I think it’s safe to say that arriving in Paris a mere 3 hours before Macron announced a nationwide lockdown has been an experience and a half. After 5 months of waiting at home for my year abroad to finally start, I set off from London a month ago, my bags full of all the trench coats and knee-high boots I own, ready to take Paris by storm. Whilst I am officially starting to see the end of le confinement, my experience so far has not been what I expected.
During my first day in Paris, the final day before the lockdown began, I made my way rapidly to my office to pick up my work laptop, in order to do my internship online. The first thing that I noticed was the friendliness of the people I met in the office – quite the contrast to the typical portrayal of the French, see Emily in Paris on Netflix for reference. I think, however, that had more to do with the fact that I do actually speak French…
But I found myself, sitting alone in my Parisian apartment, staring out of the typical bay windows, wondering what to do for the next month (or more). Having chosen this particular flat for the area, the 7th of Paris’ 20 arrondissements, home to many intellectuals, politicians and ministries, as well as the artist Rodin and the quintessential French children’s book character Madeleine, I was never originally fazed by the lack of housemates. After all, there are other rooms available in the flatshare, and I was certain they’d be filled shortly. Alas, how wrong I was.
Instead of living the year abroad dream, the constant chatter and banter I expected has been replaced with a huge amount of self-reflection, a complete lack of human social interaction and the sense of dread for the boredom and loneliness that may lie ahead. We weren’t allowed to meet with people from other households and bars, restaurants, any non-essential shops (don’t worry, in France the boulangeries are absolutely considered essential), museums and galleries are all closed, and we even need to download an attestation form every time we want to go outside. Although, I can reassure you that, as a true Durham student, I have stocked up on enough wine and chocolate for the next few weeks, although perhaps I should have focused on less essential items too, perhaps pasta and vegetables?
Despite all of this, though, I can’t ignore the absolute advantages of my situation. First of all, after months of waiting, I am actually on my year abroad, which is more than many other students can say. My flat is two minutes from the Eiffel Tower too, so my 1km permitted walking radius allowed me to do a lap of the Champ de Mars, keeping its historic landmark in sight.
Secondly, I am also in Paris – if ever there were a city made for time spent lounging around, drinking coffee alone on my balcony, and writing my thoughts, it is this one. I am certainly not the only person to want to make the most of a month of almost total isolation and boredom (except, you know, my 9-6 online internship) by pretentiously drinking coffee, eating croissants and translating my genius thoughts into words for the world to enjoy. And, as my friends have reminded me, now I can walk around the apartment, sing loudly and enjoy the hedonism of living totally alone for the first time in my life, and in Paris as well. I prepared for the long month ahead, trekking across Paris for art supplies to rekindle my love for painting and drawing and ordering myself a range of books to read and notebooks in which to write. Even without the Café des Deux Magots and Café Flore, for now I’ll channel de Beauvoir and Sartre, imparting my musings in Paris from my balcony.
4 Brits in a Volkswagen Polo steaming up the Autobahn to the Baltic Sea.
The Northern coast of Germany is somewhere that I never thought I’d find myself. So, when a new British Council friend expressed her interest in a trip to Rügen, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself in for.
Join me as I take you along our route up the blustery beaches of the Baltic Coast and back again …
First stop was Wittenberg – known across Germany for being the place where Martin Luther lived and worked for most of his life. Also known by many East Germans as being a really boring city with not much there for except… well, Martin Luther.
In the spirit of things, we went into the Martin Luther Haus before motoring on northward.
After 7 hours of driving, we reached our destination. Rügen is what the Germans like to call a ‘Halbinsel’, a half island, which basically means they built a road to it so it’s not actually an island at all.
The whole island has a magical peacefulness about it, a feeling as if you’re on the edge of the world. The landscapes are vast and outstandingly beautiful. As you drive across the island, you pass through quaint villages that you can drive in and out of within a couple of minutes.
We stayed in an Airbnb a 10-minute walk from the beach and spent our evenings looking out towards Scandinavia with a Radler in hand.
One of Rügen’s main attractions is the Jasmund National Park, home to Germany’s ‘white cliffs’, which were sadly a bit of a tourist trap. However, we hiked beyond the usual viewing platforms to see if we could find a quieter picnic spot a little further up the coast. We really were quite chuffed when we managed to out-hike the Germans.
Lastly, on Rügen we visited the Sellin Seebrücke. The whole town of Sellin had a rather unexpected New Orleans vibe and the Seebrücke itself was lit up beautifully.
This tiny island am Arsch der Welt really is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever visited.
On our way back down South, we looked up some other points of interest to stop at as we’d already driven though Rostock.
We stumbled upon Güstrow, which is home to one of Germany’s best-known war memorial sculptures: ‘Der Schwebende’. It is a bronze sculpture of a floating angel originally made in 1927 by Ernst Barlach.
Our final pit stop was Potsdam. Once home to the Prussian kings, this city still oozes with royal charm.
The Sans Souci Park and Palace is the real gem of the city, with beautifully manicured hedges and fountains which make for an idyllic golden hour stroll.
All in all, I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend my Herbstferien (October half term). The Baltic Coast is a real hidden gem, which I was lucky to experience in great company, with a loyal Volkwagen to to help us along the way.
A week after arriving in Catania on the first leg of my year abroad, I began training in classical ballet at a highly rated dance school very close to my flat (and yes, I chose the flat due to its proximity to the studio, not the other way round). After getting over the initial shock of not understanding anything for about two weeks, it’s safe to say that my Italian has drastically improved from going to ballet. I thought my Italian was good before coming.
Dancing with a group of people who could not speak any English meant that I often had to refer to tiny muscles in Italian that you would never find in a textbook. I was learning the language as well as ballet. So, I was devastated when the Italian government announced that they would be closing gyms and dance studios across Italy for the second time.
While I had lost a huge part of my year abroad, my teacher had lost his income for the second time this year, and those who are training to be professional dancers had lost their education again. The Sicilian dance community was not having any of this. In response, ballet teachers in Catania, mine included, organised a Covid secure protest within 24 hours, entitled ‘Danza = Distanza’ (‘Dance = distance’ in English, but the Italian definitely sounds better).
We met outside Teatro Bellini, Catania’s main theatre, dressed in black, wearing masks, and with pointe shoes around our necks. The signs that read ‘Danza = Distanza’ and ‘Ci hanno rubato la nostra futura’ (trans. ‘they have stolen our future from us’) were tied to the theatre’s closed gates. We were positioned in evenly spaced lines; Covid safe and typical of a ballet class. The protest began with the Italian national anthem, which I do not know. Hidden benefit of the mask, nobody had a clue that I did not know the words.
Afterwards, a dance teacher spoke about how these lockdowns are killing the futures of aspiring dancers, teachers and choreographers. The rest of the protest was almost set out like a funeral. Among various chants about how dance is important and Covid safe, the teachers who organised the protest created a playlist of famous pieces of music from ballets, such as the overture from Swan Lake. While this was playing, we stood in complete silence, feet together, arms by our sides, heads down. For us dancers, we were mourning the loss of our art. For onlookers who recognised the music, we presented a jarring image; the music should be accompanied by the choreography. Alone, it is almost ghostly.
The result of this protest did not quite go to plan. We hoped that it would be understood that one can take a dance class in a Covid safe way, however, studios currently remain shut. However, we continue to train in online classes, and we hope to all be back in the studio stronger than ever before.
By Ava Cohen
You could be mistaken that you were back in the North East of England – confronted with an old arched bridge, a castle on a hill and an abundance of cobbled streets. However, on closer inspection you would realise you are very much in the heart of Germany, Heidelberg to be exact.
Pädagogium putting me through my paces
In order to kickstart the German segment of my Year Abroad, I decided the best plan of action was to sign up to a month-long intensive language course at the Heidelberger Pädagogium. On a similar line of thought a friend decided to do a course too – you could say it was double trouble from Durham. Neglecting the one occasion my teacher made me cry about German prepositions, I felt I really benefited from the full on daily four hour immersion. My classmates came from Turkey, Sri Lanka, China and Italy so I automatically became the spokesperson for all cultural British things, no pressure, right? Each morning as a warm up activity we had to bring along a current news story. An unavoidable topic was the dreaded ‘B’ word aka Brexit; I felt like I was preparing to become a diplomat trying to express the dilemma from both perspectives, when I was grilled on Britain’s political situation.
Culture shock? Or just German directness?
I wouldn’t say I experienced culture shock per se. Preconceived ideas that Germans are only cold and unfriendly were definitely debunked. For example, on the daily commute to the Pädagogium, I occasionally experienced some friendly chit chat and German grandma’s commenting on the weather. However, I wasn’t quite prepared for quite how direct Germans can be. In the supermarket my friend got tapped on the shoulder and lectured on the fact she had accidentally forgot to put her mask on.
Beers on the banks of the Neckar
Heidelberg has got to be one of the prettiest places I’ve visited in Germany; no wonder it is such a popular university town with natives and internationals alike. One of my favourite places has to be the castle, especially in the evening just before the sunset with a couple of Radlers in hand, as if to blend in with the local population. The castle has survived the ravages of war as well as multiple lightning strikes and its sandstone façade still stands proudly in front of the Königstuhl today so it would be rude not to pay it a visit.
A definite German trend I observed was people just having a couple of beers on them at all times. Sitting on a bench in the midday sun… slip out a beer; a group of friends in the park… simply pull out some beers from their satchel bags and on top of the Philosophenweg’s observatory point … of course a beer on a bench.
Another German cultural phenomenon I encountered was their love for bicycles. A true cycling culture seems to exist. This was exemplified by the well-established cycle path infrastructure and a whole cross-section of society using their two wheeled contraptions from: toddlers using balance bikes to octogenarians effortlessly weaving through the streets.
Heidelberg highlight reel
I took full advantage of, in the nicest way possible, my new foreign friends from the Pädagogium, particularly Antonio the Italian. We went from customising frozen Lidl pizzas with our own toppings to tasting authentic homemade Italian pizzas. Who knew that potato on pizza just works?
By some miracle it only rained on my arrival and departure from Heidelberg and the temperature remained around a balmy 30 degrees. One day we decided to take a trip to Wieblingen to an idyllic meadow, frequented mostly by locals, to swim in the clear waters of the Neckar. My pale Cumbrian complexion actually gained a healthy European glow.
Heidelberg truly took a piece of my heart; I didn’t want to leave. Its lasting impact on me was evident, by the end of my stay I could almost recite all the tram stops from our accommodation to the centre of town. If you are debating about where to go in Germany for your abroad, you will not be disappointed by the delights of the Germany’s romantic city has to offer. If nothing else, it provides the perfect year abroad backdrop for your social media feeds.
By Sarah Paterson
You’ve sorted out your Year Abroad pathway, you’ve booked your flights, the next thing on your mind is almost definitely accommodation, and for students heading to Germany that means the beginning of a long and arduous process with www.wg-gesucht.de.
Wohngemeinschafts (or WGs for short) are considered by many Germans to be an indispensable stepping stone on their way to becoming a fully-grown adult. On the surface, it may just seem like WGs are identical to every other form of student living across the continent. However, Wohngemeinschaft translates to ‘living community’ and they are seemingly more complex than a simple student house or flat share.
The basic concept is that a group of students or trainees live in an apartment together and share the costs of rent and bills. However, it is not uncommon for WGs to have a specific motive or common ground. Throughout the 1980s many WGs were politically motivated and led to student protests, including the Monday Demonstrations across East Germany between 1989-91. This means that WGs are a factor that is unique to German student culture. As a result, it is most likely that you will be living with other Germans, which is a great way to get some everyday linguistic immersion.
WG culture began in the post-WW2 era when many displaced persons and refugees had to be accommodated and many residential buildings had been destroyed during the war. It was considered to be an unusual and even revolutionary form of living until it became more accepted in the 1970s. As a result of these strong cultural roots, some WG’s are established institutions with a proud heritage of former residents and can be very picky about who they let into their ‘living community’. Because of this you often have to go through a ‘WG-casting’ which is basically an audition to become a housemate, which gives the www.wg-gesucht.de process it’s infamously tiresome reputation.
I’ve gathered a few tips from my own experience and that of fellow German Year-Abroaders to hopefully ease the accommodation angst of prospective YA students.
Finally, I’ve collated a list of vocabulary to help when looking for apartments in Germany, and also a couple of good international films to enjoy whilst in lockdown which are themed around WG-living.
Essential vocab when looking for a WG:
Die Kaution – Deposit
Die Miete – Rent payment
Der/die Vermieter(-in) – Landlord
(im)möbliert – (un)furnished
Warm/Kaltmiete – ‘with’ or ‘without’ bills
Das Apartment (web series)
L’auberge espagnole (film)
By Madelin Childs
When I got on my flight to northern Italy in January, I did not expect to be writing an article such as this, from my back garden in the UK, when I had planned on living la dolce vita to the max and soaking up the Italian sun with an aperol spritz in one hand and some delicious handcrafted gelato in the other. Instead, I’m sitting in the garden of my home in the north west of the UK with a cup of tea in one hand and a creme egg in the other ... underwhelming is an understatement! But for now, I am safe at home and I hope you are too!
In light of recent events, this week I am not writing on a Year Abroad topic per se. With lockdown comes a great opportunity to brush up on your language skills by watching some cinematic gems, some of which you may not have even heard of. So hit the lights, sit back on your sofa with a bowl of popcorn and check out some of these foreign-language classics.
Amélie (2001) is a quirky and colourful romantic comedy fantasy about a woman who decides to change the world by changing the lives of others. After a tragic event Amélie, who has grown up in isolation because of a misdiagnosed heart condition, realises that life is fleeting and decides to bring a bit of happiness to those around her. It is a true feel-good film and will inspire you to look for happiness in the everyday.
Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying, Russian)
Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is an old Soviet film – this 1957 creation is a cinematic gem, which has been praised for its distinct ‘unsovietness’ and innovative cinematography for its time. This film, which is one of my absolute favourites, follows the romance of Boris and Veronika and the turmoil which Veronika goes through when Boris is sent off to fight in the Second World War. This is a unique portrait of human suffering and redemption in the Soviet Union which will captivate you from start to finish. You can watch this and other Russian films for free, with English subtitles, at cinema.mosfilm.ru
Keinohrhasen (Rabbit Without Ears, German)
This 2007 romantic comedy stars the German heavyweights of the genre, Til Schweiger and Matthias Schweighöfer. Schweiger plays Ludo, a journalist who is sentenced to do community service at a day care centre, where he is reunited with Anna, who runs the day care and who he also happens to know from his younger days. Schweiger’s own daughter, Emma, stars as one of the children at the day care, providing maximum cuteness and top comedy moments.
La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, Italian)
This 1997 film has become a classic, both in Italy and worldwide. The story follows a Jewish father and his family, who are surrounded by Nazi death camps. Living in such an oppressive and hostile environment, he uses humour to protect his young son from the harsh reality of wartime life. This masterpiece will have you in both tears of laughter and sadness and is well worth a watch.
Spirited Away (Japanese)
Spirited Away is a beautifully-animated and well-scored masterpiece by the famous Studio Ghibli. The story follows Chihiro, a 10 year old girl, who stumbles upon an abandoned theme park with her parents. After her parents eat the food at the park, they are turned into pigs, and Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku, who explains that they have entered a spirit world and she must work to set her parents free. Released in 2001, this Oscar-winning film remains the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, and there is also an English dub available if you’re not feeling bold enough to give Japanese a go. Even if you’re not generally a fan of animated films, this is a great watch and you won’t regret it. It’s also available on Netflix right now, so what are you waiting for?
Hannah Klimas, Year Abroad Editor
They say that time flies. This is truer than ever when you’re on your year abroad. Whether you’re walking the sophisticated streets of Paris or trekking along the less trodden paths of rural Chile, there are some common activities that you can do to make the most of your time abroad. After all, when will you be presented with another opportunity like this? So, carpe diem and let’s get started.
1. Make international friends
I wholeheartedly recommend getting to know as many people from the local area as possible, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they know the place like the back of their hand and they can tell you all the best places to go. Secondly, you can (try to) practice the language of the place where you’re living. Thirdly, and perhaps the most useful thing of all, if you just can’t deal with speaking in a foreign language anymore, they can order for you at a restaurant or book tickets for you. What are friends for? Besides, I still keep in contact with most of them now, which is useful for asking for help with assignments (worth bearing in mind). Going to see them also happens to be the perfect excuse to travel. The possibilities are endless.
2. Join a club/society
This can seem very daunting at first, but it’s a great opportunity to try something new and improve your language at the same time. On my year abroad in Germany (at my undergrad uni I was lucky enough to do a year and a half abroad), I took up Swedish for beginners at my local Volkshochschule (adult education centre), and not only did I meet some great people, but now I can say some basic phrases in Swedish.Danke schön, ‘Los geht’s mit Schwedisch A1’! What a textbook that was. Then in Russia there was good old Russky Klub. Singing Soviet classics like Kalinka and Katyusha, drinking tea from a samovar and eating Russian biscuits, playing Mafia with locals. Now, that is cultural immersion at its finest.
When I met with my Italian friend in Venice on my year abroad, she said the best way to explore the city is to get lost in it. I can totally see what she meant and travel is the best way to broaden your horizons. Also, from a purely practical point of view, unless you’re on a remote island, you’re perfectly geographically positioned to explore new parts of the world and to make the most of local student discounts. You can also just wander around, taking in the sights and sounds of your own town or city, soaking up the atmosphere. I encourage you to fully exploit every discount and travel opportunity available to you. After all, you only get one life and it’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.
4. Make memories
Go to see that band you’ve always wanted to see, visit that monument that’s always inspired you, try that local delicacy. Your time abroad may be short, but these are memories that'll stay with you forever. I also like to collect tickets and make scrapbooks of my time abroad, which is a great way to look back on all the crazy and exciting times.
5. Accept it for what it is
Finally, as crazy and exciting an experience your year abroad will be, it is important to remember that you will have both good and bad days. And that’s ok. There’s a lot of pressure to make the year abroad the ‘best year of your life’, but, in reality, it’s a mixed bag. Give yourself time to adapt and work out what activities are best for you, then it’ll soon feel a lot more like your second home.
Hannah Klimas, Year Abroad Editor
When you tell people you’re studying abroad in Russia, you tend to get responses along the lines of: ‘wow, aren’t you scared?’, ‘isn’t Russia all grey?’, ‘be careful out there’. Not all that confidence-inspiring. Well, the reality isn’t anywhere near as bleak as you might think, so let me show you the real side of student life in Russia’s Venice of the North.
With your studenchesky bilet, or student ID, you can get into quite a few museums around the city for free. You can even get into the State Hermitage/Winter Palace complex for free with your British student ID, which is well worth it. Did you know that if you spent 8 hours there every day, it’d take you nearly 15 years to see all of its art? Why not get a head start on your year abroad? There are other perks such as getting into the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, home to the famous Amber Room, for free every second Sunday of the month, so it’s worth remembering your student ID!
One of the main benefits of Russia is that the pound goes a long way. Back home you may be an impoverished student, but in Russia you’ll be rolling in the roubles. As such, you can afford to eat like a king and it’ll only set you back a few quid. The bizness lanch (yes, this is actually how they say it) is great for those on a budget, as you get 3 courses and a drink for just a couple of quid. Bargain. One of the most popular cuisines in Russia is Georgian food, which includes such delicious dishes as khinkali, a type of dumpling,and khachapuri, which is an eggy-cheesy bread boat of goodness. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
St. Petersburg is a great place to live if you want to see some more of the world, as you have easy access to Finland and the Baltics. You’re also close to Veliky Novgorod and Vyborg if you fancy exploring the real Russia beyond the cosmopolitan bubbles of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The high-speed Sapsan train will also get you from Piter (as the locals call it) to Moscow within 4 hours, so if the capital is calling, it’s not too far away. Whether you’re looking for a day trip or want to go further afield, you’ve got plenty of options.
Russian nightlife is certainly something to look forward to. Of course, the alcohol is cheaper, and shisha is readily available, so you’re already off to a good start. There are also several bars which are popular with foreign students, such as Poison and Killfish, and if you want to go clubbing, Tantsploschadka near the Church on the Spilled Blood is always a good place to go. Karaoke is also a big deal in Russia, so head on down to Dumskaya to belt out a few 90s classics to start your night right. In the summer, just watch out for the bridges opening if you live on one of the islands, so you don’t get stuck on the mainland!
Well, I guess I couldn’t neglect this topic, seeing as it’s the whole reason you’re there. At first, things were a little overwhelming, as Russian universities have this nightmare system of para, 90 minute lessons with no break (that being said, all my Master’s classes at Durham are 2 hours long). At first it’s hard to adapt to these longer classes and everything being taught in Russian, but after a week or so it feels like second nature and you don’t even notice the difference. Yeah, you might make some embarrassing mistakes (word of advice- watch your pronunciation of pisat’, to write…), but it’s all part of the learning process and it’s all good fun.
Hannah Klimas, Year Abroad Editor
As of this Monday, we have now entered one of the best times of year in Russia – Maslenitsa! Why have just one pancake day when you can have a whole week? Now that’s an idea I can get behind. However, this is just one of many exciting Russian festivals which you can enjoy when studying abroad, so let me introduce you to some of Russia’s best-known and best-loved festivals.
Paskha (Easter, April)
Paskha is the Russian version of Easter and, as such, its traditions are a little different to back home. If you didn’t know already, Russia is an Orthodox country, and paskha is usually observed after a period of post, or fasting, during which time many restaurants in Russia serve a special lent menu. Houses are typically cleaned before ‘Clean Thursday’, when Russians dye and decorate eggs – none of that chocolate business here. On Saturday, traditional Easter food is cooked and is usually blessed at church during the evening service. You also get to eat kulich, which is a delicious Easter bread, usually served with icing and tvorog, which is a sort of sweet cream cheese. Would definitely recommend.
Prazdnik Vesny i Truda (Labour Day, 1st May)
Labour Day is a pretty big deal in Russia and usually you don’t just get one day off, but three, which is even better. It’s usually a time when people go away to their dacha or further afield, although I just used the opportunity to explore the more ‘cultural’ side of St. Petersburg (of course, I mean bars). After a taxing 4 day week at uni, you’re definitely in need of a break, so what better excuse to relax than a national holiday.
Den’ Pobedy (Victory Day, 9th May)
Victory Day is arguably the biggest festival of the year in Russia, commemorating the end of the Second World War. You have to start your day early, so as to get a decent spot among your fellow festival-goers. What is there to see? Well, pretty much everything. In St. Petersburg, there was a tank parade and a performance by a military band, followed by a flotilla on the River Neva, plane flyovers, the Immortal Regiment parade (where descendants of the fallen march down the main street of St. Petersburg, Nevsky Prospekt, holding their portraits), and the classic firework display when night descends. It certainly has an atmosphere like no other and the renditions you hear of Katyusha as everyone piles onto the temporarily-pedestrianised Nevsky Prospekt are truly something.
Den’ Goroda Sankt-Peterburg (St. Petersburg City Day, 27th May)
St. Petersburg is a city which prides itself on its history and culture, and this is never more apparent than on its city day at the end of May. Various stalls line the streets and there are a number of events, ranging from parades to boating displays on the River Neva. It may be a relatively young city, but there is certainly a lot to celebrate in the Venice of the North.
Den’ Rossii (Russia Day, 12thJune)
Another big festival is Russia Day, which provides yet another welcome break from the gruelling 4 day week of a study abroad student at St. Petersburg State University. This is another good chance to relax and take in the sights and sounds of the city. It's also a popular time of year to visit Russia’s bustling seaside resorts, such as Sochi.
Hannah Klimas, Year Abroad Editor