Wait, What’s Up? – 5 Sweeping Generalisations Based On A Week In The US

I recently landed in Iceand after spending a bit of time in the United States of America, or ‘Murica, as I like to think all the Yanks call it.

I’ve always had strong opinions when it comes to the US, ranging from being 19 and just assuming that the whole place was full of morons, to being 23 and viciously berating anyone with this opinion, to being 24 and having a real desire to get over there and find out exactly what the hell went on behind all the warmongering and the reality TV. Spending a week there broke down some stereotypes, propped up others, and led to all sorts of confusion. But let me put all my uncertainties aside for a second, be dramatically ignorant and make a series of pig-headed statements about what I thought of the ‘Leader of the Free World’.

1. The people are VERY interesting, and SO unpredictable

This can be good, it can be bad. In Melbourne, or anywhere else in the world, I generally feel like I can get a read on someone in the first 5 minutes, and decide whether or not I like them. But I have never been so uncertain as to someone’s character than when I’ve dealt with Americans. My first night in San Francisco, my friend and I were talking with two local girls, and were getting on quite well. They seemed a bit alternative, open-minded, and had a real desire to travel. Then one blurts outs;

“Yeah I hate Indians.”

Well, that went well. I met another American during my time in Germany who I despised almost instantly. Through mutual friends, we hung out a few more times, and I learnt that he was actually a pretty decent bloke. He even apologised later on for being ‘such a douche’ the first time I’d met him.

I never knew what I'd find around the next corner

I never knew what I’d find around the next corner

I don’t know why I find them so unpredictable. But until I figure that out, I guess I’ll just have to try and forget about first impressions for now. Irony anyone?

2. Australians are all racist

We hear a lot about racial injustice in America. Anyone who’s heard anything about the US justice system will probably know about the hugely disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos incarcerated in American prisons. We all know who the Klu Klux Klan were, and most of us have heard of Zimmerman.

So it might come as a surprise that many Americans seem to think that Australians, by comparison, are incredibly racist.

Now I should make clear that I’m not really in a position to judge on this. Being a straight, white male, I’ve ever directly encountered any real form of discrimination. I also make somewhat of an effort to not hang out with people who are blatant bigots. And I do come from Melbourne, by far the most multicultural city in Australia. So I can’t really defend my country on this one. I do, however, see how we could be judged as quite racist, based on the Cronulla Riots and our treatment of native people. I’ve often heard Europeans express surprise at how openly racist Australians are. Yet I was still quite indignant when I heard this in America, as their social issues are somewhat better publicised than I’d assumed ours were.

3. There are a million different accents

THIS was cool. I love guessing where people in Europe are from, as the accents are so varied across such a relatively small space, even within countries, England and Germany being two great examples. Reading up on how accents develop fascinated me. But I never imagined sitting in a diner in the middle of New York City and being bombarded with so many different American accents. It was so much fun, and so weird at times. Sorry, ‘hella’ weird. I still have no idea what I’m hearing*.

There were still a few fools who tried pulling the whole “I don’t have an accent” line. You’d think explaining to someone that they do, in fact, have an American accent would be fairly straightforward. It’s more like bashing your head on a table.

4. Coastal rivalries exist

I’ve listened to hip-hop music from an early age, so I knew of the whole east coast-west coast thing. What I didn’t realise was how seriously some people take inter-town rivalries. I guess I thought there’d be a bit of a North-South divide, you know, with the whole civil war thing. Maybe the topic just didn’t pop up. I wasn’t exactly heading down to Alabama on the Tuesday. But there was some serious scrunching of noses in Cali when I mentioned that I was heading to New York. And I seriously offended a couple of New Yorkers by mentioning that I could see myself living in San Francisco.

In Australia, there’s a bit of a Melbourne Sydney rivalry, but it’s more friendly sparring, less ‘why would you ever go to Sydney?’. Then again, saying you prefer Porto to a Lisbonite is practically a criminal offence, and my Amsterdam-born Opa never DID have any time for Rotterdam, so maybe it makes sense that interstate rivalries are somewhere in between.

5. Da Beerz

OH MY GOD. We all know that joke about American beer, right? It’s like canoe-based copulation? WRONG. Any Australian/German/Belgian/Englishman who thinks that Americans know nothing about beer is some sort of fool. I have never been assaulted with so many choices of beer upon walking into any random bar in a city. It was incredible. The craft beer movement here has exploded with such force that it really puts any European nation to shame. I take solace in the fact that the Australian movement seems to be on a similar trajectory, albeit about a decade behind.

I must concede though, that their cheap beer still tastes absolutely dreadful. Bud Light and PBR taste like watered down versions of VB. My New Zealand mate said it best, in telling a San Franciscite toting a half litre can of Bud Light that he just “couldn’t stand there and talk to a girl with that in his hand”.

My friend Simone and I with our beer connoiseur of a waitress Sydney at the New York Beer Company

So there you have it. False impressions? Perhaps. Surface glimpses? Definitely. Any American who takes offence should know that all of these impressions make me all the more desperate to return to the States and do it justice. Leave a comment below letting me know what you think.

*One of my proudest moments in recent memory was surprising a girl I’d just met by guessing she was from California.

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My All-Too-Brief Love Affair With Iceland

There have been a lot of places I’ve visited where upon leaving I’ve said “I wish I’d had more time here”. But come tomorrow, I suspect none more so than Iceland.

I’ve never fallen in love with a country so quickly. Nor have I ever been more adamant that I could never live somewhere that I adore so much. Sound paradoxical? Ah well, Iceland confuses me.

The first hints of beauty came riding through the town on a bus at 8:30 in the morning, after 45 minutes of sleep on a flight from New York. Though I was blurry-eyed and horrified at the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to sleep for at least another twelve hours (I was determined to make the most of that day), the little streets and quaintly lit cafés and shops still looked pretty charming. But after having all trust for first impressions betrayed by America (more on that later), I decided to reserve judgement until I was post-food and about a litre of coffee.

It didn’t disappoint thereafter either. Reykjavik is beautiful, simply put. The snow lines the streets so perfectly, and as daylight hit earlier than I had any right to expect, the huge ridges that frame the bay my hostel lies on the edge of made breakfast and coffee so enjoyable. Getting to explore the city was a treat, and easy to do, since the population is only around 200,000, meaning it’s not hard to see a good deal of.

But far from being boring and backward, the city is very fun and a bit edgy. It’s like a bunch of hipsters came in, set the place up, and then made themselves scarce. There are cool-looking bars, loads of homely and interesting cafés, and though it’s small, the streets are friendly and it seems like there would be a lot going on at night.

I did the Golden Circle on my second day, saw by far the most breathtaking waterfall I’ve

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss Waterfall

had the privilege to visit, the geyser that geyser’s are named after, a geothermal power plant (which I’ll devote an entire blog to later on) and a tonne of other really cool stuff. It was a brilliant day.

I couldn’t live here though. The cold kills me. I thought I acclimatised myself pretty well to freezing weather in Germany, and whilst other Melbournians were complaining about our tumultuous weather, I was sitting there smugly, thinking “you ain’t seen nuthin,’, boy”.

But this is another story. I get that in Canada and the northern reaches of Scandinavia it’s much worse, I do. But negative nine in early December is more than cold enough for me, thank you. It’s kind of cool for a couple of days, but after a week of this I think I’d be about ready for the strange nosebleeds that accompany my arrival in much warmer temperatures.

Yay spas

Yay spas

The thing that makes the cold tolerable over short spaces (aside from the novelty factor) are the spas here. That’s where I’m writing this blog from, the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa about fifteen minutes from Keflavik airport. The airport’s far too close for comfort, as it reminds me how foolish I was to only spend three days in this country. Tomorrow I fly to Germany, into a melee of reunions, applications, Christmas Markets and general uncertainty over how I’m spending the next eight months.

But an hour ago, I was in a 40 degree spa, there was a beer in my hand, ice in my hair, and quite frankly, I’m still riding off that high.

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It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane – 5 Weird Things That Go Through My Head At An Airport

Whenever I’m at an airport or on an aeroplane, there are a few things that always seem to cross my mind.

Being sleep-deprived thanks to a mere 4 hours of shut-eye the night before this flight (and almost never being able to sleep properly on flights), I can’t manage any reasonably eloquent thoughts, so I thought I’d jot down some of the rubbish that always goes through my head at airports.

Be nice to the border security people.

This may seem a lot more straightforward than you’d think. I mean, these people have the right to essentially violate you. But after one too many episodes of Border Security (one) and various other stories, I have formed the (possible) preconception that all border guards are just racist, and I have a hard time smiling at them. Normally I can just pass it off as jetlag though.

Plane food.

Nothing original here, right? WRONG. My guilty confession: I actually love the stuff. I always get this little tingle of excitement when plane food starts rolling around. I usually don’t eat red meat (sort of), which almost always narrows my choices to some dirty chicken dish, but hell, who cares.

And my anger when I get onto a plane and find out that I’m supposed to pay for food endangers those around me. Bloody Ryanair.

DON’T LOOK AT THAT SCREEN!

I always feel so suspiciously rude when I get caught peeking at whatever my neighbour on the flight is watching. I’m traditionally (minus 3 points for far too grandiose a word) a fidgety movie watcher. As a kid, whenever there were movies on the good channels (Seven, Nine and Ten for you Melbournians), I’d always be trying to watch 2 or 3 at a time. It’s the same on planes. I can’t just sit there and watch Henry Cavill snapping necks, I have to flick over and check out whether Tim Roth has shot Michael Madsen yet.

But whenever the person next door sees me having a shufti, I feel guilty. Don’t read over people’s shoulders, Sam. Naughty.

Do I take the travelator?

I’ll just go with stream of consciousness on this one.

Oh man, a travelator! I’ll jump on! But that lady looks really slow, I don’t want to get stuck behind her. But I could move past! What if she doesn’t speak English, this IS an airport. Dammit, it’s getting close. I could walk alongside, I suppose, it’d be good exercise and I could show these people up by walking faster than they’re travellating. Wait, is that a verb? Who cares! It’s almost here! Maybe this bag is gonna rattle the whole way and annoy everyone? I don’t care, I’ll never see them again. C’mon, how often do you take a travelator? Oh, fine, let’s do this. WOAH, almost hit someone swerving randomly. Too late now, I’ve gone past it.

She’s afraid of flying.

If I’m sitting next to a woman (equality check: it does happen with men, but the vast majority of the time I’ve encountered this situation, a woman is involved) who is afraid of flying, I never know whether saying something is going to comfort her or not. I want to comfort her, because both my mother and one of my best friends are afraid of flying, and that sort of fear ain’t fun. I’ve obviously got no problem holding my mum’s hand while she’s panicking, but how do you tell a total stranger that the plane you’re on is most certainly not going to crash?

I once tried to reassure a 20-something Australian girl that even if the plane DID crash, the safety procedures were adequate to ensure her survival (I know this isn’t true, but she was really quite scared). This did NOT help, surprise surprise, and she didn’t talk to me for the rest of the flight.

Confessions over. Feel free to comment below with any weird thing that go through your head on flights. Let me know I’m not the only one. Let me know I’m sane. PLEASE.

The pilot just asked me if I wanted to eat some ‘serious cereal’, so I might just be slipping into madness earlier than anticipated.

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“Dude I Don’t Know What You’re Saying” – Anglophones And Our Various Peculiarities

Guest blog by Olatz Rodriuez. You can find her contact details at the end of this article.

They say that variety makes the world rich. And I don’t disagree with that at all. Wouldn’t it be monotonous and boring if we weren’t all so different?

Beyond personal differences, we each belong to a certain group of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought. We all are part of a culture that not only defines our attitude, but also training and education. I consider myself a lucky person because of the chance I had in my year abroad in Freiburg to belong to a special little community which was made up of people from completely different cultures, as well as social statuses. I’m not going to talk about the latter, in my opinion it’s less interesting, as it’s not material richness which makes us rich.1020136_10151795235526874_2022155945_o

If you have ever read about linguistics you might know of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, better known as the linguistic relativity, which states that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualise their world. This principle has been rejected, but I think it makes sense. However, during my stay in Freiburg, I noticed that a bunch of English speaking people who were from completely different parts of the globe had different habits and different views of the world. I wonder why I hadn’t thought about this before, because having family in Mexico and being part of the Basque culture, yet not excluded from the Spanish one, I should have known that the same would happen with every single language. In fact, Basque is a minority language with just a few speakers, but then if someone drives through The Basque Country, every five minutes they will hear a completely different dialect. It’s interesting, as well as amazing, since I live in one of the most Basque speaking zones and still, some of the dialects are almost unintelligible for me. As an example, my father was born in a town which is located five minutes away from where I live and he speaks in a completely differently to me. I’m straying from the subject a little, so let’s get back to English.

First of all, I was really lost when our German-English translation teacher told us that in the exam we had to specify whether we were going to write the exam in British or in American English. For me, English was just English. It might sound funny, but that moment was the starting point, that is, when I began to become aware of and interested in English accents. Then in German ones. And ever since I arrived in Canada, French dialects as well, not because I really want to, but because I have no choice (the québécois is killing me). When I remember that moment I feel a bit embarrassed (I know I don’t have to), in school we’ve always studied British English and as a TV series fan I’ve always watched them in the original version, and because most of the series I watch are from the States they are filmed in American English, and I had never stopped to think about the differences. Now I notice them almost instantly, and I have to admit that I love the British accent, even though the people from small cities may have a really strong one for me.

At first sight, British and Irish accents don’t seem very different to us. Basque and Irish have a lot in common, as I’ve found through friendship with Irish people. It has nothing to do the fact that we have different folklore, the point is that we both are part of a nation where habits, music, dance, language, festivals, etc. are neither better or worse, but different, our own and we love and appreciate it, we even feel proud of it. As for the language, though, most of the Irish speak English and even if I learnt many of the expressions through my friend Frances, I personally don’t see many differences between Ireland and Great Britain (this doesn’t mean I’m right, it’s just an impression), just as between Basque and the rest of Spain.

I haven’t seen the light with the Australian accent, I have to admit it. I’m sorry Sam, but I really had to struggle to understand you, besides the fact that you would talk in an incomprehensible way on purpose (don’t worry, I used to have a lot of fun trying to figure out what you were saying), and, on the whole, the Australian accent. I still do, so maybe I will have to go there soon to get to know it better; why not? I am sure I’d have wonderful guides and teachers, as well as a great time.

Well, in Freiburg not only I learnt how rich English was, but also the different habits their speakers have compared to Spain. Just to mention some, the educational system, the way they party and wear, their dating and culinary habits and their either reticent or slightly crazy ways of behaving. What I mean is that Spanish people are known to be crazy, but always, either in the morning when we wake up, in class, or at the doctor’s. I noticed that the people from Great Britain and Australia were kind of serious, but then, out of nowhere, could become the craziest people in Earth. From what I could tell, this didn’t happen that much with Americans, and in that matter they’re more similar to us.

I mentioned the culinary habits before. As everybody knows, in Spain gastronomy is really important, not only because we eat homemade, healthy food, but also because we always eat meals as a family. When I am home, I have breakfast, lunch and dinner with my family, and I take it for granted. I would never wake up and have breakfast by myself. Without doubt the Spanish main meal is lunch, at about 2 p.m., and it was really weird for me that in most of the European countries lunch would be just a sandwich, early and many times by yourself. I really miss Basque/Spanish food, so enough with food. Just one last fact: I recently read an article about words in different languages of the world that are untranslatable into any others and a friend of mine has suggested to the webpage that in the Basque Country we also have a word that everybody knows, whether they speak the language or not, that couldn’t be translated it into another language: “pintxopote”. One day a week, in every town, we go from bar to bar and have a drink you like and a pintxo for 1 €.

Pintxos

Pintxos

Now that I have talked about the British Isles and Australia, I would also like to talk about Americans. In Spain there’s always been a sort of worship for the country. Whether it has to do something with the American Dream or not I’m not sure, but even though there’s a general “public disdain” towards the states because of their power and impact on globalisation, we can’t deny that they have an influence on our lives and that their trends and customs are currently part of our lives. I’m looking forward to travelling there, which will happen in a few days, and I’m sure that even if I wouldn’t fit into their culture, I’ll very much like it. The United States are too big to talk about on the whole though, so I’m not going to judge them at all.

I want to conclude this article by saying that as a language student, for me English has always been one of the most important languages to learn and practice and as it is a lingua franca in most parts of the world, I acknowledge that it must be really hard for those who have it as a mother tongue to learn new ones, since they can manage to communicate with almost everyone with it. When they are speaking with someone from somewhere else and practicing another language, they know that if they don’t know how to express themselves or they have difficulties finding the right words, they can always talk in English and almost everyone is going to understand. Or the other way round, it can happen that the people they are trying to practice the other language with wants to learn more English and always replies back or tries to prompt a conversation in that language. So hereby I want to express my admiration for all those who do this, especially those who aren’t specialising in languages in their studies.

Now it’s time to conclude. All the readers of this blog are invited to experience either the Spanish or the Basque culture, so don’t hesitate to contact me if you are nearby or you want to get a feel how our society. You can reach me at mail (olatz@olatzrodriguez.com), TwitterLinkedIn or Google+ (Olatz Rodríguez). Hope you enjoyed the reading. Now let’s go and travel the world!

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Heading back to Germany, and what worries me

So in 2 weeks, after a jaunt through a couple of American cities and a 3 day stay in Iceland, I will find myself back at the doorsteps of the town in which I spent my exchange.

Most of it, at least.

I’ve already written that I’m not worried about missing family, friends or home. So what could possibly worry me about this perhaps-not-so-glorious return to my second Heimat?

It’s worrying about sheer disappointment, in light of potentially having idealised Freiburg since my departure.

This might sound weird to someone who hasn’t spent much time overseas. You don’t have to have lived in a town to be able to idealise it, and be disappointed when you go back. It happened to me after a four week high school exchange in 2005, during which I lived in Bordeaux, Southern France. I returned there in early 2009, and it just didn’t feel the same. The streets felt unfriendly, the buildings hostile instead of charming, the people apathetic instead of welcoming. I wasn’t sure exactly what had caused it at the time, but I think the fact that I’d been thinking of how much I’d love to return for the best part of 3 years had something to do with it. When you build something up that much, how can it possibly live up to expectations?

This is not the same as returning home and being disappointed by your ‘hometown’. When you’re returning from a holiday, an exchange, a visit to family or friends, I’ve really only ever come across two reactions (huge generalisations are about to occur). One is relief, at being back amongst the familiar, amongst old friends and your home. The other is the topsy turvy roller coaster ride of someone who loved every minute of being away and didn’t want it to end. And that little melodrama there is nothing like that which accompanies a return to somewhere you’ve been longing for at times – and finding that it just doesn’t deliver anymore.

Image

Photo: Audun Ingebrigtsen

So yes, I’m worried that this may happen to me very soon. Freiburg is an absolutely beautiful town nestled at the foot of the Black Forest, the buildings are still gloriously medieval in places, the girls are gorgeous (it’s a student town) and there’s a disproportionately large (for such a small town) collection of exciting and homely pubs, restaurants and bars to enjoy.

But have I built it up too much? Will it be different from a visitor’s perspective, as opposed to a student’s? Will the fact that a great deal of the friends I made there are now elsewhere suck the magic out of it? Will the slightly rude German winter just irritate me?

I hope not. I spent a mere 2 weeks in Bordeaux, and only really got a surface glimpse of what it was like, and of course with the school taking us round, we got the best of it. So hanging around with students and at youth hostels would naturally deliver a slightly grittier appearance. What’s more, a storm which ravaged southern France passed through when I was there, followed by a strike by the train people, meaning I couldn’t visit any of the places outside of Bordeaux which make the area so rewarding (St. Emillion, Arcachon, Médoc).

So I’m thinking Freiburg will be as picturesque and fun as I remember it. I still worry though.

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5 Reasons To Go On Exchange – Part 2

So in Part 1 I covered travel, friends, and being open-minded, next is………

4.      NEW STUFF!!

As obvious as this may sound, exchange is the best place to start something new. There’s a mentality that comes with exchange, and it essentially dictates that you have a fresh start, and can do something you might have been too nervous/embarrassed/unmotivated to do before. I have a friend who learned to skateboard, play the guitar, and box while he was in Germany. It’s not like Germany is huge on any of these things, it’s just that he saw exchange as an opportunity to try something novel. One of my regrets is that I never took up any new hobbies, if you don’t count collecting coasters.

The marvellous Mike and his guitar

The marvellous Mike and his guitar

The best thing is that you bring it back with you. You come back to Melbourne, or Toronto, or wherever, and all of a sudden there’s a million different things to do. Want to learn Gaelic? Bugger it, why not! Since arriving back here, I’ve had as many ‘firsts’ as I had in the three years beforehand. First music festival, first paintball game, first Spanish lesson, other stuff that may seem trivial, but really makes you feel like you’re taking advantage of the time you’ve got.

Buuuuut: Please don’t scream YOLO and think that home-made bungee cords are safe. (And just don’t scream YOLO in genereal)

5.      Self-discovery

This is really just an aggregation of the last four points. The great thing about exchange and the chance to essentially live a new life, is that you might learn a lot about other cultures and people, but ultimately it’s yourself you’ll learn the most about. And as I’ve said previously, it might not be instantaneous, and it might take the lessons a while to sink in, but when they do, they generally lead to progress of some sort.

A friend of mine took off on exchange to the USA, and wrote a blog entry shortly before she returned. In it, she mentioned that she wasn’t sure how people would react to the person she’d become, but she was ultimately pretty satisfied with what she’d learnt, and what she’d done overseas. It’s that kind of feeling that generally accompanies the end of an exchange, and it feels pretty damn good.

I can’t say I was totally happy with the person I was at times overseas, but in hindsight, I certainly feel like the lessons I learnt have helped me a lot in the last year, and I don’t think there’s much I would change from my time on exchange.

Buuuuuut: Don’t go into exchange expecting your life to change just because you’re in a new country. There has to be an attitude change as well.

Can't really regret this, can you?

Can’t really regret this, can you?

Now I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have a crappy time whilst studying abroad. I have a friend who completed a 4-month exchange in France, and just didn’t enjoy it that much. That was more just a case of bad luck, and though they’re one of the friendliest and most bubbly people I’ve met overseas, things just didn’t work for them. I have another friend who was a little more withdrawn, and seemed to feel uncomfortable most of the time. But I can also tell you that neither of them would regret doing those semesters in another country.

So that’s that! If you’ve got questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them! Or refer you to someone who can.

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5 Reasons To Go On Exchange

If you’ve ever held a conversation with me for more than five seconds…

…you probably know that through 2011 and 2012 I spent a year on exchange in Freiburg, a little city (by German standards anyway, Australia would never dignify it with anything more than ‘town’) at the foot of the Black Forest. It was the best year of my life so far, and I was able to branch out and do a lot of stuff that I just wouldn’t have imagined was possible even after having travelled solo through the same country. So I figured I’d give you a few reasons as to why it’s a great idea.

1.      It opens your mind

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Absinthe and ice cream? Well… yeah ok.

Exposure to other cultures is one thing. You can go to Cambodia for a week and not learn a thing (trust me on that). But if you go on exchange you’re essentially forced to soak up some of what’s around you. And whilst sometimes it can be confronting, more often than not you find that you learn from it, maybe not immediately, but eventually. I was privy to  a lot of things overseas that it took me some time to get my head around.

It can be different perspectives to life, money, politics, relationships, gender, race. You name it, and there’s someone out there that will have a different opinion to you on it. And just because it’s not your opinion, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s easy to discount someone as silly for saying something you certainly don’t agree with it, and immediately exclude them from a list of potential friends. But hang around them and you might just learn something about the reasons for their stance on whatever. You might even learn something about your own stance.

Buuuuuut: I’m not saying this is always the case. If some Welshman tries to convince you that mothers don’t belong in the workplace and the blacks and Muslims are the reasons for all of Britain’s problems, you might want to finish the beer and split.

2.      You make new friends!!

Might seem obvious, but some people get worried about exchange. They reckon they’ll be alone.

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The goodbyes still suck though

It’s virtually impossible to not make new and amazing friends whilst on exchange. Why? Because everyone is in the same boat as you. Everyone’s new, people are out of their comfort zones. Everyone’s been thrown into the cold, and whilst some people might be wearing a skivvy, they’re all looking for others to huddle with. Analogy game, wut.

The other cool thing is that you make friends with people you might not necessarily make friends with back home. That initial desperation to meet people can land you with some pretty interesting characters. It’s ok to be wary at first (two of my best friends admitted to me halfway through our exchange that they thought I was a complete putz when they first met me), but be open to everyone and you’ll find friends for life.

Buuuuuuut: You only have a year, and need to decide who you want to hang out with. More on this in later blogs.

3.      Travel

Locals just don’t have what the Germans call Lebenslust. They’ve got this mentality that they can do it whenever, so why go now? It’s the same in Australia, and anywhere else. You ask a class of people here who’s been to Europe, half the class raises their hands.

“And who’s been to Cairns?”

Two or three people. Everyone’s country has amazing things to see and do, but you don’t notice it until you’re there and YOU ONLY HAVE A YEAR TO SEE EVERYTHING!!!!! You find that on exchange, you travel more. Even if you don’t have money. You find a way. Someone knows someone who’s going to San Francisco this week and it’s in a ute and it’s only going to be 20 bucks there and back! You in? Of course you are! I went for weekend trips to Prague, Barcelona, Berlin, Norway like it wasn’t nuthin’ but a thang. Then I get back to Australia.

“Hey Sam, want to come to Apollo Bay?”

“Errrrrrr….”

Trust me. If you go on exchange, you’ll find yourself wanting to see everything. You go from “Oh god can’t you give me two weeks notice?” to “I AM A TARDIS COME WITH ME”.

Buuuuut: Spontaneity is fun, and so is adventure, but hitchhiking through the Black Forest by yourself still isn’t the smartest thing.

Part 2 to come.

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Was Zum Teufel? – 5 Obscure Differences Between Germany and Australia

Part 1 – Nudity and a Non-Factor

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These Strange German Ways – Susan Stern

There are so, so many cultural differences between Germany and Australia, most of which one could write an entire book on, let alone a silly little blog entry. But what the hey, let’s have a look at some of the less obvious cultural differences for a bit, and shake our heads in bewilderment at the nonsense other humans get up to. Here’s a few of my favourites.

  1. The Nudity

Skinny-dipping, I guess, can be a thing sometimes in Australia. Certainly, orientation camp and Prosh Week at Melbourne University would suggest that streaking is far from uncommon. But it is by no means normal behaviour. Introducing, the FKK (pronounced Eff Kar Kar for all you new players).

If the sun is out, it’s over six degrees, and there is a lake nearby, there’s a chance you are going to find yourself in close proximity with some naked Germans. In all likelihood, they’re long-standing members of Frei-Körper-Kultur (free body culture). I won’t go into the history of liberalism in Germany (just read the Wikipedia entry, it’s not bad), but this is something that has been around for a long time, and is just a part of life.

It is, as counter-intuitive as this may seem, very organised nudity. There is a section of each lake’s shore dedicated to this, and nude people outside this section are as frowned upon as clothed people inside it.

It’s not just the FKK where the Germans attitude to nudity goes off on tangents which make a Picasso painting look positively straightforward. Until recently Bild (a much longer-running version of Melbourne beloved mX) had a picture of a lovely woman, stark naked and quite provocative, on the first page of every issue. I’ve been told by a spoon-wielding German that they have recently removed these ‘Seite 1’ girls.

And last but not least, to borrow from this brilliant blog, What I Know About Germans:

“Should a contestant, for example, on a family friendly ‘celebrity special game show’ or something, be a nude model, German TV is totally down with displaying a great deal of her portfolio, to the audience at home. Pre 9pm. In fact, pre 8pm. See article 34 and 50.”

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Flückigersee, Freiburg
Photo: Audun Ingebrigtsen

2. Vodafone

This isn’t the most entertaining point I’ve ever come up with, but whilst Vodafone in Australia seems to be a laughing stock, in Germany and across Europe I have heard it reputed as by far the most reliable network in terms of coverage. Who knew. Don’t complain about how mundane this point is, the other one was full of nudity. Sabalott.

Part 2 to come.

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“Getting sad about leaving?”

This is a tough one.

I’ve been getting it a lot lately. There have been a few variations. “Gonna miss everyone?”, “Scared about being homesick?”, “Worried about not seeing your family?”.

And it’s not that it’s a question that provokes deep thought and introspection, or gets me worried, or makes me nervous. It’s just a hard question to answer without offending people, because the short answer to all of the above is a resounding no.

I’ll admit, the first couple of times I went overseas by myself, I missed people. My very first trip without parents was a three week high school exchange to France, and yeah, I missed my friends a fair bit. Social media wasn’t a big thing back then, apart from ye olde MSN Messenger. I didn’t own a laptop or a smartphone, and Skype certainly wasn’t an option.

The second time I jetted off, it was for a three month Eurotrip. I had a girlfriend back home, and I missed her like crazy. Whilst Skype was certainly an option this time round, I’ve always been a bit behind the curve when it comes to technology, so we didn’t get to speak much, apart from occasional drunken moments when I’d buy a phone card and get all emotional for about twenty minutes, before the credit ran out. This wasn’t ideal, and it even led to a breakdown at one point, which the mate I was travelling with could have assured you was NOT a pretty sight.

So, sure, I’ve missed home before.

But these days? No, I don’t miss home. There are a few things that I certainly prefer in Australia, but there are more than enough aspects of European life to even the keel. I know I can speak to my friends whenever I want. I’ve got a smartphone, which has Skype, so why not give people back home a buzz when I’m in the streets on a Sunday evening? Freiburg showed me that it was easy to keep up with other people’s lives. And I do spend an inordinate amount of time on facebook, which helps (or hinders, I don’t know).

I also like to travel whenever possible, and do as many new things as I can think of. So sometimes you just don’t have time to miss home. Getting bored, complacent in your small German hometown? Bugger it, let’s go to Croatia for a weekend, see what happens.

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Sad sack

I’ve hated leaving people, too. When I was in Freiburg, a close friend came to visit for the weekend, and when she took off, it hit me that I wasn’t going to see her again for at least a couple of years, maybe ever. I wasn’t ready, and I cried like a kid who’s fallen off his bike.

But the thing is (and this is the one people don’t seem to get) that I’ve done a lot of leaving people over the last few years. I’ve left Australia a few times, I’ve had to leave other places that I’ve grown to love, other people have left on their own adventures; I’ve said more goodbyes than I care to remember. Sad fact is, you get used to it. If I still got upset every time I said goodbye to someone, life wouldn’t be the happiest. Whilst I’m not by any means the king of popularity, I like to think that I have a solid, reasonably extensive and diverse group of friends in Australia, each one of whom I value and love spending time with. But if I was going to be devastated about leaving all of them, then it’d be a pretty miserable existence overseas.

Which brings me back to the original question. How do you explain all of the above to someone without offending them?

Write a blog about it, I guess.

Then again, who knows. Maybe I’ll have a drink too many at my going-away party and bawl my way out of the room.

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End of an…. Error? Part 2 – Why I’ve Spent Seven Years Doing Undergrad

If you really want to catch up, read part 1. But here’s a quick summary anyway. I’d been doing and Arts/Science double degree for two and a half years, and had finally figured out what I wanted from my tertiary education.

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Munich 2008

I’d headed overseas for a three month jaunt around Europe in December 2008, leaving a few days after exams finished and getting back the day after semester started. A lot of things came from this holiday. I sowed seeds of discontent which eventually led to the end of my first relationship, I caught the travel bug big time, and I learned a lot about different people’s perspectives on life. And I fell in love with Germany.

Maybe it was the joviality of Münich or the eclecticism of Berlin, the haunting history of Dachau or the inspiration I drew from learning about the Mauerfall and the East Side Gallery, but something then and there made me desperate to learn more about the country my Oma fled from decades before.

So I took up a Diploma of Modern Languages in German. I figured extending what was already going to be a five-and-a-half-year course by one year couldn’t hurt, and would be worth it. And it didn’t, and was.

I didn’t get in the first time, mind you. I’d applied at the start of 2009. But those failed subjects at the start of Uni? Turns out they reflect poorly on you. Go figure. But those marks that improved paid dividends, and the University saw fit to let me in at the start of 2010. The other choice I made was to get back into Zoology. I enrolled in first-year Bio subjects, and for the first time in my life found out what it’s like to be three years older than everyone around you, and no wiser whatsoever. I met a lot of people who were a lot more focussed and mature than I was. It was a reality check.

But it was almost like starting Uni again, except this time with purpose. Those marks stayed up, and more importantly, I enjoyed what I was doing. Everything was great.

Then that pesky first relationship ended, and though it was hard at the time, it forced me to stop holding myself back, and I started looking into exchange the next year straight away. The thrill of preparing for and going on exchange just can NOT be summarised in 100 words, so we’ll leave that for another time.

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Field trip in Boho South

So I came back here mid 2012, with three semesters left, as I had only done three subjects per semester in Germany. So I had ten subjects to get done in those three semesters, but I’ve been able to work a fair bit in that time and get a few savings together.

That’s pretty much the whole story.

So in hindsight, what would have I done differently? Those two subjects at the start of the degrees that I failed? Would I have worked harder in those lectures? I like to think I would have passed, even nabbed myself a decent mark, but I do doubt I would have learnt the lesson which eventually prompted me to focus on what I wanted to do in life.

Would I have gone on exchange earlier? No. Whilst coming back and going through the motions of finishing my degrees was tiresome at times, I wouldn’t change exchange at all.

Would I have done more than 3 subjects in those semesters? No. They allowed me to work more hours, and thanks to that job I got to see a bit of America, Egypt and Syria.

So yes, it’s been 7 years of Undergraduate studies, but it’s been worth it. Last exam next Thursday. Hurrah.

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