by Sean Scally
As the academic year in the US draws to a close, uncertainty, stress, and fatigue are each a familiar presence. However, here in Germany – where the semester has just begun, and where the workload is arguably less intense – I too am faced with certain perils. What exactly is this food that I have ordered? Why am I being reprimanded by this old woman in the street? (Apparently, it is not socially acceptable to cross the street before the light turns green – lesson learned.) How much bread is too much bread? (German bread – and German beer, for that matter – is truly marvelous. Another lesson learned.)
I am currently on exchange at the Ruhr-Universität (RUB) in Bochum. This is my second time studying abroad, and the third country that I have been fortunate enough to study in. From January until mid-March I took part in an intensive language class, wherein I developed basic language skills and worked closely with other incoming students who faced the same challenges I did. The class was often difficult though enjoyable, and friendships were forged over our mutual struggle to comprehend the mysteries of German grammar. Much of my first months here were also spent making use of my Semesterticket, a train pass that allows students to travel throughout the region for a very affordable one-off fee. My state – Nordrhein-Westfalen – is the largest in Germany, and with my Semesterticket I have been fortunate to explore the cities of Köln, Dortmund, Bonn, Düsseldorf, and more. This ticket has offered plenty of extra-curricular opportunities to develop my language skills and gain some understanding of everyday life in Germany. The benefits of this pass are many; in fact, one can probably learn as much from traveling around the state than from work in the classroom.
That being said, all of the homework in the world could not have prepared me for Karneval, a time during which the citizens of Düsseldorf, Köln, and more take to the streets and are gripped by a sort of collective insanity, souped up on copious amounts of alcohol and high-quality German sausages. I’m told that the festivities have a connection to the Catholic celebration of Lent, though it is unclear exactly where Jägermeister fits within the liturgical calendar. Garish costumes are worn as the revelers celebrate their civic pride; the cities resemble a Game of Thrones battlefield, soundtracked by Kölsch lager and pounding techno music from the 1990s. It is an incredible amount of fun. Of course, this being Germany, all festive debris is cleaned away in an orderly fashion, and everyone returns to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.
Thankfully, Karneval comes but once a year, and, after all, there is serious work to be done. My academic experiences so far have admittedly been very challenging. Class discussion is held in German, and though there is not much expected of me in terms of contribution, even trying to keep up is very difficult. Class formats are also different than in the US, and great importance is placed on your ability to independently conduct and present original research. The campus at RUB is labyrinthine, and with its brutalist architecture from the 1960s and dour winter weather, even finding your way around can initially be intimidating. However, rising to these challenges is a privilege, not to mention a great opportunity. Living and working abroad forces you out of comfort zones and demands that you adapt to new experiences; moreover, the opportunity to cultivate connections and network with like-minded academics is also a bonus. The faculty here have been welcoming and are extremely helpful in providing guidance and advice.
I have been fortunate enough to study abroad before and believe that being able to study in an atmosphere which demands hard work truly offers an opportunity to thrive. And if it all becomes too much, there is always the option to chill out and eat a pretzel. Lesson learned.