What Has Changed?

It is interesting to consider how much the news cycle influences our perception of international events. The focus is usually on the latest crisis or the most recent development and long-standing issues tend to fade out of public awareness, although certainly not out of existence. I was reminded of this earlier this semester when Michael Kleeberg came to the German Club’s Kaffee und Kuchen event. 

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, where I completed my summer language program, and now living in Berlin, the author is keenly aware of the impact migration has had on Germany in recent years. At the event, he read aloud an excerpt in German from his book about an immigrant who loses his coat and his identity. Fairly recently, immigration was a major point of discussion as Europe struggled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2018, during the spring semester, I read a book for the Puterbaugh course about a retired professor in Berlin who became entangled in the fates of several refugees occupying Alexanderplatz. The book was fictional but rooted heavily in fact, as the author interviewed refugees and native Germans extensively.

I realized that I am not well aware of where these people are now. Have they been integrated into German society or do they live on the fringes? How many were deported and how many are still waiting to be processed? In 2017 and 2018, there were many attempts to humanize the refugees and draw attention to the reality of the situation. I remember watching a moving documentary about the crowded boats crossing the Mediterranean and the number of bodies, both alive and dead, that coast guards were pulling out of the water on a daily basis. I have not seen much information recently about the resolution of Germany’s refugee crisis, or the lack thereof, but Kleeberg has inspired me to satisfy these curiosities on my own as best I am able.

There Are No Rules

When you listen to people talk about studying abroad, they all start to sound the same after a while. It was amazing… I traveled as much as I could… I met so many great people… The food was AMAZING… I walk so much… It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Granted, most students (at least at OU) travel to European countries which share many general similarities. Furthermore, these students are all coming from the same place, Norman, Oklahoma, and something that is new or different for one person is likely to be new or different for most or all of them. Unfortunately, part of the uniformity comes from the tendency to show only the good memories, the highlights. It is easy to get the impression that there is one way to study abroad which necessitates having oodles of fun and taking tons of amazing pictures. It can be easy to feel that because your experience doesn’t match others’ social media feeds and in-person extolations you’re doing something wrong. This, you should know, is completely untrue.

I’ve written on this blog before about the difficulties of studying abroad. Picking up and moving to a new country for a couple weeks or a couple months is very different from taking a vacation there. Personally, however, it took off a lot of the stress and pressure when I realized that I could do whatever I wanted and I was under no obligation to follow in the footsteps of my peers. During my semester in England, I traveled on weekends and over spring break, went to concerts and pubs on weekdays, and met as many people as possible. I’m pretty extroverted at times. These were the stories I shared with my friends and family, about wilderness hikes with friends and art museums in Paris. Looking at the semester as a whole, these adventurous stories made up only a fraction of my time.

Being at a different university, I had the opportunity to take classes that weren’t available to me at OU. I shifted my enrollment a number of times during the first few weeks before finalizing a schedule full of classes that interested me with professors I enjoyed. I spent hours tucked away in some corner on campus, not only studying for my classes but also exploring the subject on my own with the resources that the school made available to me. I was prepared for lectures and was able to engage in meaningful discussion with students from different majors and from this foreign country. One of my favorite parts about the University of Sheffield was the educational structure. It promoted independent learning and exploration and I absolutely loved it but it would have been easy to miss out on this aspect of the semester.

I also treasure the time I took to explore the many corners of Sheffield. It was small in my eyes, maybe three miles across if you include the skirt of shops and small homes that accented the central ring, but practically everything was within a two-mile walk from my dorm. For reference, that’s about the distance between Lindsey and Robinson. On my free days, I explored the city. U.K. chain stores, such as Waterstones and M & S, were just as intriguing and unique to me as local establishments, such as The Wool Baa (a yarn store run by delightfully crotchety women) and Within Reason (an eclectic gift shop). The town was rife with coffee shops, both mainstream and artisanal, where I would nurse a cappuccino for an hour, absorbed in the pages of a thriller while rain pattered the windows and the street outside.

Not all adventures are great spectacles to write home about. They don’t all involve taking a cheap flight with nothing but a passport and a backpack. Those are great, of course, but there is an understated value in slowing down and truly immersing yourself in the far-flung locale where you have landed and to which, after the program ends, you might never return.

There Are No Rules

When you listen to people talk about studying abroad, they all start to sound the same after a while. It was amazing… I traveled as much as I could… I met so many great people… The food was AMAZING… I walk so much… It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Granted, most students (at least at OU) travel to European countries which share many general similarities. Furthermore, these students are all coming from the same place, Norman, Oklahoma, and something that is new or different for one person is likely to be new or different for most or all of them. Unfortunately, part of the uniformity comes from the tendency to show only the good memories, the highlights. It is easy to get the impression that there is one way to study abroad which necessitates having oodles of fun and taking tons of amazing pictures. It can be easy to feel that because your experience doesn’t match others’ social media feeds and in-person extolations you’re doing something wrong. This, you should know, is completely untrue.

I’ve written on this blog before about the difficulties of studying abroad. Picking up and moving to a new country for a couple weeks or a couple months is very different from taking a vacation there. Personally, however, it took off a lot of the stress and pressure when I realized that I could do whatever I wanted and I was under no obligation to follow in the footsteps of my peers. During my semester in England, I traveled on weekends and over spring break, went to concerts and pubs on weekdays, and met as many people as possible. I’m pretty extroverted at times. These were the stories I shared with my friends and family, about wilderness hikes with friends and art museums in Paris. Looking at the semester as a whole, these adventurous stories made up only a fraction of my time.

Being at a different university, I had the opportunity to take classes that weren’t available to me at OU. I shifted my enrollment a number of times during the first few weeks before finalizing a schedule full of classes that interested me with professors I enjoyed. I spent hours tucked away in some corner on campus, not only studying for my classes but also exploring the subject on my own with the resources that the school made available to me. I was prepared for lectures and was able to engage in meaningful discussion with students from different majors and from this foreign country. One of my favorite parts about the University of Sheffield was the educational structure. It promoted independent learning and exploration and I absolutely loved it but it would have been easy to miss out on this aspect of the semester.

I also treasure the time I took to explore the many corners of Sheffield. It was small in my eyes, maybe three miles across if you include the skirt of shops and small homes that accented the central ring, but practically everything was within a two-mile walk from my dorm. For reference, that’s about the distance between Lindsey and Robinson. On my free days, I explored the city. U.K. chain stores, such as Waterstones and M & S, were just as intriguing and unique to me as local establishments, such as The Wool Baa (a yarn store run by delightfully crotchety women) and Within Reason (an eclectic gift shop). The town was rife with coffee shops, both mainstream and artisanal, where I would nurse a cappuccino for an hour, absorbed in the pages of a thriller while rain pattered the windows and the street outside.

Not all adventures are great spectacles to write home about. They don’t all involve taking a cheap flight with nothing but a passport and a backpack. Those are great, of course, but there is an understated value in slowing down and truly immersing yourself in the far-flung locale where you have landed and to which, after the program ends, you might never return.

Local Perceptions of Foreign Locales

This semester I entered my fourth year at the University of Oklahoma and my fourth year as a member of the OU German Club. Throughout the school year, the club promotes foreign language engagement and department familiarity with a variety of community events. One of my personal favorites is the Großer Stammtisch.

While the club hosts weekly gatherings to practice German conversational skills, the Großer Stammtisch is an annual excuse for all of the teachers, grad students, majors, and minors to join under one roof. This past fall, the German Club met at Blackbird on Campus Corner to mingle over food and drinks. Having taken several German classes, I was familiar with many of the students and professors who attended, but it was also a wonderful opportunity to meet younger students and international students with whom I had not yet crossed paths. 

Across long tables, the club members chattered in a mixture of English and German in order to accommodate the varying skill levels across the room. Although this particular Stammtisch was primarily organized as a social gathering, it also provided a forum for individuals to share their experiences with German language and culture. Students returned from an education abroad program were able to discuss their observations with teachers and international students who had lived in a German-speaking country. Students fresh to the German department, and to OU, were able to learn about German-language opportunities from the individuals who promoted or directed those programs.

When I was a freshman, I relied heavily on my professors and classmates for ways to sharpen my German skills. With the help of those discussions, I was able to select a language immersion program that fit my needs and drastically improved my speaking and listening skills. Through club events such as this Großer Stammtisch, I am able to pass down my experience to students younger than I am who are just as lost as I was and need just as much information and advice as I did.

Words Have Meaning… Kinda

This past semester has been my first without a foreign language class. My interest and desire led me to pursue a minor in German, but my steady focus means I finished all those requirements last year. While I appreciate the opportunity to focus on math and prepare for my future after graduation, I miss the constant challenge, the neverending pile of vocabulary and grammatical structure to master, and the feeling of success that accompanies each milestone.

Language contains nuances that you simply do not see until you’re looking in from the outside. It shifts and changes according to the needs of the people who speak it. As a result, it contains clues about the population’s values and offers an intimate cultural perspective that is difficult to achieve any other way. As obvious as it may sound, I did not realize until I immersed myself in German that English has these same properties. New words are introduced at a breathtaking rate, spread and accepted by the general population through the Internet. Misunderstood words and phrases are used incorrectly by a large enough percentage that the new understanding becomes an acceptable informal term.

In the midst of studying for a language test or grappling with a difficult written analysis in your target language, it can feel as though one will never achieve fluency. Although this is a personal goal of mine, I still have a long, long way to go. One of the difficulties is that fluency, as I define it, is a moving target. I could speak and understand formal German perfectly, but I would feel lost the first time I stepped into Germany, or even listened to a German pop song. Contractions, informal phrasing, and slang are just a few of the difficulties and they change almost constantly. 

One of the current issues with German is that words are gendered, making it difficult to refer to a group of mixed genders. Although one could use the plural form for both genders, similar to saying “ladies and gentlemen” in English, the length and inconvenience has lead many to drop the feminine and just using the masculine plural. The issue, of course, is that women’s presence and experiences are already being overlooked, with negative consequences, and this language doesn’t help. Many are advocating for a standardized neutral form, but it is difficult to push linguistic change. 

While I may take one more German class at OU, any future language learning I choose to undertake will most likely be self-guided. While there are a plethora of resources available through libraries and the Internet, I will need to exercise care to ensure that they are accurate. Without a fluent instructor at my disposal, I plan to rely on examples of native speakers, particularly through entertainment, in order to guide my understanding of informal structures as I progress.

Experience: What Can You Do with It?

So you’ve studied abroad. You have navigated foreign streets and public transportation systems, figured out how to create meals from the strange selection available at the local grocer, adapted to surprising academic expectations and unfamiliar classrooms environments. You battled through homesickness, saw a million new places, and made memories you will never, ever forget. Now what?

Towards the beginning of the semester, the study abroad department teamed up with Career Services to host an information session for students returning from an education abroad experience. Studying in a foreign country can be amazingly enjoyable, but you’re also bound to pick up some practical skills along the way. A representative from Career Services discussed the numerous ways to sell this experience as an asset to future employers.

One of the most important things I learned from this presentation is always to list your time abroad on your resume. Even if the work being pursued is strictly domestic, employers will see that you have experience being self-sufficient in uncomfortable situations and navigating unusual circumstances. If the experience gave you the opportunity to strengthen your foreign language skills, this should also be included. You may not use your secondary language every day in the workplace, but listing it on your resume lets employers know that you are sensitive to the subtle differences that occur in communication, even between different English-speaking areas. Furthermore, if your employer knows that you possess these language skills, they will turn to you first if they ever need someone to work with or in an area that speaks that language.

While one’s resume is a great place to introduce study abroad, the best place to describe the particular benefits to prospective employers is during an interview. Everyone has a different experience and only you are able to tie the struggles you overcame to the challenges you will be prepared for in the workforce. Consider your potential workday and generalize the obstacles you will face. In all likelihood, you’ve handled a similar situation before.

Muted

Since bars and other venues in the U.K. are restricted to those eighteen and over, rather than twenty-one as in the states, I have been able to attend a few concerts across northern England. Tickets for smaller performances are usually less than £10 (roughly $13) and the cost of trains tickets from Sheffield to Manchester, or wherever the venue is located, often outstrips the cost of the concert ticket itself. While I have enjoyed these concerts immensely, I cannot help but note several marked differences between live-music events in England and those in the States.

Whether in a small pub or a large venue, bands must respect curfew. While bars and clubs will pour bass-heavy music through speaker systems until three in the morning, concerts are required to wrap up by 11 p.m. Given that venues are often in close proximity to residential areas, this is considerate, albeit strange to my American sensibilities. Furthermore, since daylight often lingers until 9 or 10 p.m., the openers usually play with sunshine streaming through the windows and skylights. To performers in the States, this interference with a carefully designed and coordinated lighting setup would be appalling. However, the concerts I have seen in England, even those of American bands, have relatively spartan and static lighting configurations.

Such reserved stage design matches well with the reserved audiences that attend. Even at upbeat rock concerts, the crowds, in my opinion, could be described as dead. Songs concluded to polite applause and a few cheers. Dancing or moving to the music is minimal and mosh pits are rare. I have observed this behavior across a variety of concerts, each in a different venue with a different style of music which leads me to conclude that this attitude is more a reflection of British conduct than the quality of the performance.

Finals Season

After weeks of drizzling rain and the cheery grey skies for which England is so famous, Sheffield has fallen into what I can only assume counts as summertime. The amount of sunshine has peaked dramatically and the weather has shot up to the sixties. I didn’t realize quite how well I had acclimated to the chill and the damp until it was taken away from me. I only packed a few items for warmer weather so I’ve been cycling through the same couple of outfits for the past several weeks. Despite growing up in the Midwest, I find it slightly too warm for my taste when the temperature peaks above sixty-five. I am expecting an unpleasant transition when I return to the States where the temperature is about forty degrees higher. Let’s just say I am relishing this weather while I have it.

May has been a strange time for the academic schedule here in England. Rather than one week of finals, exams and deadlines are spread over a three week period that includes weekends. One of my friends took an exam last Saturday morning. The last week of the semester before this exam period is called reading week and most professors either cancel class or hold revision sessions. Without the usual structure afforded by weekly classes, the last month feels loose and surreal. Papers are usually due in the first week of the exam period, presumably to allow students to focus on their revision.

Almost all of my final exams at OU have been administered in the room where the class has been meeting all semester. The rare exceptions are still administered in a classroom on campus with other students from my class taking the same exam. Here in Sheffield, exams seem to offered everywhere except classrooms. Last week, I took a final in a multi-purpose auditorium. The room had been cleared out and filled with hundreds of desks and chairs in neat, numbered rows. At least five different classes were taking their final exam at the same time, the students divided up into sections according to the test they were taking. A food court on the upper level of the student union has been shut down and converted into a testing space. Another student I know will be taking an economics exam at the student sporting complex. Several exams are being administered in a conference center on the other side of town. Given that the University of Sheffield is roughly the same size as the University of Oklahoma, I do not understand the need for such a complicated and confusing system.

Cover Art

Have you ever driven down past BJ’s and turned into the Barnes & Noble parking lot on the west side of I-35? The glass storefront emits a warm glow at night, beckoning you to the crisp paperbacks and luxurious notebooks nestled amongst the sounds of soft jazz and the smell of fresh coffee. Growing up, I saw more than my fair share of bookstores, independent and chain alike, lock their doors for the last time, and I assumed they were a dying breed. People still needed physical books, of course, but they did not need to select them from beautiful, carefully curated shelves. England proved me wrong.

I would struggle to count the number of bookshops I have visited in the past three months. Some, like Waterstones, WHSmith, and Blackwell’s are chains that pop up in major metropolitan areas and small university towns alike. Others are on their own, usually small and tightly packed, the floor-to-ceiling bookcases supervised by an owner or employee sipping tea in the corner. Books are respected, treasured, and proudly displayed. Stores that are blessed with a bit more space often squeeze in a coffee bar and a few accompanying tables. Any free wall space is filled with murals or artfully lettered quotations. People come in droves to browse, to linger, and to select their next read. The atmosphere is exquisite. The best part, however, is the books themselves.

I do not claim to be an expert on graphic design, but the book covers in England are the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. Both hardcovers and paperbacks are wrapped in designs conceptualized and executed with care usually reserved for special anniversary editions in the States. We are advised not to judge a book by its cover but when the cover is such an excellent reflection of the book itself, how can I resist?

“Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.”

With three weeks of Easter break to fill, I have been taking the opportunity to travel around Europe. This past week I have been staying in Berlin. Although I previously spent six weeks in southern Germany, I regrettably did not make the time to travel up north and visit the nation’s capital. Returning after almost two years, I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the little quirks of life that make Germany unique.

It was thrilling to rediscover favorite foods that had slipped my mind. I indulged in currywurst and döner, müesli with yogurt, peanut puffs, paprika potato chips, Spezi, and Milka chocolate bars. I savored the local produce and the many flavors of sparkling water offered in 1.5 L bottles for 0.69€ with a 0.25€ deposit. I crisscrossed the city on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, never waiting for a late train or unsure of which stop was coming next. I ate lunch in the small parks dotted every few blocks, watching groups of friends and families with small children enjoying the fresh spring air. I crossed streets strictly according to the red and green men in wide-brimmed hats, rather than fighting for right of way as I do in England. I lounged in a plethora of imaginative coffeehouses and fought the urge to spend all my money in carefully curated bookstores. I wandered through neighborhoods admiring the graffiti on almost every surface, the poles covered in stickers and the windows papered with posters. I admired the wide variety of artistic expression that thrived in every corner.

Berlin is an amazing city, rich with history and culture, but I believe much of my enjoyment stemmed from the familiar comfort that I felt the moment I walked out of the airport. In the grand scheme of things, I have spent very little time in Germany and cannot claim to be an expert on German life. That being said, I thoroughly enjoy the little that I have experienced. Subtle aspects, such as the spacing between restaurant tables, and pervasive principles, such as the appreciation for expensive, but well-made products, feel right to me. I enjoyed Berlin immensely and I hope for the chance to return sooner rather than later.