- Visiting Prague, stranded in Germany
- Tips for taking day trips in Europe
- Backpacking alone across Italy: Travel tips
- German students come to WPI
- Should talk show hosts rule the world?
The first of a series on life and travel in Europe.
The travel opportunities at WPI are extensive, and all of the off-campus IQP and MQP project sites are relatively well known. However, most students would be surprised upon finding out about WPI’s foreign exchange program with Konstanz, Germany. Students who have taken at least three terms of German at WPI can apply to spend the German spring semester (D & E terms) in the country. This can be used to finish up a student’s Humanities & Arts requirement or a minor in German.
So after six terms of German, an interview for the program, endless planning, budgeting and a small amount of freaking out, I was off to the land of beer and Lederhosen. What followed was five months of adventures, exploring foreign countries, taking classes and trying to adjust to life in my new home.
The first week began as I flew into the airport in Zürich, Switzerland followed by catching a one-hour train to Konstanz. As I wandered around the train station, conveniently connected to the airport, with backpack, duffel bag and ridiculously oversized suitcase in tow, I realized something was familiar. Why didn’t it actually feel like I was in Switzerland? Well, for one thing, Taylor Swift was on the radio. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t been expecting to hear any music I recognized. After studying the departure boards and figuring out that the ticket machines did in fact have an English option, I bought my ticket and went to board my train. This is when I learned a little travel tip: travel light. It’s a bit intimidating to be trying to toss a huge suitcase and a duffel bag up a narrow flight of train stairs while a uniformed member of the Swiss military stares you down and rushed commuters behind you grumble in languages you don’t understand.
I arrived safely in Germany, and got my first look at Konstanz. A helpful student from HTWG (Hochschule für Technik, Wirtschaft und Gestaltung) picked me up from the train station, showed me to my new apartment and gave me a shoulder bag from HTWG filled with supplies. It had maps, bus schedules, the orientation schedule, a booklet about Konstanz and a package of spaghetti – presumably so none of the exchange students starved to death before the start of orientation.
Our first trip to the grocery store was really where all the wow-I’m-actually-in-a-foreign-country moments started to add up. It’s bizarre to try and think in Euros and the metric system for grocery prices as well as desperately search the corners of your brain for those food words you learned last A-term. The strangest thing was the milk. It’s sold in 1-liter boxes, and is unrefrigerated. My first thought upon seeing this was that I didn’t need to drink milk anymore. After the initial horror, I figured I should give it a shot. As it turns out, it really isn’t that big a difference.
I hadn’t realized it before getting to Germany, but I had a lot of little unconscious stereotypes in my head. Unfortunately I didn’t actually meet any large blond men named Hans, or see people walking around in Lederhosen – until I went to Munich. There is a reason that Germany is known for its beer. In a restaurant, a beer might be the one of the cheapest, and definitely the best, drinks on the menu. Many Germans speak decent English – better than my German – but don’t count on this. I always seemed to forget that one crucial noun or verb I needed in a sentence, but that’s when I learned another of those little travel tips: charades are the universal language. You may get some funny looks – I certainly did – but people generally give you credit for trying.
People also have an uncanny ability to detect that you’re American. Even without opening my mouth, I would instantly get pegged. Maybe it was the lost expression, the camera or the little phrasebook, but this ability seems to be innate to most of Europe. There is no blending in. But normally, this was fine. After all, I wasn’t “from around here.” I was however, moving on in.
Coming next week: Traveling to Prague, and why not listening to the announcements on trains can make your night a lot more “interesting.”