Postcards from Abroad: Berlin

With impending exams on the cards for Pat de Brún, he turns his mind to fireworks, volunteer work and gaining a little perspectiveAfter a brilliant, albeit somewhat rushed Christmas spent at home in Ireland with friends and family, I made my way back to Germany on December 31st to check out Berlin’s famous New Year’s celebrations, with two friends from Ireland in tow.Somewhat strangely, or at least I thought so at the time, I had been warned by quite a few people to be careful on the streets of Berlin on New Year’s night. Those warnings had been long forgotten by the time I emerged from the subway near my apartment, excited for the planned celebrations ahead. Within 30 seconds of the winter air hitting by face however, I was given a stark reminder in the form of a ‘screamer’ firework that whizzed past my head from behind and filled my nostrils with smoke. The place was absolute mayhem. It felt more like Beirut than Berlin.On every corner, groups of kids lit fireworks in their hands and hurled them at any moving targets. Countless balconies overhead became ideal points of attack as more and more fireworks rained down on anyone unlucky or stupid enough to be strolling past. Fortunately enough, we survived the short walk (or in this case, run) to my apartment unscathed, and set out preparing ourselves for the festivities ahead. The anticipated celebrations didn’t disappoint, as we joined up with some friends from college and took it from there. As planned, we strolled to a nearby bridge that offered panoramic views of Berlin in time for the countdown. The firework displays all across the city were incredible, and the atmosphere on the streets was something special.The New Year’s festivities, like all good things, came to an end with my two friends returning home (limbs and eyes intact, thankfully), and I had to immediately turn my thoughts to the somewhat less appealing prospect of my impending exams. The academic calendar operates differently in Germany, meaning that I will be sitting my semester one exams in early February.When I first hit the library, the prospect of doing the exams through German panicked me. I got the head down reasonably quickly however and I’m glad to say that I’m facing into the exams pretty calmly at this point. Thankfully I only have four exams, and unlike in UCD, many professors in Humboldt University offer separate, less challenging exams for Erasmus students. That’s the case for three of mine, and naturally it’s contributing greatly to my sense of calm.Another major difference in the German academic calendar is the incredibly generous seven-week break that we get from mid-February. I had been planning on doing some travelling during this period since I arrived in Berlin, and eventually decided that I wanted to do some voluntary work abroad, ideally working in human rights. After a long search, I managed to find an organisation in northern India that fit the bill perfectly. I’ll be working with an NGO that helps recently arrived Tibetan political-refugees with a variety of social and educational projects. The little town where I’ll be based is the home of the Dalai Lama and the rest of the Tibetan Government in Exile and is situated at the foot of the Himalayas, next to the Nepalese border. I’ll primarily be involved with teaching English and computer skills, as well as helping to raise awareness of the cause of the Tibetan people. I’m expecting the work to be challenging, but I can’t wait to get going and to learn more about a culture that I’ve always been fascinated with.Aside from planning my travels, the last couple of weeks have been pretty quiet here, as I’ve tried to get into study mode and put in long shifts at the library. Last Saturday evening however, some college friends and I decided to treat ourselves to a few quiet beers after a long and very well-behaved week of study. On this particular occasion, the conversation turned toward the economic crisis and how it’s affecting various countries in Europe and beyond. Studying with students from all across Europe has given me a great insight into how the crisis is taking effect in individual countries, and particularly interesting is the vastly diverse range of political reactions to it.While things haven’t changed too much for most German people since the recession hit, the impact can be seen in other ways. In recent months, the number of young Spanish people coming to Berlin in search of work has noticeably spiked, where they join the huge numbers of Italians and Greeks that are here already. I was shocked to learn that Spain’s unemployment rate is way ahead of Ireland’s at 26%, and double that for the under-30 age-bracket. When I explain the Irish situation to friends here, one of the most common reactions I get is genuine shock about the lack of civil unrest and protest that occurs in response. It is something I struggle to understand myself, particularly when I see the combative responses that our European neighbours have in the fact of severe austerity.It’s always so interesting to hear a variety of perspectives on these issues and I really believe that this type of cultural exchange is one of the best selling points of the Erasmus programme. It’s certainly given me a fresh perspective on the world and has influenced my thinking in a much bigger way than I ever expected, and for that I’m extremely grateful.