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

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

 

On winter holidays and exams

Though Christmas is not yet upon us, the streets of Paris have been recently given a very festive uplift. Lights now hang over most streets. Many shops have also busted out their Christmas lights.

Boulevard Saint-Germain near Sciences Po

Boulevard Saint-Germain, near Sciences Po

But before Christmas travels and celebrations can even happen, one has to get through exams at Sciences Po. For most exchange students, classes have ended this week. The official exam period starts on the week of December 9th and continues until the few days before Christmas. As an exchange student, many of your classes will have in-class exams, or just a final assignment instead of an exam. So a large part of your December can be devoted to travels and other non-academic aspects of your exchange experience. But in the spirit of all the exams we have to get through before the holiday season, I will briefly describe the general forms of evaluations at Sciences Po.

Exams at Sciences Po are not very different from those at U of T. You have the typical essay exams and multiple choice exams. There are, of course, also those non-exams that come in the form of essays and presentations. I have noticed that all my assigned essays have not asked for more than 2500 words (this is a marked contrast to my first essay ever at U of T, which was for HIS103 and already passed 3000 words).

For the lucky few who land themselves in certain French courses, you might have a Grand Oral exam. The exam is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a typical written exam, you will be given some materials and a few minutes to prepare (there are also cases where you will be given the topic a week beforehand) before you head in to the room and give a 10 minute presentation followed by a discussion with the jury (which could just be your professor). This sort of examination is more common in the masters level at Sciences Po, but certain undergrad professors like to challenge their students. For those who get to experience this uniquely Sciences Po tradition, Bon Courage!

The most distressing fact for assessments at Sciences Po is that you do not know how you are doing in a course until you see your transcript. Professors at Sciences Po are not obligated to, in fact they are encouraged not to, reveal your mark for any of your assignments and tests, because these marks will not reflect your final mark. You can imagine how this may present some difficulties in identifying gaps in your knowledge or the amount of time you should allocate to any subject.

This scuffle over grades stems from the fact that Sciences Po is one of those schools that subscribe quite ardently to the concept of bell-curving and grade distribution. There is a cap on the number of students that can be in a particular grade-range. And to be honest, this is something that deeply bothers me as a student. At U of T, I try to avoid courses where the first thing the professor mentions is that only a certain number of students will receive an arbitrary grade without even knowing the intellectual composition of the class.

This system is fully and strictly in place at Sciences Po, though the professors here are better at diplomatically explaining it. I can overlook the grade distribution because of the many other positive aspects of my exchange. And if you do not really care for how you do on exchange as long as you pass your courses, this will not be a big issue. But if you do care about your academic performance whether for scholarships or for graduate school, you should keep this in mind prior to making your decision.

Berlin Perspectives

With this blog, I would like to share more about my school life here in Berlin.

The Humboldt University is a massive institution located in the heart of Berlin. There are different campuses across the city, but the main one is in the city centre. There are 11 faculties into which the university is divided. There are about 30,000 students enrolled, with about 4,500 being international students. They have departments for every sort of administration and university-related issue you could think of, such as an international office, kind of like our Centre for International Experience.

One program the international students are offered here is called Berlin Perspectives. It is very unique and involves different aspects. The courses are taught in English in the area of history/politics/social sciences and literature/urban/culture studies. They are aimed at those students who feel their German is not yet good enough to be taking the normal courses offered, which are of course all in German. I myself do fine in full-German lectures, but the courses offered here and the entire program in general just seemed so interesting to me.

Beautiful view from one of my classes

Beautiful view from one of my classes.

Along with these special courses, there are two other aspects which Berlin Perspectives involves. Every student first must take a language course at the Language Centre. This course, which usually entails a fee, is given to us for free. These obligatory language courses are 4 hours per week and it really encourages us to improve on our German skills. A very good incentive.

The other aspect is a mentoring program. We are all paired up in groups with a senior mentor. With our mentor, there are different objectives meant to be completed. For example, we met early on in the semester in the main library with the sole purpose of learning how the system works. From getting internet on our laptops, to logging onto the school computers, to finding books, to taking out books, to using the printers, to checking university email. Such a lesson proved so useful for me and it helped me get a good start to the year. Another topic we covered was how to give presentations in a German-university setting. We went over what the professors look for and some tips that would prove handy. We still need to do two cultural events with our mentor. I think we will go to a classical concert and then to a museum. I am looking forward to it.

The courses offered are Berlin-specific, which is great, since we all live here. Many of the courses incorporate excursions to different parts of the city, which allows us to gain a first-hand experience of what we learned in class. For example, so far I have been to a former East German prison, four museums, a monument, and a district in Berlin. I am seeing parts of this amazing city that I normally never would have been to on my own.

Classic street car I found roaming the streets in East Berlin

Classic street car I found while roaming the streets in East Berlin.

All I can say, is that if any international student is considering studying in Berlin and at the Humboldt University, this Berlin Perspectives program is golden! Even if you just take one of the offered courses, the mentoring program and free language course is included. Plus it is an amazing way to meet English-speaking students who come from all over the world.

This weekend I will be heading off to Hamburg, Germany’s second biggest city. I am sure there will much to share with my next blog!

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