Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Wurst year of my life

I have just returned from a year spent in Germany – a year during which I consumed unparalleled amounts of sausage, dressed in some ridiculous outfits, raved all night to techno music, learned to enjoy beer, and fell in love with a nation. Here are some of the most memorable moments.

The majority of my time in Deutschland was spent working full-time in the Private Wealth Management division of a well-known bank – whose decision to employ me proved all the more remarkable when I discovered that my name in both its forms (Rosanna, or Rosie for short) are the names of notorious prostitutes in Germany, who have been immortalised in conveniently catchy songs to ensure that the stigma attached to these names shall never fade. Considering that I was expected to email high-profile clients on a daily basis, the firm’s decision to employ me was my first, somewhat fortuitous, example of the accepting, forward-thinking nature of contemporary German society.

Having settled into the job, it was time to find a place to live. When I came across a house shared with sixteen lovely people, the small matter of having a rather eccentric landlady who insisted I paid my rent in cash in the shisha bar down the road didn’t bother me all that much. However, she did have a slightly bothersome habit of practising her ‘street English’ in email exchanges with me, in which she would begin messages with phrases such as ‘Hey bitch!’ and ‘Yo slut!’, something which was, regrettably, alerted to the attention of the Compliance division of my brand new job. Fortunately, the open attitude of my peers and superiors salvaged me again – in fact, their patience proved inexhaustible in my case, only mildly chastising me when I attempted to send bags of gummy bears to colleagues in the London office via internal mail. Following my first visit to the staff gym, during which I had the misfortune of entering the sauna to be greeted by a senior colleague sat there completely naked, I considered myself fully integrated in the German working world.

Outside of work, I embarked on cultural activities with gusto. I donned a Dirndl and went to Oktoberfest, and discovered it is possible to drink vast quantities of beer from dawn to dusk (just try to ignore the constant, chronic urge to go to the toilet). During the Christmas markets, I resigned myself to the necessity of consuming mulled wine at regular intervals in order to keep warm – the steadily increasing levels of drunkenness that accompany this obligation being only a minor side effect. And in Cologne, as I sat on a bus wedged in between a middle-aged man dressed as a bumble bee and an older woman in a unicorn costume on their way to the Karneval parades, I cherished the thought that fancy dress parties needn’t be confined to childhood memories.

I even began to assume a number of German habits: at work I weaned myself off the procrastination pleasures of the Daily Mail news feed; subsequently, my efficiency surged at a quite remarkable rate. I soon adapted to the Sunday closure of shops, only encountering a few initial teething difficulties when I forgot to purchase toilet roll on a Saturday and, through desperation rather than intention, immediately befriended my neighbours who took a kind of bemused pleasure in providing me with emergency supplies. I even came to master the ‘Pfand’ system of returning bottles for cash, hitting the jackpot each time my house hosted a party – one time I even collected enough to pay for my weekly shop! (This was, of course, no reflection on the quantity of Bitburger and Riesling consumed in our household.)

Aside from alcohol, food is undoubtedly one of Germany’s finest features. The staff canteen churned out a dependable supply of stodgy delights such as pizza meatloaf and (a personal favourite) cornflake-crust Schnitzel, and my sweet tooth reached levels of euphoria when rice pudding, pancakes and giant dumplings with custard were served up as main courses. I did, of course, return from Germany looking wonderfully svelte and radiant.

As time went on, the Germans seem to warm more and more to this inappropriately-named expat, and I found myself in the unforeseen situation of embarking on an alternative modelling career. I was asked to participate in a modern art exhibit involving young women dressed in white headdresses, silver corsets and floaty skirts wandering around a room in an alternative interpretation of ‘The Divine Comedy’, which was filmed and can still be seen in Frankfurt’s Modern Art Museum. A few weeks later, fresh from my modelling debut, my personal trainer asked if I would mind posing for some photographs to advertise their EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) service, which involves being covered in straps which are plugged in so that electric currents can be used to exercise your muscles. The diversity of my modelling portfolio is, in my humble opinion, already quite commendable.

Before I knew it, my time in Germany had flown by quicker than you could say ‘Prost!’. As my experiences confirm, it was a time of varied degrees of hilarity, humility and, most of all, happiness, feelings which culminated in the euphoric 7-1 World Cup semi-final victory that coincided with my final evening in the country. I left filled with amazing memories of the friendships I had made, the places I had visited, and the lifestyle I had experienced – a sense of admiration for a country whose brilliance was confirmed when the national team emerged victorious a few nights later.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Handy no more

Last weekend I hit what felt like the lowest point yet of my Year Abroad. Thanks to a bizarre idiosyncrasy of (usually highly dependable) German design which places bicycle baskets on the back of one’s cycle, allowing one’s belongings to fall out along the road unbeknownst to the cyclist in front, my mobile phone fell to its peril as I negotiated the cobblestones of my street during my journey home from the supermarket. I rushed to the Apple Store, tears streaming down my face, clutching to the hope that the divine intervention of a hallowed ‘genius’ there might be able to resurrect it. My hopes were dashed, and alas, my beloved iPhone is no more. And so is my permanently-connected, eternally-online existence. How would I cope?

In the short term, by bawling on the shoulders of my unsuspecting flatmates, who were kind enough first of all to supply vast quantities of Milka and Haribo to ease the pain, and then a provisional device to stave me over in the interim before I sorted out a replacement.

The following couple of days were torturous. Stripped of my usual What’s App chats, Facebook feeds, Instragram images and Snapchat selfies, I felt completely cut off from the rest of the world. While I used to rush out of work to meet friends for drinks (usually arranged during the course of the day through lengthy text exchanges), I now found myself jumping on my laptop to check, via Facebook, Twitter and email accounts, that nothing drastic had occurred during my day’s hiatus from social networks. Being wrenched apart from my online presence was almost unbearable; it felt discomforting, distressing even, to think that my friends were carrying on their digital exchanges whilst I no longer had access to them.

Then, after a few days, I developed a heightened sensitivity to the extent to which mobiles seem to dominate the society I live in. During my lunch break, I realised that the colleagues I had previously felt I was engaging in conversation were at the same time carrying on digital discussions with other friends elsewhere. During the interval of a theatre production where I was seated on the end of a row of teenage schoolchildren, their only verbal exchanges related to a particular video shared on Facebook, and they were otherwise totally absorbed by catching up on the activity they had missed during the first half of the show. As I walked past a well-known tourist attraction, I couldn’t help but laugh at people pulling ridiculous faces as they attempted to frame the perfect selfie with the sight in the background. Perhaps most shocking of all was a visit to a cathedral, where a huge banner outside instructed worshippers to ‘check in’ on Facebook. Would God look favourably upon all those who ‘like’ churchgoers’ status updates? Might one’s mere virtual presence one day suffice to fulfil our religious duty, rather than turning up in the flesh (as it were) to Mass? As ridiculous as it sounds, I fear that we might be heading this way.

As I approach the end of my second week without what Germans aptly call a ‘Handy’, I’m beginning to wonder if having a smartphone really is so useful after all. Granted, I have to invest more effort to keep in touch with my friends. But a thoughtfully composed message means far more than thoughtless streams of conversation in which phrases such as ‘lol guess what’ and ‘hahaha’ tend to predominate. I’ve been forced to phone people to whom I would normally send an impersonal text, and my relationships are feeling so much better for it. Oddly enough, it feels like being digitally cut off has brought me closer than ever before to my friends.

Will I get a new phone? Hypocritical as it sounds I no doubt will, for the benefits that being easily reached brings. Although being phoneless has been somewhat liberating, in our hyper-connected world it is becoming more and more difficult to get by without being able to tap into this connectivity. But I’ll try not to forget what my experience of living without a phone has taught me, and above all remember that no matter how developed the digital world becomes, no digital experience can surpass that of real human contact. As I sat crying at the kitchen table, lamenting the loss of my mobile, my flatmate’s loving hug went so much further than an emoticon ever could have done. It might be more convenient to send a smiley at times, but never, ever should it replace the real thing.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Die Qual der Wahl

Die Qual der Wahl: that’s the German way of saying ‘spoilt for choice’. It’s different to our maxim, though – ‘Qual’ means ‘agony’, ‘torture’, as if having too much choice can actually be a source of torment for some. And it’s that aspect of the phrase which reflects the situation I currently find myself in, as someone who has the benefit of so many possibilities and opportunities that it sometimes feels dizzying, overwhelming – indeed, tormenting.

I have been lucky enough to grow up with a wide range of potential professions and prospects within my grasp. Beyond the prescribed subjects at school I could choose from several other topics and activities to expand my knowledge and skills. When it came to choosing what to study at university I could take my pick from a dazzling array of courses, all of which promised superb prospects for employment in diverse fields. And now, as I approach my final year of study, so many career paths are within reach – be it teaching, journalism, consultancy, law, politics… The world really is my oyster.

It wasn’t always this way. When my parents were my age, they studied with a view to working in a closely-related field – economics was for those aspiring to work in the City, a law degree was a prerequisite to be considered in the legal profession, and so on. Now, however, with the possibilities of conversion courses, of joint degrees, of training programmes and grad schemes, almost anything is possible. We are a blessed bunch.

But sometimes so much choice can be too much. If you know that your options are flexible and there are so many possibilities to hand, there’s no need to worry all that much about making definite plans for the future, right? And anyway, university should be a place for experiencing as much as possible, both academically and socially. Surely one of those experiences will point us in the right direction, will captivate us and leave us eager to pursue it as a career?

I’ve tried my hand at leisure pursuits as wide-ranging as wakeboarding and lindy-hopping. As well as making interesting choices within my course, I’ve undertaken internships in journalism, banking and arts management. I’ve listened to a fascinating variety of speakers in lectures and at my Union, each of whom has shown me a different way of thinking or approaching life’s big questions. All of these experiences have taught me a huge amount, have helped me develop a range of skills and in the most part have given me a great deal of satisfaction. But not a single one of them has really brought me any closer to deciding what I actually want to do with my life.

In my opinion, it’s no failing of the education system, nor the many services provided to help us make these decisions. I’ve had numerous talks with careers advisors, been put in touch with extensive alumni networks, attended countless careers fairs. After each meeting, each email exchange, each discussion, I momentarily feel more resolved to pursue a certain path, until I stumble across something else that sparks my interest. And then it’s back to those feelings of uncertainty once again. A part of me envies people who have a clear idea what they want to become, as well as those who are quite happy to enjoy student life with no real idea of what will follow (I have friends who fall into both categories).

I’m young, I’m fickle, I know that. I should probably stop worrying and join my plucky student pals in their NekNominations and put off thinking about the grown-up stuff until later. But part of me feels deeply indebted to a society that has provided me with so many opportunities, and wants to give the best possible service in my professional life in return.

Suggestions as to how that might be achieved on a postcard please…

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Not so hip in the Hauptstadt

Coming from Frankfurt, a city affectionately named ‘Bankfurt’ by many Germans, Berlin always feels intimidatingly hip. While I normally rub shoulders with the sharp suits of bankers on the U-Bahn, in Berlin it’s frayed denim waistcoats and high-waisted skinny jeans on nonchalant students. And while I’d like to think myself part of that effortlessly cool group, I fear I am far too mainstream to fit in.

Nevertheless, even though I might stick out like a sore thumb in their presence, I sometimes frequent the various hangouts of these hipster types, ordering a matcha latte or tofu burger in an attempt to fit in. I normally go unnoticed and they carry on their talk of their friend’s latest art exhibition or continue reading the current issue of whichever magazine happens to be ‘in’, while I lap up their immensely cool vibes and envy their exceedingly hip lifestyles.

On one visit, I happened to be staying in a hostel close to what is reputedly the hippest of hip establishments among this community: a nightclub called Berghain. At the time I was on an interrailing trip with a friend of mine; we were two naïve, nerdy types fresh out of school, ready to traipse across Europe in comfortable sandals, pac-a-macs and knee-length shorts. We figured we had nothing to lose in attempting to gain entry to the club, whose door policy is notoriously sporadic and impassable. As the heavily tattooed, leather-clad doorman looked us up and down with a somewhat bemused expression on his face, he must have thought that our socks and sandals and polo shirt attire was the tongue-in-cheek ensemble of two fashionable types (he could not have been more deeply mistaken), because – to our utmost astonishment – he let us in.

What followed was an eye-opening evening (and day – the last DJ set is scheduled for 8pm the following day…) of impossibly cool electro music in the company of ridiculously hip types drinking dubious concoctions and taking drags of goodness knows what. We, on the other hand, were thrilled to discover a secret ice cream stand in part of the club, and were perfectly content sitting on a swing whilst savouring our Stracciatella and taking in a multi-sensory experience like no other. We could not have been more out of place, though everyone was too absorbed in their own hip spheres to seem bothered.

That was four years ago. Now, as a more cosmopolitan, worldly individual, I figured I might as well fancy my chances again. So on a trip to Berlin with four English girlfriends, we donned our hippest outfits (bejewelled collars, plaid skirts, and a leather dress no less) and made for East Berlin, all secretly confident that we stood a chance of gaining access to Berlin’s infinitely cool community. It was a wet, dreary January night, and as we approached the warehouse building and noticed no queue for the club, our hearts skipped a beat: forget those stories of groups gaining no access, of the doormen being infamously unflappable – this was our moment, and the coveted entry would surely be ours for the taking.

With a well-rehearsed casual walk up to the door, I gazed at the doorman with my best poker face. And he gazed back with a look of equally well-practised amusement before shaking his head unambiguously. My heart sank. Off we plodded in our unappreciated Doc Martins and loafers, and despondently joined the queue for the club next door, which must do a roaring trade with the Berghain rejects still looking for a decent night out.

And so we swung from one extreme to another: the implausibly hip to the exceedingly mainstream. While the cool kids were rocking to electro beats, we entered to the soundtrack of ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ and spent our night partying away to Cascada and the Vengaboys. Much as it pains me to say it, we fitted right in.

As we left the club in the early hours of the morning, it turned out that our quest to hang out with Berlin’s hipsters was not a complete disaster. There’s one area in which both the cool and the uncool share common ground, and that’s the midnight munchies. Standing in the queue for a much-needed greasy Currywurst, slightly worse-for-wear individuals of all sorts showed a mutual need for a sobering, stodgy portion of Pommes and ketchup. Standing on the platform of Berlin’s Ostbahnhof clutching a hefty Döner kebab whilst resisting the urge to fall asleep on a friend’s shoulder, I’d finally found a similarity with the cool types waiting for the same S-Bahn to take them back home. As I offered a chip to a hallowed hipster type who looked even more in need of sustenance than myself, my heart skipped a beat: I’d made it at last. It’s true – I never will be cool enough to party with the hipsters, but there are certain things that unite us all. And even if it was a mere French fry, I was happy with that.

I never will be cool. But at least I have fun.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

What's in a name?

Before I embarked on my Year Abroad in Germany, I’d always wondered why I’d never met – or even heard of – a single German who shared my name, Rosie. I presumed the name was simply ‘not German’, just like British parents don’t tend to call their children Jörn or Silke.

I was wrong. It turns out that ‘Rosie’ is actually a rather loaded name in Germany. In 1981 the rock group ‘Spider Murphy Gang’ released a song about the ‘Skandal um Rosie’ (scandal about Rosie), an infamous prostitute in Munich. My flatmates told me this with great delight during our very first evening together, and proceeded to play the said song on repeat on YouTube. It has since resurfaced on numerous social occasions, during which my housemates gladly point out to our guests that this is ‘Rosies Lied!’ (Rosie’s song). Excellent.

However, there was a possible escape route from my ongoing embarrassment – using my full name, Rosanna. Curiously, I hadn’t heard this name an awful lot either, but I attributed it to the aforementioned reasons – it doesn’t sound particularly German, after all.

Once again, big mistake. Rosanna has also been sung about, this time by a group called ‘Wax’. This song does grant its namesake a few concessions – this “chick is one out of a million, she a grand prize” and she sports a “pretty face”. But beyond that, Rosanna is also a “freaky lil' mama” who “be trying to f*** all day”. As I weighed up the possible options, even Rosie’s undertakings sounded preferable to Rosanna’s jaunts.

But what could I do? Short of adopting a new name, I was in a pretty inescapable situation. I didn’t think that reflecting the personality of my new-found German alter ego would go down particularly well with my colleagues, so I’ve tried to take it with a pinch of salt and prove to them that not all Rosies share the murky connotations of their pop counterparts.

It seems it might be working – last week I even stumbled across a gingerbread iced nameplate at the Christmas markets here: a sign of my acceptance in the German community? I’d like to think so.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Going Deutsch

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

We are told that a Year Abroad does wonders for our ‘personal development’, for ‘character building’ and ‘individual progress’.

Three months in, however, I could not have anticipated the transformation I am undergoing. Certainly, my perspective on life’s challenges has changed – having had to cope with uncompromising landlords in a language I am not completely comfortable speaking, for instance, I shall no longer dread getting a broken boiler fixed when I return to England. Or, having had to face a ridiculously complicated tax system (80% of all the world’s published tax documentation is in German, by the way), I shall no longer be fazed by filling in a P45.

But the transformation runs deeper than that. Unbelievably, for someone who drinks six cups of tea a day and who is known for their excessive politeness, I think I might even be becoming a little bit German.

I hadn’t noticed quite how Germanic my habits had become until I returned home last weekend. As soon as I had landed, my train home was delayed. My first thoughts were “this would never happen in Germany” and then, when the drone of that infamous pre-recorded voice announced in the least apologetic tone possible that “we are sorry to announce that the 10.45 train will be delayed by approximated 25 minutes”, I became uncharacteristically irritated. In Germany, on the rare occasion that there is a delay, the driver issues a personal apology over the intercom, as if he really does regret the hold-up. There’s even a public transport policy that if you have to wait more than ten minutes you’re entitled to your money back. If we were to introduce such a policy in Britain I fear we would run the risk of bankrupting the system.

Ah, I haven’t lost my British cynicism then. It’s just found a new object of attack – ironically, the country supposedly famous for it. So, while I’m in the complaining mood, what other British problems has my three months in Germany exposed? The general tardiness and inefficiency of Britons has also become more exasperating: on the same visit, I arranged to meet friends for brunch at 10 o’clock, and was waiting a quarter of an hour until they turned up. When I phoned my mobile network provider to cancel my contract, I was kept on hold for almost an hour and then told it would take up to a week for the change to be applied. Germans, by contrast, simply get things done. It’s telling that procrastination is so alien a concept to them that there isn’t even a word for it in their language.

Am I ready, then, to give up on the frustrations of Britain in favour of dependable Deutschland? Actually, not quite. There will always be a considerable amount of Britishness ingrained in me, resistant to change despite its submersion in German culture. While fellow pedestrians wait good-naturedly at crossings for what seems like forever, I’m stamping my feet with impatience. The British prude in me still squirms at the thought of embracing the ‘clothing optional’ policy of the sauna at my local gym. I’ve also struggled to come to terms with my colleagues’ honesty – I have to remember that a piece of work they would shrug off as ‘ok’ would be hailed as a brilliant achievement back home, and that any criticism is not veiled under false praise but instead given to me outright. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow when I was told I had ‘room for improvement’ in my first review of my internship, but when I came home and told my German flatmates all that had been said rather despondently, they reassured me I had nothing to worry about – straight talking is just the way it is here. Subsequently, when my manager referred to my progress on a project as ‘excellent’, I felt truly valued – such compliments are not frittered about, so when they are bestowed, the person really means it.

So perhaps my Year Abroad experience so far has not so much changed who I am – a Briton through and through – but made me sensible to cultural differences that affect our day-to-day lives. I still apologise excessively and worry unnecessarily about perceived impoliteness – but I’ve become increasingly aware of doing so in a context where such behaviour is a rarity. It’s made me more conscious of the way I behave and how that might be received, and how important it is to bear this in mind when dealing with other people. It’s made me sympathetic to the difficulties people experience when faced with new circumstances. Above all, it’s taught me to be considerate, and not jump to conclusions. We’re all different, and we needn’t try to bridge the gap between such distinctions – but we do need to be appreciative and respectful in our approach to them.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Lessons to learn

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

Like most Erasmus Students bloggers, I study languages at university. I am lucky enough to love the subject I study, and that my degree in Modern and Medieval Languages will afford me the opportunity to pursue a wide range of careers in the future.

In Germany, however, it’s another story. I am currently undertaking an internship at a bank, and my colleagues struggle to comprehend that I am not pursuing a finance- or business-related degree. When I tell people here that I study languages, the reply is almost always: “So you want to be a teacher?” In Germany, the progression from further education to professional career is strictly rational and far less flexible than the British model. If you want to become a lawyer, you study Law. If you want to be a banker, you study Finance. It’s a system which makes a lot of sense, and provides a highly-qualified, specialised professional workforce.

But it’s also a system which fails its students, in that it locks them into a career path from an early age and offers little room for change. Young people are fickle beings, and when I look at my peers, who have studied subjects such as History, Social Anthropology, Chemical Engineering and Music at university, I see a diverse range of talents and skills. What I don’t see, though, is a group of people with clear ideas regarding the sorts of careers they wish to pursue and what plans they have for the future.

The cynics of our parents’ generation would argue that Britain’s youth unemployment problems stem from this system, which allows students to defer making crucial decisions such as what we actually want to do with our lives until we leave university. I see it differently though. At the bank where I work, my arts degree places me in the rare minority. Unlike my colleagues, I cannot price an option and I find Excel formulas incomprehensible. But I can offer a different perspective on problems, and empathise with clients who also struggle to get to grips with exotic derivatives or currency swaps. A workforce of people with the same educational background may well be highly-skilled, but lacks diversity. And it’s precisely a lack of diversity which can cause us some serious problems – without wishing to recycle a much-used argument, just look at what happened in 2008…

But why, if the German system possesses this flaw, is the nation continuing to thrive economically? Why am I advocating the British higher education system when our nation is grappling increasing youth unemployment, whereas Germany is concerned that it will not meet demands for a highly-qualified workforce in the future?
The answer is that neither system is perfect, and both would do well to learn lessons from the other. So far I’ve focused on the lessons I think the German system could learn from the British system regarding higher education for students who wish to pursue professional careers. On the vocational end of the scale, however, Germany is streets ahead of Britain. The backbone of the German economy is its extensive network of medium-sized businesses, which rely on a skilled labour force for their success. Unlike in Britain, however, many of these workers did not go to university, but instead attended secondary schools which promoted vocational expertise, which lead to profitable apprenticeships where they developed skills useful for both themselves and their employers.

There are a number of differences between this system and the current state of affairs in Britain. Firstly, there’s no stigma attached to pursuing a vocational course rather than going to university in Germany. In fact, the skills of these vocational workers are valued for their economic importance to the nation just as highly as those of university-educated professionals. By contrast, we Britons, encouraged by Tony Blair to send 50% of young people to university, face a proliferation of pointless higher education courses which have not only lessened the value of a university degree but also failed those students who should never have gone to university in the first place, but could have thrived in vocational opportunities.

Secondly, you don’t see nearly as many headlines here protesting indignantly that ‘Poles have taken our jobs’, and there’s a simple explanation for this: there is a good supply of Germans who are suitably qualified for the roles, which are in turn not viewed with the sense of failure or undesirability that we attach to them in Britain. By building a system in which all students were encouraged to strive towards academic excellence, we made careers in areas such as construction and hospitality appear second-rate and unattractive. Which, when you consider how crucial such jobs are not only to our daily existence, but also to our now sluggish economy, was a grave mistake.
So where do we stand now? Neither system has got it quite right, but we ought to be proud of our respective successes and be more prepared to make changes based on those areas where the other nation flourishes. The more uniform German professional world would do well to embrace some of the diversity – and, dare I say it, eccentricity – of the British higher education system, whilst Britain should take a leaf out of Germany’s book when it comes to valuing the benefits that apprenticeships can bring.

As for me, I’m counting my blessings that a Year Abroad has allowed me to take advantage of both systems. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have been fortunate enough to spend my time at university doing what I love – reading books, writing about poetry and analysing plays – and have still been able to get a job at a respected financial institution. I appreciate that I have been very lucky. But if we embrace the advantages of both systems, far more of us will be able share my luck: young people, citizens, and ultimately our economy.