Everyone Wants to Study in Berlin

A different way home from class one day. Left: German Cathedral. Middle: Concert House. Right: French Cathedral

A different way home from class one day. Left: German Cathedral. Middle: Concert House. Right: French Cathedral

So yesterday I went to get my study visa. What a long day is all I can say. For students studying in Germany, within 3 months of their arrival, they must go the Ausländer-Behörde (foreigner’s office) and apply for a study visa. To book an appointment online would be useless, as the waiting times are backed up until January at this point. I urgently needed to get one because I booked a flight home for the Christmas break and hence a visa is required. The last thing I need is to have problems at customs in the airport!

I had to bring along a biometric photo, show many documents such as proof of enrolment in university, my health insurance, proof of financial stability and other such hassles that governments need from you. Since I didn’t have a booked appointment, I needed to go early to get a waiting number… and I mean EARLY. My alarm was set for 3:45am and I arrived there at 5:30am (it opens at 7:00am). I heard from people that you need to get there early, and this is NOT an understatement. I personally think that everyone wants to study or do research in Berlin, as it is THE place to be as a student in Germany. Even with the pitch darkness of the night and the cold weather lingering, there were already about 80 people in front of me when I arrived- the lines are like this every single morning. I was afraid I wouldn’t get in, but I was lucky. Only after waiting another 6 hours did I finally see someone and with a 50 Euro payment later, I received my student visa which lasts until September 2014 (it states that I can even be employed and work up to 120 days if I wanted to). So that was a bit of information for any of you thinking of studying in Germany in the future :) The task seems daunting, but it really isn’t so bad. Bring study materials or videos and music and you’ll be good.

A tasty, oven-fresh snack I grabbed from a local bakery

A tasty, oven-fresh snack I grabbed from a local bakery

There are a few peculiar things I find about German universities and I would like to share some of them. After almost every lecture or seminar, all the students knock the desks with their knuckles. Back home, sometimes the professor would get a little round of applause at the end. But here, I guess it is a part of the culture and customs to tap the tables lightly in appreciation for the work that was given. Another aspect that is unusual is how the libraries work. Everyone must lock everything in lockers before entering the stacks or study areas. No bags or coats or anything is allowed. They provide you with clear plastic bags where you must put all your notes, books, pencils, paper, pens, laptop, chargers, and so on. There is security at the front who scrutinizes everyone as they enter the library, turning back those who don’t comply with the regulations. Talk about strict guidelines.

The German Cathedral (foreground). The French Cathedral (background)

The German Cathedral (foreground). The French Cathedral (background)

Germans also take their recycling seriously! To them the environment is a very important issue. All the households/apartments and most public areas have a sorting system for every type of waste. Some of it is like ours back home. There are the bins for just paper products. There is composting. Then there are of course the recycling bins for glass. However they are sorted even further between different colours: clear, brown and green. There are also bins just for cans. On top of it all, there is a separate bin for Verpackung, which means packaging. So anything that was used as packaging is put into here. And then whatever is left would be considered “normal” garbage. I guess this reaffirms the efficiency of the Germans :) Just another fun fact about living in Germany.

Thanks for reading and see you again in two weeks. I will talk about my courses next time.

Typical public garbage bins. Household bins are even more specifically organized

Typical public garbage bins. Household bins are even more specifically organized

A Survival Guide to French Bureaucracy

The exchange experience is not only about getting to know a brand new culture, travelling, and generally having the best time of your life. It is also about dealing with the complexities of a different culture, the paperwork and the ways things are done in a different country. When I extended my health card back in Toronto for my stay in Paris, the lady at the counter remarked off-handedly that the French love their paperwork. It was almost a premonition to what was about to come.

As an exchange student, you will need to deal with the French bureaucracy in 3 major cases: student registration at Sciences Po, residence permit (for the Non-Europeans) and CAF (the French government’s housing subsidy). And that perception of a slow and cumbersome French bureaucracy? It is mostly true.

There isn’t really a way to escape the bureaucracy. But there are ways to make your life easier, and some things that I would have done differently were I to be given a second chance.

1. Be prepared and have contingency plans.

If you thought course registration at U of T was stressful, think again. All exchange students at Sciences Po register for courses at the same time. To give you the context, all third-year Sciences Po students either go on a full-year exchange or a full-year internship. That means there is a full year worth of exchange students coming to Sciences Po and choosing courses at the exact same moment. I managed to get 4 of my 5 desired courses, but there were many students who had empty schedules by the end of course registration. The key is to know that English courses fill up much more quickly than French ones, to try to enrol in the most interesting-sounding courses first, and to watch the course enrolment demo video very carefully in the days before.

2. Follow the instructions very very carefully. 

Staying on the topic of course registration, people who were not able to enrol in their preferred courses can send a request to the administration. The course request procedure is very particular, and the steps have to be followed to the letter for your request to be processed in a timely matter. When the Sciences Po admin say to only send them the form once and not to contact them otherwise, they mean it. I know students who emailed and phoned and generally tried to reach the administration every other hour. They were often the ones who had their problems resolved later than others. Of course, no one likes that feeling of panic and helplessness, but it is important to keep in mind that Sciences Po (and Paris at large) has a very particular way in which certain things are carried out, and it is highly unlikely for them to change their ways upon your request.

In many other cases, such as for your residence permit (carte de sejour) or CAF, you may not be able to go to the different offices and hand in your documents personally. Many things have to be done through mail, and it is generally the case that French government branches will not process your file if you did not send in all your documents following their exact requirements.

3. Do everything as soon as you can.

For the Canadians and other non-Europeans out there, please do not wait until a few days before your visa expires to apply for your carte de sejour. You will end up like one of my friends who is now stuck in France during reading break because her visa has expired. Getting your carte de sejour (residence permit) is quite tedious. I will not go into detail here, but should anyone have any questions, feel free to ask. If you qualify for the housing subsidy from the French government (aka CAF), keep in mind that they do not subsidize your rent retroactively. That means if you apply for CAF in November, you will not be subsidized for the months of September and October.

4. Keep copies of all your documents, no matter how insignificant and irrelevant they may seem.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the number of documents you will encounter throughout all the administrative processes inevitably means something will be missed. I had forgotten to save a copy of my online CAF application form, which was apparently needed for the paper part of the application. To my dismay there was no way to access the form after I exited the CAF website. It took the better part of an hour and a 40 cent per minute phone call to the CAF office for a staff member to agree to mail me a paper version of the form.

5. Expect yourself to be unprepared. 

I had thought I would be prepared and made countless electronic and paper copies of all my important documents stashed in various compartments of my luggage. But during my carte de sejour application, I was told that the visa-sized photos I shelled out $19 for back in Canada did not conform to the standard glossiness for the permit (I did not even realize there were different levels of glossiness for photos). Luckily there was a photo-booth one floor up and I was able to have my photos taken for 5 euros (this says a lot for being over-prepared). But this did mean lining up again and re-submitting my documents for inspection.

6. Have patience, and a healthy dose of optimism. 

I realize that things may seem a bit grim and tedious, but the way I found most effective to combat bureaucratic stress was to believe that things will work out. Deal with these necessary bureaucratic nightmares, but don’t lose sight of all the fun and excitement of the exchange experience. I remember copious amounts of Nutella and a dinner out with friends after a cold and miserable 8 hours spent trying to submit my titre de sejour application in person. And sometimes, French bureaucracy will work just right and pleasantly surprise you with their efficiency

So You Want to Go to England…

So you want to go to England?

And why wouldn’t you? The land of adorable vlogger boys, Butter Beers, Benedict Cumberbatches, Tom Hiddelstons, Whovians, tea, Corgi’s, Royals and Shakespeare. A perfect destination for any traveler looking for a little class and romance.

But first you have to get there. And this process, dear reader, is distinctly un-fun. I’d like to talk about the process I went through in attempting to gain a visa, only to discover that I did not, in fact, need a visa to begin with. Let the ballad of bureaucracy begin.

To confirm for any Canadian citizens’ future reference:
– If you are in England for LESS THAN 6 MONTHS you DO NOT need a visa.
– If you are NOT planning on WORKING or VOLUNTEERING while in England you DO NOT need a visa.

I was unaware of all these things and dead set convinced I needed a visa. However, I was unwilling to pay the outrageous fee for a visa until I knew for sure. My paper work was done and ready to be handed in, but my resolve was lacking.
I was filled with anxiety. After all, I didn’t want to be unable to enter the country, I didn’t want to get in trouble, and I certainly didn’t want to make waves. My mother was quite certain I did not require a visa, but I was not willing to make any decision regarding the purchase of a visa until I was dead sure on the matter. Suspended in a sort of visa-less limbo and growing ever more anxious on what to do about my predicament, I opted to call the lovely and wonderfully helpful Julienne Lottering, Safety Abroad Officer, at 416.946.3929.
For anyone interested in visas, travel safety or just a wonderful collection of travel stories (once she is not on the clock of course) Julienne is your go to woman.

Sadly, in this instance the bureaucracy was working against she and I both. Julienne gave me the number to the British consulate, which is: +1-416-5931290.

Stop reading.

Call that number right now.

Now that you have heard the recording you know that the number takes you to a recording that is as hilarious as it is useless. I actually cried I was laughing so hard. I can’t think of anything any more delightfully, stereotypically British that that woman’s voice. The only thing missing? She neglected to offer me tea.

One of the first things the message states is that they do not deal with visas, however, they are kind enough to give you the address of a consulate which will help you with your visa troubles.

The address is 777 Bay Street, Toronto. And approaching this office is an exercise in futility. The office is lovely; large British Flags, soft and inviting looking lounge couches, a small crystal bowl of candies.

All of which are behind glass doors and not accessible to you.

I kid you not. So far as I could tell, the office cannot be entered. Instead, and this is the best part, there is a phone. Outside of the office that you have just come to IN PERSON there is a phone, which you must pick up and wait for someone to answer. The less than polite, less than tangible secretary on the other end of the line will inform you that you may not enter the impenetrable glass barrier which prevents you access to the office and at this location, 777 Bay Street, they do not deal with visas.

This whole endeavor had thus far cost me many months of anxiety and now a full day of goose chasing.

I was feeling slightly defeated.

But, never fear! For in my resolve as a UTM student, I was determined to persevere. At the 777 Bay Street Office-that-you-may-not-enter which has the phone-that-you-must-call I was given a new address; 1 Dundas Square.

With new abandon I made my way to Dundas Square, where I witnessed a man replicate the CN tower out of paper clips in record speed, cheered and rallied a dance battle between two spry and athletic men in saggy pants and was informed that the error of my ways could be cured so long as I found God.

Now rallied by this entertainment I resumed my now epic quest to the British Consulate on my journey to find a visa.

Once in the office I found that the woman at the desk was new to her position and as such, had no idea what she was doing. Seeing my immediate look of nausea and deflation she rushed to get her superior. The man’s name was Richard and he was, for all the world, a spitting image of Hugh Grant.

With the utmost contriteness and politeness he listened to my awesome struggle with the dragon called bureaucracy and expressed great sorrow to hear of my many defeats. Then, with a flourish, his slightly balding head flashing in the light of the now setting sun, he provided me with all the relevant information I could possibly need. He then proceeded to explain the same points I made above about visa policies and the instances in which they are required.

Richard and I shook hands then. His hand shake was firm and he smelled like lemon grass as he wished me luck and good fun on my travels.

By the time I left the office darkness had fallen. But I was unconcerned, guided by a new light I made my way back to Hart House and stood in line to board the shuttle bus. With hardened tenacity I was ready to tear up my completed visa paper work and focus on the next steps required by my journey.

Look Out Queen Victoria, here I come.