Oberlin Blogs


February 25, 2020

Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21

Hello, blogs! It’s been a minute. If you’re an Oberlin student and you somehow noticed I’m not around, it’s because I’m not in the bustling metropolis of Oberlin, Ohio, but in the actual bustling metropolis of Berlin, Germany! That’s right, your girl is ~abroad~.

I’ve been here for about three weeks, which is absolutely WILD because it feels like I’ve been here much longer. I really can’t use words effectively to explain how it feels to be running around a completely different place from Oberlin, possibly because the more German I learn, the worse my English seems to get. Because there are only a few similarities between these two places, namely the drab, February weather, and 6 letters, it’s hard to know where to start.

But I’ll try my best, because going abroad to Germany, specifically Berlin, was a goal of mine for a long time, and now that I’m finally here it feels so matter of fact, but I want to document this experience as best I can for other people considering going abroad and because it’s what my life is now! 

The program I’m participating in this semester is Duke in Berlin run by, shockingly, Duke University. There are 13 people in my program, most of whom are from Duke University, many of them engineering students. This program partners with both the Freie Universität in Berlin (free as in free thought, not as in free tuition) and the Technische Universität (Technical University), so engineering students are able to do this program without getting behind on required classes.

There are also a few other students from other small liberal arts colleges like me, and one other Oberlin student (shoutout to Gwen) who oddly enough I didn’t know well at all before arriving in Berlin! When I’m not with the group in various capacities, I’m at my host family’s house in Tempelhof-Schöneberg, a neighborhood of Berlin with lots of houses, little parks, cobblestone sidewalks, kindergartens and preschools (called “Kitas” here) and for some reason, lots of physical and occupational therapy offices?

The Tempelhofer Feld, where Western Ally airlift landed planes in the aftermath of WWII to supply West Berlin during a standoff with Soviet forces, is very close to where I now live. The house is conveniently located near a train station and several bus stops, which is great for me. It’s a very homey area and filled with lots of young families, including the one I live with. My host family consists of a mom and her three young children, ages 4-12, who like to steal my shoes and hang them from ceiling banisters, ask me endless questions about what I’m doing, play Into the Unknown from Frozen 2 on repeat, and call me out for being on my cellphone while I’m doing homework.

I recently learned the German word “Frechdachs” which roughly translates to “mischief badger,” and I can confirm that this noun accurately describes the three imps with whom I now reside. Overall though, I’ve really enjoyed living with a host family because I learn and speak a lot more German this way, and I also get to tune into small (or large) cultural differences that I might not observe if I lived alone or with other American or international students. The homestay aspect was one of the reasons I picked this program and it’s definitely been definitive of my experience so far!

So, the Big Kahuna: Culture Shock.

When I arrived in Berlin I honestly did better than I expected I would … for the first week. The first week I was here I managed to get to my Duke classes, take dance classes at two different dance studios, go to a museum with program folks, go to two different bouldering gyms, and went grocery shopping and cooked for myself like a grown person. Then week two happened, and I found myself feeling exhausted and overwhelmed to a pretty extreme degree. As someone who has never lived in a big city ever in my life, I was dealing with culture shock on two fronts: one, that I was in a huge international city, and two, that I was in Germany.

Berlin is truly a multicultural city (Germans call it “multikulti”), and this is definitely true, so in a way the city is very different from the rest of Germany, but the cognitive resources required in speaking another language and navigating new things in mostly a different language was very taxing at first, and continues to be to some degree. That, and the pace of city life has been especially challenging. I’ve felt exhausted constantly and have asked myself repeatedly if I’m even made for this, and I’ve definitely wondered “What the hell was I thinking?” I want so badly to be a city person, but last week made me feel like I could never do it and should just give up, crawl back to Oberlin with my tail between my legs, and then start a homestead in the woods of rural Vermont instead. 

Second, the biggest hurdle for me has been public transportation. Luckily, the brilliant invention of Google Maps exists, without which I would never make it anywhere without a serious amount of angst and quite possibly, tears. The number of times I’ve found myself getting off a train only to have no FREAKING idea where my bus stop is, is basically innumerable.

My public transportation crisis came to a head on one Saturday night wherein, on my way to the Philharmonic Orchestra, already having run/walked in heels on cobblestone pavement, I got off my bus at the wrong stop, ran to a train station after consulting my (mostly) trustworthy friend Google Maps, and stood, distraught, on the wrong platform for 15 minutes before realizing I was not in the right place, and slid into my Philharmonie seat precisely one minute before the show began. Luckily, things have gotten a little better, because this morning when my train was halted in its tracks with no one on it, I checked Google Maps at the last minute, ran to some other trains, navigated a horrific station under construction (Hallesches Tor can jump in a lake, to use a polite phrase), and found myself en route miraculously in the same train car as my teacher, who was also delayed due to the train problem.

A week ago, this setback would have made me extremely anxious, but today I handled it with aplomb, if I do say so myself. I still have a lot to learn and get used to with public transportation, but I’m definitely getting there. 

When I’m not zoning out on various buses, trains, and trams in all their possible combinations and permutations, or in class for multiple hours a day panicking about the amount of German words I don’t know, I try to enjoy the city while also giving myself time to relax and recharge when I need it, which is hard to do because there is just! so! much! here!

But my program keeps us pretty busy, with lots of excursions to museums and cultural events, so I’ve seen a lot without even having to try very hard to do so. This past weekend a giant international film festival called the Berlinale started and goes all week, and I’ve already seen some pretty incredible films and had the absolutely bewildering and chaotic experience of trying to buy tickets for showings, with mixed outcomes.

I definitely have a Berlin bucket list set up. I’m excited to do more things when the weather gets better … the sun shone today for several hours, which is the first time in probably two weeks that’s happened. Luckily, Oberlin prepared me not only for disgusting weather, but also with decent German grammar. The language aspect of this program so far hasn’t been as bad as I expected. Sure, I’ve had moments of confusion and or mild panic about how I’ll never be fluent and I’m going to fail all my classes when I direct enroll at the German university, but I can definitely tell I’m learning and a few different native Germans have told me that my German is good! So, good job Oberlin German department!

I was worried before I got here that Germans would hear me speak German and then respond in English, and that actually has only happened once. I was in an H&M very overtly speaking English with some people, and Germans have even asked me for directions in the train station, which was totally mind-boggling because I am probably the last person anyone should ask about a train EVER. Basically, I’ve been able to have my needs met, questions answered, and in the past few days I’ve even been able to articulate ideas in German about language death, American politics, and legalization of marijuana and other drugs. So I may survive the German university system yet. That, and I chatted with a VERY attractive young man at the symphony about German literature and my interests, so that bodes well for my future here. 

I definitely miss Oberlin and my home in Albuquerque, particularly my dog and co-op weekend breakfasts. My experience thus far has definitely not been 100 percent positive, nor do I expect it will continue in that direction. But I am definitely very glad I decided to take this leap and that my family supported me emotionally and financially so that I could undertake this journey and this experience.

I feel very fortunate. I can’t wait to see what wild things I do and what fantastic places I see. Onward! 

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