Taryn in Berlin

Taryn Whittles attended the Winter University at Humboldt University, Berlin during January 2012. Here is her report.

  • Planning for Berlin

After the initial excitement of being given the chance to do a winter school in Berlin had settled, the panic of having to arrange a trip outside of South Africa set in. I was absolutely confused and had no real idea of what one does when planning an international trip, as I had never done this before.

Luckily, the PGIO understood and advised me to see to a travel agent. And so I did. I went to Student Flights Centre and asked them about flights from Cape Town to Europe for around the dates that I needed to be there. But travel agents do charge a commission fee – so I told the travel agent that I would also do some of my own research before booking a flight – and then I checked the same flights that she referenced for me, went to the airport and booked it myself. By doing this, I saved R3000!

Though, to save even more money on flights, book as early as possible.

After booking my flights I set out to find travel insurance, which I found at another travel agent for under R1000. Most travel centres offer insurance.

Step three was to sort out my banking and money so that it would be satisfactory for visa-purposes. The Schengen visa requires a minimum of є40 per day (which is about R400, depending on the exchange rate). I went to my bank and opened a travel wallet (most banks offer such a service) which allowed me to exchange my Rands into Euros, and because I have a student bank account, I only had to pay half of the service rates!

After these three main tasks, I gathered all the other papers I needed and made an appointment for a visa – to make the appointment they charge a fee of about R70. It was simple and very stress-free, and because I went for study-purposes, the visa fee was waivered. After about 5 days, I got my visa.

Once all the official business was handled, I could really start getting excited! I went to Berlin during the winter season, and therefore had to get some basic winter things like a good jacket to combat the cold, some thermal tights and thick socks.

The mistake I made was to not take very, VERY comfortable walking shoes, as we really walked around a lot; be it to class, to the station or to all the many shops and sights in and around the city. Luckily, I was here during a brilliant sale period, and got some comfortable boots for only є10.

Initially, the planning was very stressful, but once I got into it, it was much simpler – and yes, I made it all the way to Berlin in one piece!

  • Arriving and Being There

OK. . So then on Friday, 06 January 2012, I arrived at Tegel airport after 09h00. Step one was to get my luggage. Step two: call home to let everyone know I arrived safely. And then, step three: Use written directions to try and find my way to the HUWISU office by bus and train. In a strange city. With no one familiar to help me. Needless to say, I was sort of terrified.

After getting a map from the airport information desk, and having the route mapped out, I ventured into the great city of Berlin for the first time.

My experience was good. My bags were heavy, I was tired and in no state to be dragging around so much luggage, but so many people offered to carry my bags up stairs and point me to my next destination. I was both in awe and highly suspicious of every person who so readily offered to help – I was told to not trust anyone while travelling!  But I was too exhausted to worry too much.

I made it to the HUWISU office and then the apartment building. Checked in, paid my deposit and settled into the place. Then I looked around me and suddenly felt VERY alone (I was the first person in the group to arrive, everyone else would only arrive in the next two days).  I was tired and my emotions were running wild. Immediately all I wanted was to go back home because “this place is lonely and cold and it sucks.”

But it got better. Much better.

Classes started, we were put into classes based on the results of a test we wrote. My lecturer was fantastic and really went out of her way to accommodate everyone. In my class, the levels of German were so diverse but the lecturer made sure to teach so that everyone would learn something. I honestly feel like my German vocabulary has developed and some problems that I’d previously had with grammar were cleared up. I am very pleased that I had the opportunity to study German so in depth, in the country of its origin.

The majority of people in the programme were not really what I expected and in my opinion were too unfocussed to really impact my life. But I met a few people who I can truly say I am glad to have known, and whose stories have enriched my mind greatly.

Berlin is huge, so I made a list of things I definitely wanted to do while I was there and aimed to do those things in the 23 days I had. I also discovered many other things which were interesting and new. My tip to anyone who goes on this programme, is that they walk around sometimes instead of taking the U- or S-Bahn – you’ll be amazed at what you find on your way!

  • Back in Stellenbosch

I have been back in Stellenbosch for two weeks now. Many things have remained the same, but my perspective and ideas on many things have evolved.

Firstly, my spoken German and vocabulary is better, and I am much more confident now than I was before.  Many of the grammar rules make more sense now!

The atmosphere in Berlin is quite different to the feel here. People in Germany are more organised and at the same time more at ease than the people here, and I must say that I miss the fantastically organised public transport systems.

I also felt a lot safer in Berlin than I do in South Africa, and that is a factor that could definitely push me to consider a long-term living situation in Germany.

The cultural diversity in Berlin is a lot like in Cape Town, which was great, and it is a very cosmopolitan city. People are friendly and there is a constant hustle and bustle.

I would consider a semester exchange to Germany, simply because I now know that living there really helps with learning the language and also because it is a place that I felt comfortable in.

It was a phenomenal experience, and if you’re given the chance to exchange as well, take it! The Postgraduate & International Office is very helpful and is willing to answer many questions. It is a trip worth making and will most definitely influence your life.