Sunday, October 25, 2009

Perspective




The other day as I was visiting a church in the older part of town to take pictures. The church is pretty old and they have a small gift shop in the base where you pay a small fee to go up to the top of the tower. While I was waiting to pay to go up, an elderly woman who was accompanied by a man with only one arm was talking to the cashier. I was standing there, zoning out, waiting to pay so I wasn't intentionally listening in on their conversation but it caught my attention after about a minute. I had missed the first part of her conversation but she was talking about when Rostock was bombed by the Allies during World War II. How she was outside when it first started to happen and rushed inside for shelter. She said she was lucky to be alive because her neighbor's house had been completely destroyed.

We all learn in school that there was a war, and it was bad. We occasionally see pictures like the ones above from the Allied bombing of Rostock in 1942 in books, but they rarely have any meaning to us. Underneath the two black and white photos I have pictures of the same areas today in 2009.

I've been living in Rostock for almost a month now. These are streets I walk every day without a second thought to their history. These pictures suddenly become very meaningful and humbling, to think that these things happened right here where I'm standing. How many people's lives were changed forever that day when the city was leveled to the ground?

Going abroad is about many things including gaining another culture's perspective to further your own. We often examine the differences in our cultures without wondering how we got there. It was 67 years ago, but however horrible, it helped shape the modern cultural perspective. This is hardly the whole reason for cultural differences, but if you think about it, you'd act a little differently if your neighborhood was bombed to the ground too.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Culture Shock

Right now it's almost 1:45 pm and I just finished breakfast. Routine has officially begun to set in...

It's a slightly different experience for everybody depending on what their situation is and how familiar they are with their surroundings, but whenever you leave your home, your family and friends, and your familiar surroundings, and travel to a foreign land with a different culture and different customs, you experience culture shock in one form or another. Culture shock can mean very different things to different people, but for the most part, everybody experiences the "honeymoon" phase where everything is new and exciting, the first part of the "shock" of culture shock. This is one of the most exciting phases of doing a foreign exchange program because even if you've done your homework and think that you're prepared for change, you can never really be prepared for what's ahead.

Everything is new and exciting, from the moment you step off the plane. The first thing that hits you is how it smells. The smell can be one of the most memorable parts and stick with you forever. Once you get out and start to feel like you've finally landed, everything around you hits you all at once, the smells, the sounds, the sights, everything new that you do, is all part of this honeymoon phase.

But as its name implies, the honeymoon phase is just that, a phase. Gradually you become more familiar with your surroundings. You stop noticing the smells as you grow used to them and the landscape begins to become familiar. All the sounds that were overwhelming and new become normal and routine. (For example, the novelty of hearing people speaking German in Germany begins to wear off quite quickly.)

And now we come to how this applies to me. I've been here for 18 days, and have a week of class under my belt now, and everything that was exciting, difficult, or even frustrating, are becoming routine, or at the very least less difficult. And in the end all these things are good, this is how we adapt to new situations. It's all part of a multiple step process that takes time.

Whereas this is relevant in and of itself, settling into a routine. The bigger objective is to have an idea of what is going on now and how that feels, so that you can be as well informed as possible for what comes next, after everything stops being exciting and becomes routine, because what comes next is not always easy and quite often the most difficult part of being in culture shock. But as I mentioned before, this whole thing is a process and the difficult stage of accepting routine and being happy with your surroundings, dealing with the possibility of homesickness is just one step in the entire process. It too will pass, come hell or high water. Regardless, I will continue to keep you updated on all that is my life here in Germany, the good, the bad, and the mundane.

And, once again, on a completely different note, I suppose this is the part of the post where I put up more pictures to help give you a better overview and impression of what my life here is like. The first picture is of the market in the center of town where there's always a lot going on. Directly across from the market is the city hall, which is the pink building in the second picture.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Am Anfang des Semesters

Today marked the first day of classes here at the Universit├Ąt Rostock and despite all the confusion and lack of clarity about virtually everything, I attended my first class, History of the German Language. The way the university functions as a whole here is very different than it is in the United States. The main difference, which may be at the core of everything, is that you go to a university to study one thing, for example physics, and you study ONLY physics. There are no general education requirements and very few interdisciplinary courses offered because when you go to study at a university here, you go to further your education only in your selected field.

Since the various fields of study are so isolated and separate, it only makes sense that the requirement of interdepartmental communication is minimal. For all the normal going-ons within the university, this usually isn't a cause for concern, however for the international student "fresh off the boat" so to speak, this translates into nobody knowing anything about anything going on anywhere else within the university. Communication is clearly lacking and it's effect on disorganization is very evident.

After a 4 days of new international student orientation, there had still been no mentioning of any scheduling or any mentioning of classes at all. After looking more in depth into it we found out that registration for regular German students closed way back in August. We then went in search of answers as to how we were to get classes and have a schedule, but due to the lack of communication we received conflicting information from several different sources. The simple answer to everything is that there is no way for international student to get classes and nobody seems to know this.

That being said, after practically begging for someone to help us, we finally got someone from the international office to show us the course listings and we just have to go in on the first class and hope that there's a spot open for us. After this week I'm beginning to understand why I was told that I would have to be proficient in German to be able to come here because at times even for me, the German system and processes involved were a little frustrating and I could speak the language.

All in all I would say that after all of this I'm not discouraged at all. I knew that it would be a very different experience and that I would have to be independent in many of the things I did here. I would say that I definitely didn't realize the extent that I would have to be self-reliant, but it's all part of the experience of coming here. I've not always been the most patient person ever and when I was growing up, my dad was a big fan of the phrase "proceed as the way opens." As much as it pains me to say, The only way to go through an experience like this, enjoy it, and make it a positive experience is to "proceed as the way opens."

On a completely different note, here are a few extra pictures that don't really have anything to do with the post. Just pictures I've been meaning to put up. The first one is another view of my bedroom here in Rostock, the second is the Reichstag in Berlin, the next one from inside Heathrow in London, and the last one is a picture of my girlfriend and I before I left the states.



Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Home

So this lovely building right here is my current and future home for the next six months. I took this picture during a rare patch of sun (it rains here almost constantly). Once I had my things set down in my room, I looked around the apartment a bit, not that there's much to see since it's so small but I found hints of a roommate. I say hints because his name is on the door, he has things like towels, plates, and some food in the apartment, but it's been almost a week since I moved in and I haven't seen any sign of him actually being here yet.

That being said, I set off alone to go in search of supplies for my apartment.
After poking around for a little while, I realized I was back at square one as far as household essentials go. Food was easy enough to find, supermarkets are supermarkets the world over, they may have different formats and cater to different crowds but they all serve the same basic function: provide me with food. After I had food covered I hit another road block: I had no plates or cups, no silverware, no pots or pans either. My American intuition would have led me to Target or Walmart for all my genre-encompassing needs. But this isn't America and there are no Targets or Walmarts. So where is one to find such essentials when he's alone in a foreign land with no clue what to do? The simple answer is do without, for the first couple days I ate off halloween paper plates and cups.

Eventually I did find everything I needed, the cooking essentials at a department store and other things like detergent and kitchen towels at a small connivence-like store (think Walgreens without the drugs). It was an interesting, and at times, difficult process to do all of these start up things completely on my own. There were many things going on all at once, not just thing finding of replacements for my halloween plates. I was becoming familiar in a city I had never been in and being completely reliant on myself to get everywhere and find everything. It took me a couple days to figure out the streetcar system and all the different lines for it. Fortunately for me, for some reason they didn't start checking tickets until after I got my rail pass from the university.

I'm glad to finally be settled in to my apartment and start to finally get a grip on things, just taking everything one step at a time (I still haven't figured out where to wash my giant mound of dirty clothes). Classes will be starting soon and I feel like I'm just about as ready as I can be. I know how to get to the places I need to go and my fridge is well stocked. At this point, I don't think there a whole lot else I could ask for.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

From Baltimore To Berlin And Beyond



Well it has now been a week since I left the United States and been a week without internet so this post is going to be on the longer side. So I'll start at the beginning, way back on Monday night, while I was visiting my girlfriend in Baltimore, with a late night trip to the emergency room, everything ended up being okay but it was still a very stressful and scary trip involving not getting to bed until 4 a.m. and a wake up call of 6:30 a.m.

On Tuesday morning I spent my last afternoon with my girlfriend before I left. It was very sad leaving and contributed to my departure sneaking up on me. Even while I was sitting in the airport in Baltimore to leave, it still hadn't sunk in. Before I knew
it, I was sitting on a plane to London. The flight to London didn't seem too bad, it was actually kind of enjoyable even though I probably only slept a total of a half an hour.

When I arrived in London on Wednesday morning, it was raining (raining in England? go figure). At this point I was tired but not about to pass out because chances are I probably would have been up then anyways. After a couple of hours in Heathrow, I boarded my plane to Berlin. On this flight I only got in about a half an hour of sleep. Wh
en I arrived, the airport was small compared to Heathrow and the passport control and customs were right outside of the gate.
By this point I was starting to get very tired. To get from the airport to the train station, I needed up having to take a bus, the subway, and a commuter train. There probably would have been an easier way, but I was tired, alone, and carrying all of my belongings with me across Berlin.

After spending an hour or so in the train station I finally boarded my two and a half hour train ride to Rostock. During the trip I was very sleepy, but
I managed to stay awake for most of the time (long enough for a bunch of drunk men in lederhosen to stick their heads in my compartment and ask if I was a terrorist anyway).

I finally arrived in Rostock and got on a streetcar and headed in the direction of my hotel. It's now almost nine at night, and everything in town is very empty, quiet, and dark. To really set the mood for me it started to rain as soon as I stepped out of the street car. It took about twenty minutes of toting all my things back and forth through small, narrow alleys, but I finally made it to my hotel. I had now traveled almost 4000 miles and been (more or less) awake for 36 hours.

Oddly enough because of the amount of required consciousness of my trip, for the first night I seemed to have avoided being jet lagged. In the morning, I woke up feeling very refreshed and well rested even though I woke up at 8:30 a.m. I got directions at the hotel on how to get to my apartment. It figures that as soon as I started walking towards my apartment it started to rain, so I decided it would be worth it to take a taxi. When I finally reached my new apartment building, I came to a locked front door with no idea what to do. Eventually someone who is on their way out lets me in. I then went to the basement to wait to get my keys and everything and there is only one other person waiting down there so I'm not quite sure what is going on. I did eventually get my keys and moved into my apartment. It was a relief to finally get to stop carrying everything I owned around with me.

So now here I am, in Germany and it's finally set in that I'm really here. The main thing I would mention about how I felt through my trip was how big of an effect doing everything alone had. It really was a lot harder and more lonely than I would have though traveling for 36 hours straight across 4000 miles. As of right now, I still do not have internet in my room and I've finally made my way to an internet cafe to post this. I'll put pictures up too in a couple of days but for right now they're not cooperating. Overall, it's been pretty good so far. I was glad to find that my German was still good enough to do everything I wanted/needed to do. So at the end of my first week here, it's been very tiring but I'm also very excited about being here. It's going to be an exciting six months.

-Update: I added a few pictures that weren't working earlier.