Reflections on my first year studying German at Oxford

Back in Michaelmas Term 2015 (Autumn/Winter 2015) some Student Ambassadors suggested that OGN launch a blog.  And that’s exactly what we did!  In this post Zoe Aebischer, one of those students, reflects on the first post she wrote for OGN and indeed on her whole first year studying German at Oxford.

I’ve just looked back at the first blog post I wrote at the beginning of my first year studying German, and I am shocked/amazed/confused that the year has passed so quickly and I am now only a few days away from starting second year (eek!). I arrived in Oxford having read very little German literature, so the fact that I have now read works by German philosophers, playwrights, poets and novelists, ranging from being written in approximately 1190 (‘Gregorius’ by Hartmann von Aue, an epic poem, the plotline of which was always amusing to explain to my friends) up to 1975 (‘Einen Jener Klassischen’ by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann), has taught me that you can achieve a lot more than you ever thought possible. It definitely helps build your confidence knowing that you can, you can do more than “just” recite a list of vocab in a foreign language (although that’s still something I need to work on…), but can analyse a poem or write an essay on the narrative voice of a novel written in a foreign language.

Views of Oxford and Worcester College

I think the most important thing I’ve learnt in the last year (other than how to include German puns in as many places as possible, or how to…endure…a two and a half hour philosophy seminar while being ill with the flu) is that, although Oxford is at times incredibly overwhelming, pressure-piling and demanding, every other student is in exactly the same position, and this leads to the creation of some really close and supportive friendships. There is also, of course, time to squeeze in things that are fun and relaxing, such as dressing up for the colourful and chaotic college bops or going to see poetry slams by Julia Engelmann (if you haven’t already, I would highly recommend looking her up on YouTube!).

And so I go into second year feeling generally positive: I’m looking forward to helping my college children (new first year students) navigate life at Oxford; to many more amusing moments in German classes (I’m reminded of the time in a translation class when we were given a chunk of text in English: one person translated it into German, then passed it to the next person who translated it back into English, then to another person who translated this sentence into German and so on until we had gone round the whole group – somehow from ‘The fog came pouring  in at every chink and keyhole’ we ended up with ‘Chaos permeated every chimney and every keyhole’… ok so perhaps it’s not that funny, but it’s these kinds of moments that bring a bit of light to your day.) I’m even (sorry to any medieval German enthusiasts reading this) looking forward to studying more medieval German texts – despite my initial sensation of pure fear when, last year, I saw the medieval German text on my reading list.

Best of luck to everyone starting or continuing at Oxford this year!

 Zoe Aebischer, Worcester College, Oxford

Einen guten Rutsch ins Jahr 2016!

Our student ambassador, Thea, reports on her Silvester experience in Berlin!

New Year’s Eve in Berlin can be startling for anyone who subscribes to the stereotype of the orderly, law-abiding German citizen. Perhaps because it’s only legal to set off fireworks on December 31st and January 1st, Berliners go all-out, cramming a year’s worth of explosives into less than twenty-four hours. There are probably still some rules governing exactly where and how residents are permitted to set off their fireworks, but you wouldn’t know it from the scenes on the streets, which have drawn complaints from pensioners for whom the explosions are an unwelcome reminder of the war. Ambulances and fire brigades are put on high alert, visibility reduces to mere metres as smoke fills the sky, and every year brings a renewed round of hand-wringing about unregulated explosives illegally imported from eastern Europe. The Oxford-based friends who visited me during my year abroad in 2014 weren’t convinced they would make it back to the UK with all their limbs still attached.

German officials, meanwhile, see things somewhat differently. The firework-related concern this year had nothing to do with the startling number of explosives being let off in the streets – rather, after November’s Paris terror attacks, the authorities were worried about the prospect of a similar assault on the official festivities at the Brandenburg Gate. Revellers on the ‘party mile’ between the Gate and the Victory Column were searched at the entrance and forbidden from carrying rucksacks and large bags, while the nearby Tiergarten was fully fenced off for the first time, after being searched for unsanctioned explosives.

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Fireworks and smoke above Neukölln!

My Berliner friends were not so much sanguine about as entirely disinterested in the possibility of a terror attack, dismissing the Brandenburg Gate party as an irrelevance attended only by tourists. Why would you want to go to a state-sanctioned celebration full of bad music and extortionately-priced Currywurst when you could be out on the streets with your own fireworks? As usual, the true spirit of Berlin – a mixture of drink, drugs and good-natured lawlessness – wasn’t to be found anywhere near its officially-controlled centre.

Several hours – and pints – later, I found myself rushing from the bar we’d taken up residence in to Hermannstraße, the main road of the trendy Neukölln district, in time for midnight to strike. The sky was misty gold from all the smoke, strangers were embracing, and the explosions were so loud that I couldn’t even hear my friends wishing me a happy New Year. We strolled along Hermannstraße to take it all in, dodging the firecrackers thrown into the road and under the feet of passers-by, ducking explosions that gave the impression that the sky was falling in, and pausing briefly to film a photo booth that appeared to be on fire. Turning back towards our bar, I was just in time to witness a man light a rocket from (what looked like) the joint he was smoking.

While my first experience of a Berlin New Year terrified me, my second made me a convert. Sure, I wouldn’t want to drive one of the taxis that Berliners seem to take as targets for their rockets and firecrackers, but successfully wandering the explosion-filled streets without injury didn’t just make me feel happy about the new year: it made me feel immortal. If I had to venture a hypothesis about the psychological underpinnings of the apocalyptic New Year’s celebrations, I’d say it has something to with Berlin’s crisis-ridden history. For a city that has consistently embodied the notion of a party at the end of the world, what better way to celebrate continued survival than this deliberate, strangely life-affirming collective chaos?

Thea, OGN Student Ambassador