Since returning to the UK in the summer after spending a full year in Germany, I’ve found myself regularly playing the storyteller for curious friends and family. Reminiscing the places I visited and sharing anecdotes - usually from a WG party or one of the summer evenings my friends and I took ‘just a couple beers’ down to the riverside - has given me many opportunities to reflect on what made the year so special and enriching.
I have a great fondness for the places I spent a great deal of my time, but one in particular stands out. Was it Berlin, where I spent the first month of my year abroad experiencing life through the lens of artists and musicians based in the capital? Attending my uncle’s gigs in some of the coolest jazz hangouts and getting lost in the streets of Kreuzberg, discovering a new favourite coffee haunt every day, gave me a taste of my dream life I’d only believed to exist in books. Or was it Passau, the town I was fortunate enough to call home for the rest of the year? Right on the Austrian borner, this picture-postcard student city is where I made some of my happiest memories and formed the most beautiful relationships within my circle of friends there, who I now consider to be family.
Berlin and Passau undeniably hold two dear places in my heart. But always lost in my backlog of year abroad tales is Pilsting, the sleepy village nestled deep in the Bayerisches Wald and location of my British Council placement.
As a city girl with expectations of a year spent living my best cosmopolitan life, to say I was disheartened by this is an understatement. And once I learned that the school was so rural that my future colleagues were worried that I wouldn’t have a car, my year abroad became not only an anti-climax, but a logistical nightmare. Cities to me are familiar, sociable and comfortable. In the weeks leading up to beginning my placement, the dread and uncertainty had built up so much that I’d started to resent the little village. At the last minute, and after weeks of emails, I managed to secure an apartment in Passau (that’s another story) but it didn’t feel stable.
Now as I write this, I feel like I owe it to the town to give something back and talk about my time working there with the same enthusiasm that I have for the cities I lived in. My co-workers were so accommodating and flexible, who took me under their wings and treated me like a fully fledged member of staff. The locals were some of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting; namely a father and son bus driver duo! As a result of my long and tricky commute, they offered me free journeys to school (with all of the children I taught!) which allowed me to practice my German, learn about the area and try to get to grips with the Bavarian accent and dialect. It’s amazing how something I was dreading turned out to be the loveliest possible outcome of my year abroad.
Everything about Pilsting made being ‘the English girl’ something special. I wasn’t lost, nor was I left to my own devices to play the role of the clueless outsider like I’d anticipated, sticking out like an annoying addition to the tiny town. Every walk into the Marktplatz after work to wait for the bus, I was always greeted with at least one ‘Hallo Anna!’ from somebody. I’ll never forget that.
By Anna Donkin
I’m not sure how many hours I spent daydreaming about my year abroad, but, never in my wildest dreams did I picture working in a bougee swiss equivalent of St Trinian’s. My curated vision of devouring every carb possible in Pisa was quickly destroyed by Covid and so, endless job applications became the most structure I had during lockdown. I applied on a whim to Beau Soleil (a boarding school in the Alps) and, when two weeks went by, I had almost forgotten about the school entirely. I was reminded at Loch Tay with some friends when I randomly got service and saw in my inbox that I had been invited to interview the next morning. So, on a hotspotted iPad in the middle of the Trossachs, my year abroad finally started!
From the outset, it was a bizarre but brilliant experience. I arrived in Geneva exactly five days after the interview and was greeted by Pascal, one of the school drivers. I had initially agreed with my dad that wearing all my heaviest clothing on the flight to save storage space was a resourceful idea, but unfairly resented him when I found myself sweating pushing a trolley of 400 coat hangers through IKEA’s demo kitchens wearing hiking boots and three hoodies. This moment back in August was my first role at Beau Soleil and honestly, months later I am still not quite sure what my job is. The official title of ‘graduate assistant’ is somewhat ambiguous, as I am neither a graduate, nor am ever sure of where I am supposed to be assisting. One moment, I will be incorrectly trying to explain in French a law of physics to a class, the next apologising to one of the cleaners for the wine bottles spilt everywhere by the seniors, or for the silly putty the juniors have let seep into the carpets of their dorm.
Although Villars is a small place, where the prospect of going into ‘town’ to buy tampons without a student yelling ‘Tonks’ (a Harry Potter nickname given to me since I died my hair purple) at me is a dreamlike fantasy, when the ski season started the place was transformed and I could not have felt luckier to have been where I was. The snow-covered Alps made the decision for me that I would stop fighting Brexit and quarantines to try get into Pisa for my Erasmus term, but instead complete the academic year working here. Thinking back to the snowy pistes and hypothermic lake, memories of both the people and the place will be greatly treasured when I’m back in Durham this year.
By Maddie Sutton
Having just returned to Durham after spending the year living and working in Paris, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what makes the city, and its culture, so magical. Is it the beauty of the architecture, the way your eye is drawn in a million different directions once you step out onto the street? Is it the scent of the exquisite boulangeries, expertly churning out coffee and patisseries day after day? Or is it the classy air of Parisians, they way their jeans fit perfectly, and they always look picture-perfect?
Answer: it’s a combination of all the above. Not purely the elements on their own, but rather the entire process of what the French refer to as ‘flâner.’ Whilst we don’t quite have an exact equivalent in English, this verb largely translates to ‘to walk whilst being immersed in one’s surroundings.’ And I can’t think of a better verb to aptly summarise my time in Paris.
Moving to the city of love amidst a global pandemic, I only naturally began to panic about the impending lockdown alone. I worried whether I would be able to see Paris at all, whether I had wasted a trip. I was glad to find that I was wrong.
Whilst at times lonely, I can’t express how much I gained from the solitude of my wonderings across Paris. Spending quality time alone is not something I’ve ever had, or wanted, to do. But apparently it was everything I needed. The amount of lunch breaks, early evenings and weekends I spent exploring the streets of Paris adds up to a hefty sum.
So what is it about these mindless, immersive wonderings that makes them so good for the soul?
I think there’s three elements to it: the romanticism of the city, the meditative aspect, and the space for thoughts. Often referred to as ‘main character energy,’ walking around any magical place, like Paris, triggers a feeling of being the protagonist in a novel or film. Throw in an existential playlist, filled with Lana Del Rey and all the Taylor Swift you can imagine, and you might just feel as though you are walking alone to the soundtrack of the movie based on your life.
Walking, either in time to music, or whilst listening to the sounds around you, certainly also has a meditative aspect. Even though I’ve never been one to swear by meditation, perhaps I had just never tried it the French way. Often selecting to walk home, rather than taking a 20 minute metro. Those hours of quiet bliss really do put you in a trance. I found I had time to really connect to my surroundings. I got to know the city on foot, and eventually felt as though I was walking on pure muscle memory alone. The more I walked, the more zen I felt, despite the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
And finally, we have the pure alone time of the flâneur. Have you ever felt like you don’t have the time to truly sit with your feelings, work out how you feel, process emotions? I sometimes struggle to just sit and process. The act of leaving the house, walking and thinking at once, takes you out of your usual thought patterns and into a new headspace. Rather than replaying the same scenes in my head, I found myself unpacking, letting go and thinking in new ways. I communicate better as a result, understand myself better, and have more patience for myself.
So, the art of being a flâneur. I think you should try it.
By Erin Waks
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