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.
However, 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!
Having 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.