Erasmus Stories – Episode 3: Serena’s Erasmus in Erlangen (Germany)
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We have arrived at the third episode of Erasmus Stories and I am delighted to discover Erlangen thanks to Serena, a dear friend and former university classmate of mine. As always, I’ll allow our guest to introduce herself.
My name is Serena and I’m 25 years old. Now I’m a freelance translator, but at the time of my Erasmus programme I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in Interlingual Mediation at the University of Genoa. Since my working languages are English and German, I chose Germany for my exchange.
1) Yes, explain to us how you ended up in Erlangen!
Well, I knew I wanted to go to Germany because, although I had studied German at high school as well, it always felt like my less strong language compared to English. Actually, I would have liked to go to Hamburg because I like metropoles and Hamburg as a city appealed to me. However, modules at Hamburg University focused more on scientific subjects, which are not my cup of tea. So, based on the modules offered, Erlangen was my first choice because there was a course on Italian-German and German-Italian translation. In retrospect, Vienna may have been a great alternative and it would have offered more activities and benefits for students.
1) What did you expect from this Erasmus?
From a personal standpoint, knowing that I was not going to a Spanish city by the sea, and knowing my personality, I did not expect the wild parties that may be typical of other peers on Erasmus. What I certainly expected was to become more independent, to learn how to make do and improve my German, as it is said that to fully know a language you have to live in the country it is spoken.
2) How did you feel before leaving?
Since my last exam session was quite intense, spanning from May until July, I had an emotional breakdown while I was finishing exams. I started to freak out because I would miss my friends, my relatives, my city, and my cat… I experienced this inner turmoil in July, but from August I started to view my departure more rationally. Let’s say that all the tension typical of pre-departure coincided with my exams and then I became more relaxed.
3) What option did you choose for accommodation?
I chose to live in a flat on my own. I lived at the ground floor of one the many dorms in the street. I know it may seem an unpopular choice but, for the way I am, I preferred living on my own in my amazing 18 square metres. I was lucky because the laundrette was in my building, while some classmates of mine were living in dorms without washing machines, so they had to bring their piles of clothes to my building under rain and snow.
4) What was the biggest cultural shock?
I didn’t have any negative cultural shock, but there are some habits that are different from Italy. For example, I was impressed by the importance given to recycling: while we have only one bin for glass, in Erlangen glass is sorted depending on its colour.
Since I started to cook for myself, I noticed that many ingredients available in Italian supermarkets were difficult to find in Erlangen, such as basil and pecorino. I had to walk miles to find the only shop that sold them. Talking about supermarkets, in Italy it is common sense that you try to be quick at the cashier to put your purchases in the bags, while in Germany you don’t have time to organize your groceries on the spot as you are expected to move your items to the desks behind the cashier. Only after paying can you put everything in bags. In short, you have to rush, and this made me nervous.
Means of transport in Germany are much more expensive than in Italy, even though there are reductions for students. However, in Erlangen it’s easy to go on foot and by bike. An important difference to keep in mind is this: while in Genoa bus tickets last a certain amount of minutes and you can use them for all the city transport network, in Erlangen the ticket is only valid for one direction, so you need another to return. Of course, buses were efficient and clean, but this system confused me at the beginning. Moreover, the silence on public transport unsettled me a little, as I am used to hearing chit chat as background music for my bus journeys.
6) Regarding university, what did you like the most and what the least?
First of all, I must say that the university facilities of my faculty were very modern and clean. In Erlangen there isn’t a campus, but everything is accessible: there’s just one street with dorms while the faculties are scattered around the city.
Regarding the university experience itself, I liked the importance they give to breaks during lectures. Let me explain: no one goes in or out of the lecture room for 30 minutes, but then you have a break where they open the windows, you can stretch and so on. Not that we didn’t have breaks in Italy, but there’s a different emphasis in Erlangen.
I also liked the fact that my classmates from Genoa and I were given the opportunity to work with students of Italian in the university: they paired us, and we corrected each other during language activities. It felt so strange to meet people who wanted to study Italian as their second language!
I know it is specific to my experience, but I didn’t like my Economics exam. The content was much easier than the exam I should have done in Genoa. When my classmates and I asked for material to study for the exam, they told us to rely only on our notes. While we are on the subject of exams, I also sat Business Correspondence, which was very well structured and professors provided booklets to study.
7) Did the university organize events for Erasmus students?
I clearly remember the welcoming event in which they gave us a university mug and they provided a reception. During the semester they organised some trips to the Christmas markets and other towns nearby. Even though we were all basically Italians and Spanish, these trips were an opportunity to meet other Erasmus students. I don’t remember other events directly delivered by the university itself, but dorms set up events to participate in.
8) What did you do in your free time?
I’m quite indoorsy, so I spent time experimenting in the kitchen, going to the cinema, reading, watching TV series on Netflix… It was great to have access to the German Netflix catalogue!
9) Did you take part in any other activities while you were on Erasmus?
I had my first two working experiences as a hostess/interpreter at the Nuremberg Convention Centre. The first trade show was about die casting, so I had to study the technical terms of metal casting in German, French and English. Instead, the second trade show was on organic food and cosmetics. I know it can sound lame, but the organic fair was an important experience for me because in that period I became more and more interested in sustainability and plant-based diet. I found a job at the first trade show through an agency, whereas for the second event, I found a list of exhibitors and I sent my CV directly to them. I’m happy I had these experiences on Erasmus because since then I’ve been contacted by exhibitors to work again at these fairs.
I also took part in a swap party set up by some girls I met there. I had never heard of a swap party before then, it was fun: the participants brought some clothes they didn’t wear anymore, and we swapped them. Unfortunately, I could not contribute because I left Genoa with the minimum necessary, but I could still take some nice clothes home.
10) Did you have any unpleasant episodes on Erasmus?
Yes, I lost my phone. And you may say, “these things happen”. But if you are away from your parents and friends, it is tough because you don’t know who to ask for help; I didn’t even know where the police station was. This is what happened: some friends of mine picked me up by car; I got into the car thinking I had put my phone in my pocket, but it must have fallen on the floor instead. Unfortunately, I realised only once I was at my friends’ house it was gone. It was an adventure: using my friends’ Wi-Fi, I took screenshots on my tablet to understand where to find the police station. So, my much-desired independence resulted in going to file a report of lost property in German.
But the nice part was the recovery. The following day I put up flyers in German and English in the streets which, written in pen, said, “I’m an Erasmus student, I lost my phone. If you find it, please return it to this address”. The weekend went by and no news. Since I had surrendered myself to the idea of having lost my phone forever, I went to the shopping centre to buy a new one. Once at home, I started to cook pasta and, while the new phone was setting up, someone knocked at the door. I opened and a tall, red-haired guy handed me my phone. Bashfully, holding the frying pan, I took the phone and I managed to say “thank you” before closing the door on his face. I immediately felt guilty not having thanked him as he deserved, so I wrote another flyer saying, “To the guy who returned my phone, I’m sorry, you caught me off guard, I didn’t know what to say, but thank you!”.
11) What did you like most about Erlangen and what did you like least?
It’s difficult to know if you frame things in a certain way because you are alone or if it is because you are in a foreign country. I endured the German weather: even though generally I am not sensitive to cold, days when it was -12 degrees were quite challenging. Luckily, it was a dry cold, without the wind typical of Genoa. Probably related to the weather, in Erlangen shops and the shopping centre closed at 7, even on the weekends, and I wondered, “But people who want to have dinner out, what do they do?” Despite keeping myself busy, sometimes I was affected by the lack of activities.
Having said that, I liked the possibility of having nice spots in nature to read and relax. Erlangen is a student-friendly place, and it is very well connected. Besides, I always met polite people, even if a bit quiet. Generally, I liked going for walks around the town. Although Erlangen consists of only one street with shops and some houses (thus, nothing compared to the big historic monuments I was used to in Italy), now I remember it fondly. Even though Genoa will always be the only place I really feel at home in, in Erlangen I developed some habits and found some places I liked, so I remember it with pleasure and I would like to return there.
12) What other places did you visit?
I took advantage of the Erasmus programme by going on two trips on my own, first to Berlin and then to Prague. I went to Berlin by Flixbus and I stayed there for two nights. Apart from the typical museums, in Berlin I took part in a street art tour. I think Berlin is a nice place to live in, because it is well-connected and there are many things to do, but I must admit it didn’t impress me as much as other big European cities like London. Again by Flixbus, I ventured to Prague after Christmas. I found it fascinating and I would like to go back to visit it better, as I only spent a night there. Let’s say I liked Berlin from a practical point of view, while I liked Prague from an aesthetic standpoint.
I also went to Munich for a Hurts concert the day before my return to Genoa. I had already visited Munich before and I must say that the first time I was underwhelmed with the city… But after six months in Erlangen, I’ve definitely revaluated it!
Thanks to university, I also got to visit many towns near Erlangen for the Christmas markets, one of which was Bamberg. Nuremberg itself, which is near Erlangen, is filled with markets for Christmas. Nuremberg is a nice town, with its own historic centre, a little lake, everything built in stone and wood.
13) Was it easy to make friends?
Knowing myself, I already knew that I take a long time to bond with people. But I realised that, when the moment came to return home, I would have liked the chance to stay longer and develop some friendships. I think that six months is too short to develop deep connections. Being religious, I bonded with the other members of my congregation, whom I met weekly both in Erlangen and in Nuremberg. I met some of them again the following years when I returned to Nuremberg while working at the fairs.
Something nice that I would like to tell is that my friends from Genoa gave me six presents before my departure. Every present had a tag with the name of each month I was supposed to be away. In this way, every month I had a little gift to open and I felt them near me.
14) What did you learn during your time abroad?
I learned to do chores like cooking, doing the laundry, defrosting the fridge and putting up mosquito nets. I’ve noticed that I’ve become more resourceful: since you cannot count on parents or relatives on Erasmus, you have to make do. Being shy, at the beginning I felt a bit uncomfortable asking people for information, but I noticed that once back in Italy I retained this new proactive attitude. For example, in Erlangen I asked shopkeepers if they had boxes to help with moving my stuff back to Genoa, something that before I would have felt ashamed of doing. Another example was asking for help from people in the street, such as when I couldn’t find the police station for the report. These are all things that I have no problem doing now, but before Erasmus made me very nervous.
15) Did you miss home? Specifically, what did you miss about Italy?
Apart from friends, family, and my cat, I missed living in a big city. Genoa is a very varied city, with a big historic centre. The very structure of Genoa is something I missed and I had never thought about before: Genoa is constructed on different levels, between mountains and sea. In Germany everything was flat, you could see a multitude of houses all at the same level. Moreover, even though I am not a fan of the beach, I missed the sea, even just seeing it on the horizon. In Erlangen all my needs were covered, but I never felt myself thinking, “I’ll have a walk there because I like the architecture of that area”.
Surprisingly, I’m not telling you that I missed Italian food because I learned to cook these things for myself. Then, of course, when I returned that I was given pesto, trofie, lasagne and tiramisu and they were appreciated.
16) What do you miss about Germany?
I miss some routines I created: that spot in the bookstore where I used to read and eat a muffin, walking in nature... Talking about food, the variety of sweets has a special place in my heart, especially krapfens. There are for all tastes: tequila, raspberry, Baileys… And I fell in love with German apple juice.
I really liked living on my own and be responsible for my own flat. All in all, I am proud of surviving alone in Germany.
17) What piece of advice would you give to a person interested in going on Erasmus to Erlangen?
If you are a person who is looking for the typical Erasmus experience with parties every night, probably Erlangen is not the right place for you. However, other Erasmus students, more out-going than me, had fun anyway because they created their group of friends to party with. It depends on how you are. From an academic standpoint, I am very satisfied, and I would choose Erlangen University again. I would suggest to think about your priorities: if you are a student looking for a more chilled experience, Erlangen may be the right place; whereas if you are an active and dynamic person, you may consider a bigger city like Vienna.
A piece of advice for you all: if you can, extend your stay. During the first six months you may have an existential crisis and you may want to return home, but after that moment you would not want to come back. Erasmus may include some moments of discomfort, but once the Erasmus experience is over, you would crave another adventure. I too enjoyed my first two weeks back in Genoa, but after that I wanted to leave again. Another opportunity to keep in mind is the Erasmus Traineeship after graduating, which I would have certainly applied for if I had known about it.
Serena, thank you for sharing your experience in Erlangen, I would like to go to Germany just to taste those delicious krapfens!
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All photos in this post are Serena's.