hours, we learned the most basic Swedish words and sentences. The course ended with a big two-hour exam in a gym. Although (other than expected....or rather hoped) I didn't manage to read through all of the material from the course the evening before the exam (no further comment) I managed to complete the exam with a score of 100%. So one would think my Swedish today is on an acceptable level. Oh how wrong that is...
My Swedish of today got reduced to about 10 words, including the basic ones like "tack" (thank you/please), "hej" (hello), "hej då" (bye), "öl" (beer) and the vocabulary needed to order a kebab. Sadly that's pretty much it. Well to be honest; the exam mentioned above was way too easy. I didn't know around 6 or 7 answers but they were answered in the tasks of the exam itself later on. Furthermore with one or two good guesses it was easy to achieve a 100% result. But hey; I got a certificate in a Swedish language exam now. As long as nor further questions will be asked - it's all good.
Luckily the lack of my Swedish skills is absolutely no problem up here. English is so basic in Sweden that you can easily live and survive with it. Everyone understands it, most people speak it very well. No surprise: Like in other countries (e.g. the Netherlands), movies usually get streamed in the original language. Swedish subtitles are possible but mostly not used by Swedish people. In addition, Lund is a student city, known for its heaps of exchange students. English is practically inevitable here.
The only problem with it is that I look extremely native. I look like a storybook-Swede: blonde, blue eyes,.... well not that tall but I'm sure there are some smaller Swedes somewhere in this country too. Anyway, people from Sweden think I'm a Swede as soon as they see me. This is a problem that was there since day one. Conversations in shops, elevators or other places get sometimes a bit awkward when they say somethin in Swedish and my answer is everytime just a simple "what?" (yeah in those situations you're not ready for the polite "pardon?", don't blame me please). Mostly they take it with humour and just repeat what they said in English and a good conversation can begin. Really rarely they just got with the simple solution of "Oh, never mind." Of course this situation is not that satisfying and I'd love to understand them right away and in their language. But I'm happy most people take it with humour and are ready to just restart their sentence in English. After all these weeks I've been here I've come to terms with it. Cause in the end; why should they not know that I'm an exchange student. I don't want to play something or someone I am not. Althought integrating well, I don't want to hide my alien roots. And seen like this: maybe my lack of Swedish is not that bad after all.
In the end this is just another example for people always finding a way to communicate. I already experienced something similar in South America with my tiny knowledge of Spanish. There was always a way to communicate, even with the small or non-existing English skills of South Americans and even with the non-existing Spanish skills of people from Brasil. Even if I had to resort to sign language from time to time, there was always a way we would understand each other. And compared to that, I'm very fine with using English for the rest of this exchange, awkward situations or not.
How to speak Aussie
Before the courses at my university, the University of Technology Sydney, started, there was an orientation week. While this is a fairly common practice amongst universities to facilitate the transition of students between different cultures, I wasn’t prepared to be in a presentation where somebody taught me how to speak “Aussie”. Once more, my initial beliefs about Australia, namely that people would speak English, were questioned beyond my wildest imagination. However, while speaking like a “true blue” might not be achieved by non-Australian born people, there are a few easy rules to keep in mind when having a conversation with a local.
First, abbr., abbr., abbr.! This of course means: abbreviate, abbreviate, abbreviate! Considering the stunning shorelines of “Straya”, it’s no wonder that Aussies (please note that abbreviation for Australia for example) like to abbreviate everything in order to spend more time at the magnificent beaches. One of the most prominent examples is the greeting “G’day”. This term is one of the best examples of the craftsmanship the Aussies demonstrate when it comes to abbreviating words. Not only have the Australians managed to merge two words into one, they also got rid of half of the letters in the process! Even more astonishingly, they have accomplished to do this without sacrificing the easy understanding of the word. Even somebody coming to Australia the first time in their life will understand what is meant by that term. For students, one of the most important abbreviations is the term “BYO”. While this term might be familiar to a lot of people, BYO refers to a very specific policy in Australia that you have to bring your own beer or wine when eating out in restaurants, as they do not have an alcohol distribution permit.
Second, change, add or better yet, just skip letters at the end of words. Derived from the first rule, Aussies pride themselves in altering words beyond recognition. Afternoon, for example, simply becomes “arvo”. On the contrary, a cup of tea becomes a “cuppa”. Other examples include “bevvy” for beverage, “footy” for football, “bizzo” for business, “brekky” for breakfast and “choccy biccy” for a chocolate biscuit. Another example is the fairly popular fast food joint McDonalds, which is simply referred to as “Maccas”. Another wide us of this practice is the alteration of names. Robert becomes “Robbo”, David becomes “Davo” and Jonathan becomes “Jono”. The commitment to add an “o” even goes so far to call a person named Jack “Jacko”.
Third, Aussies use a lot of words that taught English speakers are not accustomed to. For example, instead of saying “a lot”, Aussies often use the term “heaps”. The same is true for the word “thongs”, which is not used to described a certain kind of underwear, but flip flops. Furthermore, instead of purchasing something, Aussies will often “cop” it. That friends and colleagues are referred to as “mates” probably even goes without saying. Another example of a typical Australian word is “goon”. Goon refers to boxed, mostly white, wine. This iconic drink is a favourite amongst students and is probably one of the first Australian words that a tourist, student or backpacker includes in his repertoire.
Funny enough, Microsoft Word does recognize Aussie language if you set the language to Australian English, proving that slang language is an existential part of this culture. While all these rules seem to be very easy to follow, one major theme that I have not touched on yet is the pronunciation. However, since this is a very complex topic and can’t probably be replicated by a Swiss in text format, I will leave this unique experience open to people who come and visit this magnificent country!
For further examples, please also see this handy guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDb_WsAt_Z0
Reflection on aspect of life in the host country
Nursing in Berlin
I was quite nervous in the days before I started my work placement at the hospital. My fellow students at the Evangelische Fachhochschule told me that working in a German hospital could be a nightmare. They explained that nurses in Germany are always stressed because they are mostly understaffed. “Take what they say to you with a grain of salt, they are just stressed out.” Statements like this also made me a bit sad. How can it be that a wonderful profession such as nursing can be tainted with so many bad expectations?
First, I should talk about the German health care system in general, to create a more comprehensive understanding of my experiences. In comparison to other countries, Germany has many hospitals with more stationary patients than other countries in Europe. That means that patients who would be treated in an ambulant setting in Switzerland tend to be treated as in-patients in Germany. I don’t want to judge this fact, but the consequence is that the in-patients in Germany need less intensive care than patients in the wards in Switzerland. The registered nurses are responsible for more patients at the same time, but the responsibility itself and the workload for each patient is lower than in Switzerland.
The institution for my work placement was quite a small hospital in the outlying area of Berlin. I was glad to be in a more familial establishment than the huge Charité hospital in the centre of Berlin. The nurses on the ward internal medicine welcomed me warmly. At the beginning it was tiring to clarify my competences. First, I had to evaluate the competences of German nurses in general and reflect in a second step on my own skills under these conditions. It posed a hard challenge to decide the limits of my own competences, because the work was similar but different at the same time. I had to implement my knowledge in nursing, but accept the orders of other nurses on the ward.
Most of my workmates couldn’t understand why I had chosen Berlin for my exchange. They believed that working as a nurse in Switzerland was much easier than in Berlin. I agree that there are differences in the salary and competences. But in my opinion, the nurses at the ward didn’t have to cope with more stress than in Swiss hospitals.
A big difference for me was the cooperation between nurses and patients. In Germany, patients are treated in a more paternalistic manner. The patients give the responsibility for the healing process into the doctor’s hands. My patients in Berlin expected clear instructions on how they should cope with the illness. In many cases they couldn’t manage their personal responsibility as well as I had expected, because they weren’t been used to it. If possible, nurses in Switzerland presume active participation from the patient for the healing process. They want to accomplish an adherent collaboration.
The work placement helped me to reflect on different aspects of nursing. It also assisted me to build my own attitude about treating patients and operating in an interdisciplinary team. I am now more aware about my daily responsibility.
Corinne Aus der Au
The city of Potsdam is well-known for its many Prussian palaces and their gardens, most famous among them certainly the Sanssouci Palace, once inhabited by the Prussian king Frederick the Great, who the local people still affectionately call by his nickname “Alter Fritz”. Besides being proud of them as the main tourist attraction in their city, the people from Potsdam are also very fond of the parks themselves and go there a lot in their free time. Especially when the weather is nice, the parks are crowded by people enjoying the sun, running, cycling or just strolling around. Before arrival, this is also what I expected I would do in the famous parks and little did I expect them to be part of my first little “cultural shock” in Germany… because as it turned out, I was going to live in one of the parks!
Already on my first day, when I was given the keys for my room at University and told people where I was going to live, people winked at me knowingly and some looked at me with pitying smiles. I only understood why a little later when I got off the bus and discovered that my student residence was on the edge of a huge park and there was nothing there but trees and three old- looking buildings. As the weather was really bad in the first days (I was greeted by the storm “Xavier”) and I arrived more than a week before the semester started, everything looked grey, deserted and not very inviting. My room and the apartment were not much better, they had all one needed but nothing else and were not particularly cosy. My mood lifted a little bit when I took a walk with the aim to do some grocery shopping nearby and discovered many nice cafés and restaurants in the area. Yet it was a good twenty minute walk to get there and when wanting to go back with my heavy shopping bags, I discovered that the buses only run every twenty to thirty minutes during the day and only once an hour at night. One of the next days I waited in vain for two buses and ended up walking again in nasty, rainy weather, being much too late for a meeting. So during my first days in Potsdam I was really frustrated and annoyed by the unreliable buses and my living situation in the middle of nowhere. The internet situation at the student residence added to this: the internet is of such bad quality that in most rooms you can’t even get the signal. The whole system is currently under revision in order to improve the connection, but no one can tell you when it will work properly. When asking about it in early October, the answer was “today, tomorrow or in two weeks” and they now say it’s going to be in December
With respect to public transports and the internet, the so-called German efficiency was definitely lacking. However, I noticed quickly that it was mostly my fellow exchange students and other “newcomers” to the residence that complained about things like this. Others would not complain if a bus didn’t show, they would just walk or go by bicycle from the beginning. In general, I noticed that many locals had a much more relaxed attitude and accepted the “inefficiencies” as part of daily life in Potsdam and Berlin. A good example for this is the tragic case of Berlin’s still unfinished airport, for which locals can just spare a joke or a sarcastic remark. Coming from Switzerland, where public transports and other services are normally very reliable and where punctuality is an important cultural value, adapting to these new circumstances was not easy for me at first. But after living in Potsdam for a bit more than a month now, I have realised how nice it is to adapt the local attitude to just relax and accept things as they come (or not, in case of our beloved bus). I have also learned to love and appreciate the park. Somehow it is cool to have a palace as your neighbour and in walking distance the mansions where Churchill, Stalin and Truman lived during the Potsdam Conference after WWII. Also, I have met many other students who live in the residence and normally, you always meet someone to walk with you if you miss the bus. And besides, walking and getting some fresh air is not the worst thing after a long day at university.
Heading the right way!
My first interaction with the Australian culture almost made it impossible for me to tell the story about it. After a long and at times very shaky flight, I took the train to Sydney Central Station where I was supposed to check into my Hostel where I would stay before moving into the Student Housing on Campus. Not having slept during the 14-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, I was only focused on one thing: getting some sleep as soon as possible. At this point, noticing and dealing with cultural differences or local customs was the least of my worries. After all, so I thought, Australia is surely the most European country in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, this lack of cultural awareness almost got me in big trouble when I tried crossing a small one way street that leads to the Hostel. Being used to traffic in Europe and at a point where even slightly moving my body exhausted me, I turned my head left to check for oncoming traffic – without realizing that I was supposed to be looking on my right side. Luckily, the driver of the car coming down the road was a little bit less tired than I was – he could stop the car before there was a collision.
The next morning, after getting some much-needed sleep, I was heading out for brunch, which is a huge thing in Sydney. Of course, this meant crossing the street on which I almost got run over 12 hours earlier. Although vividly remembering the scare, I, funnily enough, did not manage to turn my head in the right (quite literally) direction again. It was only after crossing the street that I realized my mistake. Luckily, there was no traffic to worry about this time. Some Internet research later on would reveal that left-hand traffic actually has the richer historic background than its right-hand side counterpart. According to Wikipedia, even ancient Greek and Roman soldiers kept left when marching and right-hand traffic was not introduced in Europe until roughly 100 years ago. As Australia has very deep relations with the United Kingdom, it is not surprising that the change here was not adapted.
However, the left-hand preference is much deeper rooted in society than what I initially thought. Inside the large shopping malls in the Central Business District of Sydney for example, it is very easy to differentiate between locals and tourists. Whereas the tourists stand on the right side of the escalator, the locals will roll their eyes be the ones rolling their eyes, knowing that you’re supposed to stand on the left side. The same is true for revolving doors, where you earn a stern look if you rotate the door in the wrong direction.
I was going to conclude my first blog post by mentioning that I felt like a true Sydney-sider the moment I managed to turn my head the right way when crossing a street. This took me about two and a half weeks and I instantly felt this overwhelming sensation of being a part of the society and the city. This feeling, however, didn’t last me very long. Trying to get to know locals and my friends from university, exploring Sydney’s nightlife was a top priority, especially during orientation week. Trying to avoid the very strict lock out laws, taking a cab to get from one bar to the next is inevitable. One can only imagine how terrified I was when we made a turn for the first time and suddenly were not on the right (quite literally) side of the street.
Who needs cash when you can pay by card?
There are so many stories I could tell about Sweden or especially Lund. As it is one of the two big student cities in Sweden (besides Uppsala), student life has a whole different position in everyday life here than in other cities, like for example Bern, where my home university is. Everything revolves around university. A sign for this is that the nicest buildings in the city are University buildings like the breathtaking main library, which ist often seen on postcards or pictures of Lund, or the stunning main building of the student's society AF Bostäder. The city, especially the centre of it, is full of university buildings like the lecture buildings or the 26 libraries of the different faculties.
Living in the middle of the enigneer's campus, I'd also be able to tell stories about that (especially for the general image of engineers as "nerds") untypically wild engineer's party life going on here nearly every day since day one. Partybeats sometimes blaring through the window from 9.30 in the morning till late in the evening. I thought that might be over after the first two introduction weeks, but seems like truly I underestimated them. I'd be able to tell about the Nations which are, like in Uppsala, a crucial part of student life here in Lund. Joining a Nation is voluntary, but if you wanna enjoy student life, and not just be here to mark time, there's just not better way than to do so. I might also talk about the obsession this city has with bicycles. As a rather small city, bicycles are the mean of transport number one. Simply a must-have for every student.
But no; I'm gonna talk about a whole different subject. One that probably applies not only to Lund, but to whole Sweden: The extinction of cash. This country is obsessed with credit card payment. Not just that it's more and more common to pay by card, which is slowly but steadyily the same trend in Switzerland, no, you even get some strange glares if you try to pay by cash. Doesn't matter if you're 20 or 60, if you pay 5 Kronas or 500; you're expected to pay by card.
As a non-EU-citizen with a Swiss bank account, I pay some fees for every transaction I do with my card. I also pay a fee every time I withdraw some money at an ATM. the cheapest way for me here is to withdraw a large amount at once and try to get along with that as long as possible, so; cash-payment. I managed to do so for more or less the first two weeks. But sooner or later you can't resist the urge to use your credit card anymore. You indirectly get forced to use it. Like when there's a huge queue at the checkout in the grocery store, because only two of the five checkouts are engaged, whilst there are multiple free self-checkouts beside them, which, of course, just allow payment by credit card. Or simply when it's break between two lessons and you feel a little dry in your throat. So you go out to get a drink from the vending machine around the corner, but after looking for the coin slot for 5 minutes you just have to admit that there is none and you pay your 5 Krona-water (like 50 Rappen) by card. And like I mentioned; the people in the stores expect you to pay by card. It's just become the usual payment for them. After telling you the price he's just giving you this puzzled look when instead of your shiny plastic bank card you take out some old rotten bills and coins. And you even feel a bit sorry the moment you see that he has already typed in the payment on the card reader.
With these kinds of experiences you start using your credit card more and more, because you don't want to be this "guy from a backward country who still uses bills and coins". You integrate into their daily payment routine. Resistance is futile. Sooner or later, the country's custom gets you. And I guess sooner or later this custom will also be the usual one in Switzerland and the rest of Europe and maybe one day the whole world. I don't know if I personally like this development. I like cash and I think you can calculate your expenses way better with cash than by just taking out your card and slipping it through the crack. But if I like it or not; at least after this Sweden experience I can say; I'm already used to it.
Having a beer with my professors in Quebec City
Having spent almost two months in Canada now, I have many striking experiences worth narrating. The big portions at the supermarket which make it difficult do groceries for one person, the excessive overuse of and dependence on cars which make it difficult for exchange students to get by without a car and the extreme distances in this big country are only a few examples. The one I would like to focus on here, however, concerns one of the first things I noticed at my exchange university – Université Laval in Quebec City: The communication between students and professors, which is based on a much more familiar atmosphere than what I am used to in at my home university.
To start with, most professors and students are on a first-name-basis. Not only do most professors and students address each other by their given name rather than by their last name, but also communication is based on “tu” rather than “vous”. Whereas at my home university in Bern, I am used to being on a first-name-basis in the English department, this is not the case at all for the French department and student-professor communication is rather formal. This is why this is something I still have to get used to and I keep catching myself wanting to address a professor by their last name or by a “vous”.
Further, professors and students – especially the respective assistants – seem to work very closely together and share much time together. One the one hand, there are so many activities in which students and professors work together. One example being a language program for exchange students led by professors and students of the linguistics department. On the other hand, there are many field trips or events professors and students participate in together: Our literature seminar will take us to the film festival in Quebec and with the same seminar I was very lucky to have a field trip in my first week of classes, which helped me get to know the students better. After the field trip, the professor suggested to take a scenic route back to university, so that me and another exchange student would be able to take in the views and learn more about that part of Quebec. After the excursion, we ended up all going out for dinner and beers – with the professor of course.
Finally, this rather relaxed atmosphere definitely changes the way seminars work. Whereas professors back home struggle to keep the students motivated to participate in group discussions, here, active participation is not only on a daily basis, but also highly mandatory as it is in fact reflected in the final grade. Participation is further reinforced by the fact that professors know their students very well and are thus able to ask them about their individual situation. As an example, in my bilingualism seminar, I often get asked to share how I experience a particular phenomenon in Switzerland, a multilingual country.
Whereas I am usually not the type to share many anecdotes and my opinion on every occasion, I am slowly getting used to and more at ease with participating more actively in class. Connected to the fact that the atmosphere is rather relaxed, laughter and sharing of funny anecdotes is on a daily basis and student’s opinions are highly valued, I feel more comfortable in classes here than at home.
As for now, I can say that I appreciate the relaxed atmosphere, as it helps me participate better in class. However, I am not too sure yet how I will be able to handle this intimate relationship with the professors once it comes to handing in papers and being graded by people who I went out for beers with. I have a feeling that in the end, I will be happy to go back to my home university – with a strengthened sense of sharing my ideas and opinions in class on the one hand but also heading back to my professors with which I share a hierarchical relationship, on the other hand, a relationship I apparently I still value.
Tamara von Rotz
The Nations - A Student's Home Away from Home
Although the flight doesn't take too long from Zurich to Stockholm-Arlanda, I was quite tired upon the arrival. The university's welcome desk at the terminal and the coach bus standing ready to take the newly arrived students to Uppsala was most appreciated. After all the administration had been done at the university welcome center in Uppsala, each student was brought to his/her residence - what a luxury!
What until now had begun in a very satisfying and promising way got at least a brief setback as soon as I opened the corridor my room was in: A smell of insipid air and rotten food was lingering in the hallway, the yellow linoleum floor was covered in stains. The kitchen, a run-down little room covered in dirt and expired food did not look more promising. Two of the five fridges standing in the kitchen and corridor were not running, covered in fungus. One even contained green meat, emitting a smell of carcass. Entering my room wasn't much better, a stain-covered sheet on the bed, rusty water dripping from the faucet in the little sink and dirty windows and a dust-covered floor describe my new home pretty precisely.
After two and a half days of cleaning work, I did manage to clean the worst things. Nevertheless, I did not want to spend too much time in the corridor - ugly and dirty as it is, the other cohabiters only arrived shortly before the beginning of the new semester. Luckily, the student city of Uppsala offers institutions run by students for students - the so-called Student Nations - the solution to my problem!
Dating back to the 17th century, the nations were originally founded by groups of students originating from the same region. That is why all the nations are named after different provinces in Sweden. Their goal was to offer the students an all-round service for networking, meals, libraries, studying places or just a cozy place. So to say a home away from home.
While the identification with the name-giving geographical region has diminished, the social aspect of the nation is still central for the students. I was most grateful to have the possibility of joining such an institution to participate in social events, make new friends, have the possibility to get a warm meal for a student's price and even work for some loan. I am now a member of Västgöta Nation, the oldest of the 13 Student Nations in Uppsala. With its 1'000 members, this nation is rather small, compared with the bigger ones (8'000 - 10'000 members). Nevertheless, the activities are great fun! The big advantage of a smaller institution like this is the familial environment, where people know you by name.
Although quite some things have changed since its over 300 years, some special - one might even say odd - traditions have survived. Back in the old times when fencing was not just a sport but a competition that could lead to serious or even mortal injuries, the nations all bought their own graves at the city's graveyard to bury deceased members that could not afford to have their corpses brought back home. The right to be buried in the nation's grave exists to this day.
Some less morbid traditions like the nation's own songs (there's even a hymn!) which are sung from the songbook at every so-called Gasque, the way of cheering and the uniforms worn by the elder men also survived all this time. The mentioned Gasque can be compared to a banquett, where the nation's kitchen equipe prepares a several-course dinner and cultural groupings as the nation's choirs and theatre groups preform in the nicely-painted main hall of the nation's building. Dresscodes here must be strictly followed as a participant, ranging from casual all the way to formal where women dress up in the evening gown and gents showing up in smokings.
In my opinion, nothing in Uppsala is more characteristic for the students' life than the 13 Nations with their broad offers. After all, they represent your home away from home, especially when your housing is off-putting as mine is!
Our daily bread: about fake bakeries, “gesneden brood” and “broodautomaten”
Belgians love bread. They eat it often, mostly on a daily basis. And they eat it at any time of the day, which makes, for instance, sandwiches (in Dutch: broodjes) a huge thing – well, at least around Flanders. Flanders is the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium comprising its own community, region and language area. Since I live in Leuven, which is a Flemish city near Brussels, my descriptions primarily relate to this part of Belgium. These descriptions originate from three major observations of mine about Belgians and their relationship with bread, which I also reflected on by discussing them with my Flemish hallway mates at my student residence, as well as with my international fellow students while having a Stella.
My first observation is about how Belgians like their bread. They like it fresh and it must come from a bakery with real human beings. I am not talking about factory workers of a large industrial bakery – it is about the baker next door and his/her small bakery who crafts authentic bread and baked goods using regional ingredients only and most certainly no food additives. Visiting one of those lovely places, you can often catch a glimpse of the traditional handicraft yourself because most bakers produce their delights virtually in the same room as selling them afterwards. Through my hallway mates, however, I learned about an important distinction regarding bakers next door: There are fake bakers (“fake” might be a bit harsh but it is contemporary), who order their dough from large industrial bakeries, and there are true bakers (in Dutch: warme bakker), who mix their very own dough. Well, mass-produced industrial dough usually comes with food additives, such as certain enzymes for longer food durability. Despite this fact, fake bakeries are well attended. Actually, Belgians tend to behave inconsistently in regard to the dough's origin. Concerning an authentic customer experience, larger grocery stores, for instance, caught up with bakers next door by setting up beautifully decorated in-store bakeries. Spreading the smell of freshly baked bread, they aim to truly imitate the environment of a traditional, small bakery. And in the view of my hallway mates, it seems to work – although the dough used in grocery stores is industrially mass-produced, too.
My second observation is another one about how Belgians like their bread. Not least because of their obsession with “broodjes”, they like their bread cut in slices. Obviously, nobody usually eats a loaf of bread like a raw carrot. In Belgium, however, this is a serious topic. Bread is primarily bought in slices (in Dutch: gesneden brood), which can occur in a number of ways: Either your baker next door cuts the loaf of your choice just in time or you do it yourself – by using the slicing machine at the grocery store (even before you pay for the bread), a slicing machine at any other grocery store, or your own slicing machine at home. Furthermore, there is an unwritten Belgian standard for slice thickness, which is about seven millimeters. My international fellow students complained about it because the slices seem to be too thin to make a decent “broodje”. Filling it with cold cuts, lettuce, vegetables and sauce andalouse (Belgian invention, no connection to Andalusia), a “broodje” often falls apart because the slices get completely soggy. Of course, I had to contrast this with the judgement of my hallway mates. In their opinion, a traditional “broodje” is not made with, for instance, multiple vegetables – rather, you limit yourself to a main topping and add a delicious sauce, that is it. Nonetheless, they told me about the recent rise of street food stalls that offer stacked sandwiches. Needless to say, most of them use foreign types of bread, such as baguettes or ciabattas, rather than bread cut in slices the traditional Belgian way.
To conclude, I would like to share my third observation, which is about how much Belgians love bread. As mentioned earlier, most of them prefer bread from the baker next door (never mind the distinction between fake and true bakers for a second). Unfortunately, local bakeries typically open and close early. Therefore, the Belgian worker sometimes cannot make it in time to get fresh bread for this night's dinner or next day’s breakfast. The motto in such cases: Keep calm and look for a “broodautomaat”. “Broodautomaten” are stand-alone vending machines for fresh bread. They are mainly located in front of or next to the bakery that stocks them daily with loafs. By inserting a few euro coins, people can still buy fresh bread even after closing time of their local bakery.
Although I myself do not have a comparable relationship with bread, my observations led me to continue thinking about this. They took me back to the days where I used to live at my parents’ place. There was always at least one loaf in the bread box because my parents ate – and still eat – a couple of slices daily. Obviously, I did not inherit this habit, which led me to the question about the reasons why we stick to certain habits and let other ones go when our living environment alters, for instance, if we go study abroad. I would like to take this question with me and continuously reflect on it during my remaining time in Leuven.
Familiarizing the unfamiliar
One of the biggest changes I experienced in Sweden, but which I never wrote about elaborately so far, was the change of means of transportation. While I was always walking my 800 meters to my primary school as a kid, and used public transportation every day of my secondary school and university life, there was only one time span in my life where I used my bike on an everyday basis. It was the time in high school, those two years where the every day commuting was kind of fun. Despite some cold icy days and a crash on one unhappy day, I was always looking forward to getting on my bike. I lived far away from school from school and it was a daily ritual to collect my two friends on the way there. Since we were the only three people in class coming from my village, it felt like we were this little bike gang from there. Writing about that makes me feel slightly nostalgic.
And I had the same feeling living here in Lund over the last few months. Since Lund is a small bike city, where everything is within cycling distance, everyone has a bike and uses it to go anywhere they want or have to. You wanna go to the shop? Hop on your bike! Want to go for some learning at your friend's house? Hop on your bike! Want to go to Copenhagen and have to go to the train station? Hop on your bike! Even though I have had this experience in my earlier life, it has become highly unfamiliar to me over the last years, when I used my bike only to get to the football pitch two, three times a month. But although it was a big change of an everyday habit, I got used to it very fast and enjoyed it from the beginning. And since everyone had a bike and used it, I once more had that feeling of being in a kind of bike gang. But this time it was more than just my fantasy. It was one of my friends who one day came up with the idea of finding a name for our gang. In the end we decided on Lunds Angels, the notorious bike gang of Lund. This idea developed so far that we even planned to make our own stickers and put them on our jackets. This sadly never became reality, but we still have our emblem and used the chance one day on our Lapland trip to make a gang picture. Of course that whole thing was just a big fun insider story, which never left our little family. But it still created this group bond, which showed a nice feeling of friendship, solidarity, and, for me at least, nostalgia.
This is just one of the experiences I made, where something unfamiliar grew familiar. Other examples would be the style of teaching, respectively the system of university lessons they have here, as well as the friendly relation to teachers and university staff in general or the ability to keep up the good mood and happiness despite the grey and often rainy dark days. What I still did not familiarize with is the use of credit card instead of cash. But this not for the reason of me not wanting to change that. I would even love to use credit card instead since it's so much more convenient to just have a card with you instead of all those coins and bills, and it would even be way more convenient if they would expand the contacless paying that's on the rise in Switzerland but missing here most of the times. But I rather refuse to use it simply because of the charge that would be laid on every transaction I would do, which would be much higher than the one time charge laid on my withdrawal. So all in all I got the feeling I can adapt fast to some new practices, as long as I don't have any clearly negative outcome from adapting. Since I've never seen myself as a conservative guy, relying strictly on his habits and practices and unable to get used to changes, my self-perception did not really change through this experience, but was much rather given proof that it was correct.
I am mournful when I think that this Sweden experience will end in few days. But I will look back on a wonderful time when I made lots of new good friends and experienced a lot of great unforgettable stories. I got the feeling that I do not really have to say goodbye to Sweden, since a part of me will always be here.