Archive for June, 2012

An appendix

One of the things that makes Austria great is that Pierce Brosnan features in adverts for luxury supermarket food there.

Since my year abroad is officially over – as of 4 days ago – it is time to retire this blog. A lot of my friends are still out in Europe. I’d have liked to do that, but I can’t really justify hanging about away from home doing nothing. I think it was a good time to move on, even though I dearly miss Linz and the people there. It’s not an altogether pleasant feeling, but I’m trying to adjust to life at home again as well as I can.

So, I’d like to reflect on a few things…

Did the year abroad live up to my expectations? Yes and no. I knew it wasn’t going to always be a picnic. I indeed found that far from a drawn-out holiday, living abroad could be expensive, exhausting and emotional.

I remember very well the night before I got the Eurostar to Liège, lying in bed, so nervous. I hadn’t spoken French in months, and I was so worried I’d fail at even buying a bus ticket. I’d heard the first few weeks were hard; and yes, the first few weeks there were quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Even the simplest tasks were like moving a mountain – I remember it was quite a while before I had my own cutlery and crockery and stuff, just because I had no idea where to obtain it from. I also had no money when I got there – the ERASMUS grant didn’t come in until much later – so I couldn’t really explore and have fun, and I think that definitely affected how I interacted with my peers (i.e. badly).

It was tough. I already had some personal issues, and on top of that came the unfortunate environmental factors. It just added up and I felt like I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t go on. They were some of the lowest times in my life, actually. I remember counting down the weeks til I could go home. And my semester in Austria – which I was already sure would be better – seemed like a century away.

I realised later that Liège was the location for a rather dark film we watched for a class last year, La Promesse. When I mentioned this to friends who’d also seen it, they understood!

I had an awesome time in Linz and it was the place I enjoyed the most – no question – but I have come to realise some things about the differences between my experiences in Belgium and Austria.

I think it is actually much harder for a foreigner to assimilate into Austria. At first I found people to be a little too “direct” for my liking. Subtlety and politeness don’t really have a place there. But over time I made the best out of this – when in Rome, as it were. I began to have no problem with pushing in front of people in non-existent queues, and I stopped prefacing all my opinions with “I’m sorry, but…”, because I realised that speaking my mind was hardly going to ruin somebody’s day. (In fact, even in the few days since coming back to England I’ve had to alter my manners a bit – some people have looked a bit shocked when I say something a bit too bluntly. And I’ve totally forgotten how to queue.)

But I never did get used to the way people stared. On public transport, in the street. People of all ages and genders. In England, we are taught from childhood that staring is the height of rudeness. On the bus, you keep your eyes out of the window or on the ground. I felt like I was constantly being visually criticised and evaluated, even though deep down I knew it wasn’t personal. Not great when you’re in a bad mood and just want to feel invisible.

However, I do think the one thing that was consistently blocking me out was the dialect. Don’t get me wrong, I super loved being in a place with a different form of German, that was why I was interested in coming to Austria.  Overall, my German definitely improved by default of immersion, but the local dialect made it slightly more difficult to understand people, which meant I had to concentrate harder on listening – which was exhausting. I found I kept saying “Bitte?” like a stuck record. But also, I feel that the fact I wasn’t in on what was almost a secret language put a strain on my relationships with others at home, work and generally in public. On my account my housemates would have to speak Standard German, and one of them eventually admitted it was easier to speak English with me because he felt so weird and overly formal trying to speak SG, as if presenting the news. (A friend of mine even tutored someone who needed to practise his SG as he was going to do a presentation.)
At times I felt as terrible as I would if I marched into a shop in another country and immediately demanded they speak my language without even asking if they could. So there was not only that issue, but the fact that this meant in public situations I could be construed as a German. And that leads us to the fact that the Austrians have a mixed relationship with the Germans (a topic within itself).

Despite those difficulties, I’m glad I got to experience a new German-speaking country. But given half a chance, I’d definitely have picked another destination for the French side, like France – perhaps even in the Mediterranean or Pyrenees regions (to counterbalance the morale-draining winter). But lately I’ve been thinking about whether I would take Liège on with a completely different attitude if I went there now, with what I’ve learnt from being in Austria. I wonder if I’d be more motivated to hunt down lecturers and ask what the deal is with randomly cancelled lessons, if I’d be more outgoing and open to meeting people (even if it meant putting up with doing stuff I hated). I know there is no point dwelling on the past and whatiffing, but I honestly think that my experience in Linz has been so beneficial that I’m actually now able to see where I went wrong before. On the other hand, if I’d been thrown into my assistantship for the first semester, would I have been able to cope with all the responsibility? Maybe in some ways my time in Liège was a useful little segue into the “real thing”. It’s interesting to think about, but I guess I just need to accept everything for what it is, what it has been, and do what I can now in the present.

I’m publishing this in a bit of a rush because I want to get it out of the way while it’s all still fresh in my mind. I am leaving for Montreal in a week, and I have lots to prepare – not least that it’s time to brush up on my French again! I have been wanting to visit there for years, so I am extremely excited that I finally have enough money. And more importantly, I’ve realised that the year abroad has actually filled me with the confidence to actually just go ahead and buy that ticket. I think that this time last year, even though I certainly wanted to go, I don’t think I’d actually have had enough courage to do it. There’d be too much “what if”. But these days, having experienced so much wonderful stuff and becoming less naive by also experiencing some bad stuff, I see absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. I feel I owe it to myself, even. I look at how far I’ve come (on a personal level) and it’s a wonderful boost.

Overall, I hope that this blog has been useful and/or inspirational to anybody who’s thinking about studying or working abroad, even if it isn’t in Belgium or Austria. Couple more tips:

  1. Wherever you end up going, make sure you bring plenty of paracetomol (or whatever your painkiller of choice is) with you. Gone are the days of getting them for 60p from the supermarket. Welcome to making a special trip to the pharmacy and paying 6 € for them.
  2. You’ll probably hear/read a lot of people saying the year abroad is the best year of your life. Take that with a pinch of salt. I put myself down a lot in the first semester because I definitely wasn’t having a good time, and I think that impacted everything else. Just take it as it comes, but don’t put pressure on yourself to make it amazing. I would advise that you try to establish a good friendship group (i.e. support network) early on, even if you don’t always feel like socialising. It means you won’t feel alone when challenges do arise.

Miscellaneous Austrian delights

This is the view from my window in halls during a rainstorm on a Sunday night. It may not really sound exciting, but for me it was one of the nicest, most atmospheric parts of living there. Of course it rains all the time in England, but this was something quite different. Sometimes I would wake up, with a view of the forest on a mountain covered in clouds ahead of me, and the refreshing sound of the rain. It was even better when it was dark. One of my best memories there is standing with someone on the balcony at 4am in our pyjamas when there was a storm, the sky a grey-purple colour, and it was just intense. The air is so clean there, so the smell is also wonderful.

Turtles at the botanic garden in Linz

The insect hotel at the botanic garden

These signs are everywhere outside shops – dogs aren’t allowed in 😦

I was in the bookshop, stocking up last-minute on some literature to keep up my German (and French!) levels during the summer. And I stumbled across something I’d glanced at before, but never quite looked into… the Alpenkrimi, the crime novel set in the Alps. I mean, I just find it kind of cool that an entire genre dedicated to this exists. You can also get Alpine Mills & Boon-style books.

To the average English speaker, the title of the book pictured below may raise some giggles. But it’s actually a play on the names of Upper Austrian towns – firstly, there is actually a town called Fucking; secondly, many places have the word Bad in them, which basically means lake (e.g. Bad Ischl). So yeah, put them together and you have a recipe for an amusing novel, I guess.

Also, for the love of God, don’t search “bad fucking” on Google Images.

Lastly, I found out in the last week there – by complete accident on a dictionary website – that the German word for “anus” is After. And since “after” is one of the most commonly used words in English, I can only imagine the sniggers in class that I was oblivious to. I know that German also has quite a few words that English people find funny, like Fahrt or dich, but I don’t know how I could have only just found this out.

Despite the fact I avoid McDonalds on principle, I went here quite a lot to get a chai latte, as it was the only place where it was guaranteed they’d have soya milk. We don’t have McCafé in the UK, so it’s going to be an Austrian thing that I’ll miss…

And did I ever mention how sporty Austrian people are? You see 70-year-olds jogging along without a care in the world. The other day I saw a man rollerblading along my street, pushing himself along with hiking sticks. It put me to shame.

Innsbruck and Brennero

I feel a bit weird categorising this under “Italy”, and maybe I am indeed taking liberties, but you’ll see why in a bit…

It was my last full day in Austria and I wanted to make the best out of it. I chose Innsbruck because it was a city, so there’d hopefully be lots to do and see; but since it was in the beautiful Tyrol, I’d also get my last chance to enjoy the landscape! The return ticket set me back 50 € but I think it was worth it – the way I see it, I’m getting a lovely train journey as well as actually being in the destination.

Once again, I happened to be there on a bank holiday, so it was a bit quiet, but still nice. People had said to me that the dialect there was almost incomprehensible, even to other Austrians – and I did find this to be true!

Hat fail…

At the train station, I noticed there were trains to Brennero in Italy. It was only 7 € return and about half an hour away, so I thought I might as well go and see what was there – a spontaneous, cheap trip can’t hurt, right?

The journey was great – we were so high up! – but in the end the town itself turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It was literally just a border crossing with a bit of a town around it. Not surprising, I suppose, since it turns out it’s been one of the main crossings through the Alps since Roman times. I’d hoped to be able to walk around the mountains, maybe, but there didn’t seem to be any access to them. Every single car passing through seemed to be full of Germans on their way to the Mediterranean.

In fact, the town reminded me of the TV show Twin Peaks, for some reason. It just had this strange vibe; not in a supernatural way, just a kind of unease, I suppose. Then there are these two pictures:

(Fake curtains in an outdated shopping centre)

So yeah, this is dubiously tagged “Italy”. I don’t think I heard a single person speaking Italian. Interesting experience though. Sort of.

Munich

I made a little trip to Munich last week when it was – gasp – a bank holiday. For that reason, practically nothing was open, but I managed to see a lot of nice things there. Firstly, I explored the area around Marienplatz, which is the main historic square of the city. Even though a lot of the city was destroyed in the war, most of the buildings have survived pretty well (or been restored, I guess):

Then I took the U-Bahn to Münchner Freiheit, simply because I liked the name (“Freedom of Munich”). I was not expecting to find this amazing station when I got out:

And when you get out of the station it’s really nice. There is a big water feature and lots of cafés where people of all ages were sitting and enjoying ice creams, skateboarding, whatever. And of course, it was very clean!

I love this detail.

One of my biggest regrets is not being able to ride a bike. There are some lovely paths around the city. Maybe if I lived in Munich I’d be motivated to overcome it.

May I live in this building?

Dairy-free blueberry ice cream!

Mexican food place on Haimhauser Straße. Looked good, but was bad timing as I’d just finished my ice cream.

A wine tap in the wall! Out of order, sadly.

A little gift I got for my family.

So that was my brief stint in Munich. It’s a shame I was only able to be there for a day, but I’ll definitely be going back when I can afford it, as I loved my first impressions. Next time: Mexican food, English Garden (with the place where people surf on the river!), Nymphenburg Palace, record shopping!

I went there on the Bayern Ticket, which costs 21 € and can be used for one day on all regional trains in Bavaria, plus underground and stuff. I had to pay for an extra train ticket between Linz and Salzburg (the only Austrian station it’s valid from), but still pretty good value. Also, once again I was glad I brought my passport… it was checked as I went into Germany. But what would they do, chuck you off the train…?

P.S. I was supposed to be going back to England tomorrow, but I am unable to because of baggage handler strikes at Stansted Airport (pretty crucial, as I have two large suitcases). I now have 4 or so more days here. I was annoyed, because I’d been psyching myself up to be home – plus I’ve lost £100 from the previous ticket – but I suppose in some ways it’s a blessing in disguise. I’m looking forward to making the most of my last few Linz moments, and also to making my last trip of my time in Austria… stay tuned!