Some things remain comfortingly consistent on the continent: the presence of pumpkin spice lattes in Starbucks the second leaves start falling off trees, the pointless academic bureaucracy whilst trying to complete the seemingly simple task of enrolling for modules at university, and the fact it is indeed possible to purchase the Cadbury’s chocolate bar that comes with generic smarties, jelly beans and popping candy, albeit rebranded as Milka and available in bars twice the size. Autumn is upon us, and the semester has at last begun.
Two weeks into classes I’m discovering that German academics seem far more laid back than their British counterparts. There’s no real requirement to buy texts, much less any specific edition, and almost all of my secondary reading is available on Blackboard saving students hunting through journals every night just to find one article. That being said, Blackboard is a minefield of frustration worthy of rivalling Leeds’ module enrolment.
Whilst the reading for an English and History student (or, American Studies and Englisch Philologie whilst I’m here) is comparable if not more to Leeds, assessment is based entirely on class participation, presentations, and the completion of a final essay ranging anyway from 3000 to 7000 words. There doesn’t seem to be much method in the way this is decided; I take a BA class worth 5 ECTS credits (a must for ERASMUS students) for which I have to write a 7000 word paper, and an MA class worth 8 which I only have to write 4000 for. Still, I can’t complain, since I do have until March to actually write them. Seminar sizes are often far bigger than Leeds, with anywhere from fifteen to forty being regarded as absolutely normal. Having said that, last week sixty eager students turned up to my ‘Representations of Britishness’ class and I thought the tutor was about to have an anxiety attack when he walked into the room. After five months away from academia, it’s a struggle to turn my brain back into critical analysis mode, but so far, so gut.
Still the subject matter is proving interesting. My classes include ‘The Dark Side of the Screen: Portrayals of Dracula and Frankenstein in Film’ and ‘Cultural Narratives of the 1980s’ whilst friends of mine are studying ‘The Spy Novels of Joseph Conrad’ and ‘What Was the Beat Generation?’ The scope is far narrower, which is great if you find a class centred on a topic you’re particularly interested in, and provides a refreshing change to the catch-all studies of first and second year in Leeds.
Highlights of the past month include a sterling game of 3D UV Mini-Golf (which we had to book a week in advance due to demand), hanging around a technically illegal cellar bar, and discovering a fantastic sushi place ten minutes’ walk from my front door. I’m still experiencing a love/hate relationship with Berlin’s pounding techno and house music, but the fact clubs stay open pretty much all weekend is a novelty. Last Friday night out finished at 9am Saturday and culminated in much-needed Eggs Florentine and fresh orange juice at an Australian breakfast joint. Much more civilised than the standard post-club falafel; not to say that hasn’t happened more times than I’m proud to admit…
I’m also in efforts to improve my German now working in the John F. Kennedy Institute’s ‘Cafeté’ for two hours a week, which consists of making coffee, checking no one’s stealing the float- it’s an honour based payment system- and providing the café’s playlist. So far every customer has spoken to me in perfect English, leading me to suspect my nationality is so visible I might as well be wearing a Pearly Queen’s getup whilst I’m wandering around campus. Nevertheless I’m holding out hope I can assimilate myself and by the end of the year convince everyone I’m a native with impeccable German skills, and not, to quote Sting, an illegal alien.
The weather is comparable to England in October, a mixture of mist, rain, cold and occasional sunshine peeking through the clouds, though I did take the plunge and buy my snow boots and winter coat this week. The looming threat of a German winter is something that’s always at the back of my mind, though the temptation every morning to stay in bed huddled with my kittens (Walter and Jesse, two more strangers in a foreign land) and watching Futurama on Netflix is already present. Yet living in a foreign country has made me entirely more productive than I was at home. Perhaps it’s the sense I get that I’m always missing out on something when I’m staying in; after all Berlin waits for no man. Or woman. I’ve discovered that enough times at the pedestrian crossings here to attest to its accuracy.