Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen, Germany, 2010-2011
ERASMUS, the university, the city
First of all, I should probably let you know why I chose to do a year abroad! Doing an ERASMUS year was always something that I had considered during my first two years at university. I figured that I satisfied the requirements to do the year and that the chance wouldn't come around again, so I was going to take the opportunity while I could! Plus it looks incredible on your CV, and with the grants you get you're almost getting paid to spend a year immersing yourself in another culture!
In terms of researching which university I wanted to study at for my year abroad, I did an awful job at this. I had originally chosen Augsburg as my first choice university but was never quite sure. I would recommend thoroughly researching every choice of university that you have, I know that it seems like a lot of work but is well worth it! I am so fortunate that I just happened to read about Göttingen and the university, because when I saw the names of all the famous mathematicians that have taught here I was blown away. People like Gauss, Riemmann, Klein, Minkowski, Hilbert and Dirichlet, and when I saw this my mind was basically made up. Göttingen is a beautiful university town with a great history, and it's basically the German equivalent of Oxbridge - everyone rides bikes which I really like! There are around 25,000 students here, a quarter of the town's population, and so the atmosphere is really great.
Pre-semester language course
Before going to Germany I had studied German to A-level and had taken part in an evening class for a few months during my first year at Warwick, but hadn't spoken German at all for 18 months so I decided to take part in a language course prior to the beginning of the semester and lectures at Göttingen. I'd heard of free language courses being offered at some European universities but unfortunately this wasn't the case in Germany, although once I'd arrived I did find out that you can take part in language courses during the summer in Berlin for example, and get a full grant to take part in these! I’d also like to say that I have met English students here that had only studied German to GCSE, and they’re now doing fine after taking part in the language course and picking up German over the semester! Anyway, doing the language course meant that I started in September and it lasted for just over 3 weeks. The cost of the course was 465€ but I was able to claim an extra month's Erasmus grant (225€) to help towards the cost. Aside from the classes there were also other activities organised during the course like sport afternoons, cooking evenings, dance evenings, and country evenings, where people would present something about their country (and often bring food!). There are also two weekends in which excursions take place to nearby towns, and all these costs are covered by the course fee. I made an effort to take part in a lot of these extra events, and they were definitely worth it. Doing the course also gave me 6 credit points (equivalent to 12 CATS) and there were other useful things like an introduction on how things work at the university. All in all, I would say that the course was definitely worth it and I would really recommend it! Aside from massively improving my level of spoken and written German it gave me a huge confidence boost in everyday speaking. Most of the people taking part in the course were Erasmus or other exchange students, spending either a semester in Göttingen or a whole year, and so the course was the perfect opportunity to meet people that would be around for a while. Most of my closest friends here took part in that language course, and so it has been invaluable for me. A lot of the English speakers did tend to end up in the same friendship group, but I think that has been a good thing as it offers you a certain level of comfort while you're settling in and throughout the year, and it's nice to know there are people here on the same level as you!
The O-Phase (Orientierungsphase) is the German equivalent of a freshers week. Each department at the university organises their own week, and for maths it takes place the week before lectures start. As the event is really for first year students I decided not to go to all of it, but I would recommend attending the free breakfast sessions! The O-Phase generally seemed a lot more heavy going than freshers week at Warwick; us mathematicians were drinking wine at 9am in the morning... provided by the mathematics department! As you probably won’t be in the same lectures as the first year students, I simply found the week useful for meeting a few German students and keeping in contact with some.
Before seriously thinking about my ERASMUS year I had always wanted to live with German students in a flat so that I could be constantly practising my German. When the time came to it, I felt that this would simply be too stressful with everything else, and so decided to let the university allocate my accommodation for me. If you take this route at Göttingen then rather than having fixed terms like at Warwick they let you decide how many months you would like your accommodation for, so just make sure that you have a good idea of dates when you do this. My accommodation isn’t the most glamorous thing I’ve ever seen, but you quickly get used to it and I certainly can’t complain about the price. I pay 182€ a month, and this includes all bills and internet, so no worrying about turning the heating up during the winter months! There was also a 200€ deposit to begin with but this is pretty reasonable compared to some figures I’ve heard from people. I actually live a small apartment with 3 other exchange students: a girl from South Korea, a girl from Spain, and a guy from France. As German is our only common language this has meant that I have in fact been constantly using my German at home, and so I don’t feel that I have missed out massively on that aspect.
German and international students
Due to taking part in the language course, most of my close friends here are exchange students. At first I was reluctant to do this as I didn’t want to fall into the ERASMUS trap that seems to happen at Warwick, but actually I’ve found it great to be around other people that are also open to spending a year abroad and exploring. Once I’d got this base of friends sorted I decided to start branching out and making friends with Germans too! The first opportunity to do this is the greeting service provided by the university for exchange students, and I would certainly recommend signing up for it. They assign you a greeting service tutor, so that when I first arrived in Göttingen a German student (who by chance had spent her ERASMUS year at Warwick) came to meet me at the train station and she brought my keys and showed me to my accommodation. I think that you really start to appreciate this service after the first day, because when you’re first in the town and know nothing it’s great to have somebody there! I went for lunch with my tutor for the first week and through this met all of her friends, and I still keep in touch now. Another way I met German students was through the O-Phase. They organise pub evenings, and so I went along with a couple of English friends hoping to meet new maths students but somehow we managed to sit next to the only 3 non-maths students in the room! This didn’t matter anyway because we’ve been meeting up at least weekly to cook together and go out. I’ve also met a few German students through the sports offered here at Göttingen. It costs 1.80€ a month to be a member of the sports programme, and for this you can go along to any free sessions during the week. I regularly go to badminton, and sometimes football and rugby also. I think that the gym costs about 20€ a month, but I’ve found that the free programme on offer is sufficient. I will say that the students here seem very very keen on sport, so the sessions can get very full! They generally tend to thin out a bit later on so it’s worth sticking with it. Anyway, I think it’s important to throw yourself into the sports just in order to meet German students.
During your first week at the university a day is held in which you can get pretty much all of the formalities out of the way. Part of the day includes opening an account with Deutsche Bank, and I would recommend doing this. The banks in Germany charge people for current accounts, but Deutsche Bank offer one to you for free as long as you do a few things like printing statements every now and again, and from this you get a bank card to use. In Germany there are certain banks that are part of the Cash Group scheme (see the picture at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cash_Group), meaning that if you withdraw at these banks then there is no charge to your card. These banks include Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, UniCredit Bank, HypoVereinsbank and Deutsche Postbank. If you withdraw at other banks then they will charge and normally don’t tell you, I’ve had charges of over 6€ for a 50€ withdrawal! After the bank account is set up you just need to transfer some money from England. I’d been tempted to bring hundreds of euros over each time I went back to England to avoid paying transfer fees, but for the worrying and the risk of getting mugged I don’t think it’s worth it. Just send over a huge amount in one go to avoid paying the transfer fees lots of times and then you’re sorted! The ERASMUS grant doesn’t come through very quickly (I think I received my full grant by early November) so I would definitely recommend taking a bit of cash to get you started, or using your English cards to draw out money to begin with. I’m looking to have received about £2000 in total for this year.
Getting a German phone
When I first arrived here it was recommended that I buy a cheap phone and sim card from a shop called Saturn. It cost only around 8€ and is on the o2 network, and I was told that I would be able to call other o2 customers for free once set up. Anyway, I couldn’t manage to get this to work and to send an SMS is 19 cents! I’ve subsequently changed to a new network called Simyo (www.simyo.de) and they are brilliant. The sim card cost me less than 5€ and came with 5€ credit. It’s the add-ons that are great with this company; I use the ‘Flat SMS’ tariff, which costs 10€ a month and gives me unlimited texts. There’s no contract and you can cancel this tariff whenever you want and just use the normal credit. There’s also the ‘Flat Simyo’ tariff for 4€ a month which gives you unlimited Simyo to Simyo calls, very useful if lots of you have the sim card. I would definitely recommend using this phone company!
Food and drink
Unlike in England, the cafeteria food offered here is cheap! There are 4 different canteens (Mensen) at the university, and each has a varying menu throughout the week. It’s possible to get main meals from as little as 1.40€, and there’s also dessert bars, salad bars and other areas. The food is of a pretty good standard, and the cheap prices are achieved by subsidies from the government. Some canteens are shut at weekends but the Zentralmensa is open Monday to Saturday if you’re feeling extra lazy! I normally meet my friends for lunch throughout the week, and this is the time of the day when we have our biggest meal (because we don’t have to cook it). In terms of getting food for at home, the supermarkets here are generally a pretty good price. Doing maths has its advantages, as the route from the department to my place passes by a supermarket called Kaufland. This place is amazing. Basically everything is a really good price, and if you’re looking for some home comforts they sell baked beans at a much more reasonable price than other shops! Being Germany the beer is incredibly cheap, starting from around 25 cents for a half litre bottle. It’s not only cheap but also tastes much better than the stuff we drink in England and is almost always in glass bottles, makes you feel classy...
The first thing that was a huge shock to me was the size of the lectures here in Göttingen. Leaving Warwick I was used to going to lectures in the giant that is MS.02, so to then be in lectures of roughly 10 or 15 people was a surprise! The lectures theatres are still capable of holding at least 150 people or so, but there’s simply not that many people taking the courses in later years. Basically all of the maths department courses here give 9 or 3 credits (18 or 6 CATS respectively). From my experience so far, a 9 credit module generally means that you attend 2 lots of 2 hour lectures a week plus a 2 hour compulsory exercise class, in which you receive your homework marks and people show how they solved problems. Taking a 3 credit module entails attending a 2 hour lecture a week, possibly with homework also but no exercise class. I began the first semester by taking a 3rd year module on the theory of PDEs, but soon found this to be heavily physics based and much too difficult! I hate to admit it, but it seems that the students here have learnt a lot more in their studies; they’d already covered measure theory, Hilbert spaces etc. in their first year. I subsequently changed to a 2nd year module entitled “Differenzial- und Integralrechnung III”. I thought that it would just involve doing a bit of integrating and differentiating, no chance! This course has been very challenging and covers a lot of things, including: Banach spaces, Hilbert spaces, Fourier theory and Fredholm theory. I’ve had to study up on a few things not covered at Warwick and also revise a lot of things I learnt during my first two years, but I think it’s been very useful as the course has covered a lot of things and has been a good consolidation on some previous courses I’ve taken. At Warwick the homework marks often contribute towards your final grade, in the Diff III course here they don’t count towards my grade but it is a requirement that I gain a certain number of marks each week in order to be eligible to sit the exam. It seems that the maths exams can generally be scheduled at any time towards the end of the semester, including during the break between the end of lectures and the next semester. My exam has been scheduled for 2 weeks after the end of lectures, and it seems that they can generally be quite flexible if you need to sit the exam perhaps a bit earlier. The exam system in the mathematics department here is also quite different to what I was used to at Warwick. At some point the university should explain to you how you register for exams, but the maths department like to make it just that little bit more interesting, and hopefully I can explain it clearly. For example, the set of lectures which I take at the moment is called “Differenzial- und Integralrechnung III” and everyone who attends the course and is eligible will sit the same exam, but this is not the name of the module which I will gain credit for if I pass. The degree course you are taking determines which module you will gain the credit in. For Diff III, this means sitting an exam in either “Höhere Analysis” or “Grundmodul in SP1”, the former being for people on a 2-subject or teaching degree, and the latter for students studying straight physics, maths BSc and maths MSc along with other courses. I guess this means that we would choose the second module! Before I came to Göttingen I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with lectures in German, but actually I’ve found this fine. Obviously it’s a bit tough at the start, but if you’ve got a dictionary to hand and read over the notes before and after lectures it soon becomes very natural to be doing your maths in German. For me the German is fine, it’s just the maths which has been tough! Alongside my maths lecture I’m also taking two German courses this semester because I wanted to make sure I gave myself a good grounding while I settled in. The courses are offered by ZESS (http://www.zess.uni-goettingen.de/homepage/index.php) and are free for students. I was required to sit a placement test to determine which level I was suitable before, and then could pick classes from this area. I found the choices quite limited to due to lecture commitments, and decided to take a speaking class for 6 credits and a vocabulary class for 3 credits. 6 credits means 2 sessions of 2 hours a week, and 3 credits means a 2 hour session a week. I’ve found these classes really useful, and also a welcome break from the maths sometimes, but the credits work slightly differently to other courses. For my 6 credit module I get only 2 credits for the assessed part of the module, with the remaining 4 credits all coming from attendance. I’m allowed to miss 3 classes and still get these 4 credits but after that it drops to 2 credits and then 0, so it’s important to get along to lots of the classes!
Travelling and exploring!
One of the best things about the ERASMUS year is all the opportunities you will get to travel, and Göttingen is perfectly located for doing this. If you do the pre-semester language course then there is a break of roughly a month in which you can cram in some travelling! I went in a group of 7 through 5 European countries for part of this break, and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever done. Since everyone that did the course has this time off too, you’ll find that if you go to the popular student destinations around Germany and other countries then you’ll often find yourself bumping into a few people you know! If you don’t do the language course then there’s lots of time in the Christmas holidays and a semester break in March.
Being a student at Göttingen means that you can use your student ID as a travel pass (Semesterticket). You pay an obligatory fee each semester of around 130€, and then you can travel basically anywhere in Lower Saxony for free! This is great for short weekend trips, and of course for getting home. Hannover airport is just under 2 hours away by train, and the airports at Hamburg and Bremen can be reached in roughly 4 hours. If you’re prepared to go up to Bremen and fly at very unsociable hours then it’s sometimes possible to find flights to Stansted for as little as 15€. Be warned though, sometimes the flight times are really awful! I found a cheap ticket and figured I couldn’t lose, but because the flight was so early in the morning that meant that I needed to travel up the previous night. When I arrived at the airport it was closed, and so I had to find somewhere to sleep for the night. Multi-storey car parks are not the most comfortable of places.
Summing it all up
Whenever I look back at my year abroad in Germany I have fond memories of my time there. I'll admit that there were some tough parts, and it took me a long time until I could call the place home, but after sticking with it I will never regret my ERASMUS experience. I've just arrived back from some travels to Finland and Poland with a friend I met in Germany, during which we spent a couple of weeks going to visit people that we'd met during the time in Göttingen, and next week I'm off to Norway. I know that if I hadn't spent a year abroad then I certainly wouldn't be making all these plans and visiting friends in forgeign countries! I know it sounds cliché but it really was the best year of my life, and I can't wait to find out which opportunities will arise in the future because of it.