1. My Study Abroad Experience in Berlin: 2017/18 Exchange Programme in University Potsdam.
My study abroad experience in Berlin spanned from September 2017 until August 2018. I took part in the Erasmus programme, leaving University College Dublin (UCD) for the year to start a new chapter in my academic life, and unknowingly at the time my personal life too, in Potsdam University. The Erasmus programme allows and promotes academic exchanges among European Union member states and since its founding in 1987, 6 million participants have benefited from the programme.
I spent just under a year in the German capital, experiencing everything from the city’s version of Oktoberfest, Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets), Baumblütenfest (directly translating to ‘Tree Blossom Festival’, which is Germany’s largest fruit wine festival), 1. Mai (Berlin’s largest street party, born from violent protesting), and many Sunday afternoons spent in Mauerpark singing along terribly to classic karaoke songs. If you’re considering spending some time in Berlin, maybe studying for your masters, participating in an exchange programme or even just taking part in a month-long German language course, hopefully by reading this you’ll see how unmissable the experience of studying here is. Who knows, perhaps this might even tempt you to pack a bag and say Auf Wiedersehen to your old life and start a new journey.
2. Why did I choose to study in Berlin?
In April 2018 I had been awarded a place to study in the University of Porto, Portugal for the coming academic year. However, at the last minute, I decided that I would benefit more from studying in a German-speaking country. My spontaneous decision of switching country left me with little time to consider the options I had, but since Berlin was the only place I had visited before in Germany, I thought it would be sensible to pick a university there.
Unfortunately, there were no options available in the capital city, so I started looking into Potsdam. I don’t remember how I knew that Potsdam was located a commutable distance from Berlin, maybe a friend had told me or I discovered that while on a mission to Google as much information as I could. Once I realised that if I studied in Potsdam I would be only an hour away from Alexanderplatz, I had made up my mind.
My previous visit to Berlin was brief. I had spent a weekend there with a few college friends a year before. I had enjoyed it immensely, but little did I know that I had only scratched the surface of the gems that Berlin had to offer. We’d tried the Currywurst, took pictures outside the Brandenburger Tor, walked along the East Side Gallery and stayed out clubbing until 7 am. When I returned from my trip, I felt like I could tick Berlin off my list of places visited.
I had seen it all, or so I thought. Little did I know that the best things about Berlin were the hidden gems that you’re unlikely to stumble upon on a three-day trip. I knew I would like it but I could have never imagined that I would love it as much as I did.
3. The people I met through the study programme in Berlin.
Whenever anyone asks me for a one-word answer to sum up the best part about my Erasmus experience, I always give them the same, cliché response; the people.
I’ll be honest and admit that I found many of the native German students, or full-time students in Potsdam, didn’t try to establish much of a friendship. Of course, there are two sides to consider here as I didn’t push myself to start conversations with them. I know as a student in Dublin I didn’t know any of the people partaking in the Erasmus programme there either. In an ideal world, I would have befriended a lot of German students who would patiently listen to me attempt to speak their language and encourage me to not give up but, as I said, that didn’t happen. In general, they were all very pleasant though, in retrospect perhaps I should have tried a bit harder.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea though, I did have friends. Most of them were international exchange students like myself. So instead of singing German folk anthems and drinking Steins of beer, I was cooking extra hot chicken and rice for ‘Nando Nights’ with my friends from London and singing Despacito in the Studentenwohnheim communal kitchen with Spanish speaking pals from all over the world every other week. These are just an example of some of the fond memories that I have with the people I shared my experience with. What these memories all have in common though is a group of young and outgoing people enjoying likeminded people in a vibrant and fun atmosphere.
4. Some of the other people I met in Berlin.
I think what surprised me most is not the friendships I made during my study abroad experience in Berlin, but rather the brief encounters with interesting, unique and sometimes strange people.
One of the first memories I have of my Erasmus experience involves a U-Bahn to Tempelhof to go to a kite festival, Festival der Riesendrachen. It was a lovely, sunny afternoon in Berlin and we were still relatively new to the city. A group of other Irish students and I had been enjoying a few Späti beers on our way to the festival and once we entered the carriage of the U6 one of my friends immediately spotted a dog. Feeling confident (thanks to the beer) he went over and asked for a picture. The owner of the dog was obliging and allowed my friend to take a picture.
It became a tradition that every time he was on a U-Bahn or any other form of public transport that had a dog on it, a picture would be taken of him and sent to a group chat to immortalize the moment. This long-running joke all began because one nice lady allowed a group of tipsy tourists (at the time that’s really all we were) to take pictures with her pet.
Another stand out character was a woman I met in a different U-Bahn station with the same group of people. At this point, I’m also starting to wonder maybe if there’s a correlation, but I’ll try to figure that out later. We were waiting for an U-Bahn when a woman with long, black, matted hair, and a black cardigan so long it trailed on the ground. It was pretty clear that she was on something. She appeared to float as she moved.
At first, we were too scared to even make eye contact in case she started talking to us, but before long we were having a full conversation with her. She fixed her eyes on one of my friends and said he looked familiar. Perhaps they’d met in a previous life, but she couldn’t be certain if they’d slept together or not. He very quickly assured us they hadn’t. She continued to talk to us, and as she did, our initial hostility faded. We realised that she was just another one of the many thousands of people living in Berlin, each with their own reason for being here. As our U-Bahn approached, we were almost sad to leave her, but she walked off, her cardigan like a trail of smoke behind her as she disappeared down the platform. We spoke about her for weeks, even months, following the event.
I could write about more random encounters we had, or I could go in-depth into the amazing friendships I established in my year living here, but what I am trying to convey is the variety of people you encounter in Berlin is unparalleled. Whether you’re walking down the street and see a 78-year-old Goth granny, a lady in a hijab carrying shopping bags or a man pushing a buggy; all these people are different, but at the same time they’re equally a part of Berlin.
That’s what makes the city and its inhabitants so special. Everybody belongs to Berlin and each person has their own version of Berlin.
5. Did my experience of studying in Berlin improve my German?
Before coming to Berlin, I had a B1.1 level of German. In other words, it was pretty basic. Initially, I was terrified to speak any German because the only time I had spoken it was in a classroom setting and being thrust into the real world with poor linguistic skills is the equivalent of trying to teach someone to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool with no armbands. I mean, it was pretty scary.
However, Berlin is a hub of international activity and the vast majority of people I encountered spoke English. On one hand, this eased my nerves of moving to a new country with a language I could barely speak, as I felt I would be able to communicate myself in any situation. On the other hand, though, the convenience of speaking my mother tongue all the time made me incredibly lazy when it came to trying to improve my target language. By January, I hadn’t noticed much difference in my level of German, which admittedly was very embarrassing, but I could order a meal in a restaurant and could now grasp the basic content of my university lectures better than before.
My biggest concern at the time was not whether my target language was improving, but rather my depleting finances. Having spent most of the Erasmus grant money we’d received in October and all of our life savings, my friends and I had come to the conclusion that in order to support ourselves we would need to find work. Lacking the native language, however, we felt our options were quite limited. One place we knew we would be able to communicate well, though, was in bars. One of my friends found a job working in a bar in Berlin and I was taken on part-time in a bar in Potsdam.
Even though I initially decided to look for a job out of the need to support myself, it turns out this was the best choice I had made all year in order to improve my German. As I mentioned, my friends were all international students so we stuck to English and when I did speak to a German student, they wanted to use it as an opportunity to improve their English. However, when it came to serving customers I had little choice but to speak to them in German. Initially, I struggled and the only thing I felt confident saying was ‘I’m sorry my German isn’t very good,’ but luckily all the customers were not only forgiving but also encouraging. After a few months, the dread I felt walking to work eased and I actually enjoyed going and trying to communicate with the locals.
If anybody’s considering studying in Berlin to improve their German, I can’t recommend working in a hospitality or retail job enough. Although it is scary and intimidating, it is undeniably the best way to learn the language.
6. Why did I decide to come back to Berlin?
Before my study abroad experience in Berlin had even finished, I had decided that I wanted to return. While I loved living in Potsdam, I wanted to experience what it was like to actually live in Berlin. I had to finish my final year of university in Dublin, but most of the that was spent counting down the days until I could return again.
When people asked me why I wanted to go back, I gave them a different answer every time. I was going back because of the people, or the excitement, or the kebabs. There’s no city in the world like Berlin. That’s why I love it, that’s why I came back.
My experience of studying in Berlin has led me to the next chapter of my life: working and living in Berlin.
After study abroad experience in Berlin, I now work with a travel writing and street art company in the west of the city.