I was greeted by a deafening silence and deserted streets as I walked out of the Stuttgart airport on a chilly October afternoon. I collected my luggage and got on to the bus to Tuebingen, a tiny University town in South Germany. Once in the bus my eyes filled with wonderment. Snug little cottages along the road, carefully mowed lawns, intricate see-through curtains on the windows, winding tree lined roads and crystal blue sky! The sheer beauty of the place kept my sleep deprived eyes wide open. Everything was straight out of the fairytale! It was my first day outside India. I was going to be an exchange student at the Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen for two semesters, spanning a year.
In the days that followed I had a series of jaw-dropping experiences. Busses and trains were more punctual than your watch! The women at the visa registration office treated me with a polite smile and voila! in 5 minutes my work was done. It was a refreshing change from India where red-tapism can be exasperating.
Life felt like a breath of fresh air every day. But beneath the excitement, I could feel a pit of sadness and nostalgia that came from missing my family and friends back home.
Life at University
I faced a real challenge once the classes started. The education system in Germany is very different from that of India. The classrooms in Germany are very student-centric and the professor’s role is that of a guide. Most of the learning happens through discussions, presentations and assignments, rather than lectures. Coming to class unprepared is not an option! The study material, which is provided in advanced, has to be thoroughly studied before the class. I realized that German students were better equipped to research and work independently, a skill not nurtured in the Indian education system. Adapting to it was hard and I had several bouts of feeling incompetent. I had to constantly remind myself that I am amongst the chosen few to have bagged the opportunity to be on an ‘all expenses’ paid exchange program, and there is no way I could let it go in vain. I modified and evolved my study habits to gradually generate a new learning curve for myself.
Adapting to new ways of learning was only one of my classroom challenges. I was different and so was my accent. For me the accent of my fellow students was alien to an extent that initially, I would lose trail of the discussions in the class, trying to understand the words that sounded too twisted on the tongue for my Indian ears. It took me a moment to wrap my ears around it. I was conscious of my own accent too. It took me a while to realize that rather than being conscious of my uniqueness I need to embrace it. If I embrace my uniqueness, others will too.
Life in Tuebingen
Life in Germany was a fairy tale except that it was real. Tuebingen is a sleepy little town which comes alive with the multicultural student community from across the globe. The building I lived in housed students from countries I had never heard of, up until then! Eight students on each floor shared a common kitchen and my Indian curries attracted much curiosity. On several occasions, I ended up inviting complete strangers to my dinner table. Some of them remain my close friends till date!
By the time I landed in Tuebingen in October, Christmas was already in the air. Everyone told me to not miss the Christmas markets. I went to one in Munich and the word to best describe it is ‘Christmassy’. There was snow all around, white, red and greens ribbon decorations, and shops full of goodies. Steaming Glhue wine being freshly brewed on the roadside to keep you warm in the frosty winter and bilgy lights emanating warmth. But the Christmas day was lonely, most of my friends had either gone home or made plans to spend Christmas with other German families. I was fairly new in town to get an invitation yet.
Tuebingen has a strong Indian community and it made me feel like home away from home. But I made a conscious effort to not remain clubbed in a ghetto and made friends across cultural lines and mixed with the locals.
Of all the memories I made in Germany, It’s the random acts of kindness that remain closest to my heart. Once I was walking in a Christmas market when an old lady came up to me and admonished me for not wearing gloves in the cold. She pulled out a pair of gloves from her big hand-bag and handed over a pair to me. I use those gloves till date!
Time flew like the wind and before I knew it was time to buy presents for the family and return. A part of me never wanted to leave. Coming back when your own country feels alien you realize that something in you has changed.
My fellow International students, carry your culture with you for its an expression of your roots. Embrace your uniqueness, don’t be scared to be different in the way you look, the way you talk, what your wear. It’s beautiful to be different. Be your self. Represent your culture and do it with pride.
As an International student don’t forget that you are a guest in that country, so be sensitive to the cultural nuances and respect them. Make an effort to understand the new culture, keep patience and don’t be quick to judge.
The author of this article, Richa Singh is a Content Writer at Investronaut. She is a voracious reader and a keen traveller.