Friday, September 13, 2013

Germany Redux

Brandenburg Gate

I lived in Mannheim Germany for almost a year, one month shy. I was an exchange student at the University of Mannheim, studying business and German. I am writing this for anyone interested in studying abroad, in general. I chose Germany, but it doesn't matter where you study, the underlying experience is the same. The same lessons are learned all around the world. The important thing is to go somewhere.

It’s hard to write about Germany without making it sound like a giant vacation review. The restaurants, museums, attractions, and shopping were, for the most part, great. Five Stars, might as well get it out of the way. Most of the information I was presented with before leaving, from advisers at my University, only hinted at other dimensions; “You will see another culture”, “You will meet new people”, “You will learn new things”. It wasn’t that I was deceived. I understand now, having experienced it, that it’s just hard [for advisers] to neatly explain what is beyond.

Dönner, fries (eaten with a tiny fork)

The vacation part is a stage. Everyone is barley more than a typical tourist when they first arrive; eagerly taking pictures, remarking about every little detail they observe to be different, devouring one brochure after another, running on minimal sleep and being ok with that. At first, everyone wanders around looking lost, dazzled, confused and delighted, all at once, with their finger poised to greedily snap the next picture. Denying completely that it was a vacation, doesn’t feel altogether truthful. Therefore, I acknowledge that part of studying abroad was something like a vacation.

Limburg Abbey in Bad Dürkheim

Next level, Germany: the adventure. The difference between a vacation and an adventure is that when you are on vacation you get upset when things don’t go as planned, an adventure is when you welcome things that don’t go as planned. The adventure begins after you have already done everything. A certain degree of comfort is necessary for someone to go off into the unknown.

These are the stories you will be able to tell. Everyone will lean in as you describe your misadventures during Oktoberfest, the time you fell asleep on the train and ended up in a strange place, got off and explored it like it was what you were planning to do anyway, the unlikely way you recovered your lost wallet, how a kind stranger helped you just when you thought you were doomed, and all about the interesting people you met.

Temple of  Minerva  at Swetzingen garden

I don’t want to create the impression that all you do when “studying” aboard are things other than studying. The word “student” comes to have a broader meaning than one who attends school. It becomes part of your identity, you become a student in everything you do. It becomes the single most descriptive word for your entire being; “I am student”. The line between what is strictly education and recreational disappears almost completely.

It’s not impossible to experience being a student in this way, in the US, but when you travel many of your other labels fade; friend, employee, photographer, etc. . The only one that makes any sense to introduce yourself as is, “student”. So, you are. You are a student and you are experiencing Germany: the educational experience. “Exchange student” is an even more extreme subset.

Everyone is careful to share their best gem with you. They feel almost obliged to give you more information than they would normally give to anyone because they recognize you are collecting it at the moment. You will not be a student forever and people understand that what you get in your allotted time is important and carries extra weight. So, people tell you things they wish someone told them. It is the time to listen. The primary role of the student, is to be the observer.

Apothecary museum at Heidelberg castle

Germany: The experiment. Trying new things is one of the biggest parts of studying abroad, on the vacation level: new foods, adventure level: traveling alone, on the educational level: new school. However, a distinction must be made between trying banana beer and participating in a full scale model of what might as well be another person’s life. Once you have been to all the destinations, and your environment starts to feel familiar, you undertake the experiment of what it’s like to be a real German to the best of your knowledge. You have no choice than to shop at German stores, socialize with Germans, read German news, and care about German issues. It is a rare opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes like this. Usually when you step this far into someone else’s shoes, they become your shoes. This step into an altogether different life teaches you, not only the particulars of that specific life, but universally applicable lessons about other lives, in general.

One of the things I learned is that I don’t actually need a lot of stuff I thought I needed, because the amount of junk I could have was, for the first time in my life, limited to what I could bring with me and what I could bring back. I didn’t bother to decorate, I lived the minimalist dream. It wasn’t like I was deprived. My parents would have gladly shipped tons of stuff if I really wanted, but I wanted to try something new; living with only essentials. The universally applicable part of this lesson is that people don’t need a lot, and that the magnitude of stuff people have (and don’t need) fulfills psychological needs and those needs are great and complicated. Most of the stuff that exists serves only these needs.

You might learn these things without studying abroad this is the “hands on” version of reading a novel about someone in a different place. It is also like a test run of what you want your life to actually be like. You will have the freedom to design it, from scratch, and try it out. There are constraints but for the most part, you design the experiment. I think everyone designs their experiment according to what they want to figure out.

 I wanted to see if I was capable of learning a new language so that I could communicate with people who had previously been “closed off” to me. Learning a new language is like unlocking a level in a video game, a whole level of people, ideas and concepts. I wanted to know if I could really do it, and I did. People often want to see if their beliefs or values stand up outside of the environment they were designed for, if other lifestyles might suit them better. I think I will understand the full impact of having gone to Germany years from now. It’s too soon to tell exactly which lessons will serve me. I know for certain now, what I had always suspected, living in one place all my life is not for me.  


Germany; The Test. Before you know it, your lighthearted little experiment will turn into a philosophical quest to uncover the great mysteries of life;“What am I really capable of?”, “What should I do with my life?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, and the formidable “who am I?” Unless we test ourselves, the answer will always be purely abstract. But an answer is needed to make choices about how to live. The better the answer you can come up with, the more informed your decision and the more satisfaction you will derive from it. It’s different for everyone but exchange students come back knowing themselves a little better, at the least. We do come back having a better idea about what we are “made of” because somewhere along the way, there was a test. You will, at some point, be completely overwhelmed, doubting if you can handle the situation at hand, and you will find a way to handle it.

There were some very stressful times, I doubted if I could handle any more stress, then the situation would become even more stressful, and somehow I was fine. I came out knowing I could handle a lot more stress than I previously thought. Knowing this, I will apply for jobs that I previously thought would be much too stressful for me. I can also handle more responsibility than I previously thought, and I used to doubt my ability to follow through, in general. I don’t anymore.

Mannheim Cemetery

Germany: The Memory. You will live in Germany for a semester or two, but Germany will live in you for the rest of your life. The memory is bigger than the experience itself. Once you come back it’s: “Back to work!”  Many people go into it with that mindset anyways; “this is going to be the fun I have before real life starts”, “this is my chance to really live life because I might not get another one”, “this is my big adventure and then that’s it”.

This is very pessimistic, but I understand it’s better to know you will have at least one really interesting experience for certain, than find yourself looking for the big story of your life in mundane events and having a laundry list of haunting regrets. The way they come out of it is very different. People generally don’t expect to be changed, but inevitably it happens.

I went into it with the conviction that my trip to Germany was just the beginning, an introduction to the rest of my life, which will be worthy of such an introduction.  Going to Germany was an instance of carpe diem. I have read many biographies of great people. Many of them studied abroad but their experience in another country rarely takes up more than a paragraph. I decided that is how I want my biography to read too. I want my experience in Germany to be dwarfed by the things I do in the rest of my life.

I really wanted to examine separate aspects of the trip; vacation, adventure, educational, experiment, the test/challenge, the memory, because it’s very easy to provide some nice anecdotes and leave out the big picture. It’s too easy to go into great detail about details. I could go into the things that created the biggest impression and leave out what really happened. Everyone’s experience is unique but I wanted to outline what is “normal”, what is the very least, the absolute minimal one might gain because even the most basic study abroad experience is a whole lot, therefore, it is definitely worth doing. I would be happy to answer any other questions anyone might have (even if you are reading this a year after this entry has been published).

Apollo Temple at Swetzingen Garden

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