Alone in Münster: Adjusting to Life in Germany

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I came to Münster, Germany in October 2010 to work towards my PhD. It was a sudden decision, one of those “luck is when preparation meets opportunity” events that I thought only happened to other people.
“You real brave,” said those I met in the month before my departure.
Germany was far, they argued, and Germans like war.
“Do you speak German?” the concerned questioned me and, equally as important, “How will you do your hair?”
I too had my fears, but, as Voltaire says in “Candide”, “a (girl) should travel”.
Besides, it wouldn’t have been my first time living and studying outside of Trinidad. It would be my most difficult.
I had never heard of Münster. At first I thought it was the place with the cheese, but that Munster, which does not have the “u” with the two dots at the top, is in France. Then I decided that, on account of the orthographic resemblance, it was near to the better-known Münich. I should have known that I was wrong there, too, since, as a child, following my obviously flawed theory of situational spelling similarity, I deduced that Chaguanas and Chaguaramas were neighbours.
Finally, with the help of Google, I learned that Münster is in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and, although I did not know where that was, either, I did know that Westphalia was the homeland of my favourite, fictional character, the tragedy-befallen, optimist Candide (from “Candide”). What better reason to move to a strange land?
PhD study is notorious for the monk-like solitude it imposes on those who are thus called.  PhD study in Münster is no exception. There was no orientation week, no freshers’ fair, no matriculation dinner. All the things that I’d come to associate with being a new student – the moments of mandatory mixing with people who would either become your friends for life or the kind of passing acquaintance you would eventually delete from Facebook – were missing. In fact, there were only two of us: a friendly German student with an interest in English in the Caribbean, and me.
We spent the first few days doing the things that orientation exercises achieve with large groups of people: getting library cards… signing contracts… organising insurance. But once the business of settling in was done, we retreated to our separate offices – impressive affairs with our names on the doors. At the end of the workday, I returned to my loft apartment. It was far from the town centre and the rest of the university, and serviced by perhaps the only irregular bus service in an otherwise punctual Germany.
Then there was the language barrier. The challenge of learning a new language is one I have embraced. I am pretty proud of the fact that I can now hold my own in many situations. I can order at a restaurant, buy a train ticket, explain my ailments to a doctor, and, if all else fails, ask whether the other person can speak English.
When I first arrived, however, I spoke no German, and so it meant depending on my fellow PhD student quite a bit. When you’re doing a PhD, and one in English and Applied Linguistics no less, you – rightly or wrongly – pride yourself on your ability to use language.  Relying on another person to help you fill in often-personal forms, open bank accounts, and generally speak on your behalf in public spaces can be humiliating and humbling, no matter how benevolent the person speaking for you is.
Far worse than being silenced though, was being made into a spectacle. Münster is not Germany’s most diverse city, and what diversity does exist does so outside the university. There are children who stare at me on buses, and women walking past with otherwise affable dachshunds whose inner Rottweilers are released, as the grips on their leashes tighten and the fear travels down the leashes like electricity, shocking the dogs into a fit of barking and growling. I don’t mind as much now.  I understand that it is only human to be curious about something new, to be afraid of the unknown.
Still, Candide’s early life philosophy is summarised in the dictum “everything works out for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, or, as Buju would say, “one day things must get better”.
There I was. Alone in Münster, with nothing familiar to cling to – no Trini student community, no nearby roti shop, or any of the things people in places like the US and UK have. So, I conquered my solitude and silence in the only way I knew how. I joined a choir.
Some people join choirs because they love music, but the lonely know, and have known long before Daniel Levitin’s “This is Your Brain on Music”, that music-making engenders a spirit of camaraderie that is strong enough to prevent the desperate from committing acts of complete despair. It worked for me. The highlight of the rehearsals were the breaks, during which I met and spoke with other people, at first only muttering a few words, but as my German improved, venturing to initiate conversation. Another singer encouraged me to buy a bike, so the erratic bus schedule and the Guyanne-googlers contained therein ceased to be a problem. I explored Münster by bike, and even stumbled upon a hairdresser.
Perhaps I was brave to move to place I had never heard of, or naive to not have worried more about the trials I would meet here.  But trials make for great stories, which I will soon be able to recount – in English and German.

munsterI came to Münster, Germany in October 2010 to work towards my PhD. It was a sudden decision, one of those “luck is when preparation meets opportunity” events that I thought only happened to other people. 

“You real brave,” said those I met in the month before my departure. 

Germany was far, they argued, and Germans like war. 

“Do you speak German?” the concerned questioned me and, equally as important, “How will you do your hair?”

I too had my fears, but, as Voltaire says in “Candide”, “a (girl) should travel”. 

Besides, it wouldn’t have been my first time living and studying outside of Trinidad. It would be my most difficult.

I had never heard of Münster. At first I thought it was the place with the cheese, but that Munster, which does not have the “u” with the two dots at the top, is in France. Then I decided that, on account of the orthographic resemblance, it was near to the better-known Münich. I should have known that I was wrong there, too, since, as a child, following my obviously flawed theory of situational spelling similarity, I deduced that Chaguanas and Chaguaramas were neighbours. 

Finally, with the help of Google, I learned that Münster is in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and, although I did not know where that was, either, I did know that Westphalia was the homeland of my favourite, fictional character, the tragedy-befallen, optimist Candide (from “Candide”). What better reason to move to a strange land?

PhD study is notorious for the monk-like solitude it imposes on those who are thus called.  PhD study in Münster is no exception. There was no orientation week, no freshers’ fair, no matriculation dinner. All the things that I’d come to associate with being a new student – the moments of mandatory mixing with people who would either become your friends for life or the kind of passing acquaintance you would eventually delete from Facebook – were missing. In fact, there were only two of us: a friendly German student with an interest in English in the Caribbean, and me. 

We spent the first few days doing the things that orientation exercises achieve with large groups of people: getting library cards… signing contracts… organising insurance. But once the business of settling in was done, we retreated to our separate offices – impressive affairs with our names on the doors. At the end of the workday, I returned to my loft apartment. It was far from the town centre and the rest of the university, and serviced by perhaps the only irregular bus service in an otherwise punctual Germany. 

Then there was the language barrier. The challenge of learning a new language is one I have embraced. I am pretty proud of the fact that I can now hold my own in many situations. I can order at a restaurant, buy a train ticket, explain my ailments to a doctor, and, if all else fails, ask whether the other person can speak English. 

When I first arrived, however, I spoke no German, and so it meant depending on my fellow PhD student quite a bit. When you’re doing a PhD, and one in English and Applied Linguistics no less, you – rightly or wrongly – pride yourself on your ability to use language.  Relying on another person to help you fill in often-personal forms, open bank accounts, and generally speak on your behalf in public spaces can be humiliating and humbling, no matter how benevolent the person speaking for you is. 

Far worse than being silenced though, was being made into a spectacle. Münster is not Germany’s most diverse city, and what diversity does exist does so outside the university. There are children who stare at me on buses, and women walking past with otherwise affable dachshunds whose inner Rottweilers are released, as the grips on their leashes tighten and the fear travels down the leashes like electricity, shocking the dogs into a fit of barking and growling. I don’t mind as much now.  I understand that it is only human to be curious about something new, to be afraid of the unknown. 

Still, Candide’s early life philosophy is summarised in the dictum “everything works out for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, or, as Buju would say, “one day things must get better”. 

There I was. Alone in Münster, with nothing familiar to cling to – no Trini student community, no nearby roti shop, or any of the things people in places like the US and UK have. So, I conquered my solitude and silence in the only way I knew how. I joined a choir. 

Some people join choirs because they love music, but the lonely know, and have known long before Daniel Levitin’s “This is Your Brain on Music”, that music-making engenders a spirit of camaraderie that is strong enough to prevent the desperate from committing acts of complete despair. It worked for me. The highlight of the rehearsals were the breaks, during which I met and spoke with other people, at first only muttering a few words, but as my German improved, venturing to initiate conversation.

Another singer encouraged me to buy a bike, so the erratic bus schedule and the Guyanne-googlers contained therein ceased to be a problem. I explored Münster by bike, and even stumbled upon a hairdresser.  

Perhaps I was brave to move to place I had never heard of, or naive to not have worried more about the trials I would meet here.  But trials make for great stories, which I will soon be able to recount – in English and German.

 

Image credit: panoramio.com

 

Check out the rest of this week’s issue (11/07/11; Issue 65):

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Guyanne Wilson is a PhD researcher at the University of Münster (Germany). Her job involves a lot of reading and writing, and in her free time she reads and writes too. She also likes singing, and making people laugh.

2 Comments

  1. Olivia

    January 18, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Hey Guyanne, I’m so glad that you took the courage to get out of your comfort zone and move and explore another country. There will be good and bad days but then again, none of those lasts so just embrace the situation and process because it will all be worth it. Man, life would be boring if you just stayed in one place, eat the same thing, see the same people, breathe the same air… Anyway, worst comes to worst, you can ALWAYS go back! :) I’m originally from Singapore, moved to California when I was 17, and lived there for 12 years, now I live with my fiance in Munich, we are freshly engaged and yea, there are times when I just wanna go home (oh, when you have moved to many places, you don’t really know where home is hahah) But its not so bad…Oh, do you recommend any good english speaking hair stylist in Muenster? Our wedding will be held there and I’m looking for one to do my hair. My fiance is from the Muenster area… Well, I hope you are doing well and you are enjoying yourself!! :)
    Olivia

  2. Kenneth Jones Jr.

    June 30, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Thank You!! God’s providence led me to your article. It has helped me make a decision I am due in Munster this fall but due to some difficulties (life happening) I have been wavering about moving to Germany and completing Ph’d. So thank you I am from Miami so your being from Trinidad I certainly understand!As for the issue of getting your hair done I would suggest Dusseldorf. I received a great haircut while there and there were plenty of women hair stylist via the African diaspora so you should be in perfect hands. Once again thank you and I wish you the best and perhaps I will get to meet you while in Munster

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