A Reflection

Am I already writing my final blog for this semester? It seems like yesterday I just wrote my first blog in September when I talked about my excitement and expectations for my upcoming year abroad in Berlin. Because of the Centre for International Experience at U of T, I was given the amazing opportunity to blog for the first time in my life. I am happy I made that decision back in 2013. Blogging gives me the opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and think exactly about all I have done and what I have seen.

I am happy with what I have accomplished and how I have contributed to all the student blogs. From moving here in the summer, to the festivities at Oktoberfest, to dealing with the German bureaucracy, to explaining how the university system works, to my trip to Hamburg, to the differences between Canada and Germany, to the Christmas season, to the major sights, scenes and history of Berlin, to my trip to Poland and the UK….. I have tried to document and share as much as possible about what life is like here.

BMW World in Munich- Lucas and I checking out a sports car

BMW World in Munich- Lucas and I checking out a sports car

Not much has happened the past two weeks. The highlight would be a trip down to Munich with my friend from Toronto who was still with me. We did a walking tour of the city and saw all the main attractions. The BMW World and BMW museum were amazing. All the latest technology is displayed and the museum took us through the history of one of the best auto makers in the world. I would highly recommend a visit there.

The Olympia Park, Munich

The Olympia Park, Munich

In front of the Bavarian Victory Gate in Munich

In front of the Bavarian Victory Gate in Munich

A soccer game in Berlin was also seen. The Berlin team, Hertha BSC, plays in the German Bundesliga, the national German soccer league. They play in the Olympia Stadium, the same place where the 1936 Olympic Games were held. It is massive with a total capacity of 75,000 people. For Easter, I met some friends and we had an outdoor BBQ at the Tempelhof Airfield. This is a massive, abandoned airfield located just south of the city center. It was the location where the Berlin Airlift in 1948 took place, when American and British cargo planes delivered thousands of tons of food and supplies to West Berlin. Today, it is a gigantic park where hundreds of people go to walk, have picnics, BBQs, run, play sports, cycle or simply walk the dog. It is an amazing use of free space within the city.

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Tempelhof Airfield

Tempelhof Airfield

I would like to say one more thing about writing blogs and about my year abroad in general. I am really starting to see who I am, what I want, and where I come from. After reflecting on all the things I have done, I know what it means to come from Canada. I know I will miss my time here in Germany and all the friends I have met, but it all needs to eventually come to an end. I will never forget the experiences and great times I had overseas. I still have one more semester to complete and it goes until about July or August. Until then, I must focus on learning German and continue to enjoy Berlin and all the new experiences that will come my way. I plan to travel as well a bit more. I know the time will go by way too fast.

I want to thank the Centre for International Experience for giving me the chance to blog. I had a blast and as I said, I learned so much about what I am doing here through my personal reflections. To all my readers, I hope you enjoyed reading my posts. Hopefully you were able to learn something. Please feel free to contact me if any of you have any questions, I would be more than glad to help :)

I wish you all the best and the utmost success in the future! Take care and Auf Wiedersehen!

England, Ireland and Scotland

Red telephone box in London

Red telephone box in London

Abbey Road

Abbey Road

For the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to travel across the English Channel to the huge, more or less, island of the UK. I planned this trip with Lucas, a friend of mine from Canada. We both agreed to meet up at London’s Heathrow airport. I flew in from Berlin and he came all the way from Toronto. We saw various different cities and many great experiences were had.

View of the Thames River

View of the Thames River

Lucas and I in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Lucas and I in front of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

The first leg of the trip started in the massive city of London. First, we saw of course all the sights that tourists must see: the Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Thames River, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and so on. We even went to see Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and then took a trip to Abbey Road looking like goofs as we were tried to imitate the Beatles album cover. One night we attended an Arsenal soccer game. It was my first ever soccer game and it was very entertaining. The crowd was packed with fans cheering chants and going crazy.

Arsenal soccer game

Arsenal soccer game

There was one shock to me with going to London for the first time (or the entire UK for that matter): driving on the left side of the road. I remember staring at the traffic at one busy intersection, trying to grasp such a foreign concept. On one occasion, I almost got simultaneously hit by a car and then a street cyclist. They actually paint on the streets at crossing points: “LOOK RIGHT”. I guess this is for all the new people like myself to the city who are simply not used to such rules of the road.

A must for those new to the traffic rules

A must for those new to the traffic rules

Our travels then took us north to Manchester. After about 4 hours in the bus, we arrived in this industrial city. Firstly, there was already a change in the dialect. The people became harder to understand, even though they were speaking English. We walked around the city, looking at famous landmarks and buildings. Also, from the people we had spoken to, they were all fans of the Manchester soccer team and they did not like other football clubs. They made that very clear with us.

Liverpool was our next destination. This was my favourite city of our whole trip. It is a port city, so there was an amazing waterfront. Even worse than Manchester, the people here were almost impossible for me to understand. Numerous times we had to ask some individuals to please repeat themselves as we had no clue what they were trying to say. The Beatles came from Liverpool and hence we had to visit the Beatles museum. It was a great experience, taking us through the history of one of the greatest bands ever.

The Beatles Museum in Liverpool

The Beatles Museum in Liverpool

To change up our mode of travel, we took an 8 hour ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. We were pleasantly surprised with the whole experience. We expected it to be simply a wooden bench and a loud engine while we were trapped for the whole trip within a metal hull. Instead, it was quite luxurious! There was a great on-board restaurant, a cinema, sleeping cabins, lounges and cafés. It didn’t even seem like we were on a ship, as the engine was so quiet.

The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. Liverpool city skyline in the background

The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. Liverpool city skyline in the background

Belfast was a cool city. There is a great history and it is similar to parts of Toronto. Kind of like Queen Street West. We saw the Queen’s University, the harbour, an old jail and we were even there when the Belfast Film Festival was taking place. We saw a very strange movie and I am still trying to figure out what it was about exactly. It was probably the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. It was called “The Distance”. Look it up and try to watch it if you can.

The Scottish Highlands- breathtaking

The Scottish Highlands- breathtaking

The last city on our list was Edinburgh, in Scotland. Comprising of a central castle on top of a hill, many old and beautiful buildings, parks, a rich history and Scottish accents, Edinburgh is a great city. One night, we did a haunted tour into one of the ancient vaults underneath the old city. It was quite creepy. The highlight of our stay was a 12 hour bus tour of the Scottish Highlands. We went all the way up to the northern part of Scotland and it was beautiful. There were mountains, rolling hills, lakes and little villages. We even saw the famous Loch Ness Lake where the mysterious monster is supposed to live.

Loch Ness Didn't catch a glimpse of the monster

Loch Ness
Didn’t catch a glimpse of the monster

Well, that was about my experience travelling to the UK. Much was seen, many kilometres were travelled, and now we are back in Berlin. I will show Lucas the main sights in the capital of Germany. Thus far, he is really enjoying the city. For me, my second semester starts next week. I had enough of a break- time to learn again! :) It is hard to believe that all of you back home are now writing exams and I am just starting. Just another difference I guess between the two university systems.

Some Differences between Germany and Canada

From the eight months being away from Toronto, I would like to dedicate this post solely to the differences I have noticed between Germany and Canada. Both countries are very similar in numerous ways, yet there are still some large disparities.

I’ll start with auto transportation. Most of the cars here are much smaller than in North America- and I mean extremely small. There are no pick-up trucks or SUVs for example. I rarely see large sedans on the streets; mostly just compact models. I think this has to do with the streets themselves. Most side streets, especially in smaller towns, are very narrow- there is literally only enough room for one car to fit. I don’t know what happens when two cars meet head on, I imagine they would need to drive halfway on the curb in order to pass each other. In comparison, my neighborhood in Toronto (North York), the streets allow that even with cars parked on both sides a large truck can still easily pass through.

The Volkswagen Up!

The Volkswagen Up!

Almost ALL cars use a manual transmission. Every single car that I peek into has a stick shift. This is true even for the typical family van, something that is almost unfathomable in North America. There are of course different kinds of cars as well which come from European manufacturers. Ford and GM are rare to see, where as makers which are not seen in Canada, such as Peugeot and Skoda, are common. Furthermore, there are specific models here which are not available on the North American market. Volkswagen makes the Polo and Up!, both of which I have never seen back home.

Normally what we have back home

Normally what we have back home

The 18-wheelers that are in Germany look totally different from those back home! They are much smaller. Their fronts are completely flat, almost as if there were squished.If I could give them descriptive words I think ours look much more “mean” and “intimidating.” I find ours look better. They’re more serious looking ready-to-haul-a-heavy-load trucks.

The version that is used over here

The version that is used over here

Oh and one more thing- the gas prices. If you think our prices are expensive in Canada, try coming here. It is crazy! While we complain at $1.25/litre, here the average is at about 1.60 Euros/litre. And don’t forget, that is in Euros, even more than the CAD. Perhaps that is another reason why the cars are much smaller.

Many people, especially in Berlin, roll their own cigarettes. They buy the rolling paper, tobacco and filters separately, then simply make them themselves. It is cheaper that way. I have noticed there are a lot more smokers here as well. In comparison to Toronto, many people are smoking on the streets. Smoking is allowed in the bars and clubs in Berlin. I find that disgusting and afterwards all of my clothes smell.

There are cigarette vending machines on the streets. You only need an ID to “prove” your age and then you can buy a pack of cigarettes. I assume underage kids take advantage of such a system. Furthermore, there are advertisements for cigarettes. Unlike in Canada, where the advertising of cigarettes is prohibited, I regularly see ads in magazines or on billboards.

A typical cigarette vending machine

A typical cigarette vending machine

What else can I say? The German computer keyboards are different. I especially get confused with the “Z” and “Y” keys when I use a public computer which are switched around. You can buy alcohol pretty much anywhere. There are no specific stores such as the LCBO or The Beer Store. Also, the alcohol is much cheaper here, but hey, it is Germany after all; they are known for their beer! Open drinking in public is also allowed.

There are many smaller, privately owned stores, such as bakeries and cafes. It is more common for people to go to a cafe to enjoy a coffee outdoors and buy a dessert. It is more common to buy bread from a local baker than go to a massive grocery store. There are no Wal-Marts for example.

Everything is closed on Sundays. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Tough luck if you forgot to buy some groceries on Saturday; you would have to wait until Monday morning. There are many more casinos too. Unlike back home, where there are the massive ones, such as Casino Rama or Casino Niagara, here there are little ones located all over. In most situations, you need to pay to use the public washrooms. Whether in the mall or on the side of the highway, 9 times out of 10, you need to pay about 50 cents to use a washroom.

"Sunday Shopping"- I took this picture during the Christmas season. An advertisement showing that a mall is opened on Sunday.

“Sunday Shopping”- I took this picture during the Christmas season. An advertisement showing that a mall is opened on Sunday.

The clubs and bars are opened much later, unlike our 2am closing time in Toronto. In Berlin for example, certain clubs are opened all weekend long, not closing until Monday morning. Germans like to use the 24 hour clock; it took me a while to get used to this. Their electrical sockets are different as well. They use 220-volt system unlike the 110-volt system, which is what we use. I needed to buy an adapter in order to use my electronic devices.

What the plugs look like over here

What the plugs look like over here

Well, those are some of the major differences I have noticed during my time here so far. There are some smaller observations, such as the fact that cashiers sit while working, or that there are barely any STOP signs in side streets. Yet I think I covered the most of them. The next two weeks I will be traveling the UK with a friend of mine from Canada, so there will be lots to share with my next post. I hope you learned something from this one!

The layout of a German keyboard

The layout of a German keyboard

Poland: An Adventure of Discovery for Me

The Palace of Culture and Science at night

The Palace of Culture and Science at night

For the past eight days I travelled Poland, visiting three major cities with friends I had made while studying in Berlin at the Humboldt University. During the trip, many laughs and fun times were had and overall it was a great week excursion. Wrocław, Krakow and Warsaw were the cities we visited and this entire trip opened up a whole new country, culture and history to me, all of which I did not know much about before. Oh and of course the food! But I will get to this part later on.

Perogies!

Perogies!

We took coach buses for our travels. In particular, the company ‘Polski Bus’ took us everywhere we needed to go. All the buses were fully loaded and super cheap. For example, our bus ride from Wrocław to Krakow, which lasted about four hours, cost only 1 złoty, which in conversion to the Euro, is only 25 cents! It even included complementary snacks and drinks along the way! This comparison speaks to the entirety of Poland, I would say. The prices of food, drinks and city transportation for example are inexpensive in contrast to many other cities (Europe and North America) that I have been to.

Ordering my obwarzanek from a typical street vendor

Ordering my obwarzanek from a typical street vendor

We first spent one night in a hostel in Wrocław. We stayed in the city centre which was surrounded by many historical buildings and rivers. We visited many old churches and landmarks, finding our way around with a tourist map. We then spent three nights in a hostel in Krakow, the second largest city in Poland. The hostel was called “Let’s Rock Hostel” and I would really recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Krakow. The staff were extremely friendly and always there to help you with anything you needed. There were even themed evenings; for example we drank sangria one night and ate waffles another.

Krakow- Cathedral beside the Wawel Castle

Krakow- famous cathedral beside the Wawel Castle

On one day, we went on an excursion to the Auschwitz concentration camps. We took a bus from the main station and the journey was about an hour and a half. I visited two concentration camps before, but nothing compared to this one. The content was heavy and the themes were deep. The entire set up of the experience was very well done, with documentation, artifacts, authentic buildings, information panels and pictures explaining the camp’s history. If anyone plans to visit in the future, it takes a whole day; there is so much to see.

Auschwitz

Auschwitz

On another day, we jumped on a free walking tour of the city. The entire history of Krakow was narrated to us and we visited the most important sights to see such as the main square, Wawel Castle and St. Mary’s Basilica. Walking tours are great- you get to walk around and get some exercise, breath fresh air, enjoy the sights, all while having someone explain to you the history of the city, pointing out important landmarks. Afterwards, we went to Oskar Schindler’s former factory, which was turned into a museum dedicated to Krakow’s history of German occupation during the Second World War. In particular, I enjoyed the section about Schindler himself and his role within the city. Like from the movie, “Schindler’s List”, pictures and documentations were given about the history of the man who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews through the running of his factory.

The Palace of Culture and Science- beautiful architecture

The Palace of Culture and Science- beautiful architecture

One viewpoint from atop the Palace of Culture and Science

One viewpoint from atop the Palace of Culture and Science

Finally, the last stop of our tour took us to the capital city of Poland, Warsaw. With much thanks to a Polish friend of ours who also studied abroad for the first semester in Berlin and who currently lives and studies in Warsaw, we were able to stay at her apartment for the duration of the trip. We all did a free walking tour again, which allowed us to visit some of the important sights of the old city. Our guide was hilarious, so it made the experience that much more enjoyable. We visited the top of the ‘Palace of Culture and Science’, a building built by the Soviets in 1955. The architecture was impressive and being located within the centre of the city, it offered an amazing 360 degree view of Warsaw; definitely a highlight of the week. We also went to the ‘Warsaw Uprising Museum’. It was very well displayed and the content was great; weapons, artifacts, movie clips and documents were displayed. There was even a full-sized bomber plane hung up on the ceiling! The entire experience there reminded me of our ‘Canadian War Museum’ in Ottawa. This museum is a must if anyone ever visits Warsaw. It speaks directly to the courage and strength of the Polish fighting spirit during the German occupation of World War Two.

A massive memorial/list of names of the Polish insurgent soldiers killed during the Warsaw Uprising

A massive memorial/list of names of the Polish insurgent soldiers killed during the Warsaw Uprising

And again thanks to our host friend, I was introduced to the amazing world of Polish food! This part of my Polish experience was one of the best portions (no pun intended). Our first stop was at a traditional Polish restaurant which served authentic Polish cuisine. Here I ate perogies and they were absolutely phenomenal. It is a sort of dumpling which is made of dough and the inside is filled with different ingredients ranging from meat, to a type of potato-like filling, to cabbage, to cheese. They are boiled and then fried in butter: pure deliciousness! I also had a hot beer with this meal (shots of flavour such as ginger and raspberry could be added upon request).  It was alright, but I think next time I will stick to a good old ice cold beer 😉

Also, before when I was in Krakow, I also ate an obwarzanek, which is pretty much a pretzel. They are a known specialty within the city, as the street vendors were literally everywhere to be seen. It was really cheap and fresh. Back now to Warsaw, we went again to the restaurant but this time I ate the recommended flaki. It is a beef soup, which literally translated, means “guts”. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound too appetizing, but it was amazing. Let the taste do the talking, not the sound or impression of the ingredients! Finally, we all tried zapiekanka, which is sort of like a long-shaped baked pizza made with mushrooms and cheese. I would say it is more a take-out, fast eating type of food. Again, it was inexpensive, yet very filling and of course, like all the food I tried, truly appetizing.

My zapiekanka. This one had bacon and garlic sauce

My zapiekanka. This one had bacon and garlic sauce

Flaki

Flaki

So Poland, what can I say? You showed me a country rich in culture and you have a lot to offer to all visitors. I had a great time this past week and it didn’t hurt the wallet at all. I tasted amazing food and learned a lot about history firsthand through the museums we visited and the tours we took part in. Before I head back to Canada, I will visit Poland again because I had such a good time. Furthermore, I will definitely be going to the annual Polish Festival that we have in Toronto- I always heard about it, but never went. I just did some research, and it is actually the largest Polish festival held in North America. I need to get my fill of perogies somehow!

My first zapiekanka was so delicious, I ordered another one: salami and Mexican sauce this time

My first zapiekanka was so delicious, I ordered another one: salami and Mexican sauce this time

Canadians in Berlin

Proud to be canadian_thumb[1]

Not having access to television sort of put me behind following the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I was not really into the ‘Olympic spirit’ this time around. Usually I am always one for the Olympic Games and I am an avid follower every two years. Whatever following that I did do was either watching the replays on the internet or following my CBC mobile app with updates whenever possible. Of course, I did manage to watch the most important event of the entire games: ice hockey. For us Canadians, it all comes down to that. I was so happy and proud when both our men’s and women’s hockey teams won the Gold medal.

Yet there was one event, the men’s gold medal hockey game, which I will never forget in my life. I took a German friend of mine to a sports bar in the afternoon (not as early as 7am in Toronto, good on ya for doing it) to catch the most important hockey game for all Canadians, which arises only once every four years. As I walked in the front door, I forgot for a second that I was in Berlin, Germany- a country thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean away from my home. I thought I entered a Canadian bar.

IMG_4697

First of all, I was wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs toque. As soon as I entered, some Canadian dude, who already had a few to drink, put his arm around me and yelled out: “EH buddy, awesome toque you got on there, EHHH!” (the “eh” was of course accented for the joke between us two). I was not expecting such a welcome. I honestly thought I would merely arrive at some empty German sports bar in the middle of a Sunday afternoon to watch a sport that is not so popular (it’s all about Soccer here).

I arrived halfway through the first period, so the whole atmosphere was already in full swing. I walked into a sea of red and white. There were people with Canadian Flags wrapped around them, Roots jackets and sweaters, hockey jerseys, red plaid shirts and a Blue Jays ball cap. Hearing phrases around me such as “that’s a beauty Owen Nolan retro jersey you got on there!” or “oh yah bud, that was a big period for the boys eh!” or “I went to the Winter Classic this year!” really made me feel at home.

IMG_4702

... and a lonely Swedish fan

… and a lonely Swedish fan

Most of the people watching the game were from Canada. I met a group of travelling students from Toronto and we immediately struck up a conversation. From who I talked to, there were Canadians from Edmonton, Montreal and British Columbia. The amazing part, which I found really cool, is that some of the waiters and bar tenders were wearing something that was red and white or something that said ‘Canada’ on it. Quite a few native Germans wore Team Canada hockey jerseys too! To see my home country being so embraced and welcomed abroad warmed my heart. It was one moment in my life where I felt so proud to be a Canadian. Yes, I know that many of the spectators were in fact Canadian and hence the booming atmosphere, but the way we were greeted and supported by the locals was the best part of the whole experience.

As the game was winding down and we had the game in the bag with a 3-0 lead over the Swedes, our national anthem ‘O Canada’ suddenly erupted from us all within the bar. Singing ‘O Canada’ in Berlin with many other people on a Sunday afternoon was something I will never forget. I got the goosebumps during the entire song.

There is one thing I can say for sure about my year abroad thus far. As ironic as it sounds, being away from Canada hasn’t brought me further away from who I am, but rather brought me closer to my country. I am learning more about myself and Canada in these past months than I ever did living in Toronto for the past 21 years. People actually notice that I sometimes, unintentionally, throw in an “Eh” in my sentences. Many don’t know the rules of ice hockey, which is understandable, but knowing them makes me feel uniquely Canadian. I have, no joke, been told that I say “aboot” and not “about”, something I never would have noticed myself. I know what real ‘Canadian bacon’ tastes like and I miss it. I know what a ‘Double-Double’ is from Tim Horton’s. Being recognized as the guy from the huge land of Canada with vast wilderness and brutal winters makes me feel somehow special.

Flag raising ceremony

Flag raising ceremony

I would never trade such experiences away for anything and I am sure that I will continue to learn more about who I am and where I come from. To end this blog post and to echo the famous Molson Canadian beer slogan:

I AM CANADIAN!

The Arts in Berlin: An Attempt to Scratch the Surface

One blog post simply cannot even come close to describing the art scene here in Berlin. Berlin has tons of museums, theatres, galleries, concert halls, classical events, performances, street art, concerts, special exhibitions … the list is literally endless. To cover and to see it all would be impossible no matter how long someone stays in Berlin, mostly due to the fact that this scene is always changing, always evolving. With this blog I will briefly discuss three events and how they relate to my personal experience with what I have seen in here so far in relation to the arts.

The Berlinale logo and I

The Berlinale logo and I

Action on the Red Carpet

Action on the Red Carpet

Firstly, this past week was the start of the famous Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival. Like TIFF, Toronto’s International Film Festival, the Berlinale is one of the world’s leading film festivals in the world. Yesterday I went to see the action live on the Red Carpet with a really good friend of mine who is from Poland. I never saw such a spectacle in real life; usually just on TV back home. To actually see the actors and directors roll up in fancy cars all dressed up was quite the experience. It took place at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, one of the most important and major intersection hubs within the city of Berlin. This week we plan to get tickets and see the screening of one of the films. I am really looking forward to seeing further what a film festival is all about! I have never done such a thing before.

Stars rolling up

Stars rolling up

Next. Musical street performers … they are all over the city. From performing live at open-air markets on the weekend, to simply on the side of the street, to playing in parks, to dancing within the subway stations, to even strolling through the public trains, changing cars as they go along- they are everywhere. What is amazing about such performances in Berlin, is the diversity of what they do. I have seen solo singers perform wonderful works. There have been bands ranging from three to about eight members. Those who are really talented, make a LOT of money. I saw once a guitar case filled with what must have easily been at least 300 Euros.

Musical group at Mauerpark, an open-air Sunday market

Musical group at Mauerpark, an open-air Sunday market

A trio band performig in the Tiergarten

A trio band performig in the Tiergarten

There are guitarists, musicians who play every type of brass instrument you can think of, harmonica players, drummers, pianists, and even some foreign instruments which I have never seen before in my life. In particular, I enjoy how they mix genres and try to create new, funky sounds. It is hard to describe with mere words, but these street performers create new alternative music which is edgy and always exciting. One must simply hear it with their own ears. Most of these performers look well off, as if they do it often for money or just for fun because it’s what they love to do. Yet some, I can tell, are less fortunate, and it’s all they’ve got. Quite a few homeless people trying to make ends meet, performing what they can.

Unique music in Berlin's Mitte district

Unique music in Berlin’s Mitte district

A drummer in the Prenzlauer Berg district

A drummer in the Prenzlauer Berg district

Interesting instrument

Interesting instrument

Guitarist playing at Mauerpark

Guitarist playing at Mauerpark

A guitar player under a bridge at Alexanderplatz

A guitar player under a bridge at Alexanderplatz

Finally, I would like to share my experience I had one night at the very famous Berliner Philharmonie. It is a concert hall, home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  The building itself is known for its amazing acoustics and its distinct architecture. I was blown away by the interior of the concert hall!  It holds a few thousand people and it looks breathtaking. The orchestra played very well and there was a famous female violinist who had a few solo performances too. One portion of the entire show included a massive organ that was super loud- I felt pretty rattled afterwards. I am normally not exposed to classical music, so this entire evening for me was a new experience and I enjoyed it. I definitely plan to see more such events in the future while I am still in Berlin.

The Berliner Philharmonie, simply breathtaking

The Berliner Philharmonie, simply breathtaking

Studentenwerk Berlin

studentenwerk_berlin

I will dedicate this blog to educating my readers about the Studentenwerk Berlin (in German, Studentenwerk can be translated into something like “student services”). This is a large organization that operates with all the major universities in Berlin, such as the Humboldt University, the Free University and the Technical University.

The Studentenwerk Berlin provides different services to all its students. They cover student health insurance. They offer psychological counseling for students who need help. Those students seeking accommodation can apply specifically for a student dorm. Assistance is provided for students with children or those who have learning or working barriers. The Studentenwerk can help students find jobs, serving as a link between possible employers and students. There is also help for those international students who are dealing with language barriers.

It was actually through the Studentenwerk that I was able to secure my accommodations during the duration of my studies. When I applied for this exchange, I received messages from them asking if I would like to stay in a student hall of residence. I did not want the extra trouble and stress of trying to find my own apartment before arriving here so I let them do it for me. The accommodations within the Studentenwerk are mostly old buildings which were renovated into student dorms and most of the students who occupy them are international students from all over the world. There are about a dozen and they can be found spread throughout the city. There are different styles of flats, such as a WG (WG or Wohngemeinschaft in German means “flat share” in English) and single room apartments.

I live in a student WG with two other students. We have become good friends and I like it this way, as it enables me to have daily contact with fellow students. Nasr, one of my roommates, comes from Yemen and we communicate in German. Georgy is the other and he is an Australian native. We hang out quite often together and sometimes cook together. We live in a former East German-style apartment building. It is bare bones, but it serves its purpose and I could not be happier with my situation. There is a bathroom, a common kitchen, and we each have our own bedrooms. We have a student pub in the basement which is opened on the weekends and there is even a small gym which I frequently visit. It is not in the middle of the city, but for what I am paying (190 Euros per month) in comparison to other students I know, what I have is great.

Nasr and I eating Arabic food

Nasr and I eating Arabic food

Georgy and I enjoying Arabic food too

Georgy and I enjoying Arabic food too

Another service that the Studentenwerk Berlin operates is the Mensa (German word for university cafeteria). There are Mensas located all over the city close to the universities. A Mensa is provided to serve extremely cheap meals and snacks to all students and staff members. The food is pretty good and I can fill myself to the max with only 3 Euros. Little kiosks and mini-cafes are also located around campus and in some libraries for example where small foods and drinks can be purchased. Everything is paid electronically through a Mensa Card. It is kind of like the T-Card that we use back home. Students must load money onto their card at certain machines and then they can pay for their goods. Library services such as photocopying and printing are used with the Mensa Card as well, so it is very convenient.

My Mensa Card

My Mensa Card

Well, I have been checking the weather back home in Toronto and it looks quite cold lately. We finally had snow fall here and the temperature has dropped a bit, but I can’t complain. Wish me luck for the next two weeks- I got essays, presentations and tests that I need to write before the end of the first semester!

Prost!

One of the workout rooms that we have in the basement

One of the workout rooms that we have in the basement

Simple, but does the job

Simple, but it does the job

 

A New Year, A New Experience to be had

Welcome back everyone to 2014 and Happy New Year!

For the Christmas break, I made the journey back to my hometown of Toronto. It was weird to land at Pearson Airport, as it felt like I had just left for Brelin back in August- time flies way too fast when you are studying abroad! But I have to say, it felt welcoming and good to be back on Canadian soil.

I spent a lot of quality time with family, relatives, friends….. and the cold weather. It was one crazy ice storm we all experienced this year. I arrived just in time for no power and life-by-candle light for a few days. Yet after my two and a half weeks back home, I had to say that I already started to think about returning and looking forward to getting back into the learning routine.

To compare climates, the weather in Germany is currently very mild for this time of year. The German people I have spoken to all say it is abnormal. Usually around this time, the weather is around -10/15⁰C with some snow on the ground. Yet this year (to my luck), there has been no such weather. The daily average is about 5⁰C and the grounds are dry. Everyone over here just wishes for it to snow. For me, I like it just the way it is! I’ve always had my fill of cold winters back in Canada.

I only arrived last week in Berlin and not much has happened since. One of the sights I always wanted to visit was the Berlin Wall and to experience its history first hand. So my Berlin Perspectives class (the program is described in a previous blog) met last weekend and checked out the wall.

As most of you probably already know, the Berlin Wall was constructed by the East German socialist government to prevent its citizens from escaping into West Berlin. It was built in 1961 and lasted a few decades until its fall in 1989. There were many escape attempts and many people died trying to make it to the other side. The majority of the wall has been removed since its collapse, but there are still some pieces still standing today.

One part is called the East Side Gallery. This is the longest still-standing stretch of the former Berlin Wall. In 1990, artists from around the world painted murals to depict themes of the Cold War. It stretches 1.3 km and it really is a wonder to visit. There are murals of Berlin related themes, political messages, messages of freedom, violence and oppression for example. Anyone who plans to visit Berlin MUST pay a visit to the East Side Gallery.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

There is another part of the wall which is located at the other end of the city. Here the grey, dull wall is not displayed as a beautiful piece of artwork. Instead, it replicates how the wall used to be when it was in operation. Guard towers are left erected, the “death strip” is still replicated, there are barbed wire and signal fences, there are anti-vehicle traps, patrol roads, and so on. Visitors are able to walk this part of the wall and learn along the way at information points all about its history and the brutal ways in which it kept citizens imprisoned within East Germany.

I hope that the studies are going well for those of you who are just starting the second semester. As I mentioned before, I am still in the winter semester for another month. I am starting to feel the pressure of final papers and assignments that are due soon. I will be of course exploring more of Berlin the next weeks and I will keep you all updated with my experiences. Until next time!

View from an observation platform overlooking the "death strip" section

View from an observation platform overlooking the “death strip” section

Christmas in Berlin

A set-up amusement park within this Weihnachtsmarkt

A set-up amusement park within this Weihnachtsmarkt

The Christmas season has fully hit Germany now and the festivities are in full swing! For a few weeks during the holiday season all German towns and cities have their own Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market). Small villages may have just one, while a massive city such as Berlin has numerous. They are really done over the top which creates an amazing experience, especially for a visitor like me. The weather is also abnormally mild at the moment, which of course adds to a more pleasurable time.

Weihnachtsmarkt at Alexanderplatz

Weihnachtsmarkt at Alexanderplatz

The layout is quaint. Little wooden huts are erected in rows and they sell everything from arts and crafts, to delicious meals, to Christmas desserts. Specialties include roasted sugarcoated nuts, stuffed crepes and gingerbread. Stages are built to host concerts in public spaces. In Berlin, there are amusement park rides, picture opportunities with Santa, games to be played and there was even an artificial skating rink constructed. The most famous drink during these festivities is Glühwein. It is a hot wine punch which is spiced and served very hot. Almost everyone has a glass in their hand.

Me drinking Glühwein

Me drinking my Glühwein

Dozens of fires set up for people to sit around and warm up

Dozens of fires are set up for people to sit around and warm up

All the trees on the mains streets have Christmas lights on them. Most stores are decorated with lights and even trees as well. I must bring up a peculiar observation I made back near the end of September. I went to Ikea and the entire store was already decked out and set to go for the Christmas season! They sold everything you would expect to find a week before Christmas. Maybe they get a bit too excited for the holidays here? Personally, September for Christmas is a bit too early for me.

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With this whole Christmas/holiday season and all the buying of gifts, I would like to mention something what I noticed about Germans and how they make their purchases.  The society, I would argue, is heavily based upon solid cash transactions. No one really uses credit cards to buy their goods. They like to have their wallets and purses stuffed with money. One lady I observed wanted an appliance or something big and simply pulled out a couple of 100 and 50 Euro bills and bought it. I remember once going to a restaurant (not a bar/pub kind of place) to have a few drinks with some classmates and I had no cash on me. I wanted to simply use my Visa card to pay, but there was a 30 Euro minimum purchase that was needed in order to use a credit card. Back in Toronto, I would sometimes buy fast food with credit without any problems at all. I guess it is a good thing over here as it discourages spending money that you don’t have.

A curling game on ice

A curling game on ice

Well, this is the last blog that I will be writing for the semester. I know that the semester back at U of T is coming to an end with the approaching winter holiday break. As I explained in an earlier post, the German university system starts and ends later. The first semester for me ends in February. I will be writing for the Centre for International Experience again during the next session as I am here for the whole academic year. I would like to thank everyone who followed me thus far at the Humboldt University in Berlin and all my experiences here. I am certain there will be many more great moments which I will share with you all in the future- my adventure here is just beginning. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year! Take care and until next time,

Robby

Colourful Christmas lights are a common theme

Colourful Christmas lights are a common theme

Hamburg

Last weekend I went on a trip to the second largest city in Germany, Hamburg. It was a trip hosted by the international club at the Humboldt University. It was a great group trip for a mere 80 Euros. I received transportation to and from Hamburg, two nights residency in a hostel, a walking tour, a boat cruise, entrance to two museums and a weekend pass to use the public transit system. Hamburg is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to in Germany, definitely worth a visit.

One of numerous water passages

One of numerous water passages

View from our hostel overlooking the port

View from our hostel overlooking the port

The first part of the itinerary once we arrived was a walking tour through the Innenstadt (the German word for “downtown” or “city centre”). We learned all about its history. Hamburg is a major port city located on the Elbe River and it is one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. What is interesting about Hamburg is that it is a city-state, like Berlin. That means that it is both a city itself as well as a Bundesland (“state” or “province” in English). So imagine the City of Toronto held the same standing as Ontario – that is what it is like.

The Innenstadt- looking ready for Christmas

The Innenstadt- looking ready for Christmas

Two museums were included within the trip. The first one was the International Maritimes Museum. It was approximately 10 stories of pure fascination about all types of naval interests. There were artifacts, models, scene recreations, an art gallery, naval warfare displays, uniforms … I simply cannot begin to describe all the attractions this museum contained. It was simply amazing. The other museum we visited was the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which is the city’s art gallery. We had a guided tour and I learned a lot about the different genres and types of art. But the downside for both museum visits was the amount of time we had. Only one hour was given respectively to each museum, as our daily programme was packed with events. I could have spent a few hours in each of the museums alone, especially the Maritime one.

Hamburger Kunsthalle

Hamburger Kunsthalle

The nightlife in Hamburg is one of the defining features of the city. The most famous area is called the Reeperbahn. This street is lined with restaurants, nightclubs and bars. The action is not only on the main street, but the neighboring streets in the vicinity as well. The Reeperbahn is also the largest red light district in Germany. At all hours of the night the street was crowded with people, partying the entire time. It seemed like the energy just never left the area.

One morning we did a boat cruise along the Elbe River and through the harbour itself. This allowed us to get a great water-level perspective of the daily operations of the port and the sheer scale of its size. We saw everything from the endless rows of massive cranes used to unload the freight ships to the docks where repairs are made to all types of vessels. The amount of logistics behind such naval operations is mind blowing.

Boat cruise, a real up a close view of the harbour

Boat cruise, a real up a close view of the harbour

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Not only was the sight-seeing experience great. The best part is that I met a lot of really cool students along the way. We got to know each other pretty well and we will stay in contact for sure during the rest of our studies in Berlin.

One thing is for sure: the next trip that the international club offers next semester, whatever destination may be, I will take part in again for sure!

The Rathaus (city hall)

The Rathaus (city hall)

Inside the Rathaus

Inside the Rathaus