Postcards from Abroad: Berlin

Writing about his first six weeks in Berlin, Austin Conlon shares some tips for getting settled in Berlin

I had a few reasons to apply for Erasmus back in March 2013: to get familiar with another culture, to broaden my education beyond what four years in UCD has to offer, to take on the challenge of studying law through German, gaining fluency in a foreign language in the process, to experience living away from home this side of graduation and above all, for the craic.Merely a month and a half in and already I’ve achieved all these hopes in some form or another. Since I’m only in the sixth week of my studies here at the Humboldt University, Berlin, I don’t yet feel able to assess the academic side of things, but what I can safely say is that I’m learning a lot.With no space left in Humboldt student halls, finding a place to live was my first priority. I used, a site for advertising vacancies in shared flats. The idea is that you find something in your price range that ideally that looks habitable, send an application and, with a bit of luck, you get a response a few days later which may include an invitation to see the flat and meet the other occupants.In reality, this is just like a job interview, only instead of a hardworking and motivated team player, your would-be housemates seek the least likely candidate to leave out dirty dishes and/or murder them in their sleep.Expect to send dozens of applications. Most interviews are done in person, requiring you to live in a hostel until you find something. The average wait is about two weeks, but I’ve heard month-long horror stories. Luckily I found somewhere via a Skype interview. Luckier still, I’m really pleased with my flat.It’s in Kreuzberg, a former West Berlin neighbourhood inhabited by hipsters, anarchists, and Turks. While gentrification has pushed up the rent prices somewhat, it’s packed with bars, clubs and restaurants, and is well-connected by public transport.I share a flat with an Italian startup programmer and two Israeli sisters. On the upside, they’re friendly, easy-going people who I’d gladly share a beer or cup of tea with in the kitchen. Also, they’re probably not serial killers. On the downside, only English and Hebrew are spoken in the flat, meaning I have to look elsewhere for German practice.This task is made harder by the way international students’ social spheres tend to develop. I met people through friends of friends or on the Berlin Erasmus Facebook page, all of whom are international students or other foreigners, and few of whom speak fluent German.I found another Facebook page for tandems (A buddy who speaks a language you want to learn), and to whom you offer a language in return. I bagged myself a real-life native German, giving me not only an opportunity to practice speaking, but also to learn things that no dictionary would dare teach. For example, the German term for “pulling” they say “abschleppen,” a word that literally means “to tow off”. It’s a bit graphic.Everything you hear about moving away for the first time is true; it’s not easy. Home felt a whole lot further than a two-hour flight away. Homesickness wasn’t just being away from my family and friends. It was not being able to find Barry’s Tea or any of the staple Irish biscuits in supermarkets.Even worse was not recognising/finding necessary ingredients for your own poor substitutes to mammy’s cooking. But even in those first few days, there were plenty of distractions.My inner history nerd has been definitely overwhelmed by the wealth of museums chronicling Germany’s past, often with emphasis on the last century. Commemorations seem to lie on every street corner: a Nazi atrocity, an uprising or protest, a segment of the Berlin Wall.As well as a wealth of history, Berlin also has a beaming nightlife that has a lot to offer. There are only so many nights your mind will let you stay in alone. Suddenly it no longer seems weird to meet up with friends of friends, or even total strangers on the Facebook page.Throwing myself into unfamiliar social scenes has been a great experience; it’s forced me to be relaxed at parties where I know almost no one beforehand, and open-minded about everybody I meet.In search of interesting conversation, I’ve found myself really opening up to people, and them to me. Everyone just wants to meet people and the result is a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. The most rewarding aspect of putting myself out there has been meeting people from all over the world, resulting in countless discussions of cultural contrasts.In a city with more foreign residents than German nationals, I gladly, and, uncharacteristically proudly, describe Ireland and its culture to Germans and foreigners who are eager to listen, or at least polite enough to smile and nod.Exams don’t start until February, so college is still pretty easy-going. For now, I’ll keep exploring, socialising, and partying, but we’ll see how Erasmus life is shaping up once it comes time to hit the books.