The life in Germany series continues with this piece on being an exchange student in Mainz. Study abroad was the main way I got into travel and especially fell for being in Germany. It was the beginning of the road to becoming an expat in Freiburg. This is a theme that is close to my heart, so it is good to see more reasons to study in Germany.
It was a February morning when I found myself outside in the middle of winter, dressed as Minnie Mouse and catching candy from the parade floats as they drove by. My friend brought over some Sekt and we drank it straight from the bottle. Confetti littered the air as we shouted, “Helau!” Mainz, one of Germany’s top three Karneval cities, was definitely the place to be.
Taking part in Karneval was undoubtedly one of my favorite moments of being an exchange student in Germany. It had always been my wish to participate in a study abroad program for as long as I can remember. In my junior year of college I was lucky enough to be placed in my first choice city: Mainz.
Ok, so hardly anyone has ever heard of the city before, I know. In fact, Mainz is home to one of Germany’s largest universities with a student body of over 36,000 people. The university is aptly named after Johannes Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press. Although Mainz is rather small and quiet for a city (says the girl from the NYC Metropolitan Area), I think it worked perfectly as the backdrop to my study abroad year. It gave me a taste of the real Germany, the kind that isn’t defined by its popularity with tourists. I’d walk home late at night in narrow alleyways, on cobblestone streets, passing Romanesque and Baroque architecture and never once second guessing my decision to live there.
The adjustment to a vastly different university system than the one I was used to at home was undeniably difficult and frustrating at times. I had ample opportunity to deal with Germany’s infamous bureaucracy even to do something as simple as register for my classes, most of which were run in a completely new way for me. For example, students in a proseminar course were each expected to hold a presentation on a given topic whenever the class met, spanning the entire two hour lesson. Sometimes it seemed as if the students were doing more teaching than the professors! I’m used to having more structure, so at times I found it difficult to motivate myself to study with the lack of weekly homework, especially when I had a world of distractions awaiting me outside the library.
However, it turned out to be a rewarding year academically and I was able to take classes with specialized topics I’d likely never find in the US! Believe it or not, just making the effort to go to class helped to improve my German tenfold, particularly my listening skills. A year of attending lectures and paying attention to presentations, even holding my own at times, absolutely paid off in the end. Grades are given out in the form of a handwritten certificate, known as a Schein. It’s much more personal than having your computerized transcript automatically updated at the end of a semester. I still take mine out of the drawer every now and then and remember that no matter how much I may have struggled with the language and various cultural differences, I really did survive a year at a German university.
Developing a social life in Mainz was also a crucial part of my study abroad experience. It was incredibly easy to get along with the other exchange students who lived in the same dorm as me or attended the same German language class for foreigners. I was also taking several normal university courses and in these I made a few German friends with whom I was able to practice my speaking skills. They were all patient and understanding of my need to make mistakes and learn from them, never criticizing me and carrying on the conversation as if I hadn’t just made the most embarrassing grammatical error ever.
Pretty soon I had a stable set of companions, whether they were German, Italian, Finnish, British, Danish or even Icelandic. We’d go to the Irish pub to take part in quiz nights and share a beer tower, or three. During the FIFA World Cup 2010 we all got caught up in soccer fever and caused havoc in the streets whenever Germany won a match. The university even hosted several parties on campus for its students every semester with live music, an impressive selection of alcohol and makeshift dance clubs in the academic buildings! Germans really know how to have a good time despite their reputation for being serious and lacking a sense of humor (it’s so not true).
Germany may not be the most popular study abroad destination in Western Europe. Many people I know prefer to head to the UK, Spain, France or Italy before considering Germany. From my personal experience, though, I’d never hesitate to say that the country has plenty to offer an aspiring exchange student. Not only did I learn another language, I also established a long-term connection with the people and their culture. On countless occasions I was reminded of the nation’s sense of Gemütlichkeit, of which an equivalent word does not actually exist in English. But once you start to chat with locals on the bus in their native language after class, stop by your favorite bakery to devour yet another pretzel, enjoy the presence of street musicians on your way into town, and spend the evening in good company at a Biergarten while accomplishing all of this within the very same hour, you’ll honestly need no translation to understand that this is simply the kind of good-natured ambience you’ll encounter when you live and study in Germany.
After returning to Germany two years later to work as an au pair, Danae is now currently pursuing a Master’s degree in forensic linguistics in New York. Danae loves languages and has dabbled in Norwegian, Italian, Spanish and French. Ever the ambitious one, she is attempting to learn Mandarin as her next language. In her spare time she is also preparing to start her own travel blog and can be followed on Twitter at @NaeTravels.