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.

Monday, 14 October 2013

It's electrifying...

On the Erasmus Students blog here.

Working rather than studying on my Year Abroad has been a shock to the system. Lie-ins are a thing of the past, going out on week nights is a strict no-go, and free time has become a precious entity. And whilst I once cycled to lectures or spent a leisurely hour in the gym in the afternoon, I now spend most of my day sat at a desk, and have little time for exercise.

Fortunately, a new craze is sweeping across Germany that offers the perfect solution for the time-starved who still wish to keep in shape: EMS training. My colleagues – all svelte and glowing - swear by it, and, determined not to let my new sedentary lifestyle get the better of me, I decided I ought to give it try.

EMS training requires participants to wear a particularly unflattering, close-fitting black suit, over which a vest, armbands and legbands fitted with electrodes are worn. With wires plugged in to the correct places, you are plugged in with what can only be described as a scart lead to a machine which then delivers electric pulses for twenty-second bouts whilst you do exercises prescribed by a personal trainer.

At first I was sceptical – I’ve always been told not to play with electric sockets, so the idea of plugging my own body into a machine had me worried. My trainer, however, reassured me that it was all safe and designed for optimum workout efficiency, and turned up the current with a worryingly sadistic grin.

I’ve never experienced electrocution before, but the sudden seizure that ran through my body was utterly bizarre. My hands closed into fists, my bum was squeezed tight, and my legs refused to move anywhere. With horror I looked down to my thighs, certain that I was wetting myself – to my utmost relief it was just the electric pulses spreading through my legs.

I pathetically limped my way through each exercise, dreading the powerlessness that would grip my entire body every twenty seconds. By the end of the twenty-minute session, having barely moved my limbs and feeling utterly pathetic, I was dripping with sweat and felt absolutely exhausted. Maybe there was something in this bizarre form of training after all.

I returned home, flopped into bed and was out like a light. The next morning, when I lifted my arm to silence the alarm, I could barely move. The German word for muscle ache is ‘Muskelkater’ – literally ‘muscle hangover’ – and the incapacity I was experiencing was certainly akin to that suffered in a normal hangover. Every inch of my body was in pain. I began to be thankful for a job where I sit in front of a computer screen all day…

My sympathetic colleagues told me it would get better with time, and forced me to go back. I’m now becoming used to the bizarre sensations, and although it won’t replace the enjoyment of a leisurely jog or a gentle swim, it certainly is effective. Muscles I never knew I had are beginning to become visible. Perhaps there really is something to this electrifying exercise form after all…

Friday, 11 October 2013

Vroom vroom

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

I am a woman. Although I can appreciate men’s obsession with cars, I will never understand it. The route to my heart tends to be one that teeters on designer heels, rather than revs with a powerful engine. My kind of suede interiors are those which envelop my feet, not those designed for swanky seating, and I have more experience with safety straps which prevent ankles slipping than bodies escaping.

It was thus with muted enthusiasm that I embarked on a visit to the IAA, Frankfurt’s famous annual car show which attracts auto aficionados in their droves. There were traffic jams of people queuing up to photograph the latest models, with cameras flashing and people shouting in a frenzy which I can only compare to that which surrounds the release of a highly-anticipated new collection at fashion week.

My brain must be wired differently, I initially thought. While the intricate embellishments of a couture gown could captivate me for hours and engender a quasi-religious reverence for the talents of its designer, put a car in front of me – whose design has required equally lengthy deliberation, undergone just as many prototypes, demanded the same painstaking attention to detail – and I fail to be moved.

Until last weekend, that is. There was something about the show that swept me along in all the excitement. Was it the glossiness of the bodies, kept optimally glitzy by dedicated helpers holding fluffy cleaning sticks? Or the tone of the engines, appealing to me to reassess their outpourings as friendly purrs rather than hostile roars? Or simply the glamour of it all, with cars displayed in all their glory like catwalk models on display to adoring fans?

Whatever it was, I was completely won over. I watched with wide eyes as new models were rolled out and driven across the stage. I queued for photos inside cabriolets. I pored over brochures detailing the latest hybrid technology with a level of interest formerly only ever exhibited upon the publication of Vogue’s couture reports.

And when we were given a demonstration of an app which parks a car itself, my transformation into a car lover was complete. Now it would be possible to not only wear unsuitable shoes for driving, but also not worry about the consequences of doing so for the car! Genius.

Somehow I think the shoe addiction might have been a safer affliction. Blahniks are certainly cheaper than Bentleys.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Aber bitte mit Sahne...

On the British Students tumblr here.

"We have four meals a day here," a German friend announced to me last week. Sensing the confusion on my face, he elaborated: "breakfast, lunch, Kaffee und Kuchen, and dinner."

Ah, of course. Just as we Brits have our afternoon tea, Germans enjoy Kaffee und Kuchen either in the morning or the afternoon - or, if your sweet tooth is anything like mine, both.

But how does German patisserie compare to our own? It’s certainly not reminiscent of the light, airy, refined concoctions you’re likely to find in Paris, nor the buttery, sugared shortbread rounds and jam-topped scones served with cups of Earl Grey. Oh no. Germans go all out: portions are huge, from streusel-topped fruit slices to towering slices of cream-filled tortes. With cream on the side. There’s a German song called ‘Aber bitte mit Sahne’ which sums up the attitude perfectly: ‘But please with cream’. Inside the cake, on the side, piled high on top of your coffee - you can definitely count on getting your daily cholesterol-raising mound of Schlagsahne in one sitting.

So where do they put it all? Our stereotypical image of sausage-loving, beer-wielding, stocky Germans only goes so far. The majority of Germans I’ve met are highly fit and active - most of my colleagues cycle to work and the office football team is a force to be reckoned with. It must be all that Kuchen fuelling them.

It’s a tradition I’m partaking in perhaps a little too enthusiastically - the waistbands on my clothes have certainly tightened a little since my arrival. You’ve got to make some sacrifices to fully immerse yourself in the culture, I suppose. After all, it would be rude to turn down a second helping of my friend’s freshly-baked Sachertorte, wouldn’t it?