Genevieve in Berlin

Genevieve Minota Stander attended the Winter University at Humboldt University, Berlin during January 2012. Here is her report.

  • Pre-departure

Getting ready for the exchange at Humboldt University was, in my case, a very intimidating undertaking. I had never been outside of South Africa’s borders before, let alone been on an aeroplane – and now all of a sudden I had to organise visas, passports, different currencies, plane tickets, transport to and from airports… but as an admittedly ‘novice traveller’ I have to say that as daunting as getting everything ready for a trip overseas may seem, in the end it is all very doable.

First of all, as a student I received a lot of support and help from Stellenbosch University’s side and I am sure that without their input things probably would not have gone as smoothly as they did. That being said, to make it easier for anyone else planning on applying to Winter School here are a few points to keep in mind pre-departure:

  1.  Since this exchange involved going to Berlin what I needed to get was a Schengen Visa. Thanks to the nature of the exchange getting a Visa is a lot simpler than usual, and as a ‘scholar’ I didn’t even have to pay for my Visa. The German Consulate is in Cape Town and easy to get to, it’s best to make a booking via email as soon as one can though.
  2. No one uses ‘traveller’s cheques’ anymore. The best thing to do, I found anyway, is to get what is called a ‘traveller’s wallet’ or ‘cash passport’ from your respective bank. This is easy to carry around with you, and the fees are far lower than if you were to take a credit card with you. Best of all you don’t pay bank fees when using the card at shops and there is no problem with conversion as you put a set amount of Euros into the card (i.e. your money is not subject to altering exchange rates).
  3. You can get really cheap plane tickets online, and the prices can literally change from day to day – so keep a constant eye out if you are looking to get the best deal. I went with Lufthansa airlines and was very impressed, but then I got a lucky deal since I had gone to Denmark before and after the Winter School.
  4. Gloves. Scarves. Hats. Thick Socks. You really should bring these items with you if you go to the Winter School. While Berlin fortunately had one of its warmest winters this year there were still days that were terribly icy.
  •  Winter School

There were so many new and amazing experiences in Berlin that it’ll be very difficult to narrow them down to just 500 words, but I guess the best place to start is when I landed at Tegel airport because everything was so different to what I was used to the minute I stepped off the plane. It is quite easy to get around in Berlin and the public transport system is amazing, even if you get lost (and believe me I took the wrong train more times than I can count) you will always manage to get back home or wherever you need to be. It is also incredibly helpful that Humboldt University provided us with AB train tickets. The accommodation provided by the university is really spacious and can range from 2-bedroom to 3-bedroom apartments. I really was pleasantly surprised at the state of the flats in actual fact, my only complaint being that there is no internet available in the apartments. There is also a laundromat available in one of the buildings, but I found it far too expensive (5 Euros per load) and ended up doing everything by hand. It is important to realise that even if you are on a tight budget like I was you really don’t need to suffer for it. You can eat really well and really cheaply if you do your shopping at one of the nearby stores e.g. Lidl or Aldi. I think the most expensive shop I did totalled at 20 Euros and this included enough groceries for 1 ½ weeks, not to mention dishwashing liquid and dish clothes etc.  The greatest expense I had was Starbucks coffee, a guilty pleasure I allowed myself with the justification that “it was cheaper to buy one cup of coffee and use 4 hours of free internet than make use of an internet cafe at one Euro an hour”.

The course itself (Global Cities as Centres of Knowledge Production) was very interesting and the lecturer was really approachable. The set-up of the ‘lectures’ is quite different from what I was used to though and entailed very little ‘lecturing’ by the professor in the end. The classes comprised almost entirely of group discussions, with students having to give presentations of two articles as well as submit one group project. I honestly loved the practical aspects of this course, and particularly enjoyed our one excursion to a local school where we all went for coffee (paid for by Humboldt) afterwards to ‘discuss’ things. It was wonderfully informal and a great way to get to know the rest of the class as well as the lecturer.

When it comes to experiencing different cultures and, of course a different country, the Winter School was perfectly placed being in Berlin. Not only did I get to explore German culture and history, but thanks to the international nature of Berlin and the course itself, I was able to meet students from all of the world – being exposed to perspectives from as wide ranging countries as Russia, South Korea, Bolivia, Egypt and Brazil. While Humboldt University arranged a wide range of excursions and activities for us, I do recommend that one go out and explore Berlin independently as well. It really is a fascinating city with a lot to offer in the form of museums, entertainment and monuments. What I loved as a student are the free tours on offer, this involves a walking tour around Berlin for nearly 4 hours based solely on tips. I managed to see all but 2 of the ‘Top 10 Sights’ to see in Berlin on one of these free tours.

  •  Return

After three weeks in Berlin I really started feeling at home, eventually becoming used to the cold and grey surroundings that once made me feel a little uncomfortable. On my last day in class I really felt a little heart sore when saying goodbye to my classmates who were now my friends. I was unable to attend the Farewell Party hosted by Humboldt as I left an hour or so after the very last class was held, so the ‘last goodbyes’ were very sudden and incredibly brief.

Coming back to South Africa I miss the cold of Berlin (the heat in Stellenbosch at the moment is ridiculous), I miss the freedom of being able to take a train by myself anywhere I want to go, I miss the people I met, I miss drinking lattes at Starbucks and the cheap Lindt prices… but I am happy to be back. Being overseas and studying at a different university has, more than anything else, really made me appreciate South Africa and the life I have here. I used to view European countries with rose-tinted glasses, but when I finally got to Germany I found myself becoming more and more ‘patriotic’. We really have it so great here, and I am proud to say that Stellenbosch University can really stand its own against universities from other countries.

I’ve only been back home now for 4 days and already Humboldt and Berlin seem like they happened so long ago. “Was I really experiencing 0C and reading German everywhere just a few days ago?”. It was a very surreal experience for me, especially being my first trip outside of SA and on a plane. But what a wonderful (and here comes the cliché…) life changing experience it was. Wow. Now that Berlin is out of the way, I’m thinking Paris, Beijing or maybe even experiencing the Bolivian way of life… the world is the limit, but South Africa will always be home base.