Stephen Earl case study
I apologise for the length of this review, but any shorter wouldn't give the week the justice it deserves. Although I have been to Germany in the past, it's not until I truly immersed myself this time around that I appreciated the different ways of approaching life. Initially I saw this opportunity (narrow-mindedly) as solely something to add to my university application; however my experiences in Koblenz transformed this view to the point that when we arrived back in a sodden UK (following temperatures of 37C in Germany) and I was reunited with my parents, I was reduced to a blubbering wreck bursting with stories to tell, only managing to finally splutter "That was one of the best weeks of my life…"
I won't lie - the prospect of working abroad with people I didn't know was terrifying, but over the course of the week these were people that I would get to know better, share laughs with, jokes, experiences - almost like a small family, the bond was so strong by the end! The first day in the city when you go to visit your placement, you feel this small tug of belonging, almost apprehension. Will I enjoy it? I wonder what I'll be doing there? and most importantly.. Gosh, I hope they like me!
My placement was in a travel agency situated in the Altstadt. Since I had not travelled there directly from the hotel the day before, I got lost in the myriad of subways underneath a junction on my first day and a concerned woman came up to me to ask if I was ok. I replied in German "Ich bin verloren.." and then she told me directions in English. Was is that obvious that I'm English? Uh oh, that's a bad omen…
Not wanting to further the bad impression on my employers, I chose smart attire of a shirt and tie with black trousers and shoes. When I arrived, my colleagues could not believe I was the exchange student and the first thing they told me was that I didn't need to be so smartly dressed and that I would cook in my suit. Perfect, that eliminated half of my suitcase and left me with a shortage of casual clothes. Other than sticking out like a sore thumb on my first day, fortunately there was a plus side: they were extremely accommodating people, being patient when my German was shaky (all too often!) and speaking slowly to make sure I could understand them. There was also another work experience "Praktikantin" there with whom I spent most of my time. Together over the course of the week we planned several bespoke journies for customers wanting exotic travel experiences ranging from the volcanoes in Costa Rica to the numerous safari parks dotted around South Africa. My partner herself expressed her longing for an 'Around The World' ticket for her birthday; and all this only contributed more to my voracious appetite to travel and explore. She showed me all the good places to eat around Koblenz (too many for one week!) and I helped her with English and we kept each other company during all the quiet and busy times.
But that's just half the story.
Outside of work hours there lies a smorgasbord of things to do (within reason of course!). Some nights, food is provided at the hotel, others you're let loose to roam the city and feed yourselves. Afterwards you can find a quiet place to chat with your friends, spend some time in a small café or even play poker and bet with sweets - the choice is yours. Otherwise there are activites organised by the group leader: like our group bonding activity was a quiz and you may find it helpful to know that the population of Fiji is 858,000 if that particular question ever appears again. Karaoke nights, football matches, bowling, cinema trips - there just aren't enough days in a week!
The more time I spent in Koblenz, the more I fell in love with the city. Last time I was in Germany was in Cologne on a school trip, not really speaking much German - probably something many students can relate to! There was a clear partition between the German culture and the loud, boisterous English students cruising round the city. But becoming a member of the German workforce is something completely different. You're forced into the scenario: I can't speak English, speaking German is a necessity. As frightening as that may sound, it's more thrilling if anything. Every word you speak helping you to develop your skills - your language skills, your social skills, your teamwork skills, your improvisation skills - like when I was trying to mime the words "zoom in" and "zoom out" to my partner while we were working on a project, before finding out they're quite similar to English: "ranzoomen" and "rauszoomen". It's not just there though: by the end of the week you can navigate yourself through a completely new city - somehow I ended up giving directions to lost English and German couples and was late back from my lunch break! - and I got used to my new daily routine:
Get up -> breakfast -> brush teeth -> work -> return to hotel to see roommate with shorter work hours asleep on the bed -> be jealous -> dinner -> spend time chilling with the others -> (German tv if anything good was on) -> sleep.
When I got back to Britain, as much as I had enjoyed the trip I didn’t think that my German had improved that much; I still felt like a bumpy car. But there were all these nuances that arose, all these differences slowly made themselves apparent. First of all, I had adopted a soft West German/Koblenzer accent, then my friend commented on how my command of German was more secure and I wasn't making the schoolboy errors of the olden days. It was only then that my progress hit me and I recalled how I had struggled to communicate at the start of the work week and how, by the end, responses felt more natural and less laboured.
Short of personally booking this trip for you, this piece is all I can offer in terms of an insight. There physically isn't enough space here to document all the plus points, all the small things, all the reasons why I'm so pleased I nagged my parents to let me do this. If living abroad is something you are considering, or languages are your passion, this is unmissable. There, I said it and no, I wasn't paid to write this.
From the futuristic bottle-recycling mechanisms found in the supermarkets, to the special handshake that I developed with my colleages, one thing is for sure: Koblenz will have its own special place in my heart for the rest of my life.