Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne

Student Profiles

Joshua Mendelsohn

Rupert Charles University of Heidelberg

Exchange in Semester 1 & 2, 2008
Bachelor of Science/Arts

Student Life in Heidelberg

When I was planning my exchange I had no lack of information. Visas, subjects, scholarships, passports, arrival guides and university websites claimed to tell me everything there was to know about Heidelberg. Yet despite the masses of paper there was one question that no one seemed to be able to answer: What will it be like? I knew that I needed my VCE Certificate to get my residence permit three months after arrival, I knew that I could get Spinozas Philosophy of Being accredited for 12.5 points, but I didn't know how I would feel waking up in the morning or how my lunch would taste on Tuesdays. Of couse, this is part of the appeal. That said, I would have liked to have a few details from everyday life before I arrived. Hopefully my description of what a typical day consisted of for me will help you know what to expect.

At 8am my mobile phone wakes me up. I potter around in a daze for a while, and eat a small bowl of cereal with long life milk (fresh milk is a rarity in Germany). From the kitchen I see how thick the fog is outside; the cemetery across the road is all but invisible. Living opposite a cemetery is not nearly as gloomy as it sounds. It has the character of a garden, and provides an escape from the post-war, concrete heavy architecture surrounding it. Behind it is a small range of mountains, which change colour with the seasons and give the third floor kitchen a lovely view.

Back in my room, I put on a shirt, long pants, jumper, jacket, gloves and cap. This is dressing light. I am renowned on my floor for always dressing too lightly. I have learned to always wear gloves if I want to be able to move my hands after a five minute bike ride, but as an Australian, wearing a scarf will never quite feel right. It takes a lot of getting used to to remember that going outside shirtless will probably give you frostbite. Old habits die hard.

I head down three flights of stairs, engage the dynamo on my trusty red bike and ride off to the Altstadt, the historical centre. To get there I peddle through the Weststadt, a charming part of the original city that is larger, more inhabited and less overrun by tourists than where I am heading. It is suburban but with character. The houses are tall and made of beige stone, and many of them carry intricate reliefs. There are wooden playgrounds and corner-store style supermarkets all over the place. Some of the best bars in the city are found here, not the student skulling holes, but the quieter, atmospherically lit spaces where people read and drink things other than beer.

Not satisfied by my breakfast, I stop at the bakery Mahlzahn on the way and buy three Vollkornbrtchen, small full grain bread rolls. The bread from this bakery alone is reason enough to come to Germany. It is made of something called "Dinkel" and worth the extravagant price. One small roll costs as much as a loaf from the supermarket but the two are equally filling. I have no idea what "Dinkel" is, but everyone raves about how healthy it is and it is amazingly satisfying to eat.

I ride past Bismarkplatz, the unofficial town centre, and into the Altstadt. Despite the fact that 90% of the student population gets around by bike, there is only one street in the old city that permits bicycle traffic, the barely half-meter wide Plck (pronounced like "pluck" with a strong Yorkshire accent). To make matters worse, the Plck is shared with pedestrian and car traffic. Getting to class is thus a task of artful weaving. Infuriated drivers are run of the mill. Remarkably, I have had no accidents yet and today, too, I get there unscathed.

I park my bike walk into thePhilosophy building, a total of fifteen minutes after leaving home. The building, a converted 16th Century Jesuit School, makes up one wall of a cloister next to the main square of the old city. From my classroom on the second floor I see that the fog is beginning to clear and even hinting at sunshine. I can just see the edge of the castle, still only an outline because of the mist.

My class is on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. The interest in the class evidently turned out to be much larger than expected; the tiny classroom is packed out, and everyone who comes after me is forced to sit against the wall. Apart from the odd whisper, the room is silent until the Professor enters. Herr Schmidt is a short, semi-balding, unassuming man with sharp features and an astute smile. He wastes no time with introductions, and is discussing the dialectical movement of the second paragraph before having fully settled into his seat.

After two hours of head-spinning jargon, I stroll out onto the Hauptstrae. The primmed, trimmed Hauptstrae is the name of the main street in the city and is the longest pedestrian stretch in Europe. It is mainly for tourists, and is dotted with hairdressing salons, souvenir shops, and historical buildings converted into restaurants.

The most important thing to remember when walking through Heidelberg is to look up. At ground level, the old buildings are pleasant but not unique. It is only when you raise your eyes to the second or third story that you notice that the unassuming Indian take away store bulges with regal sculptures, rivalling those of Prague. There are dragons on top of esprit, saints above cafes, and falafel stores dwarfed by neighbouring cathedrals. More often than not, if you raise your head a few degrees you'll find yourself staring at the old Heidelberg castle.

I walk to the Mensa, a wonderful establishment that serves a non-stop buffet from 10am to 10pm at cheap prices for students. Having been introduced to the concept, I am amazed that students manage to feed themselves in Australia without one. The most popular of the three Mensen in Heidelberg, the Maarstall, is a fornicate building along the River Neckar, filled with contemporary artwork, wooden tables, red couches and soft blue lights. At one end of the long hall is a bar which sells beer, cakes, and all kinds of coffee; at the other end is the buffet.

Besides providing food and drinks, the Mensa serves as a hub for student life. A centre for the University is much needed, as German universities tend to be spread throughout the city rather than centralized in one place. The "campus" model that we take for granted is quite foreign here. To get from the Chemistry Faculty to the psychology building, for instance, takes approximately half an hour by bus. The separate faculties thus operate largely as entities unto themselves. There is little overarching administration, and certainly no centralized databases which store your enrolment record and hand you a timetable. Students are expected to keep track of all this themselves. The sum total of your academic record is a flimsy cardboard manilla folder containing your Scheine, certificates awarded for successfully completing a course. One advantage of this is that there will never be any "fails" next to your name in Germany; if you don't pass a course, you simply don't get a Schein.

In the Mensa I meet my Tandem-Partnerin Katrin, and we talk about travel and the weather, alternating between German and English. The idea behind a Tandem program is to simultaneously learn and teach a language by speaking to a native speaker. They are very common in Heidelberg, and the language skills of the average student are enough to humble any Australian. Fluency in English is practically a requirement for studying at university, but few students stop at just that. Katrin, for example, can "only" speak German, English, Latin and French. I know many people who speak seven languages, and am yet to meet a German student who speaks less than three.

Besides being a great way to brush up on your language skills, doing a Tandem program has some pleasant social side effects. After a while, Tandem partners almost always evolve into friends, and romantic affairs borne of Tandem partnerships are not unheard of. Many people have seven Tandem partners to match the seven languages they are learning. Whilst the main body of foreign students in Heidelberg comes from Italy, Poland and America, one can find a native speaker of any language imaginable, be it Slovakian, Frisian or Burmese. Due to the ease of meeting other foreign students and the relative difficulty of mixing with natives, many exchange students ironically end up making friends from every part of Europeexcept Germany.

After two more hours of class and a couple of hours in the Philosohpy library, I ride home, get changed, and head to the pub. It is Tuesday, the night of the Erasmus-Stammtisch, not to be missed even if you attend none of the other various parties of the week. The terms "Erasmus" and "Stammtisch" require some explanation. "Erasmus" is the European exchange program infamous for crazy, drunken students. Thus any foreign student who parties too much and works too little is termed "an Erasmus". A "Stammtisch", on the other hand, is usually a table in a pub where a group of friends or people who share a common interest meet regularly for a drink. The Erasmus-Stammtisch uses the word a bit more loosely: theirs is less of a one table, quiet drink affair and more of a pub-packed-to-the-brim weekly party.

Walking through the pub, you hear a remarkable spectrum of languages, often in the same sentence. Different friendship circles tend to evolve a kind of pidgin language based on whatever common languages they share. The general pattern is a backbone of English, Italian or Spanish with German words substituted for many common expressions and a smattering of French or Italian. Thus in one corner of the room you are likely to hear: "Ciao bella! Wie geht's dir?". Whilst in the other "Oh my God man I'm was so besoffen the other night... total blau" [lit. 'totally blue', meaning drunk]. And then somewhere in the middle of the room: "Vamos! Ist geradeaus, dietro il castello. Are you coming?"

Having eaten little more than my three Vollkornbrtchen all day, I get hungry on the way home. At 2am there is only one solution to this problem: Yufka. The Yufka, a wrap with salad, garlic sauce, onions, sheep's cheese and grilled meat from the spit,is the corner-stone of many a German student's diet. When the Mensa is shut, or the body craving something a bit more salty and fatty, then one need walk no further than the next street corner to find a Dner Kebab store, aka Yufka Laden. These oily walled, late night establishments are generally as small as a student room. One soggy wrap carries enough calories to live off for about a week. The spit of meat roasting behind the counter can be smelled from half a block away, so that there are few parts of the city that don't at least vaguely smell of Yufka (apart from the smell of Dner, though, the city is clean in a way that only Germans can manage).

As I ride back, Yufka in tummy, the Plck is deserted in comparison to the bustle of this morning. The freezing air is clear and the streets are well lit. I ride through the Weststadt, quiet as ever, and past the now closed bakery. From the cemetery I see my Wohnheim, lock up my bike outside and go up to my room. I lie down and sleep well in the knowledge that I don't have class the next day until late afternoon.


Return to top of the page