A few months ago, a friend from college sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would have any advice for a classmate of hers who wanted to study abroad in Germany. As a fairly opinionated person who feels strongly about study abroad experiences, especially in Germany, I was able to come up with a good number of things that I wish I had known before I first came to Germany, as well as things I’ve learned since I’ve been here that I think would be helpful for someone in the planning stages.
So I’m making my foray into the scary world of online advice blogging! (I do have a few similar posts in the queue, so keep an eye out for those!) I know no one asked, but that’s why it’s called “unsolicited”! Here is a list of things that you should know if you want to live in Germany.
I wrote this list for a student wanting to study abroad, but many items on this list could apply to young adults wanting to get a degree at a German university or work in Germany for a short or long duration, as well!
1. Learn German. Do you already know German? Good. In the time between now and when you set foot on German soil, do everything you can to get more exposure to the language. Read an article or two from Der Spiegel every week. Take or audit a German class at school. Watch a German TV show! (I’ve never seen it, but Türkisch für Anfänger always gets good reviews!)
Wait, what’s that? You don’t know German? Well, there’s no better time to start than right now. I know that plenty of people study abroad with no knowledge of the local language, but I really wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, you can get by with English in Germany, but do you really want to just get by during your time abroad? It’s much easier to establish friendships with Germans if you make an effort to learn some German… not to mention being able to orient yourself in your host city and as you travel around. If you learn as much as you can before you leave and keep an open mind during your time there, your language abilities will improve drastically… I know several people who went to Germany with a very limited grasp of the language, and after a year or so of living and working there, were able to converse quite easily! It is possible!
2. Go for a year or longer! My biggest regret about my semester in Germany during the summer of 2011 was that it was only one semester! I know that a year abroad sounds like a really long time, especially if the norm at your school is to go abroad for 6 weeks, if that (like it was at mine). But a year goes by quicker than you’d expect (especially if you plan to travel), and one semester is barely any time at all to get adjusted to a new country, language, school, city, and culture, not to mention to make friends!
If a year would not be possible for whatever reason, go for as long as possible. Plan to arrive as soon as possible before the semester begins, and stay as long as possible after it ends. Many programs offer a language course before the semester begins (which would help with #1!), which also provides time to get acclimated to the city and maybe meet some people!
3. Location, location, location. Spend some time deciding where exactly in Germany you want to go, because the city you live in will obviously influence your experience greatly. The different cities and regions in Germany are quite distinct. As you consider, pay particular attention to the size of the city in question, and also whether it is in (former) East Germany or West Germany.
Even 20+ years after Germany’s reunification, there are still some lingering differences between east and west, particularly where language is concerned. In the west, it is much more likely that any given person on the street or in a shop (especially of the older generation) will be able to speak English. If you aren’t yet fluent in German, that could be helpful. However, if you’re trying to BECOME fluent, the atmosphere in the east might be helpful… people may be less likely to automatically switch to English once they hear your accent!
If you will be staying for a year or longer, as I advised you above, choose a larger city as opposed to a small one (or a small city with easy access to a large city). That way, there will be more to explore during your time there. Also, larger cities generally have easy access to smaller outlying towns and attractions and good public transit to get you there.
Basically, do your research to find out whether the city you’re interested in has everything you’re looking for. A few odd tips: living near a border gives you easy access to international travel; living in Berlin will give you an exciting and eclectic, though debatably “un-German” experience; it is really hard to find an apartment in most cities with universities, and Munich is notoriously expensive.
4. Go as an exchange student. (Or directly enroll in a graduate program. Or get a job working with Germans.) Integrate yourself into society!!! I know for some students studying abroad, a university-affiliate or professor-led program is necessary to both study abroad and graduate on time, but if at all possible, do a direct exchange! It will require some proactivity on your part, because all your classes/travel won’t be planned for you, you won’t have a ready-made community of fellow American students, and you’ll probably have to deal with some university bureaucracy, but you will have a more authentic and rewarding experience (and for pretentious folk like me, that’s what it’s all about 😉 ).
5. Be proactive about your living situation. I lived in a terrible student dorm in Freiburg because that’s what I was assigned. However, I have a feeling that if I’d searched around a little more before committing to student housing, I could have found a better option. So before I moved to Dresden, I looked on all the WG websites to find an apartment and roommate. Wohngemeinschafte/living communities are like shared apartments among young people in Germany, and there are plenty of websites to locate people who need to sublet their room. I used wggesucht.de. My roommate, Agnes, is awesome, and living with a German peer has really helped me practice my language skills on a daily basis, make a few friends, and have a nice atmosphere at home rather than the gross, utilitarian dorm of days past 😉
6. Buy a bike. Having a bike gives you flexibility of transportation and allows you to get places quicker so you can do more, plus it’s very scenic and beautiful to ride around during the summer and experience your new city from that vantage point! Hypocrite alert because I don’t have a bike in Dresden (but I might still buy one). This was the most important thing I ever did in Freiburg, though, because I lived far from school and the center of town, and all of my friends had bikes, so if I ever wanted to do something with them, I could just tag along instead of having to meet them somewhere using public transit. Here, the city is big enough that public transit is necessary to get to certain parts of town, and I live within walking distance of most places I go on a daily basis, so I haven’t NEEDED one, but I’m still on the look-out for an affordable used bike, because I love biking!
7. Make German friends. This will help with #1, for sure! It will also help to integrate you into life in Germany. Making friends familiar with your city/region (and fluent in German) is also incredibly helpful as you figure everything out for yourself. It is, in my experience, more difficult to make friends with Germans than to stick in a group with the other Americans/international students (and there is merit to making friends with those people, as well). Two ways I’ve found it helpful to meet people: getting involved at church and taking part in extracurriculars. I’m Catholic, and I’ve been able to meet nice, generous, friendly people at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (KHG) in Freiburg and the Katholische Studentengemeinde (KSG) in Dresden. The Protestant groups are called EHG/ESG. And this semester I am finally taking my own advice about the sports/extracurricular activities tactic by taking a dance class! I love dancing and thoroughly enjoyed my classes at UT, so I figured I’d keep it up and meet some people along the way.
8. Travel! Self explanatory. Obviously the requisite trips to London/Paris/Milan/whatever are awesome, and you should go for it, but I also recommend day trips in your area and really getting to know your particular region in Germany, as well, because they’re all very distinct and it will cultivate a real feeling of regional identity, which I quite enjoy 🙂
9. Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. Every person’s time abroad will be unique, so don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that your experience is “worse” because you can see on Facebook that your high school friend has visited more cities than you have. Make the most of YOUR experience… explore the areas around where you’re living, go to social outings, do something new every week, take pictures. Focus on making your memories, not glancing at someone else’s to compare.
10. Find a “life abroad” confidant. For those times when it feels like living abroad is the hardest thing you’ve ever done and no one will ever understand you. Obviously parents are wonderful and significant others are great, but if they’ve never studied or lived abroad, they won’t totally understand what you’re gong through. If you keep in touch with a buddy who has had a similar experience, they will be able to affirm that the loneliness, anxiety, or whatever it is you might be feeling is totally normal, and hopefully they will encourage you to power through the tough parts so you can experience the wonder of living abroad! I know this sounds like the ultimate First World Problem but the truth is that it’s tough to live in another language in a new city with new experiences without an outlet for your frustrations or a sounding board to figure your stuff out. (This person should also be able to give you a good reality check and/or swift kick in the behind if you are being unreasonable 😉 ) Overall, living/studying abroad is a POSITIVE, life-affirming, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you should share those moments with your buddy as well, and meet up once you get back to cook foods you miss from abroad, go on bike rides together, and commiserate about reverse culture shock 🙂
Finally, an outlet for my many opinions 😉 If you are itching to study in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe/the world, I hope I’ve encouraged you at least a little bit!
To my fellow study abroad alumni: is there anything I missed?? Anything you disagree with?