Monday, January 28, 2008

Some useful tips – based on V. Guillaume’s Erasmus experience.

Hi, all! Long time, no see (and by the time I’m writing these lines – 20th of January – I still have not seen you again).
As many apparently have decided to recount their stay in another university, I might as well do that, too. But I will try to tell you about some facts related to my Erasmus experience (either in general or specifically as far as Cologne is concerned) which struck me as being fundamentally different from what you get to experience here in our good old
Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres, and I thought would be useful for the Erasmus students of next year. Not that the other reports are useless, far be it from me to even dare consider thinking about it! Although, in a sense, I’ve just thought about it, because I’ve written it... Oh, anyway. I don’t believe it’s true, and many reports are certainly much more interesting than this one and the pointless quibbling you’ve only just read.

So, let’s start. First of all, and although this may already be obvious to some, when you commit yourself to go on an Erasmus, you should be prepared to fight for this, which means: getting (very) organized, finding yourself a student room (I ran into a lot of trouble with this issue simply because I took care of that a bit late; some of you might say “I already know what you mean”, but then I can tell you it’s probably more problematic in a bigger city such as Cologne), and most importantly dealing with your arch-nemesis: bureaucracy, a most deadly foe I assure you. It has already been mentioned in other reports, but saying it again can’t do wrong, since it is REALLY important to know what it is about: in Germany, professors are more or less aware of the existence of ECTS points, but each has his/her own way (or none at all) of considering their value. Fortunately, as Justine already told you, we’ve come to meet the first Erasmus coordinator of the Universität zu Köln, Mr. Breuer. It’s a real blessing that he was there, and for the students who will go to Cologne next year (well, I mean later this year), allow me to repeat his precious advice, should the situation about credit points remain unchanged: “don’t you ever tell the DozentInnen about ECTS, just come and see me and we’ll settle this together”. As a complement to this, here’s another tip on the matter, this one from me: however tempting it may seem, don’t you EVER forget, when you’re building yourself a nice timetable or when you discuss ECTS points with Mr. Breuer, that you will need to have marks for EVERY course you will take part in (a Teilnahmeschein is not enough when you come back to Namur). If you do forget this “detail”, you may experience the real power of stress just like Justine and I did.
But even if you’re not at all planning to go to Germany, I’m convinced that all this administrative stuff is just as much a pain in the *** (whoops, sorry about that) in the other host universities.

Secondly, I would like to talk about the Universität. Obviously it’s X times bigger than our own, but there’s a big discrepancy between knowing it and seeing it. So I’m not sure that describing it with words is appropriate to make you realize this. Anyway, let’s have a try: the place is so huge that it’s situated on some kind of a plaza, for its own exclusive use. There’s the Philosophikum, the Hauptgebäude, the Hörsaalgebäude (and the Universitäts- und Staatsbibliothek right behind it), and in another street not so far away, the Mensa, which is actually composed of several different self-service restaurants (vegetarian, trend- and fast-food, exotic,...). In the Philosophikum, where the majority of our Seminare take place, there are some cafeterias where you can also buy sandwiches and other things of the like, but also a stationer’s shop, at least one library on each floor, and even a mini-travel agency. The only thing that wasn’t so much impressive was the PC-pools (although there are several of them), in which the technology is not any more advanced than our own. :-)
Here’s my next tip: don’t let appearances deceive you. Of course you feel really tiny, like a little lost foreign bee in a huge hive of activity; but most people there are extremely kind, even the majority of our professors. Perhaps Justine and I were just lucky with the courses we chose, but perhaps not. So, never hesitate to introduce yourself and ask for help if necessary: you will normally not be denied amiability.
(By the way, there are also some German academic traditions which surprise the majority of foreign students on the first days of class, one of which being the way to applause at the end of a lecture: indeed one knocks at the table instead of clapping their hands. Justine and I asked a German student about the reason for this: she told us (maybe as a joke) that this was in order to save one hand to pack your things and leave more rapidly. Although it may seem a little impolite, we must remember that they “applause” after each lecture, not only at the end of a course’s last class. Not that I think we should do the same here in Belgium. Although, in a sense... Oh, my.)

My third piece of advice is that you should by all means bring a bike with you when you go on an Erasmus, all the more so if you go to Cologne, a city which is really well-adapted for bike traffic. Yes, I know that this and some elements above read just like Mrs. Mettewie’s advice, but this proves that at least it’s correct.

And then lastly, I would like to tell you what’s perhaps most important: enjoy. Going on an Erasmus is a real opportunity, and you will have many more when you’re on the spot: you will meet interesting people, discover a different culture, improve your language capacities even if you don’t notice, become more independent, and so forth and so on. I could go on like this for ages, get into details, but well... I think there are some words say it all.

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