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Expectations vs Reality in Berlin

Blogger Rebecca Heitlinger, on a year's break in Berlin from her studies at Oxford University, debunks three common myths about going abroad.

  • Student life
  • Study abroad
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Rebecca Heitlinger

December 14 2015
Woman abroad in Berlin


When I imagined what life would be like on my year abroad, I pictured myself drinking beer with my new best friends (Günther and Julia) whilst watching Goodbye Lenin. When the film ended, we would devour a black forest gateaux and go on a hike (probably in the black forest) so as to utilise the sensible footwear and rucksacks that Günther and Julia would have inevitably brought with.

Unfortunately, Günther and Julia do not exist. In fact, aside from my ‘tandem partner’ (a language exchange partner) I do not have any German friends, let alone the extensive circle of German friends that Günther and Julia would have introduced me to in my hypothetical year abroad universe. In reality, I hang around with the other language assistants, as well as a few friends from university who also ended up in Berlin.

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Expectation: A German friendship group

 As it turns out, making German friends in Germany is far more difficult than it might sound. Where do people even make friends? I’m not studying at a university, I don’t know any young people here and befriending the people I work with gives me a choice between my colleagues (30 years my senior) and my students (five years my junior and, frankly, inappropriate). That leaves public places. Even if I did have the immense social confidence to stroll up to strangers and engage in small talk (a practice which, I learned the hard way, Germans have no concept of) the further issue of conversing in a foreign language is the ultimate barrier to securing this friendship. One of my British friends even got as far as a half an hour conversation with an old lady at a tram stop but, alas, the tram arrived before she could seal the friendship by inviting her to pre-drinks.

Whilst I can now communicate almost anything I want to say in German (albeit through the use of roundabout clauses) I lack the one crucial tool for making friends: a personality. I elaborate extensively about this in my year abroad blog but it can be summed up with a simple analogy. Imagine if a 10 year old (or someone with a social age that is ostensibly half of your own) tried to make friends with you. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with said 10 year old, I’m sure this 10 year old has many friends of his own age but, at the end of the day, I have neither the patience nor the inclination to have this 10 year old as a friend. When I speak German, I am this bumbling 10 year old. I am trying to impress the more socially sophisticated Germans and they are desperately waiting for me to finish my sentence and end the conversation before I can ask for their opinion on nuclear power.   

There are, however, exceptions to this rule:  if the potential friend is looking to improve their English, if they have a more sinister ulterior motive or if they are socially incompetent themselves. In short, if you want to branch out of your Erasmus crowd of English speakers, try turning to those who are morally dubious, simple or children. Or, failing that, you could try getting a tandem partner instead.  

Expectation: Taking advantage of cultural opportunities

One of the most exciting things about living abroad is the wealth of cultural opportunities available at your doorstep. Back home, if I wanted to watch the latest German blockbuster I would have to trek to some pretentious cinema in London where a foreign language film would be shown twice a decade to an empty audience. If I wanted to read a German magazine I would have to pay £20 for it at an industrial sized WH Smiths. If I wanted to watch a German play I would have to sit through a terrible student production who couldn’t find enough German speakers to fill the cast, let alone the audience.

Indeed I have been to the cinema four times since moving to Berlin, yet two of these visits were to watch (non-dubbed) English films. Whilst my parents treated me to tickets to an 19th century play when they came to visit, a horrible combination of regional accents, sitting 50m away from the stage and a lack of interval mysteriously result in me having very little recollection of what the play was actually about. I did, however, purchase a copy of Der Spiegel, which has proved very useful in stabilising my wobbly desk.

Expectation: Becoming enviable, rather than envious

In my first year of university, I distinctly remember sitting in the library, scrolling through pictures of gap year friends on a beach with a cocktail in each hand and a look of smugness in their eyes. I never let it get me down, though, knowing that in just two years it would be my turn to be the one inspiring their hatred.

And here I am now. In Berlin. In one of the coolest cities in the world, rich in culture, steeped in history, bustling with young people from around the globe. And I’m sitting in my apartment drinking Yorkshire Tea and looking at pictures of my friends at Christmas formal.

The truth is, the grass is always greener. I could be on tour with Beyoncé and I’d still be craving crying in to my laptop in a dark corner of the library at 3 am. It’s ungrateful, it’s irrational and it’s just plain silly; given the choice, there is no way I would rather be at university than on my year abroad, but familiarity is something I instinctively miss before I even have the chance rationalise these feelings. Whether you’re on the beach, in the library or in your apartment in Berlin, one thing is certain: the life you imagine for yourself in a parallel universe will inevitably differ from your expectations. That’s a criticism of our unrealistic expectations for the Günthers and Julias of the world, though, rather than the reality of our situation. 

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