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

Bureaucracy, Lights and Cell Phones

Not in Munich this time, but once again home in Berlin. I will get you all updated from the last two weeks here with some of my experiences at the Humboldt University.

First of all, all the international students who study must go through the Immatrikulation process. This basically means enrolment into the university. It is quite extensive and it took a lot of preparation to get it all done. Of course I needed to provide a photocopy of my passport- the king of all identification. I then had to show my Anmeldebescheinigung (the proof of residence documentation, which I discussed in a previous blog). They also wanted proof of sufficient health insurance during my studies.

I needed to pay a semester fee, which amounted to about 240 Euros. This covers costs like running the student international office and my semester-long public transit ticket. This ticket is the most valuable thing I walked away with from this whole process- I get to travel on ALL modes of transportation (S-Bahn trains, the regional long-distance trains, street cars, subways and buses) for the whole semester. And the semester lasts 5 months. The 240 Euros pretty much pays for itself. This is something I would like to see the TTC provide university students.

And the best part of the Immatrikulation? I received 50 Euros for nothing. Yes that’s right: free money! The city of Berlin gives all students who live in Berlin something called Begrüßungsgeld, which means “welcome money.”

My student ID: includes my student number, study information and most importantly, the transit ticket

My student ID: includes my student number to use the libraries for example, study/faculty information and most importantly, the transit ticket

So that’s enough with the university for now. An event that I attended last week was the Festival of Lights. Once per year, famous parts of the entire city are lit up in beautiful colourful displays. The light shows last all night and some of them even have music to play along with the changing colours. Some areas of illumination are the Berlin Cathedral, the East Side Gallery, the shopping mall at Alexanderplatz, the tall radio tower and some of the larger train stations. In total there are over 100 buildings which put on a show.

I would like to let you know as well about the phone plans in Germany. Back in Canada, we are all being ripped off (I guess you readers know that anyways already). I got the simplest and cheapest of all plans, and it is way more than I need. I am doing pay-as-you-go, so first off, that means I do not have any contract that I will have to worry about for when I leave to come home again. I pay only 10 Euros per month and I get all the internet I need. Well, it’s only supposed to be up to 500 MB, but even when I go over, the speed is still incredible. Last month for instance I used about 4 GB of data, and I had no slow loading times or problems surfing the net. I even use it back at my residence in conjunction with my laptop (what I will use in fact to upload this blog shortly :) ).

Out-going phone calls are only 9 cents per minute, which is very reasonable. And out-going texts are also 9 cents. But hardly anyone texts in Europe! Because the internet costs are so low, everyone uses an application called “WhatsApp” (this was completely new to me when I arrived). It is simply an app where you can text all of your contacts. Pictures, videos, recordings, group chats and so much more can be shared via “WhatsApp.” This is the main method through which I keep in contact with all my friends in Berlin. So, a piece of advice if you will ever be in Europe long enough to need a cell phone: download the “WhatsApp” application as everyone here uses it.

I know midterm season is still going on back home right now. For me, I am starting my third week of the semester. Kind of weird to think how different the schedules and university systems are. I am starting to feel the stress of classes as things are starting to pick up pace now. Good luck to those of you who still have midterms and I wish you all a good week!

Festival of Lights

Festival of Lights

Festival of Lights

Festival of Lights

Brandenburg Gate- Festival of Lights

Brandenburg Gate- Festival of Lights

Berlin Cathedral- Festival of Lights

Berlin Cathedral- Festival of Lights

Berlin Cathedral- Festival of Lights

Berlin Cathedral- Festival of Lights

Berlin Cathedral- Festival of Lights

Berlin Cathedral- Festival of Lights

 

 

 

 

 

 

OKTOBERFEST!

The leaves are changing colour, the weather is getting cooler, the month is October, and that can mean only one thing….. This blog will take you all to Bavaria in the south of Germany to a large city called Munich. It will take you to a legendary German festival; one that some can argue is the main stereotype of Germany: Oktoberfest.

Only in Germany

Only in Germany

Before I jump into my experiences, I must first explain a little bit about myself and a reason for going down there (and actually learning the German language). My grandparents are German immigrants and moved to Canada in the late 50’s. My Opa (grandpa) comes from Bavaria and there is still much family who live there. I visited them, all who live in different towns, but all of which are in the vicinity of Munich.

So Oktoberfest. How can I possibly describe this “bucket-list” event? Think of it as Toronto’s Exhibition at the CNE, but rather with traditional Bavarian clothing, bigger, more excitement, and of course beer. There are tens of thousands of people, live music, amusement rides, shows, food stands, carnival games, souvenir shops, and then there are the beer tents. These tents are MASSIVE. I would guess that a couple thousand people could easily fit within them at any one time. I was in the Paulaner München tent, one of the biggest. They only serve 1 litre beers, which is refreshing and cold from the tap. The food is very appetizing as well. Just a few traditional Bavarian examples are Schweinshaxe (tender pig leg), Weißwurst (white sausages), Knödel (dumplings) and gravy, Brezel (pretzels), Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) and Apfelstrudel (an apple pastry).

The Paulaner München beer tent. Amazing atmosphere

The Paulaner München beer tent. Amazing atmosphere

The 1 litre beers (don't worry, they are served to the rim- I just had to take the first big gulp before the picture, couldn't wait)

The 1 litre beers (don’t worry, they are served to the rim- I just had to take the first big gulp before the picture, couldn’t wait)

When I flew to Germany in August, I visited my relatives first and I wanted to buy a pair of Lederhosen (the traditional Bavarian clothing for men. A woman wears a dress called a Dirndl). I have some Bavarian blood in me, so it only made sense to feel a part of the customs. Oktoberfest is very touristic, but it still seemed like almost everyone wore one. The songs they sing during the festivities are great. The songs are very jolly, loud and when everyone knows the lyrics and sings them proudly, it can send shivers down your spine. When the partying is at its peak, no one ever sits down. Everyone is standing on the benches, arms slung around each other swinging back and forth, big beers in hand and singing along.

Me and my Lederhosen. On my way to Munich

Me and my Lederhosen. On my way to Munich

To conclude, whoever wants to visit Germany one day, try to make it for the end of September or the beginning of October just to experience this event in Munich. And book everything early- I heard that hotels and hostels get booked super early only because of the mass amounts of visitors at this time of year.

I just hope that whatever my future job is, they will let me take time off in October because I want to go back Munich and visit the Oktoberfest often!

Prost! (cheers)

As far as the eye can see

As far as the eye can see

Just a fraction of the rides

Just a fraction of the rides

One attraction after the other

One attraction after the other

First Month in Berlin

Hallo again readers!

Well I have been here in Berlin for almost a full month now. Quite a bit has happened since I wrote last so I will let you all get caught up with this blog entry :)

Berlin's Museum Insel (island) on an overcast day

Berlin’s Museum Insel (island)

First I should mention that the German university semester schedule is different than the Canadian one. The year begins in mid-October, not the beginning of September. So you may ask why I am here so early? The Humboldt University gives all its international students the option to take an intensive German language course in preparation for the start of the actual school year. I took advantage of this offer.

The course really lives up to its intensive name: five days a week with 4.5 hours per day of pure German, German and more German training. But I am learning a lot and meeting students and newly found friends from all over the globe. Most of the students are from European countries (quite a lot from Spain and France I noticed), but others are from as far as Australia, Japan and even a few from Canada.

The past week our class went to two different theatres (our instructor is an avid theatre enthusiast). We went to the Deutsches Theatre, which is THE theatre of Germany. If you are acting on that stage, you made it big and you are the best of the best. We also went to a smaller improv theatre, which I personally found funny and more entertaining.

The old Deutsches Theatre, a bit small on the inside

The old Deutsches Theatre, a bit small on the inside, not what I expected.

There were a few headaches that I suffered as well since the last blog. In order to live in Berlin, everyone must apply for an “Anmeldebestätigung” or in other words, a document that says you are registered with the city. I went to the office bright and early (which was far away only because I didn’t know there was one in my very own neighbourhood), to find out that you need an appointment. So I had to return the next day and then there were some miscommunications with the application and I didn’t bring the right documents because I thought it was something else (you can’t blame me when dealing with the complex German language, and legal language that is!) ….. and yah. In the end though, I got it stamped and I am living here legally now.

Me acting like a tourist

Me acting like a tourist

Headache number 2: Simply put, I got pinched with a fine. Here in Berlin, you don’t have to pay upon entering the trains, buses, trams, etc. Anyone can easily be a “Schwarzfahrer” (a Black Rider in literal translation, also known as someone who doesn’t pay a fare). But there are controllers of the “Deutsche Bahn” (the German train company) and their sole purpose is to travel around the city and unexpectedly check everyone’s ticket. These guys and gals DO NOT look like they work for the DB. They have no official uniforms, they wear the plainest clothes and some could (no joke) even pass for looking as homeless- kind of like undercover cops.

Anyways, I bought myself a week ticket and validated it on a Thursday night at about 11pm (bad idea). Go forward in time to the next Thursday: I am sitting in the S-Bahn train going to class and these controllers come suddenly through the train and loudly ask all passengers to show their tickets. I am sitting there thinking all is good, nothing to worry about, as I of course have my valid ticket. He asks me for mine, takes it, looks at it for an unusually long time and then tells me it is not “gültig” (valid). I was then explained that a week ticket is only good for “7” days. That meant it expired the day before, Wednesday. I tried to explain to him that I bought it Thursday night and that I thought it would subsequently be valid until the next Thursday night. Makes sense, right? I said I didn’t know the rules exactly, but he simply didn’t budge. In the end, I had to pay 40 Euros at the main station office, and that hurts. That’s over 50 bucks for us Canadians. But now I know and I will be sure not to make that mistake again.

Well, I am trying to enjoy this last week of language class and freedom before the start of the semester. It’s go-time in two weeks. I am a bit unsure about how I will do when the semester starts. I don’t know how well I will be able to keep up in normal, fast-spoken German lectures. I think I will do fine after some time and hey, I am only getting better as each day progresses.

See you again in zwei Wochen! (two weeks)

A mini "Oktoberfest" in full swing at Alexanderplatz

A mini “Oktoberfest” in full swing at Berlin’s well-known Alexanderplatz

Ich bin ein Berliner!

“Germany.” What do you think of first? Tons of beer. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen. Sausages. Wiener schnitzel. The Autobahn. Oktoberfest. Jägermeister.

But then there is “Berlin.” They say that Berlin is not Germany. A once thriving, central city in the world. A city laying in ruins and decay after the Second World War. The fierce iron curtain splitting the city into east and west. A leading, alternative city in our modern times…

The Reichstag Parliament buildings. Notice the famous Berlin radio tower in the corner

The Reichstag Parliament buildings. Notice the famous Berlin radio tower in the corner

Hello, or should I say, Guten Tag to my fellow readers! I arrived here in Berlin two weeks ago in preparation for my two semesters of study this upcoming year at the Humboldt University. I am continuously blown away every day by this city. I have seen many different German cities in the past, but just like last time, there is just something about Berlin.

The city of Berlin itself is an open, free city. I feel literally like a tiny ant facing vast amounts of untapped experiences. It is a huge cultural city with diverse peoples, immigrants, students, it has a rich and interesting history, new movements, young artists, a large music scene, museums, art … the list goes on.

Humboldt University, main campus. My soon-to-be university for the next 10 months

Humboldt University, main campus. My soon-to-be university for the next 10 months

They say cities can come alive. I can say coming from Toronto (and any fellow Torontonians reading here), that my city has a rich feeling to it. Am I right? The same can be said about New York for example. Here in Berlin, I sense it every second. I can feel this electric vibe sprawling through every street and every crevice. Berlin is alive. It is breathing. Its gigantic train, subway, streetcar and bus networks are like the veins and blood flowing nonstop through this live entity, always circulating. I have been here for only 2 weeks, yet there is this magnet drawing me into the heart of the city to experience it all. From the local daily markets, to the legendary night life, to strange artistic street performances, to the sheer size of the city, to the green parks, to the faces of people from all over the globe, to the hip bars in distinct neighborhoods, to the historical buildings and monuments, to live music on every corner, to the eerie line of where the former Berlin Wall once stood….

With this blog, one of the things I hope to do is capture this vigour that Berlin has. I talked too much about the city on the whole and how insignificant I feel within it. I am so innocent to what it has to offer and too ignorant to make any claims just yet. The posts to come will try to grasp exactly what the city represents through my experiences studying in university, meeting new people, traveling and simply just living.

The infamous Brandenburg Gate- literally just down the street from my university

The infamous Brandenburg Gate- literally just down the street from my university

 

P.S. Of course there is beer, and German cars, and German cuisine in Berlin. I was just referring above for example to the unique, funky, fresh and alternative sides of the city, something that is matchless in Germany and the rest of the world.