‘Living abroad can be a daunting but equally rewarding experience’- I had heard this phrase many times before my year abroad started, and was keen to see what rewards I would earn from it. Writing at the end of my sensational German year, the answer was clear: personal skills, friends from different cultures and backgrounds, a German work placement, a special appreciation for German culture and of course, a much better understanding of German!
To begin with, it was a daunting experience, starting life as a resident of Reutlingen. After a rusty start from a summer with little German exposure, I slowly captured my past knowledge of the language and then set about applying it. Nevertheless I was still faced with some obstacles: washing and drying machine issues, different food and drink, and endless mountains of paperwork.
However, these hurdles kick-started my problem solving skills from my first week in Germany. Teaming up with early, and to this day, strong friends, we shared problems and helped each other, such as ‘team’ visits to the international office. It started to change though, when I realised that I was enjoying my time. One memorable moment was returning back from work on the train, from Stuttgart. The sun was setting behind the forest, and as we passed the Mercedes Benz factory, the sun caught the spinning 3 pointed star making it glow orange. To top it all, I was listening to the local radio- Ivy Quainoo’s new single ‘Do You Like What You See?’ started to play. I agreed with Ivy - I did like what I could see! At the time I felt like a resident enjoying the local German culture, discovering a personal appreciation for it.
As for the location, I had never visited the south before - I discovered it is awash with industries, culture, beautiful forests and stunning scenery. Reutlingen itself is the perfect blend - it is not an industrial metropolis that goes on for miles but a warm, friendly and practical town. There is plenty of choice, activities and places to explore. From classical German cobbled streets, to the outdoor swimming pool, and nearby mountain crests just outside the centre, offering stunning panoramic views of the region.
After my first month, it was time to don the Lederhosen and fix a feather to my hat for the world famous Oktoberfest with friends. We arrived to the sights, sounds and smells of good atmosphere: massive beer mugs, a Bavarian Oompah band and freshly baked Brezels. I was amazed at how quickly we had organised this unique opportunity to go, by ourselves. This was our personal excursion- from costs per person to navigating through Munich’s busy streets, we had it covered! Initiating your independence in a foreign country is a good example. Sharing and developing it with help from friends is another!
As my studies progressed, I felt I was making steady, useful progress. I had also decided to take French classes to keep my second language of study ticking over. I was the only international student in the class, yet warmly welcomed by the other German students. For the extra language juggling skills, the lecturer would sometimes explain a French grammatical rule in German. Nevertheless, I was very proud of myself when I acquired a high mark for the overall assessment at the end of the semester. I had never used German and French together like this, using one language to assist the other, to solve a problem- in this case grammar!
Semester one was flying by and I needed to turn my attention to semester two - I wanted to aim for a work placement in a German company. Would it really be possible for an English student to win a position in a German company, when facing the grilling during an interview? And do the entire application process in a foreign language? Encouraged by my Year Abroad Co-ordinator I accepted my mission. After enduring multiple, stressful interviews in German, pushing my language skills to the max, (I had never even had an interview in my mother tongue language before!) I was luckily awarded a placement at Robert Bosch GmbH in Leinfelden. This was a big step for me, on a personal level. I was very proud of myself, knowing that I had finally found a position at a company who wanted me...and the beauty of it all? I had done the whole process in German, without a word of English- I had never, ever imagined that my year abroad would take me this far!
When I started my work in the sales department of Bosch power tools I knew that this was the real world of work- clients dealing with end customers and large sums of money. Not only representing the universities of Reutlingen and Swansea, and indeed the United Kingdom as a whole, I did not want to let the side down.
My first adventure began with the telephone. Clients from Germany, Austria or Switzerland could call us requiring delivery dates and product advice. Knowing the vocabulary of the products was just the start! When my phone inevitably rang I could feel the whole office watching me - silence ensued as I took the call - a Swiss customer thankfully speaking German which I understood, asking if a particular item was in stock. After a frantic flick through a catalogue and some nifty button-pressing on the database, I finally answered with a simple ‘yes’. After saying goodbye, I was hot, flushed with success and thought ‘one down...many to go - I can do this!’ Yet my linguistic skills began to take off, dramatically. From small talk in German over lunch- describing my breakfast and the rush hour’s traffic jam- I was surrounded by German all day until I came home exhausted! Clients on the phone did not always speak in ‘Hochdeutsch’ German but their local dialect instead. In the first month I could not understand them, but after developing a strategy of jotting down essential information, I slowly began to gain confidence on the phone.
I began to develop problem solving skills on a whole new level. Business is challenging - I could see that even with my mature colleagues, yet at the end of the tunnel there is usually some light. Just like a patient detective, you have to solve a puzzle to find the answer, and I employed this strategy from the start to the end of my placement.
My year abroad has allowed me to embark on two unique experiences: the first, studying as an Erasmus student, embarking on amazing excursions around the country with friends from around the world: from the roaring racetrack at Le Mans 24 hours, to a tasty ice cream parlour in Heidelberg. The second, getting a taste of the world of work - its highs, lows and rewards. I now believe I have a better idea of where I would like to go in life, and the confidence to return to live and work in Germany.
In short, your Erasmus year begins as a blank canvas: by the end, you will take home a masterpiece of experiences to treasure, forever.