Sue-Mari attending the Lake Constance Summer School

During August Sue – Mari Maass attended the Lake Constance Summer School to improve her German; here is her report:

Preparations before departure:

I had the privilege of going to Konstanz in August 2011 for a German Summer School with the aim to further my German language skills. I completed a six month course in South Africa in 2008 and intended to improve my German by undertaking the one month course in Konstanz. The application was straightforward with the help of the Postgraduate & International Office. It basically consisted of a number of documents that I had to complete and I also had to apply for a Schengen Visa. The German Consulate is in Cape Town and the application took about ten minutes as I had the original invitation from the University in Konstanz, explaining the purpose and length of my intended visit.

The initial preparations for my trip was therefore uncomplicated with the efficient help of the Universities involved. The bursaries from both institutions also covered the costs of my flights and my accommodation in Germany, which is rather expensive in comparison to South African rental prices. The nearest airport to Konstanz is Zurich, about one hour train ride from Konstanz. Switzerland does not form part of the European Union, although a Schengen Visa (issued by the German authorities) is apparently sufficient to enter Switzerland. Thus I did not have to apply for another visa for Switzerland. My flight was booked with Turkish airlines, they were much cheaper than Swiss Air, and I only had to take a quick detour through Istanbul to get to Zurich. Once I had landed in Zurich, I drew money in order to buy a train ticket to Konstanz and quickly realized that Swiss Francs would be of no use once in Germany so I restricted the withdrawal to cover the train ticket. The trip to Konstanz was beautiful, crossing through bits of forest and small towns. Once I arrived in Konstanz, I met with one of the postgraduate students who work with Hans (the coordinator in Germany). Hans was in charge of the entire Summer School and did a magnificent job. He sent at least five detailed e-mails before our departure to roughly one hundred students across the globe. Every student was picked up on arrival at the train station in Konstanz and escorted to their different apartments. There were three apartment blocks that all the students were divided into, namely Europahaus (in town), Hochhaus (closer to the University) and Grouphaus (also closer to the University). I stayed in one of the Grouphaus apartments with two American girls, Suzie and Tomoka. After my arrival I bought a one day bus ticket and a couple of days later, at registration, we all bought one month bus tickets. The busses were undoubtedly the most efficient and easy way to travel as there was a bus-stop close to our apartment and it made its round every ten minutes. Central town was about a ten minute bus ride away; although by foot it could easily take up to forty minutes! I quickly became very good friends with my flatmates and adapted to the beautiful town of Konstanz.

 Life in Konstanz:

Konstanz is surrounded by Lake Konstanz, which is a lake on the Rhine at the northern foot of the Alps. During the summer the town can get up to 35 degrees that make the most awesome days next to the lake. We made daily visits to the lake to tan, swim and jump off the bridge, although the Canadian boys made these excursions, not me! The purpose of the Summer School was ultimately to further our German skills, and so we did, but only in the mornings. We had two sessions in the morning, followed by lunch at the cafeteria and a whole afternoon to do whatever you like (after your 10 minute homework session was done of course). The morning sessions were indeed useful as it improved my German and the classes were highly entertaining as it consisted of so many different students, including people from Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, Norway and Spain. The interesting part was that English was absolutely disallowed in the class, since some of the students did not really understand English! We were only allowed to speak German, no matter how bad your German was. Eventually this rule paid off as we were forced to speak, hear and “illustrate” everything in German.

After class we sometimes had lunch in the cafeteria, which offered a number of delicious foods to choose from. Everything was also priced for students and we therefore had the luxury of eating well, without having to pay enormous bills. German treats included fresh cakes and tarts, although the sandwiches and fruits were highly rated as well. In town we loved grabbing a Doner, which is basically a sandwich filled with salad and sliced meat – absolutely delicious and warm! Konstanz is also famous for its range of ice cream shops – one on almost every street corner. We often indulged in some ice cream before or after a trip to the lake and applied the very strict rule of having to choose a different flavour each time. Lavender and lemon was my favourite! During the weekends I randomly got on a train and visited different towns and cities close to Konstanz. My first visit was to Freiburg, known as the town of the black forest. The train trip through the black forest was magical in itself. I also visited Zurich, Munich (with a bunch of newly made friends from Canada and America) and Strasbourg in France.  All these trips were unique and offered lasting memories. In Munich we visited the Hofbrauhaus, one of the biggest and most cheerful beer gardens I’ve ever seen, and Dachau, which was one of the Nazi concentration camps. Apart from my own excursions, the University also arranged trips for the whole group to Austria and Lichtenstein where we met the Prince of Lichtenstein during one of their public holidays. The Prince was so kind to sponsor us with sandwiches and beers for the whole day! In Austria we took a cable car, similar to the one on Table Mountain, and hiked down a Knysna-like forest. The weather played out well and we had an awesome day under big eerie trees.

Back in South Africa:

All good things must come to an end and so did our month in Konstanz. I was indeed sad to leave as I had to part with really good friends, not knowing if we would meet again. Packing all my things, which multiplied since I got there, was not an easy task. Shopping in Germany was as good as shopping can get, especially if you’re buying things for those back home and they enjoy the sweeter things in life. The range of chocolates was astounding and half my suitcase was filled with treats. I still crave some “Haselnuss” wafer biscuits! The small shops throughout Konstanz were great to visit, although a second-hand dress could easily cost up to seventy Euros. I also thought about bringing back some fantastic Rieslings, at only four Euros a bottle, but decided that I had no space left in my suitcase.

The train trip from Konstanz to Zurich went according to plan, but unfortunately our flight from Zurich to Istanbul was delayed. The effect was that two other couples and I had to literally run for our flight to Cape Town once we landed at Istanbul airport. Luckily the pilot waited for us, even though we “missed” our flying time with about ten minutes! Back home I realized what an amazingly efficient country Germany is. I will always remember the eagerness of people to work, the effectiveness of most institutions that I had to deal with and the importance of precision for the German people in general. Fashionably late does simply not exist! Surprisingly, I found most Germans very friendly, social and interactive, especially when they realized that I am a South African.

It took some adjusting once I was back in South Africa. I found it difficult to adjust to the slower pace and often got annoyed with laziness and incompetence. I also miss the effortless accessibility of public transport and the absolute freedom to travel to different countries in a matter of hours. I am determined to continue with my endeavour to become fluent in German and will register for some courses in the next couple of years. During my next visit I hope to communicate only in German, without having to explain my coffee order – again – in English!

I regularly communicate with some friends in America and Canada, although my most interesting talks are with my flatmate who went to Zurich after she spent the month in Konstanz. A number of students decided to undertake further studies in Europe and it is astonishing to realize how accessible studies abroad currently is, it is just a matter of approaching the right institutions in order to apply for these type of scholarships. I would encourage any student to undertake some studies abroad.