Farewell Berlin… Until We Meet Again

This last blog will be short and sweet.

The fall semester at the Hertie School is basically over. Most students have already returned home for the holidays. From speaking with the first-year students, I know a lot of them are particularly relieved to finally have some time off after their first (sometimes academically grueling) semester in this Master of Public Policy program.

It has been overwhelmingly sad saying farewell to people that I know I will not be seeing again for who knows how long, if ever. I tend to have trouble with goodbyes, but this time they’ve been especially difficult. But that is one of the telltale signs of a really fun experience, and I can honestly and happily say that I have no regrets, which I didn’t know was possible! I’ve certainly had the time of my life and have definitely fallen in love with the city of Berlin in the process. I can only imagine the infinite ways to enjoy this place when the weather is nicer and the days are longer, too.

The Hawaiian-themed Christmas party at the Hertie School. Going to miss these people!

The Hawaiian-themed Christmas party at the Hertie School. Going to miss these people!

A small group of exchange students spent one of our final nights together at a cool bar-restaurant called Ausfurtz in the Mitte neighborhood. Afterwards, we went down to the Spree River and popped open a bottle of prosecco to toast to the semester. It was a warmer night, the moon was full, the stars were out, and we had a beautiful view of the bright and glimmering Fernsehturm (TV tower), an iconic landmark of Berlin. It was perfect. Later that night, it got me reflecting on this whole experience. I just could not help wondering how exactly it happened that I got so lucky to be here. To have met my wonderful new friends and shared this experience with them, to have had the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone yet again, to even be blessed with the resources to do a bit of travel on top of it all, and, of course, to have learned so much! … Not only in school, or about Europe and the EU in general, and not even about Germany or Berlin in particular, but about myself. For that I am truly thankful. I will often think of that particularly pleasant, memorable and reflective final evening next semester in the many moments that I know I’ll be missing this place like crazy and craving to be back.

That’s it for this blog series for me, and Berlin 2013 is a wrap! It has been super fun writing about this experience, and I hope I’ve been able to portray Berlin and Germany accurately for anyone and everyone who has read it at any point.

As they say here… Frohe Weihnachten und ein glückliches Neues Jahr!

Cheers!!

Mari

Germany: The Land of Christmas

Germany is undeniably the Land of Christmas. If you love this holiday, then this is the place for you at this time of year! The window displays of little shops are teeming with festive goodies, and gifts and lights decorate many buildings across the city.

The Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, near the Hertie School of Governance in Mitte. Glorious!

The Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, near the Hertie School of Governance in Mitte. Glorious!

Christmas markets — a truly brilliant German invention and tradition — are all over Berlin as well. In German, Christmas markets are called Weihnachtsmarkt, and they’re essentially street markets that take place during the four weeks of Advent. They’re typically held outdoors in big public spaces, such as town squares, and they contain little booths/stalls that sell food, drinks, holiday items, treats and more. I have not been to nearly as many as I would like. They are just beautiful! Many of them put on a show involving singing or dancing of some kind as well. The “Gendarmenmarkt” Christmas market, which is just around the corner from the Hertie School, had a couple of acrobats on the stage one night.

The epic backdrop to the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market: Konzerthaus Berlin.

The epic backdrop to the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market: Konzerthaus Berlin.

One of the other popular attractions of Christmas markets is the Nativity Scene. And I haven’t even mentioned the best part of them yet… which is the delicious, hot Glühwein (spiced, mulled wine). You can sip on Glühwein in the crisp, fresh outdoor air while you enjoy the music, the show, the company of your friends and family and the many other people milling about in the holiday spirit. That’s really what makes them so special, they seem to be rooted in the tradition of community and to have been designed specifically to bring people together at this time of year. Germany has got these things down pat! I can’t wait to explore some more in the time I have left.

Friends and Glühwein!

Friends and Glühwein, after our German exam!

On December 6th, Germany and many other countries in Europe celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Sankt Nikolaus, in German). From what I understand, St. Nicholas was known as a bringer of gifts, and so children put a boot outside of their bedrooms the night of December 5th. If they’ve been good, it’s filled with treats the next morning. My flatmates placed a little candy and chocolate by my door that I was pleasantly surprised with in the morning after some initial confusion. Just another of the many lovely Christmas traditions here!

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More festive treats “vom Nikolaus” (from St. Nicholas) on the 6th of December, made by my flatmate Jule, who is simply brilliant in the kitchen.

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She has also made her own homemade spiced syrup. This adds the special Glühwein flavor to hot wine. I can’t wait to try it!

German Christmas, of course, would not be complete without advent calendars. They can be found in all kinds of stores and some of them are huge.

I’m happy for the opportunity to experience how Christmas is celebrated outside of North America. Relative to an American Christmas, which I find has warped somewhat into a consumeristic, frenzied shopping spree that many people dread (deep-down), German Christmas seems to still have a deeper meaning, a respect for tradition, and is truly enjoyed (proof: Christmas markets).

So far it has snowed in Berlin only once, maybe twice, but very lightly, and none of it has stuck. I’m not sure whether Berlin gets a White Christmas but I am sure it would be just beautiful.

Taking a study break in the Hertie School cafeteria.

Taking a study break in the Hertie School cafeteria.

On a much less exciting note, it is final exam week at the Hertie School. Classes ended last week and examinations take place this week. Some final paper deadlines are the week or two after exam week, which gives students a bit more flexibility.

It’s really strange to think how fast time has gone! The semester was just beginning and now it’s almost all wrapped up. Luckily, the school is hosting one final event this semester, a Hawaiian-themed Christmas party, where we will also celebrate the end of exam week and close out the semester. I’ll be very sad to say farewell to the many new friends I have made, who are returning home in just a few days, and to say goodbye to this amazing experience. But, I won’t think about that until the time comes. For now, it’s best to keep enjoying the time that is left.

I hope everyone reading is enjoying the holiday season as well, wherever in the world you are. Take care and see you next week! Cheers!

To Travel or Not to Travel?

Guten tag, from what is still the coolest city I have ever been to (in case you are wondering)! :)

Not all of Berlin is beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, but that's part of what makes it interesting.

Not all of Berlin is beautiful, in the traditional sense of the word, but that’s part of what makes it interesting.

I enjoyed spending the whole of last month right here in Berlin. November in the northern hemisphere, as we well know, is not the most “beautiful” time of the year, by any stretch of the imagination. It has progressively grown darker (we’re talking 4:15 p.m. sunsets), colder, and rainier as the weeks have passed. Slightly inconvenient, yes. However, with this city at my fingertips, it’s easy to take advantage of the myriad things to see and do and to make the most of every moment left of this semester.

For exchange students from far away, it’s a real treat to be able to spend a good chunk of time in Europe and roam around the continent. There are so, so many places to see here, after all! During my undergraduate degree, I was lucky enough to participate in a semester abroad in Budapest, Hungary, and in my 5 months there, that is exactly what I did. Among the neighbouring (or at least nearby) countries I visited were Austria, Slovakia, Poland and Croatia. I somehow managed to venture even further as well, all the way to Spain, Ireland, England and even Turkey! Looking back, I can’t believe how much I squeezed into such a short period of time. I remember a couple fellow students in Budapest sometimes telling me, “You’re never around.”

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The funky colored seats in Berlin’s underground metro system.

Perhaps as you gain experience — or maybe just as you get a little older, I’m not sure — it seems more appealing to really try to get to know a place, instead of checking it off of a list. In the majority of the countries I visited during my Budapest exchange, I only spent 2 or 3 days and saw just one city (not that I’m complaining). Since then I have asked myself, did it count as getting the real experience? Because although there is something undeniably “European” about every country in Europe that I can’t quite put my finger on, each country still has its own personality. A day or two of rapid, efficient sight-seeing in one particular city might begin to scratch the surface of that personality, but in no way, shape or form does it reveal the true heart of a place or its people to you. You probably will not come to relate to the culture, understand how and why it is the way it is, or discover the minutiae of everyday life that make it unique from the rest of the Europe.

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A rare glimpse of the sun on a beautiful mid-November’s day on a boulevard called Mehringdamm.

For this reason, I am happy that I spent every moment of November in Berlin soaking up its rhythm, the pace of life, and the little everyday things that make it the special place that it is (I won’t even realize what those things are until I am back home). I admit there are a few important museums and other sites I have yet to see — it’s so easy to put them off to another day when you can do it anytime — but I can rest easy knowing that even if I don’t get to them, at least I spent real, actual time here.

To be fair, it is completely understandable to want to travel and see as much as possible while in Europe. Time and financial constraints make it impractical for most of us to fly across an ocean every time we want to check out a different European country. This is especially true for students! As a huge fan of traveling, exploring, and adventuring, I am of the opinion that even a few days in a place is better than none, and I would commend those who do those kinds of trips on at least having the enthusiasm, spirit, curiosity and courage (yes, courage!) to save up some money, pack a bag, and go.

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It’s Christmastime in Kolding!

Now, having made the case for both types of Euro-adventuring, I can justify my 3-day visit to Denmark this past weekend. It did not include Copenhagen (perhaps another time). Instead I spent a relaxing weekend in a small Danish seaport called Kolding visiting my sister, who is on an exchange semester at the Designskolen. Kolding is a lovely little city; it felt very “human-sized,” compared to Berlin, anyway. Small streets, short buildings and nearly everything within walking distance. It was really nice being able to hop on a bus for a few hours and end up in a whole new country. And although I definitely did not come back an expert in Danish culture, customs, history, cuisine, or architecture, I hope I at least scratched the surface a little bit.

As always, thanks for reading and see you next time! Tschüß!

Mari

Impressions of Germany

Berlin is one of the (admittedly few) European cities that, for me, has “long-term potential.” By that I mean I find it to be one of the more liveable cities on the continent, in the sense that it’s not too crowded, things work properly, and you can make a decent living. I’m not saying it’s perfect; every place has its struggles and hardships. But Berlin, for the most part, fares very well.

On my walk to school.

On the walk to school between Kreuzberg and Mitte.

What makes this city really great to explore is its variety of districts, all exhibiting Berlin’s characteristic creative and counter-cultural vibes yet each with a distinct personality. I live in Schöneberg, which is directly on the border of one of the most popular boroughs called Kreuzberg (Kreuzberg in a few words: good nightlife, graffiti, Turkish influence). The Hertie School of Governance is in Mitte, the most central and probably the most posh area of town. Then there’s Prenzlauer Berg, which is a bit more residential and affluent than other parts of town and where you can find numerous restaurants and some great bars. There is also Friedrichschain, sometimes called “the new Kreuzberg,” as it has recently begun to gentrify. Friedrichschain is gritty yet fashionable and is home to tons of great cafes, bars, clubs, and restaurants. As Berlin is a pretty big city — population roughly 3.5 million — there is no shortage of things to see or do and you can’t really go wrong in any of these neighborhoods or the many others that I have not even mentioned. Because public transit is so vast and reliable (I’m really dreading going back to Toronto’s TTC…), you’re relatively well-connected to all the neighborhoods no matter where you are.

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The Berlin underground (U-bahn). Alexanderplatz is one of the many transfer points.

In Prenzlauer Berg, there is a particular bar called Weinerei which — get this — operates on a “pay what you think you owe” basis. An initial 2 euro deposit gets you your wine glass. Then you serve yourself from the various bottles of red and white wine on the bar. At the end of the night you, quite literally, put whatever amount of money you feel you owe in a big clear bowl on the table.The only downfall: the place closes at midnight. It’s not really fair to complain, though, as I doubt this would continue being a successful business model were it open into the late hours of the night. Weinerei and its hipster charm make it a popular place, amongst Hertie School students as well. Check it out, if only for the experience of such a unique establishment, if you ever find yourself in Berlin.

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Grocery shopping. Anxiety increases exponentially the closer it gets to your turn.

Also for future visitors, an unrelated but important word of warning: grocery shopping here represents German efficiency at its finest. After two and a half months, I have yet to master it! “Speed” and “agility” are adjectives I had no idea I’d one day use to describe such a routine, even mundane, task. It doesn’t matter which grocery chain you’re shopping in, the check-out clerks swipe the items at the speed of light… which is great, right? You don’t have to wait forever. But then your purchases begin piling up FAST in the teeny, tiny area beyond the swiping spot (I’m used to having a bit more space). What inevitably happens to me is that I simultaneously attempt to dig cash out of my wallet with one hand and hurriedly and sloppily stuff whatever I bought into my bags as quickly as possible with the other hand, to make room for the next customer, trying not to drop or break anything in the process, with this whole circus occurring under the watchful eye and strained patience of not just the clerk but also the next customers. Apparently in some stores they monitor their check-out clerks’ scanning speed per minute! Grocery shopping is not only a balancing act but a test of your ability to stay cool under pressure. Although I won’t miss the anxiety that comes with this when I’m back in Toronto, I will really miss fantastically short wait-times.

There is one thing at home that I do prefer (this might be the only thing…): no-smoking laws are enforced across the board. From what I understand, smoking indoors is technically illegal in Germany also, according to EU legislation, but here it’s more of a compliance issue on the part of certain bars or locales.

It seems like in German there is a word for everything because you can put words together so easily. My favorite example is “durchmachen” (durch = through, machen = to do). This compound word translates, I believe, to something like “to go through” or “to endure.” It depends on the context, but it is used in a variety of ways: to endure a divorce, to go through a difficult phase, to stay up all night into the next day, etc. Such a handy word.

My last observation is a cultural one. I’ve noticed that Germans are quite direct and to the point. Often they will give you a short and simple “yes” or “no” in response to a question. “Did you like that movie?”… “No.” It makes me laugh, but to be honest it’s refreshing to hear people say what they mean or to choose a side. It does not make them impolite; I have not encountered any rude Germans (although, as in any country, I’m sure at least a few of them exist somewhere out there). It’s just that they are efficient… so it’s no wonder that expression is more direct!

That’s all for now… thanks for reading. See you next time :)
Mari

Italia, ti amo

Greetings from Berlin! Where the air is crisp and fresh, the leaves have turned colors and begun to fall, and the glühwein (mulled wine) season has arrived. A beautiful time of the year! …

… that also includes midterms.

The first-years studied particularly hard for their exams the past couple of weeks. Luckily for me, second-years are enrolled mostly in electives, which generally do not involve exams, instead requiring papers or presentations at various points throughout the semester. The midterm system at Hertie is a bit unique in that, for a week, there are no lectures — only exams. As a second-year (and, admittedly, a true exchange student), the no class-no exam combination could only mean one thing: travel. I took full advantage of the time off provided by this fall break and hopped over to Italy for a 10 day holiday. (I say “hopped,” because my conception of what constitutes a long distance is, and will always be, North American)!

Italy is one of my favorite places on the planet, which I have probably made abundantly, perhaps excessively, clear to my Italian friends at the Hertie School (and any Italian I have ever come into contact with, really). I just can’t help it. Its history, architecture, language, wine, fashion, culture… all of it bedazzles me. Italians have an eye for beauty and perhaps a flair for the dramatic. This is evident in all of those aspects and more.

Visiting the Duomo di Milano.

Visiting “Il Duomo di Milano,” a huge cathedral in the city center.

My trip began in Milan, where I visited an old roommate from my time living in Florence a couple years ago. I had not seen Milan before, but had heard from Italians that it was a place where people tend to “live to work” rather than “work to live.” I was there less than two days, so technically speaking I am in no position to judge, but I found that to be a bit of an exaggeration, particularly relative to some other cities or countries. My former roomie took us out for pizza and drinks at a lovely restaurant on one of the canals where the young people gather. He told me that the Navigli, the canal system in Milan, is actually artificial/man-made and was conceived and designed by Leonardo da Vinci. I sometimes wonder if there is anything da Vinci didn’t do.

An unbelievable view of the Duomo di Firenze (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore) from the apartment.

An unbelievable view of the Duomo di Firenze (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore) from my cousins’ apartment.

Next I spent a few days in my old stomping ground, Florence (Firenze, in Italian). I am fortunate to have two cousins teaching English there now with whom I could stay and visit! They have started growing into the little Florentine community, an inevitable conequence of living there, and are surrounded by locals that have kindly welcomed them into their beautiful city. Indeed, Florence is as exquisite as ever. A piazza (public square) or statue hides around every corner and the magnificent Duomo (cathedral) acts as the city’s compass.

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The magnificent ceiling of the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome, my favorite of the ones I visited. Most churches in Italy have free entrance, and it is worth your while to go and see them.

I rounded off my journey in Rome, visiting another group of friends, also English teachers. (A quick side note: if you are a native English speaker and want to live in Italy for a while, go teach — they are always looking for people like you). Rome was a real highlight of the trip! If I had to describe it in just a couple of words: organized chaos. I loved it. Between the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, scattered ancient ruins across the city, and the many churches, neighborhoods and piazzas I walked through, I could feel my senses working overtime trying to take in all the sights and sounds; there was so much for my eyes and ears to comprehend! I have to give a shout-out to my friends that welcomed, toured, and hosted me so generously in this huge and unfamiliar city. You know who you are — grazie mille!

 

Revisiting Italy was not just a walk down memory lane with old friends and family. It was a cool opportunity to compare and contrast its lifestyle and culture with Germany’s. Doing so, I came to the (rather innocuous) conclusion that both places are wonderful in their own ways. Wine-drinkers or beer-drinkers, chaos or organization, designers or engineers… it just depends on what you’re in the mood for. These two countries will always have a special place in my heart, and I recommend them both to any student considering an exchange semester abroad in Europe. You will not regret it — I promise.

Aperitivo with friends in Rome

“Aperitivo” with friends in Rome at a cool bar called Open Balladin near the Jewish quarter.

Sicilian style dessert.

If you are lucky enough to have friends living in Rome or know any locals, this could also happen to you: Sicilian style dessert in a little gem of a cafe that you would never otherwise happen upon.

The Pantheon in Rome. A must-see.

The Pantheon. A must-see.

Until next time! Thanks for reading!

Cheers,

Mari

Oktoberfest!

The moment I found out I had been accepted for an exchange semester in Germany, I began looking forward to Oktoberfest! I just couldn’t wait. The name Oktoberfest, in English, is a bit misleading, as this festival begins in September, lasts three weeks, and actually finishes in early October. In German, it’s known as the Wiesn, which originates from the name of the fairgrounds (Theresienwiese, or the meadow of Therese, a queen of Bavaria).

My friends and I went for the final weekend, but we suffered a little from uncertainties, last-minute planning and coordination issues. For example, there was little left in terms of available accommodation — Oktoberfest attracts thousands of tourists — and renting a car the day before the drive down to Munich was not an ideal situation. But, there was really nothing that could stop me from going! And I was fortunate to have friends who took care of most of the logistics for the weekend.

That being said… Oktoberfest was AMAZING!!! I cannot think of another festival I have been to whose very design, down to the detail, is so conducive to fun! Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people jam-packed into the many tents, dressed in lederhosen and dirndl (the traditional dress for men and women, respectively), drinking beer, singing along to the live music, meeting people, and really just having the best time ever!

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The Schottenhamel tent in the afternoon of Day 2.

The tents, which are actually big halls that I learned take about 3-4 months to set up every year, are situated on the Oktoberfest fairgrounds. The significance of this festival to the people of Munich and Bavarians is reflected in the fact that there is even a subway station named Theresienwiese that takes you directly to the fairgrounds: you literally walk out of the station and you’re among the tents. And there are so many of them to choose from! Some have reputations for their excellent beer, others are known for being party tents, and still others are famous for their unique atmosphere or food. Some are big, others are smaller. On several recommendations, we went to one called Augustiner on our first day. Their beer, Augustiner Bräu, is the best beer I’ve ever had.

Our table in the Augustiner tent loving life!

Our table in the Augustiner tent (we were joined by three Germans) loving life!

Oktoberfest works like this: if you want to be served food or drinks, you have to be seated at a table (as the day progresses, it turns into standing on the table benches). There is no bar where you can order it. Even though some of the tents are huge, there is obviously still only so much seating, so if you want to be absolutely sure you get a table, you have to go early. We got to Augustiner at around 8 a.m. on a Friday and had our choice of table when the tent opened at about 10. I’m so glad we went early because our spot was perfect, in the middle and close to the music, and we were able to get our Oktoberfest on nice and early!

The music starts in the early afternoon and the bands play traditional German music, with some tents playing more popular, contemporary music later in the evening. I think we danced to Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” at least three times on our second day in the Schottenhamel tent (one of the best party tents). By 2 p.m. everyone is already standing on benches, singing along to the music and dancing. And by singing, I mean actual singing! At one point a group of Germans from Hamburg were translating the words of one of the traditional German love songs to me.

Dorna and Rodrigo enjoying a Mas.

Hertie students enjoying a Mas (or two).

Everyone orders what’s called a “Mas,” which is a liter of beer. It comes in a huge mug. Oktoberfest beer is stronger than regular beer. Try not to forget that while you are there, because it’s tasty and easy to drink! A Mas costs around 10-12 euro, and if you tip well (especially at the beginning), you get served faster.

 

If you want to be 100% guaranteed entrance into a tent, you have to make a reservation and you get a place in the “Reserved” sections within the tents. But this is difficult to do and it’s also expensive. Most people do what we did, which is to try to get there early and wait in line at the tent of choice. If you don’t, especially on a weekend, your odds of getting in are slim, and your odds of getting your own table are zero (which isn’t to say that you can’t eventually find and ask to join a partially occupied table that has lost some of its people to another table)! To get in later in the day without a reservation, you either have to know the bouncer or you have to buy your way in. I speak from our experience on Day 2…

If you don’t get in at all, not to worry: Oktoberfest is a fair! Outside the tents are all kinds of rides, including a pretty ferris wheel. Little booths sell souvenirs, games, food, and much more. People, young and old, are everywhere, and it’s especially cute seeing young children dressed in lederhosen. The rumbling and near-shaking of the singing coming from the tents can be heard from outside. This was really a cool thing to hear, and I will not forget the sound.

Oktoberfest grounds (Theresienwiese).

The Oktoberfest grounds, in German known as Theresienwiese.

I was able to see an old German friend living in Munich from my undergraduate exchange in Budapest five years ago! It was great to actually be able to meet up — in his words, “It’s not so easy to do that at the Wiesn!”

Philipp and I at Schottenhamel!

An old friend from Munich and I at Schottenhamel.

We had SO much fun, and I have every intention of going back next year! This time appropriately dressed in dirndl and a little more prepared for the scale and intensity of this incredible festival! Munich — see you in 2014!

Mari

Student Life at Hertie

Guten tag!

Since my first post a couple of weeks ago, things in Berlin have not really settled down! I feel as though it’s been just as busy as it was in the first month. A quasi-routine has partially taken form, punctuated by regular class attendance and thanks to greater familiarity with my surroundings. I can now comfortably navigate my way around the city using public transport, know where my local post office, grocery store and Rossman (like a Shopper’s Drug Mart) are, and some common German phrases and expressions have sunk in, thankfully allowing for a somewhat better understanding of what’s happening around me. But the excitement and novelty of being here has not diminished… I only wish time would slow down!

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Carolyn & I in front of the Hertie School on our first day.

I’ll start this post off with school. Certain aspects of classes at the Hertie School of Governance are a bit different than they are back home. The course syllabus, which up till now I’ve known as a strict (unchangeable) roadmap for a class in terms of requirements and due dates, is not set in stone here — at least not in my classes. Near the beginning of the term, a couple professors asked for student input regarding what topics were, and were not, of interest. If there was strong interest in one topic relative to another, they accommodated this and adjusted the readings accordingly. It’s been nice to see a little more flexibility when it comes to course content and student preferences. Another little joy: in one class, the professor noted that, “unlike American schools,” he has only assigned one required reading per week, on the condition that students actually complete it. To me, this is a refreshing and very welcome change from what I’ve grown used to — an almost exhaustive and impossibly long list of required (and recommended) readings that realistically is not completed by more than a couple of students. None of this is to say that Hertie students are not learning equally as much or covering just as much content! It is only the approach that is different. Hertie students, in fact, are some of the smartest and hardest working I’ve seen, and the library and study rooms throughout the building are full on a daily basis.

An interesting German custom is that after every lecture and/or student presentation, the audience knocks on their tables and desks instead of clapping. This is only done in academic settings. It was funny to see and hear the first couple of times, as no one but the German students knew what was going on. I find it to be a nice little gesture of acknowledgment that is somehow more suitable than clapping, as though it were a performance.

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Berlin Wall tribute line at Checkpoint Charlie.

The Hertie School of Governance itself is located in the former East Berlin and the building used to house the Ministry of Foreign Trade of the former GDR. As one professor pointed out on the topic of film, this means that just a little more than 20 years ago, it was forbidden to watch Western movies within these walls… hard to believe! Walk just a couple of blocks south from school and you get to Checkpoint Charlie, the notorious Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin.

The nice thing about Hertie is that all the classes are in the same 5-floor building. A cute little cafeteria is situated on the second floor and run by an adorable and kind elderly pair of Germans. The tables are occupied by students all day for group meetings, studying, lunch breaks and simply for socializing. Just around the corner is the library. There is no need to trek across a big campus, and no matter where you are in the building, you always see a familiar face.

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The halls of the Hertie School.

These familiar faces — new friends — have been such an important part of this experience. It’s with them that I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the many nooks and crannies of Berlin. One Sunday we explored a big park called Mauerpark, which hosts a huge market and a karaoke show. We managed to coax Emily (who may or may not have secretly wanted to) to sing a song and she rocked it in front of a big old audience! There are more social opportunities here than there is the time. Outings with Hertie students; dinner parties with my German roommates, which have culminated in singing old German sailor songs; exploring of nightlife; trying out cafes, restaurants, bars; traveling with friends; and participating in Hertie events (there’s a cool club called Cinema Politica that hosts independent, political film screenings) … this is the stuff that has made for a fantastically fun and enjoyable time.

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Admiring the Prague Castle (so beautiful!) with a great group of friends.

And speaking of travel… a recent highlight was a weekend trip to Prague with a close group of exchange students. Toooooo much fun! Travel to and from was easy and cheap by bus and only took 4.5 hours from Berlin. We had a lovely time. The old town is beautiful, the city is very affordable, and Czech food is delicious (arguably better than German)! Lots of meat and dumplings. The Czech version of Goulash soup is a must-have as well. Although we could only stay 2 nights and couldn’t see as much of the city as we wanted to, I rest assured knowing that leaving a few things in a place undone means there is a good reason to go back someday.

In recent news, Germany saw the re-election of Angela Merkel as Chancellor. I learned that in this country there is about a 70% voter turnout rate, which is quite high compared to the roughly 50-55% range in the US. “Voting is just something you do here,” as one professor put it. On October 3rd, Germans celebrated the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or the Day of German Unity, a public holiday commemorating the anniversary of German reunification in 1990 (for various reasons reunification is not commemorated on the day that the Berlin Wall came down, which is November 9).

It’s getting kind of cold and rainy in Berlin as the fall closes in, but in a place as incredible as this it’s hard for that to bring you down… so until next time! Cheers!

Mari

Hallo, Berlin!

BERLIN. Where to start? What an incredible couple of weeks it has been in this ultra cool city!

My two fellow University of Toronto exchange students and I, who are studying at the Hertie School of Governance this fall, landed at Tegel Airport in Berlin in late August, and we hit the ground running.

To celebrate our arrival in Germany on that beautiful Saturday summer’s eve, we (quite appropriately) enjoyed our first German beers at the bar just next door to our AirBnB apartment, a pub called Wiener Blut (readers beware, many more hilarious German words to follow throughout this blog series). With outdoor seating and some hipsters at the neighbouring tables, we kicked off the start to what would surely be, and so far has been, an awesome semester.

Before being able to see many of the famous historical sites or explore the numerous museums and galleries, we had to see to finding permanent accommodation.  So the day after our arrival, we grabbed our laptops and happened upon an incredible cafe-restaurant called Morgenland, not 5 minutes from our AirBnB apartment.

Street music near Warschauer Strasse. Creative culture abounds in Berlin. The famous Fernsehtrum (TV tower) is visible in the background.

Street music near Warschauer Strasse. Creative culture abounds in Berlin. The famous Fernsehtrum (TV tower) is visible in the background.

Little did we know, Morgenland is a well-known Sunday morning brunch spot. It was packed, but we managed to get a table outside and enjoy the enormous spread of delicious foods, even being told after we paid that we could take our time and try more. The two young American guys that arrived ahead of us, to save space, were seated at the same table as a young German couple, one of whom was rocking a futuristic, silver space suit and the other the funkiest mohawk you’ve ever seen. The two pairs were positioned at the table so that they faced the other couple, rather than their respective partners. It must have facilitated some rather interesting dialogue because by the end, we noticed these unlikely new friends laughing it up and really enjoying each other’s company. I think it was at that moment, not even 24 hours in, that I first fell in love with this city – its openness, its freedom from constraint, inhibition, timidity, its unique way of bringing people together, no matter their backgrounds.

Pulling out our Macbooks, we spent the afternoon in Morgenland using the free Wifi to begin the search for rooms in shared flats, which are called “WG,” short for Wohngemeinshaft (…see, I told you). It took a few days, but I eventually found a well-located sublet for a big, bright room in a WG with 4 Germans, a close group of friends all about my age. They remind me of the TV show Friends! Each with a unique personality, and a truly fun and pleasant bunch of people who I hope can put up with my bad German and many questions these next few months…

My flat is on what I like to call “Dude Street” – really Dudenstraße – mere steps from the now-closed, historic Tempelhof Airport (which was a wicked backdrop to the free David Guetta concert I saw there last weekend)! The nearby U-bahn (subway) station is called Platz der Luftbrücke. As my AirBnB host, a born-and-raised Berliner, explained to me, luft = air and brücke = bridge, and this was the site of the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49, in which the Allies supplied the people of East Berlin by aircraft after the Soviets cut off all water and land access to West Berlin. I swear every single corner of this city has some fascinating historical tidbit behind it.

Getting a cell phone, opening a bank account, and registering with the City of Berlin (you are given €50 “Welcome Money”!!!) were some other things that needed to be taken care of in the first days. Prepaid phone plans are extremely affordable here, and the diversity of your options in general puts the Canadian cell phone industry and its major companies to shame. The cost of living, in general, is quite a bit lower than Toronto, to my delightful surprise. Rent including everything, even Internet, is €330 or about $450 Canadian. And since I know some you are curious, beers are I’d say €2.50 on average!

New friends. Michelle and I at the Brandenburg Gate on the famous boulevard Unter den Linden ("under the linden trees").

New friends. Michelle and I at the Brandenburg Gate on the famous boulevard Unter den Linden (“under the linden trees”).

Based on my experience (only in Berlin so far), Germany is a well-organized, clean and friendly place. Many people speak English and I’ve had no trouble communicating, although if you are ever here, do try to learn at least a phrase or two in German! Public transportation is fast, vast, and easy. The extensive U-bahn and S-bahn trains (the equivalent of the TTC subway) even run all night on Fridays and Saturdays! I hope I don’t need to be more explicit about how incredibly awesome that is?!

I feel welcomed by the Hertie School’s administration and faculty and I just love the über international feel of the student body! Nationalities represented include Belgian, Dutch, English, Greek, Polish, German, Italian, French, Russian, Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian, Chilean, American, Canadian, South Korean, Chinese, Turkmenistan and surely many others.

I never leave my apartment without my camera!

I never leave my apartment without my camera!

During O-week (Orientation Week), incoming students were spoiled with a great big variety of social events and activities, ranging from indoor beach volleyball, to a “pizza & quiz” night at school (with complimentary beer!) to a Floating Boat Tour on the Spree River complete with kaffee und küchen (coffee and cake… a German thing, from what I’ve gathered…also brilliant), to the grand finale of the “Semester Opening Party.” I think it’s safe to say that a fabulous time was had by all and some lasting friendships will come out of this memorable week.

I am blessed and excited to be able to spend the next few months here in Berlin and I plan to explore as much of it – and Germany – as possible!

In the next post: more about Berlin’s many districts, karaoke at Mauerpark, museums and historic sites, the Berlin Wall, and other tidbits…

Stay tuned! 😉

Mari