About Emily

Hi! I'm Emily, a second year Masters student at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. Check out my blog to read about my semester at the University Graz, all things Austrian, and the daily challenges of being lost in translation.

Tschüss Graz!

I am writing my final post from the Graz airport, about to embark on the twelve hour journey home for the holidays.The last week here has been quite hectic, what with packing, school assignments and saying goodbye to everyone. Waiting in the airport is first time this week that I have had a chance to take the time to reflect on my experience in Austria and on my exchange experience in general. When I first arrived, I had no idea what to expect with my new city and new school. The key to a successful exchange experience in my opinion, is staying open to the newness of everything, and managing and adapting your expectations as you adjust to your new environment.

A few comments about the academic dimension of my exchange

From my experience at the University of Graz (and I imagine this to be the case in other universities), I found the academic standards to be lower than at the University of Toronto. This was especially with regards to the other students, not so much the professors and assignments. This was most likely a function of the high proportion of exchange students and undergraduates in my classes, in contrast to the graduate classes I have taken at UofT that have been mostly a mix of Master’s and PhD students. Other academic adjustments included dealing with a university library with a small proportion of English language books, that in no way match the UofT libraries. Finally, while I thoroughly enjoyed my three classes at UniGraz, there was definitely not an abundance of English-language seminars for me to choose from. In spite of all this, I still feel as though I got a lot out of my exchange. My words of wisdom for other students (undergraduate or graduate), is to not have the same expectations as you have at UofT with your exchange institutions, and to manage your expectations as your exchange progresses.

One of my main motivations for going on exchange in Austria was to improve my German. By far my biggest disappointment was the German language course I took, offered by the language school at UniGraz. The course only met once a week for two hours, and did not match the quality of the German courses I have taken at UofT. Where my German most improved was with my oral comprehension, which has always been my weakest point, and my speaking, through the tandem partner program I participated in. It takes quite a dedication to learn and improve a new language, and in the hectic-ness of my life in Austria, my commitment to improving my German was not as strong as it could have been. Nonetheless, I still feel as though it was a worthwhile experience from the language dimension, and even more so for the cultural experience and friends that I have made in Graz from around the world.

Final Thoughts

I absolutely loved my time in Austria, for so many different reasons; the new friends, chance to experience a new culture, and the many opportunities to travel are among the top reasons. Academically, my exchange was also satisfying, although it did require some adjustments in comparison to the first year of my Master’s at UofT. If anything, I wish I was here for longer than a semester, since the time passed so quickly. I encourage anyone reading this blog who is considering going on exchange to do so! It is such an enriching and amazing experience, both academically and non-academically.

The most wonderful time of the year

One of the main benefits of an exchange is the cultural experience, and there has been no shortage of cultural experiences over the past few weeks as the Christmas season has entered into full swing. As a history student, I am very interested in cultural traditions and in observing the nuances and differences between cultures. I can say that there is nothing quite like Austria/Germany at Christmas time. While the general gist of the holidays is the same, there are several traditions that are different to me and took me a little while to get used to. Overall though, the Christmas traditions here seem to be much more rooted in history and culture, and less commercialized than in North America. It is wonderful to experience the festive atmosphere in Graz and I am really looking forward to being home for the holidays.

Weinachtsmarkt

Without a doubt my favourite part of Christmas in Austria. There are Christmas markets in pretty much every square in Graz. The stalls sell various Christmas-related gifts, food, and glühwein–the most delicious mulled wine! I have been lucky enough to also experience Christmas markets in Vienna, Prague and Cologne. They are all quite similar, but also unique in their own way.

Christmas market display in Vienna

Cologne Christmas market

Saint Nicholas vs. Christkindl

This took a little while for me to understand, but there are two Christmas figures similar to Santa Claus in the Austrian/German tradition. On the evening of December 5th, children leave their shoes outside their house, and Saint Nicholas puts candy and gifts in the shoes if they have been good. Christkindl (translation: the Christ child) is the figure who brings presents on Christmas. However, he does not arrive in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, or come through the chimney. To add to my initial confusion (two gift giving figures?), Saint Nicholas and Christkindl are depicted pretty much identically: red suit with white trim, long white beard, bag full of toys, etc.

Advent

While I was familiar with the advent calendar tradition, the practice of lighting four candles (one for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) was entirely new.

Lighting the Advent candles and eating Christmas cookies in Cologne

Krampus

The Krampus is, to my knowledge, unique to Austria, although there is a similar-but-differently-named character in Germany. The Krampus is essentially Saint Nicholas’ sidekick. If you haven’t been good, the Krampus comes and punishes you. Graz has a Krampuslauf (Krampus parade) at the beginning of December, which involves dozens of individuals dressing up as a Krampus and marching through the city center. It is quite a sight to behold…

One of the most informative parts of an exchange is learning about a new culture, but also how that makes you reflect on your own culture and identity. Throughout my experience here I have reflected many times my own traditions and culture, and as a result have developed a greater awareness of my “Canadian-ness.”

A Special Visit

The last two weeks of November have been busy in the best possible way. My parents came to Austria for 10 days, half of which we spent in Vienna and the other half in Graz. It was so good to see them and show them around Austria and where I have been living for the past two and half months. Their visit allowed me to experience a different side of Austria (I call it Austria with money!), but also allowed me to play tourist with them back in Graz. While I realize how fortunate I am to have my parents able to visit me and that not everyone who goes on exchange will have this opportunity, in general I think it is a great thing to have friends or family visit. On the one hand, you see things through their eyes, and realize how much you have become normalized in your new environment. Having visitors also helps ward of any homesickness that usually sets in after a couple of months.

Some highlights from my parents stay:

1) Food

Austrians do food and wine very well. I would argue from my experiences that the local food, or traditional Styrian food in Graz is way better than most of the traditional German food I have sampled. Highlights included dining at the top of the Schlossberg in Graz (at the very originally named restaurant Schlossberg), where I had the best dessert plate of all time, and indulging in  some amazing Austrian wines

Yum!

2) Museums galore

Vienna is a museum city. During our 4 day stay we went to at least one museum a day. The art and history of Vienna is truly impressive, and some of my two favourite artists’s (Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele) major collections can be found in Vienna. It was nice to step back from my daily routine in Graz and spend a few days appreciating the culture and architecture of Vienna.

Kunsthistoriches Museum

3) Mini-road trip

I have been fortunate enough to make Austrian friends here who have a car and are willing to drive me to places outside of Graz. Since I don’t have a driver’s license, I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to have my parents rent a car and go on day-trip. We drove along the famous Styrian wine road; although the wine season is long over, you could still appreciate the huge vineyards, tiny villages, old castles, and stunning landscape.

Schloss Seggau, in south Styria

Vineyards

I am gearing up for two last trips before I go back home in three weeks. I am spending this weekend in Prague with my cousin and her fiance, and visiting an old friend of mine in Cologne the following weekend. November has gone by so quickly, and I know that my last three weeks here will also go by in a flash…

An Austrian Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays. No, it IS my favourite holiday. It goes without saying that I was feeling a little homesick in early October when Thanksgiving rolled around. This was the first time I missed out on Thanksgiving dinner at the cottage with my family. However, Andrew (my American friend) and myself, decided to bring Thanksgiving to Graz. And did we bring it (with some minor adjustments: no whole turkey or sweet potatoes in Austria, apparently). After more than 8 hours of grocery shopping/cooking, we feasted. It was a very special experience: a Canadian, an American, a Mexican, an Austrian, a German, a Belgian, and a Kosovar, celebrating Thanksgiving together–the first Thanksgiving for many. It was very interesting for me to reflect on the traditions I have and why they are important to me. It was especially fun to explain what a “typical” Thanksgiving consists of! One of the best parts, and probably one of the more unexpected parts, is how much the experience makes you reflect on your own culture and identity, and how others perceive you. One of the highlights of the evening was a discussion about the different (and yet similar) traditions we all share. While some things surprised me (the Germans/Austrians DON’T have Santa Claus!! At least, their equivalent is nothing like the North American Santa), it was really cool to realize that our different traditions are unified by the common values of food, family,  and friendship.

Soon-to-be cranberry sauce

The gang.

 

Yum!

 


Balancing Act

One of the definite perks of being on exchange in a place such as Graz is the endless opportunities to travel easily and affordably. I have traveled three of the past four weekends, returning to Budapest, which I first visited ten years ago, and visiting Bratislava and Kiev for the first time. Each trip was different in its own way, both in terms of who I was travelling with, how long I stayed, and of course the different vibe of each city. Kiev was by far the most interesting of the trips, mainly because I had never been that far East or to any part of the former Soviet Union for that matter. Unlike my other trips, I was also hosted by my friend Ashton, a fellow graduate student at UofT who is on exchange in Kiev. The wonderful thing about international experiences is that you quickly acquire a group of friends living in different places, and visiting them is a much more enriching experience than being a tourist and doing the hostel scene, which is far from my favourite. Here are some pictures of my trip to Kiev.

One of many beautiful churches.

Kiev

World War II Museum

While I love to travel and visit new places, it is definitely a challenge to balance travel, school, a life in Graz and managing the aspects of my life back in Toronto. Just to give an indication of some of the things preoccupying me at the moment: I am registered in a required course for my Masters at UofT which involves doing course work almost every week. I also will be graduating in April, and am busy trying to figure out what internships and jobs I will be applying to, which is a very time consuming affair. At the half-way point of my exchange, I am realizing the added challenges that come with an exchange–being a graduate student at UofT is enough work, and an exchange only adds to it. That being said, I think the experience is totally worth the extra work and stress, and I am really trying to make the most of my time here and striking a good schoolwork/travel/life balance. So far so good!

A Graz Staycation

Last weekend, I had a staycation in Graz. I haven’t actually done any travelling outside of the Graz region yet (that will change in the next couple of weeks!), but I also hadn’t fully explored my new city. It is weird how quickly a new environment becomes normal and you no longer really see what is right in front of you. Two events last weekend provided the perfect opportunity to discover more of my new city.

On Saturday night was an event popular throughout Austria and Germany, Die Lange Nacht der Museen, or the Long Night at the Museum. It is a similar concept to Nuit Blanche in Toronto or Montreal. Some of the highlights included a special candle-light tour of Schloss Eggenberg, a castle outside of Graz (it took over an hour for them to light all the candles), a visit to a  Buchdruckerei (book printing workshop), and a couple of museum exhibits.

Schloss Eggenberg

Schloss Eggenberg interior by candlelight

On Sunday, the International Student Network at the University of Graz organized a guided tour of Graz,which lasted about two and half hours. It was really great to learn about the history and the architecture of the city, and to discover things that had been lying right under my nose for three weeks. Graz has lots of inner courtyards, and it is really easy to miss them if you aren’t looking for them.

Painted facade

Graz Glockenspiel

Landhaushof inner courtyard

Lost in Translation, jeden Tag

Every exchange experience involves adapting to a new environment and culture, but I can say from experience that it is a whole other story when there is a language barrier included. My German is pretty basic and one of my goals in this exchange was to improve it. The last week as highlighted some of the challenges and ways of learning a new language while on exchange.

First, almost everyone here speaks English, wants to practice their English with me, or has a level of English that is better than my German. This makes talking in English the easy (or lazy) thing to do, rather than struggling through in German. Up until this week, I hadn’t really embraced improving my German as much as I wanted to. I do, to my credit, usually try to get by a bit in German, before taking the easy way out and switching to English. But for the most part, I was staying in my comfort zone and not really trying to have conversations in German.

This week though, I had my first German class, more than three weeks after arriving and after about a 5 month German hiatus. I was pretty nervous about it, since I had written a placement exam the week before and decided to register one level higher than the results of my exam indicated. Luckily though, most of the students in my class are at a similar level: limited oral fluency, various degrees of awful accents, and plenty of grammar mistakes. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to improve my German to the same extent if I was not taking a language class on the side, and it provide a welcome break from my reading-intensive seminars.

In addition to my German class, which meets once a week, I have also signed up for the Tandem program offered through the language school at UniGraz. This program matches two individuals with different language fluencies to help each other improve. I had my first meeting with Viktoria, my tandem partner, on Tuesday right after my German course. Talk about Deutsch overload. It was great to get to meet another local and add another person to my list of German speaking friends. We are going to be meeting at least once a week, and splitting our meetings half and half between English and German.

Finally, I am taking a Yoga class in German. It is pretty easy to follow along, even though I sometimes have no idea what the instructor is saying. It is definitely reinforcing my knowledge of the words for the different parts of the body in German. I can also safely say that I will never forget what ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ are auf Deutsch.

Since I have arrived in Graz, Google Translate has become my new best friend. My German roommate, Isa, speaks pretty good English, but we often end up playing the guessing game, where she will describe the word she is looking for in English, and I have to try to guess what she means. “You know, it is like, when someone is late, and you are not happy with them… what is that called?” “Angry? Frustrated? Annoyed?” “Yes! Annoyed!” I would say my guessing game success rate is pretty high, but when all else fails, Google Translate is there to bail us out. The guessing game usually ends with me asking what the original German word is, and then struggling with the impossible pronunciation and lengthiness of the word. It is a very symbiotic relationship and also a lot of fun to work through the language barrier.

Lastly, to highlight some of the daily struggles of living in a place where you don’t really speak the language…

-It took me an hour to figure out how to use the printing on campus. (That included asking over 3 people for help, in English). I will never forget that “Drucken” is “Print.”

-The first few times I used the ATMs here, I guessed which buttons to push. FUN!

-I can’t fully read labels at the grocery stores. I came home with what I thought was chicken, but was then informed by Isa that it was pork.

In spite of the challenges and frustrations that come with the language barrier, it really is a lot of fun! Now that I have started a routine that includes German class, tandem meetings, and weekly Yoga class, I am hoping that I have turned a page and am in a mindset and routine more conducive to improving my German.

First week in Graz: Where to begin…

I arrived in Graz last Sunday and the first week has gone by unbelievably quickly.  From moving in to my new apartment, meeting my roommates, making new friends, getting acquainted with a new city and university, and of course finding time for some quintessentially Austrian activities, it is no wonder that the first week of my exchange has flown by. I want to share some of my first impressions of Graz, the University of Graz, and Austria.

Graz is the second largest city in Austria and the capital of the province of Styria and it is absolutely beautiful. Since it is located in the southeastern most part of Austria, it is much warmer and sunnier than the rest of the country. It has been in the mid-20s and sunny since I arrived here. The historic city is well preserved, as Graz emerged relatively unscathed from the two World Wars. The city has a population of approximately 40,000 students, which gives Graz a certain buzz that other middle-sized cities lack. Here are some pictures of my new city:

View of the Mur river and the Schlossberg (Castle mountain) of Graz

View from the top of the Schlossberg

Me, at the top of the Schlossberg

My first week in Graz consisted mainly of orientation at the University of Graz, on everything from course selection, to the international student network, to registration for classes at the athletics facility. (NOTE: Students camp out OVERNIGHT to be first in line for registration for sport classes. That’s right, no online registration. Luckily for me, my roommate grabbed me a number, and I successfully registered for a Yoga class taught in German!). Overall, the adjustment to my new university has gone very smoothly, and this is in large part due to the wonderful organization of the Office for International Relations at Graz.  They really go out of their way to ensure a smooth transition for international students, which can be especially tricky considering the language barrier that many, including myself, face. I am really looking forward to classes starting next Monday, and on getting more acquainted with my new school.

Finally, time to talk about some of the typically Austrian things I have encountered in my first week here! I was lucky enough to arrive in Graz on the last day of Aufsteiren, the largest festival of the year, which essentially celebrates all things Styrian. My mentor (the University of Graz has a wonderful system for international students, where you are paired up with an Austrian student who picks you up from the airport and helps you navigate the bureaucracy of both the city and the university) picked me up from the airport last Sunday dressed in traditional Austrian clothes. The entire city was full of Austrians dressed in lederhosen and dirndls. Aufsteiren basically involves traditional Austrian clothes, music, food, and of course drinking! I can’t imagine a better way to start off an exchange than the chance to experience one of the liveliest weekends of the year.

On Saturday, I had the chance to experience another typically Austrian activity: hiking up mountains! A bunch of international students and Austrian mentors organized a day of hiking at Bärenschützklamm, about 40 minutes outside of Graz. The hike was brutal (8 hours long!), but offered some spectacular views of the surrounding country. I will let the pictures speak for themselves…

Climbing the ladders at  Bärenschützklamm

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the view…