Thoughts on the end of a semester

I’m leaving Germany in 20 days. 20. I can’t even fathom it. This has been my home for four months. I’ve grown so comfortable her. I have a rhythm, I have a Germany-specific friend group, I have a boyfriend…  I have a home here. Which is not to say that I have abandoned all ties to the United States and I’m now an ex-pat. But it’s just been so long since that was my life that the thought of returning to it is so strange.

Keeping up with this blog has certainly been a struggle. I told myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those people who pledges to blog the whole way and leave no adventure undocumented, only to fall off the wagon a month in. But since I’ve been here, I understand now how that happens. So much is happening here all the time that the thought of taking time out to sit down and write about it is overwhelming. Where to begin?

So I have finally documented the last of my major trips. There were some smaller journeys along the way that unfortunately didn’t make it in, like my trip back down to Munich to see a Fleet Foxes concert, or my day trip to Heidelberg. But in my defense, I had nearly finished a post about the concert trip to Munich when my browser crashed and I lost it all. So I tried, at least.

But in addition to missing out on the stories of some smaller trips, I haven’t done a very good job documenting my day-to-day life out here. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been going to classes too! Occasionally. This is actually my second-to-last week of classes. I have a couple papers to write and one oral test, but nothing should be too terribly difficult.

I only have one trip planned out for the rest of my time. From July 17 – 20 I’ll be in the small resort town of Neuharlingersiel, which is on the North Sea coast. My aforementioned boyfriend Sven and I will be going there together, and I’m quite excited for it—sort of like a mini-vacation within what was largely already a vacation. I’ve purposefully avoided talking about him in this blog because I didn’t want things to get too personal, but it would be sort of hard to avoid talking about him when I write about my Neuharlingersiel trip. And probably most people reading this blog knew about him already. But anyway. There may be a brief two day trip back up to Köln before that, but I’m not certain.

But what is certain is that on July 25 I will fly back to Seattle and will probably arrive equal parts elated and devastated. The downside of becoming so settled here is that it will be incredibly hard to leave. But my one comfort is knowing that this is by no means my last trip to Germany. I love it here and will work on getting back as soon as possible. The end of this trip is approaching, but I know there is a greater journey that is only just beginning.

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Tour overload

On Sunday we (the language course participants) went on a hike to Spiegelslust, a 19th-century watchtower. It’s also known by the name Kaiserwilhelmturm (Kaiser Wilhelm’s Tower) but Marburgers dislike this name, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me.

I can see the arguments for both sides of the uterus-or-heart debate.

The hike up wasn’t much of a hike at all; it really only took about 15 to 20 minutes. It was nice to spend some time in the woods though. It’d been a while since I had really been in nature.

The area surrounding the tower provides some wonderful views of Marburg. I didn’t go up the tower itself (it cost a couple euros), but you really don’t need to if you just want to overlook Marburg. The front of the tower is adorned with either a heart or a uterus (depending who you ask – see the picture and decide for yourself) that lights up at night when you call some certain number. So whenever you’re walking around the city at night, if you look out into the hills you can usually see the tower brightly lit up.

We sat down to enjoy the outdoors at one of the cafes near the tower. I opted to just have a hot chocolate – the food there was way too expensive, in my opinion. I try not to spend more than 5 euros a meal and am usually successful in this.

The hike back down was somewhat more eventful. Those of us living in the dorms that were in the vicinity of the tower split off from the rest of the group, sent off with vague instructions of what the right direction was. As we began walking there were multiple forks in the path and we weren’t certain we were heading the right way at all, but eventually we came out on a familiar street and were able to figure out the way home. I’m certain there had to have been a better way than the one we chose, however.  But I’d really like to go back to the tower sometime, especially on a sunny day, when I’m sure the view of the city below is much nicer.

On Wednesday we went on a group excursion to Wiesbaden, which is the capital city of the state of Hessen. It was about an hour and a half bus ride, and we got into Wiesbaden around 10:30 a.m. We immediately went to the Landtag, the seat of Hessen’s state government, for a tour.

I had the option to take an English tour, but I decided that I needed to start challenging myself more and so I went on the German tour instead. This was definitely a good choice – it wasn’t nearly as challenging as I had feared, and I would say I understood about 80 percent of what was said – not bad.

Inside the old part of the Landtag.

The tour itself was very interesting. Part of the Landtag is the former home of a prominent German duke in the 1800s, so this part of the building is very beautifully and ornately decorated, with richly painted walls and ceilings and dazzling chandeliers. The newer part of the Landtag houses the actual Plenarsaal, where the representatives from the different cities debate and pass legislature. This building was a harsh contrast to the older parts, being starkly white and decidedly modern – very simple and bright, with many windows to let in as much natural light as possible.

After the tour, we had about an hour and a half to wander about to find some food. A few of us stopped to get some wurst, taking in the various shops, cafes and restaurants we passed along the way. We didn’t go into many, but in general Wiesbaden seemed to be a fairly chic city, at least in the areas around the Landtag – many nice restaurants, shoe stores, purse stores, clothing stores, etc. It definitely would be a great place to shop.

Still, Wiesbaden had an extremely different feel than Marburg or Frankfurt. Marburg has a lot of old-city charm, at least in Altstadt, with cobblestone streets, timber frame houses and narrow, winding ways. Wiesbaden streets were wide and stone-paved, and the buildings themselves were pretty much all from the 1800s or later. Frankfurt is some sort of fusion of the two – parts of Frankfurt are hundreds of years old, other parts strikingly modern. I’ve now only seen three different German cities, but each has been decidedly distinct.

After the lunch break, we all met up again to go on a tour of the city. Again, there was the option to go on an English or a German tour, and, with my confidence boosted by the tour of the Landtag, I once more opted for the German tour.

However, I soon realized that I have a maximum amount of German that I can handle in a single day, and I quickly hit my cap. It’s tiring enough schlepping all around a city, but adding the additional strain of understanding a foreign language throughout it all can really wear you out. Halfway through the city tour, I was pretty drained and understanding far less of the tour than I had earlier in the day at the Landtag. I think many of my fellow students experienced the same level of exhaustion – you don’t realize how tiring hyper-attentive listening can be until it hits you like a brick wall.

So, I got something out of the city tour, but not nearly as much as I probably should have. By the end of it I was totally disengaged, just following along with the group without really making an effort to listen.

Tidbits that I can share with you:

–The oldest structure in Wiesbaden is the remains of a Roman aqueduct built in the 300s, called the Heidenmauer.

St. Elizabeth's Church

–Wiesbaden has thermal hot springs running throughout the city, which you can touch and even drink from via various fountains and basins throughout the city. You are advised not to drink more than a liter per day. This is why Wiesbaden rose to prominence in the 1800s; it became a popular destination for people seeking to benefit from the restorative health properties of its hot springs.

–There’s a really cool Russian Orthodox Church located on top of a hill. This was at the end of the tour, when I was tuckered out, so I don’t have a lot of details here. According to wikipedia, it was built in the 1850s after the death of the Duke of Nassau’s wife, who was a Russian princess. But it’s pretty, and the land it’s located on was apparently ceded to the Russian czar. So I think I also visited Russia on Wednesday?

Despite being so worn out at the end of the day, I would like to come back to Wiesbaden – probably not until the summer, though. There is a lot of green space there that I think would be particularly lovely on a sunny, warm day. But since it’s located within the state of Hessen, train rides there are free for me, meaning it wouldn’t be too hard to make another trip in the future. Hopefully I can make it happen!

Some assorted observations

Life is definitely starting to stabilize. On Tuesday we began our intensive language course (sprachkurs). Now every Monday through Thursday we will be receiving language instruction for four hours a day. Yikes! But I know the course will be incredibly helpful as far as gaining fluency in the language, and thus far I have found it to be quite enjoyable. The course level I was placed in is perfect for my abilities, and I can already tell my German competency is improving.

It is getting disorienting moving between German and English, though. I’d like to begin to speak more exclusively in German, even with my fellow international students, but that’s not really possible with all of them because they have varying levels of German experience. So, English can’t be eliminated completely, but I hope I can begin to rely on it less and less.

I’m excited for some of the opportunities we have as part of the course. We will be meeting this Friday for a night out in Marburg’s bars, going for a hike to a 19th-century Prussian watchtower on Sunday, and making a group trip to Wiesbaden (the capital of Hessen) next week. So although I am becoming more settled here, the opportunities for exploration are still far from over.

Assorted observations about life in Germany

Water Fountains: They don’t exist. Period. I have yet to see one here. I mean, I’m sure they exist SOMEWHERE, but they are nowhere near as prevalent as they are in the United States. This seems particularly strange to me, because it seems that water fountains have a wide appeal – why wouldn’t people want immediately accessible, free water? When I pose this question to Germans, they say you can just drink from a bathroom faucet if you really don’t want to buy water. And while I realize the water coming out of the faucet is probably just as good as what you might get out of a water fountain, that still just doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer.

Side note – I have also had an incredibly hard time finding a replacement water bottle here, such as a steel/aluminum bottle or a plastic nalgene. People just don’t use those here – they either buy a new bottle of water or reuse and old plastic bottle.

Recycling: In a display of true German precision, recycling is a big deal here. When trying to dispose of an item, it’s common to be confronted with several bins, each intended only for certain items – single-stream recycling is apparently not en vogue here. There are bins for paper, plastics, garbage, green glass, brown glass, clear glass… they’re into their recycling here. I think I am supposes to sort my own trash in my dorm room. We’ll see how that goes.

Cigarettes: Smoking is far more prevalent here than it is in the United States. There are areas inside the university’s union building and cafeterias for smokers, and it’s impossible to go out to a bar and not come back reeking of smoke. They also have cigarette dispensers throughout the city streets, which I think is very strange, specifically because it means ANYONE with money can buy them – even children.

University perks: There are a lot of things the other American students and I have become accustomed to at our home universities in the United States that are simply not the case here. One obvious example – internet access. Only some of the dorms here have internet access (and I think when they do it’s just through an Ethernet cable, not wireless) and I am not in one of those dorms. So if I want free wireless access, I have to take a bus down to one of the university buildings, a 15 to 20 minute ride. Except then, I am limited by the hours the building is open – on weekdays, the union is open until 8 p.m.; on weekends, its hours are severely limited (the library is at least open until midnight every night, although it is a bit farther out than the union). Back at Marquette, all dorms and university apartment buildings are wired, and many of our academic buildings are open until midnight (our library is open 24/7).  Many (although not all) American universities offer free gym memberships, but here in Marburg that would cost 80 euros a month.

Marburg also has 100 percent more castles than Marquette.

But there is a critical flipside to this, and that is the cost of tuition. We get a lot of perks at our universities in the United States, but, compared to German universities (and most other European systems), we pay dearly for it. German students pay about 500 euros a year in tuition (though they don’t even refer to it as such; it is paid as semester fees). Compare that to the $10,000 a year (with scholarships) I am paying to go to Marquette.

We (the Americans) complain a lot about everything we’re used to that our university here in Marburg just doesn’t provide, but I don’t think I’m too far off when I say there are probably a lot of American students who would gladly forego all the conveniences of their American education if they could simply graduate college without tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Honeymooning

I definitely in the midst of what has been called the honeymoon stage of studying abroad – practically everything you see and do is wonderful, and it’s as though Europe can do no wrong.

I’ve done a fair amount of exploring of Marburg over the past few days and I just really love this city. In particular, the Oberstadt (upper city) is pretty much everything you could want in a small European city: tons of specialty shops, pubs, cafes and street musicians amidst winding cobblestone streets framed by timber-frame buildings. There’s just so much more here than I realized, and I didn’t expect to spend multiple days exploring Marburg – I thought it was too small.

The Markt in the Oberstadt, full of more European quaintness than you can shake a stick at.

We went on an organized tour of the Oberstadt yesterday which was extremely interesting and informative. I felt a bit lame opting for the English version instead of the German, but I’m glad I did because that ensured I understood everything and didn’t miss out on any interesting details, such as that the Brothers Grimm studied in Marburg or the history of the unearthed ruins of a 14th century synagogue in the city.

I’ve also had a great time getting to know the international students during our orientation over the past few days. I have been a little frustrated at times because they haven’t been good about informing us of what we’re doing when (making it hard to make outside plans and also meaning that we sometimes didn’t bring documents that we’d need that day) but overall I have gotten so much out of these few days. They’ve helped me fill out all my necessary paperwork, and I’ve also gotten to meet some awesome people. I’m not sure how much I’ll see them all once we start our language course on Monday, since we’ll be divided according to our language capabilities, but hopefully we all still get together a lot.

I’m trying to rally some people to go to Frankfurt tomorrow. We can get their for free because being enrolled in the university means we get free train rides anywhere in the state of Hessen. So it seems to me, if we have nothing better to do tomorrow and one of Germany’s largest cities is only an hour away, why shouldn’t we go?

Bumps Along the Way

A couple experiences over the past few days have reminded me that my transition here can’t be totally flawless – there will be bumps in the road.

On Wednesday evening, I took the bus that I thought would get me back to my dorm. The bus I would normally take stops running around eight p.m. – tremendously inconvenient. I thought a different bus then picked up that route, but I was wrong.  I ended up riding the seven bus to the end of its route, which was extremely far from where I lived. I can’t say exactly how far, because I’m still not sure where I ended up and I have no intentions of ever returning.  Complicating matters further was the fact that I rode the last seven bus of the night – meaning, it wasn’t like I could just ride it back to where I started.

I began to have panicked visions of being stranded in some dark, unknown and sparsely populated part of Marburg and I tried to explain my mistake to the bus driven in broken German. He took pity on me and drove me back down to a bus stop where I could catch another bus to the Hauptbahnhof – I knew I could make my way back from there. I thanked the bus driver profusely and he was extremely nice about it – “Kein Problem.” So, I survived that misadventure.

On Thursday, we all went to the bank to arrange for money to be transferred out of our German accounts to the university in order to pay a semester fee. However, since we had no money in our newly-created German bank accounts, we first needed to withdraw money from our main accounts to then deposit in the German account.

But I ran into problems – none of the ATMs at my bank would accept my debit cards from the states. I began to panic, suddenly wondering if I was without a source of money for the next five months. I went to a different bank and had similar problems, with the machines telling me they couldn’t process my cards. Then, one of my orientation leaders suggested I try a smaller amount – and success! I guess I had a maximum withdraw cap on my accounts that I didn’t know about, and the ATMs weren’t able to indicate as such – rather than telling me to withdraw less, they simply told me they couldn’t use my card. So, I think all is well on that front. But for a short while there I was extremely worried that I would be without a major lifeline for the duration of my stay over here.

In happier news, the more I see of Marburg, the more I love it. There’s just so much more here than I anticipated, and for such a small city, it offers everything that you could desire in a European city – beautiful architecture, centuries-old buildings, quaint shops and cafes, a variety of restaurants, tons of shopping options… the list goes on. Obviously it’s no Paris and doesn’t hold a candle to Berlin but… Marburg really is a lovely place to be, and I’m happy to make this my home base for the next several months.

Getting Settled

Monday morning Becca and I checked out of our hotel room and hailed a taxi to take us to the Mensa/Studentenwerk (basically their student union building) at Philipps-Universität. We arrived, checked in and then were sorted into four different groups containing other students participating in the pre-semester language course. Our group ended up containing five Americans (there are a lot more Americans doing this program that I would have expected) as well as people from Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan. So, besides the preponderance of Americans, all in all, there’s a fairly good mix.

We had two sort of orientation leaders. Their primary job was helping us fill out some complicated paperwork to notify the German government of our presence and arrival. We also got breakfast together in one of the building’s cafeterias .

Perhaps the most important thing we learned this day was our housing assignment. When applying for this exchange program I had requested one of the dorms near the castle that crests the hill Marburg is located on – seemed like a cool idea, yeah? However I was not successful in these efforts. I am living in the Karl-Egermann-Haus, better known by the street it’s on, Fuchspaß. It’s about a 20-minute ride by bus from the university, which is another reason why I had tried to request a Schlosswohnheim – I knew they had dorms that were outside the main city and I wanted to try and avoid this. Alas, however, I was foiled in my efforts.

The room is certainly no thing of beauty, but it’s definitely functional, and that’s really all I can ask, right? They provided bedding for me, which is much appreciated. My building’s Wirtschafterin, (sort of like a den mother for your dorm building, as best I can tell) met me upon my entry (and also helped me carry my suitcase up to the fourth floor, bless her heart). She told me, I think, all about living here and different procedures (using the kitchen, washing facilities, etc.). She spoke entirely in German and I would say I only caught about half of what she said, but she seems very nice and I’m sure she will be patient with me if I have to ask her the same thing multiple times. She’ll be coming by tomorrow morning (I think?) to give me some additional keys – I get a sort of cubby in the kitchen to keep my food, which seems like a smart idea to me.

After finally getting to unpack my clothes and deciding which articles deserve to be hung on my ten hangers, I decided to head back into Marburg to a) see if I could figure this bus nonsense out (we were driven up to the dorm) and b) to scope out where I could buy food and to hopefully buy a hair dryer. I was successful on both counts and returned to my dorm with bananas, granola bars, shower supplies and a much-sought-after hair dryer.

Overall, I’m quite surprised by how much use I’m actually getting of my German skills. I think the prevalence of English over here was quite overhyped, at least in Marburg. I mean, I’m sure you could get by without German, but it’s not as though everyone I meet and converse with immediately tries to spoeak with me in English – if I want that, I almost always have to ask for it, and that’s something I’m trying very hard not to do. However, I do need to go open a bank accountzz and I will probably ask for English for that, simply because that can be confusing enough in English.

I do feel like my German skills are improving, even after just a couple days here.  Being surrounded by people speaking German – and being spoken at almost solely in German – does wonders for your language capability. When I first arrived at the university this morning, I spoke very little German – I was very self-conscious and didn’t necessarily find the right words coming to me fast enough. Yet after a few hours I was speaking more and more in German, forming sentences with much less difficulty and much greater speed than before.

Still, it’ll take some time to fully immerse myself in the language. I still find myself reverting to English without consciously realizing it, such as saying please instead of bitte or thank you instead of danke. Those are small slips, yes, but I want to reach a point where German is my default language, not English.

The above was written yesterday – here are further updates.

Today pretty much all of us living in Fuchspaß were late, having unwittingly missed the 8:27 bus – the next one wasn’t until nearly 9:00 and that’s when we were supposed to arrive at the university. Luckily we were only late for breakfast.

Some representatives from different banks came and helped us to open new accounts, so I should have that finalized tomorrow. We also went to the Stadtbüro to register with the government. Most importantly, I finally have a phone which I will try to set up shortly, hopefully it works.

Miscellaneous observations:

–Germans, or at least Marburgers, do not jaywalk. It doesn’t matter how sparse traffic is, they will not cross out of turn. This seems to be one of the quickest ways to identify yourself as a non-native.

–Marburgers/Germans are apparently very green/eco-conscious/cheap because plastic bags either cost you extra, precious euros or they are only available in tiny, paper-thin varieties. Canvas bags are the way to go, and I will remember that for next time.

–Döners are delicious. It’s some sort of Turkish falafel thing. I am not sure what’s in them but I don’t ask questions and I am happy.

I made it!

I am currently sitting in the Frankfurt Airport (though this won’t get published until I get to Marburg) and the only word I can think of right now is surreal. I know, it’s the most stereotypical descriptor of a first arrival in a foreign country. I sound like every study abroad blog ever when I say that I feel like I’m just waiting to wake up – this can’t be real. But there’s a reason every study abroad blog begins like that: it’s true.

I am in awe right now of how far I have come, literally and figuratively.  Literally, 11 hours ago (from writing this) I was in Seattle. And now I am in Germany, another world away. Figuratively, because oh my God – I’m in Germany. I’ve wanted to visit here ever since we hosted an exchange student from Germany ten years ago. And now, after studying the language for 2 ½ years, after months of preparation, after a fairly rigorous scholarship application to help fund this… here I am. I did it. And this is only the beginning.

Right now I am waiting for the other Marquette student coming over with me –  she should be in within the hour. I am not quite sure how this whole meeting thing is going to go, but we’ll see. I’m a bit surprised at how quiet this airport is. Frankfurt is such a business hub, I expected this airport to be humming with life, huge and overwhelming. But honestly, I think an airport like SeaTac would be way more overwhelming. But maybe there’s just much more going on here than the little bit I’m currently seeing. Besides, I still have to take a train to Marburg, which I think could be the most confusing part of the trip.

The plane ride itself was fairly uneventful. Overall I’m a fan of Lufthansa’s service. The meals were decent (high praise for airline food!), they doled out hot towelettes, and there was a vast selection of entertainment options. I watched The Social Network and The Other Guys, two very good movies for completely different reasons.  I was on the aisle of the middle section – it went 2 – 4 – 2 – but there was no one in the middle two seats, so that was a bonus. Except then the woman in front of me decided to move into our middle (not sure why) and proceeded to periodically hand off or receive her small, flailing child. So that got a bit old.

Ok, now the rest of this entry is being written from my hotel in Marburg.

I finally met up with Becca around 10:45 and we set off to figure out this train nonsense. After some false starts, we bought what we hoped were the correct tickets. We first needed to take a train from the airport to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) and then change to the train that would take us from Marburg.

The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was fairly overwhelming – dozens of tracks, and no clear way of figuring out which track was the one we needed. I suppose with less luggage we could have wandered around and figured it out for ourselves, but laden down as we were, I opted to go straight to the information desk and ask where we needed to go – a less dignified route, yes, but a much quicker one.

Then we had further confusion – we were sent to track 14, but according to the sign there were two different destinations for this train – one would take us to Marburg and the other went to different towns. As far as we could see, there was only one train here and it was the wrong one. We decided to just get on the train anyway, since it would at least start by heading in the direction we needed; we could just get off at some point and change trains again. Not fun with so many bags, but doable. However, when we reached Gießen, we realized that we were on the correct train, just the wrong part – the cars would divide and the front of the train would go to Marburg.  So all we needed to do was relocate to the front train and we were good to go!

It was such a thrill reaching Marburg – this is it! My home for the next five months! I have to say though, I wasn’t really expecting it to be as bustling as it is. The second we arrived, there were people, mostly students, everywhere. They didn’t even wait for us to get off the train before pushing forward to get on .

Once we left the train, we were faced with our ultimate nemesis: stairs. My suitcase was extremely heavy and Becca had multiple rolling bags. We began to struggle our way day when a kind-hearted lad, certainly a student, immediately leapt in to give us a hand. And God bless him, he carried our bags down the first set of stairs to leave the platform and then up the next set to the main station area. I don’t know how we could have managed without him, and so I salute you mystery student.

Luckily our hotel was approximately a thirty second walk from the train station, so the worst was finally behind us. I was afraid our hotel wouldn’t have an elevator, but thank goodness it does, though it is the smallest elevator I have ever seen – I barely fit with my suitcase.

Now we are just chilling in the hotel room, using up our hour of internet for the low (hah) price of 4,95EUR.  We laid down for about an hour and a half nap and getting back up was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I know that I’ll never shake this jetlag if I go to bed when it’s still light outside. So, we roused ourselves in hopes of rallying at least until nightfall. But good heavens, I’ve never dealt with exhaustion quite like this.

Ok. Running out of internet. That’s the word.