In the beginning: navigating the labyrinth of ‘WG-Gesucht’

About to embark on your year abroad and it’s the first time you have to look for somewhere to live? This week German student, Francesca, gives us her experience of landing in Germany and flat-hunting during her year abroad. Next week, some tips on where to look and what to expect…

If you are capable of briefly forgiving me my narcissism, then allow me to present my year abroad in Germany as a kind of story; a tragicomic tale of intrigue (over disappearing yoghurts) and swashbuckling encounters (with German bureaucracy)!

Remembering my secondary school tutor’s fascination with the seven basic plotlines, I would place my year abroad into the following categories: The Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and, (it goes without saying really) Voyage and Return. The object of an initial arduous month-long quest? A place to live. The monster to be slain? Well, I’m using the term monster very, very liberally here. Shall we say, the monster of reluctance? The monster of impatience? The monster of defeatism?  (Sorry for making you endure that awful metaphor.)

I think these pesky creatures crop up in everyone’s day at some point, and having spent my first week(s) in Germany crying over various housing rejections, it’s safe to say that defeatism had a rather significant role. Everyone says ‘persistence is key’, but no one mentions exactly how many weeks you will have to be persistent for, how much of your Erasmus grant will be spent on air b&b, how frustrating it feels to turn up to a house visit and see a queue of seven other people outside the door- all interested in the one room on offer.  At least, however, I had been warned that the monster of impatience would put up a fight when it came to dealing with bureaucratic necessities, so the queuing up outside the town hall at 7:30 a.m. to register was to be expected. But eventually my quest was fulfilled: I had a room, I was officially a registered citizen, I had a bank account, several different university cards, and had signed and sent various forms that I pretended to understand.

However, the challenges of finding somewhere to live and the challenge of living with four people you’d never met before are very different. I am sure that most people, when asked, would consider themselves to be good at sharing. I had lived alone at university, I was independent, oder? Oder indeed. There is very little about living inside college accommodation that requires or promotes independence. I shared a communal hoover, an iron, laundry appliances and a couple of microwaves at best (to this day I have never used that iron). Now I share a whole living space, shelves, cupboards, a garden, chores, and, very pertinently for Germany, recycling.

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHowever, a house-share isn’t just called a house-share here, but a Wohngemeinschaft (or ‘WG’ for short), which literally  and very roughly translates as a ‘community that lives together’. Whilst house-sharing is by no means a unique concept, the German variation of it did seem unique to me in some aspects: The word ‘community’ seems to imply more than just sharing – there is also the expectation of harmony. Many WGs that I applied for seemed to run ‘auditions’ for potential Mitbewohner (housemates), and I seemed doomed to fail with my hesitant German and lack of persuasive powers to convince them that I was clean, tidy, responsible, fun and friendly all at the same time (probably because I’m not).

However, the aptly named Zweck-WGs operate on the basis that there are no expectations of particular friendship between housemates, but rather you just all live your separate lives under the same roof (a Zweck is a function, a purpose, an objective etc.). Even though my room was advertised as within one of these, it turns out that we do get along pretty well after all. Of course, learning to share is always going to be difficult. I woefully endure one housemate’s over-tidiness whilst inwardly bemoaning the other’s untidiness, yet I do sometimes lament that emptying the dishwasher seems perpetually befallen to me, and I sometimes think wistfully back to living alone and being able to walk around in my pyjamas all day free from judgement!

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHaving said that, gradually I have come to realise that washing up someone else’s plate won’t kill you, chores are an unfortunate necessity of life to be shared, there’s no need to turn into Gollum over a yoghurt and it is actually nice to have people to talk to, especially when those people are nice themselves. The WG world can be hard to navigate for any newcomer, and I am only qualified to talk about one, but to any prospective year abroad student in Germany I would really recommend it. You may have gone from talking about newspaper articles at university to talking about who last watered the plants in your flat, but language practice is language practice nonetheless. The whole point of year abroad is supposed to be about gaining an experience of the country, and there’s nothing like your landlord making you potato soup with sausages on your first night to confirm your preconceived notions about Germany, and nothing like your bus home being three and a half hours late to confute them.


Very creative and a little bit crazy – German poetry for young learners

Along with the Oxford German Olympiad Prize-giving, throughout the month of June OGN ran a number of other events, all designed to offer an introduction to interesting pieces of German literature in as accessible and attention-grabbing a manner as possible.  This post looks at the first of these sessions, aimed at younger learners, and includes resources that teachers can use for their own lessons.

Photo: Friedrich Böhringer

Many of our local schools start teaching German around Year 8 or 9, so I decided to run a one-off session for pupils in Years 9 and 10 looking at ‘Modern German performance poetry’.  Having advertised the topic as “very creative… and a little bit crazy” I hoped the poems would live up to expectations!  The opening poem auf dem land by Ernst Jandl certainly provoked a good deal of surprise and laughter amongst the group, and already offered a sense of just what it can mean to “perform” a poem.  Trying to name all of the animals mentioned proved a challenge in some cases (see how many you can get!) so this film from a Berlin primary school gave some helpful hints.

The main focus of the session was the poetry of Nora Gomringer, who has won a number of prestigious literary prizes including the Jakob-Grimm-Preis Deutsche Sprache (2011) and the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis (2015).  Ursprungsalphabet is a fantastic poem for younger learners because the idea of an alphabetical poem going “Ich bin Ariadne… Rilkes Panther Tier-Pfleger… X-Men…” is easy to grasp and identifying familiar characters provides a great way in to closer analysis.  This video shows Gomringer’s performative skills and her ability to truly entrance her audience, whether through her incredibly S-L-O-W rendition of “Ich bin die L-A-N-G-S-A-M-K-E-I-T” or the quirky inclusion of “X-Men” near the end.

Having experienced these poems, along with Gomringer’s Daheim (written with no spaces and performed at breakneck speed) the pupils were let loose to prepare their own performances or write short German poems in the style of Gomringer or Jandl.  The results were impressive!

I think it’s safe to say that all the attendees left feeling that they had experienced a creative and crazy side to the German language and had an interesting first taste of German literature.  Look out for my next post giving a roundup of our Year 11-12 reading groups…

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator

Viel zum Lächeln – Awards at the Oxford German Olympiad

After hundreds of entries from schools all across the UK, heated discussions amongst judges and the final seal of approval from head judge Professor Henrike Lähnemann, the Oxford German Olympiad 2016 finally came to a close on Thursday, 16 June with a prize-giving ceremony in Oxford.

Rosie Goldsmith OGO2016
Rosie Goldsmith speaking at the Olympiad prize-giving

OGN was delighted that Rosie Goldsmith, award-winning journalist and freelance broadcaster for the arts and current affairs, was able to come and award the prizes to the winners of this year’s Oxford German Olympiad.  She is a champion of international literature and language-learning, and founded the European Literature Network in 2009. She has lived in many countries, including Germany.  As many of you will know, the theme of this year’s Olympiad was Deutscher Humor – nichts zum Lachen?  Accordingly, we set Rosie the somewhat daunting task of speaking on the topic of German humour.

Rosie retraced her experiences of visiting and living in Germany and her personal encounters with German humour, or indeed her search to find something that met her definition of ‘humour’.  By all accounts this was an often fruitless search, but with glimmers of wit shining through.  She recalled that with the fall of the Berlin Wall those in the West suddenly had access to a whole new wealth of jokes, those popular amongst citizens of East German, often political satires directed at leaders such as Honecker.  In later years she also came to appreciate the quality of German TV comedians.

As many Olympiad entrants will have found this year, what is funny in one language may not be particularly amusing at the end of the translation process – perhaps the grammar and vocab in the target language are too long-winded, perhaps some wordplay goes astray, or perhaps it is a question not just of translating words, but also of cultural transfer. Take a look at the winning entries in the category “Years 5/6 Illustrate a Funny Phrase” for some examples.

Chatting with some of the prize-winners

Despite all these difficulties, Rosie is continuing on her quest to unlock the secrets of German humour, and is a fervent supporter of the arts.  She encouraged the prize-winners to keep exploring the mysteries of German, whether literature, language or just everyday life.  Hopefully the prizes, provided by our partners, the German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Penguin, and OUP, will help these budding Germanists do just that.

To see all the winning entries, as well as further photos of the event, visit the OGN website.

Of course, a blog post about German humour wouldn’t be complete without a punchline… in this case it’s more of a cliff-hanger… On 26 September 2017, European Day of Languages, we will announce the theme for the 2017 Oxford German Olympiad!

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator