Two and a half years ago, I said goodbye to my family and friends and went to study at the university of Heidelberg
in Germany for 8 months, as part of the ERASMUS exchange program. Why Heidelberg you ask? Well, first of all I wanted to go to a university where they teach in their native language instead of english, since I feel too much is lost when professors don't speak their native language. So that limited the choices to Italy, Spain, Germany and France. It seemed unlikely that I would be able to pick up Spanish or Italian fast enough to be able to follow the courses, and on top of that it seemed like everybody wanted to go to Spain, and for some reason when everybody wants to go somewhere I feel the silly need to do something else.
The old town, looks like a fairy-tale city
(For the same reason I went to the university of Leuven, when my entire high school class went to the much closer university of Ghent)
So that left me with France and Germany. I only spoke very little German compared to pretty decent French, so I thought I would be able make more progress when living in Germany. Also, I know France already pretty well, since I live on the French border and my parents always went travelling there, so that didn't seem very exciting. Germany it was then! But where in Germany? I wanted to go to both a decent university and live in a nice city, preferably not a huge one like Hamburg or Berlin. In the end I had settled on my top 3 universities: 1. Heidelberg; 2. Tübingen; and 3. Potsdam.
Since there was only 1 spot available for Heidelberg (from now on abbreviated as HD, like on the car license plates) I wrote a very long motivation letter in the hope of convincing the university to send me instead of someone else.
In the end that proved not really necessary, since only 10% of students signed up for the erasmus program (and I was taking International Relations! How can 90% of International Relations students not want to go abroad?? I just don't get it, anyway, more choice for me, so yay) And in the end there were only 2 students who wanted to go to HD, and after a call between Leuven and Heidelberg, they agreed to send us both over there anyway. That other students is still one of my best friends, so it all worked out in the end.
Since Heidelberg isn't exactly the end of the world, I travelled by train, first the Thalys to Cologne
, then the IC from Cologne to Heidelberg. At least that was the plan. Of course nothing ever goes as planned and my Thalys broke down in the middle of a field between Aachen
Back to reality, this is when it really hit me that I was going to have to take political science classes in German!
We were just sitting there waiting for the train to start again, but it didn't happen, after waiting for about 30 minutes I was starting to get pretty worried, because if I missed my connection in Cologne, I would arrive too late in Heidelberg, after the closing hours of the university, and then they wouldn't be able to give me the key of my room and I wouldn't have a place to stay since I knew absolutely nobody in all of Germany. After another half hour we were asked to leave the train, in the middle of the fields. Then they had apparantly asked another thalys train comming from Cologne to stop as well, and those people were asked to leave the train too. Then for some reason we were allowed to board the working train, and those other people had to stay there in the middle of nowhere, anyway that worked for me.
But I quickly realized that erasmus really is mostly about partying with people from all over Europe!
This whole thing made me miss my IC connection though, so I took the (much faster) ICE connection to Mannheim
, even though I didn't have a ticket for it, and I wasn't planning on buying one since it wasn't my fault that the Thalys broke down. This caused some problems when the conductor came to check my ticket, but I played the "I'm a stupid foreigner, I know nothing about train tickets, I love your country!"-card and that seemed to do the trick. This technique has proven very useful in during my entire stay in germany, especially in dealing with Heidelberg polizei :) In Mannheim I took a local train to Heidelberg. HD and Mannheim are really rediculously close together, maybe 10 minutes, and yet have a completely different feel to them.
After all, isn't partying also a part of "International relations?" :-D
Upon arriving in Heidelberg I was a little disappointed, it didn't look like the pictures I had found online at all, but I was too much in a hurry to really care as I only had 30 minutes before the university closed down. And then... the magic happened, first of all I was progressing pretty fast so I was sure that I was going to make it in time, and it also became clear that only the area around the train station is ugly and with every step that I took I saw more and more of a truly beautiful town, in the valley along the Neckar river and surrounded by forests and hills. It truly is one of the most charming cities I have ever seen and I immediately knew I had made the right choice comming here.
I started my life in HD with one month of intensive german classes, which was more than necessary. After an initial test I was placed in a "Mittelstuffe" class (the medium level of german proficiency) which was a class with about 15 people, which was great because in such a small group it is easy to get to know new people. You get to know some of the people of your class, and then later their friends and then even more people on parties etc and you're quickly settling in because getting to know the first couple of people in a new environment is usually the hardest, after that it kind of goes automatically. So before I knew it I was settled in and enjoying the best 8 months of my life (well, so far, at least)
(To be continued...)