This week marked the end of my exams and academics at Wirtschaftsuniversität-Wien (The Vienna school of Economics and Business, or WU for short)! Although exchange is sometimes made out to be an excuse to take time off school and go travelling, I disagree. Yes, I did do a considerable amount of travelling, but I did it alongside studying and meaningful academic enrichment. I just never talked about it here because I didn’t want to bore the readers (whoever reads this)! It’s true that many people take electives outside of their area of study during exchange (because often those courses will transfer back the easiest), but I see it as an opportunity to pursue some other interests that might not fit into your schedule back home. For example, I took some International Business courses and a Management Accounting course out of interest, even though they aren’t directly related to my Finance/Marketing degree. But I ended up really enjoying them and learning tons from my peers and professors.
WU is a world-class institution. It’s the biggest university focusing on business and economics in Europe, it’s EFMD EQUIS Accredited, and recognized in the local and international business community. That last point I mentioned is prominent because the brand new campus is heavily sponsored by well-known companies. For example, there’s the giant central library in the Learning Centre (aka spaceship building), sponsored by the Austrian petrol company OMV. There’s also the Raiffaisen Bank Sprachlernzentrum, a language resource centre for WU students. Other companies who have sponsored WU in some way are EY, Red Bull, Siemens, Coca-Cola, PwC, and many more Austrian & European companies. The entire campus was designed by architecture firms from all over the world, who won bids to each design a building. That’s why the campus doesn’t look cohesive at all, design-wise.
To be honest, I didn’t realize how good of a school WU was until I started taking classes there. The campus is not only esthetically advanced, but also functionally. Smart Boards adorn every classroom, electronic screens track the progress of each class in session, and everything seems to be designed with ergonomics in mind. It’s clear that the university aims to gain recognition on a global scale, and that student success is on the radar. I thought the Sauder School of Business at UBC was advanced (and it is), but WU has definitely raised the bar.
Well that’s my plug about WU. It’s a great school, and as an exchange student I felt lucky to be able to take certain classes because it’s so competitive among locals due to the fact that university is free in Austria. Yeah, it blew my mind too. All they need to pay are some admin fees. But in turn, they need to work that much harder to maintain their spot in the university because apparently it’s not uncommon to get kicked out because you don’t meet a certain (somewhat high) grade point average.
PART 1: BERLIN
So! Onto blurbs about my travels this week! I had my last exam on Wednesday of this week, and later that night I left for Berlin with my roomie Amanda. I was quite excited to go to Berlin because of its richness in history directly related to WW2, and its eclectic nature according to friends who had already gone. We took a 10-hr overnight train from Vienna to Berlin, and it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It was better than our 10-hr bus ride to Croatia because we had a train compartment to ourselves and could lie down to sleep.
We arrived at 8:30am, and had a free walking tour by Sandeman’s New Europe booked for later that morning. I’ve realized that free walking tours are one of the best ways to see cities because of the “did you know?” facts that many of the tourguides have, that you would’ve never known if you were just perusing the city on your own. Our tourguide for the tour was Marquito, a guy originally from Ireland who had moved to Berlin recently. He also had a Master’s degree in Totalitarian Regimes (who knew that existed??), so he was very knowledgeable about Berlin and its involvement with WW2. During the tour, we visited the Jewish Memorial, a haunting exhibition of concrete blocks with no explicit explanation. Peter Eisenman, who designed the piece, purposely did not create a plaque or writeup because he wanted people to form their own interpretations of the art. Some other notable places that the tour brought us were the place of Hitler’s suicide, the the Georg Elser monument (he attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939), Checkpoint Charlie, and more.
We of course had to visit a Christmas market while in Germany. We visited several: Gendarmemarkt, Alexanderplatz, and Potsdamer Platz. In Berlin they have some food items we can’t get in Vienna: notable mentions are bouletten / frikadellen and currywurst.
Later that evening, we met up with some other exchange students: Angel from WU and Diana from the London School of Economics. It is known that the Berlin nightlife is quite legendary, especially one club called Berghain, which is considered the “church of techno”. Unfortunately, it has a reputation of being very strict and almost impossible for tourists to get in, so we decided not to take the risk of lining up for several hours just to get rejected at the door. We opted for another club called Matrix, which is open every night with a different theme. It just so happens that the theme that night was “College Party”, where they played Top 40’s, progressive house, and generally music you can dance and sing to as a group. Although Matrix is probably not considered the most “happening” club to the locals, it was definitely a fun night out for us!
The next day, Amanda and I went to Museum Island and the German History Museum, which to me was quite fascinating. Later that day we visited the East Side Gallery, the biggest tourist attraction in Berlin displaying the famous murals of the refurbished Berlin Wall. It was incredible to see this celebrated monument in person, beyond the great photo ops 🙂 (although I felt sad seeing graffiti over these works of art) Some of the most popular / my favourite murals are shown below.
That evening we did a pub crawl, again with Sandeman’s, with Angel, Diana, and Sharika also on exchange at the London School of Economics. We met a guy named Corey, who is in the US Navy. I thought it was pretty cool meeting someone in the Navy, but apparently it’s not uncommon in the States to know several people in the military. I guess it’s just not as common in Canada. That’s what’s also great about doing walking tours and pub crawls: you get to meet people from all over the world and from all walks of life.
One thing stuck with me when we did our free walking tour with Marquito: near the end of the tour, he mentioned a stereotype that everyone has of Germany – that everything is always punctual and organized. From his experience, he said, this is not the case in Berlin. He referenced the opera house, which has taken almost a decade to refurbish. He said, and I quote, “If Germany was a family, Berlin would be the drunken uncle that turns up at Christmas and embarrasses everyone”.
However, while wrapping up the tour, he mentioned that one of the greatest strengths of Berlin as a city is its people. It was ultimately the people who demanded change at the end of WW2, the people who persevered through the destructive aftermath of the war, and the people who developed the courage to rebuild the city as it is today.
To me, Berlin’s dark past, underground nightlife, and eclectic street art makes it quite the “rebellious” city. But all of these aspects are also what makes it such an interesting place. Like I mentioned in my Week 12 post about Prague: as tourists, we often overlook the decades of very recent history that hang over the heads of the population. Berlin has been in a state of rediscovery for the last little while, and along the way it’s reinvented itself as a sort of off-the-wall, grungy city… with a side of tourism. At least, that’s the impression I got from the place. For those who have been to Berlin, what do you think??
PART 2: ROSTOCK
On Saturday morning, I took a 2.5-hr bus from Berlin to Rostock, Germany, to visit family. It’s the same family as in Week 10, but my cousin Cara and her fiancé Markus are currently living in Rostock (her mom lives in Büdingen, where we visited last time). Rostock is the most northern part of Germany, and was formerly part of the DDR (or GDR in English). It certainly is different from Munich and Frankfurt, with its typical Eastern German characteristics such as simple, square apartment buildings and a slightly more run-down feeling.
They probably wouldn’t be living there voluntarily, but Markus currently plays for the Bundesliga team FC Hansa Rostock. I’m pretty mindblown that I know somebody who plays on a professional football team. They even have a team store, and he appears on posters and merchandise! Although the team isn’t the best in the league right now, I’ve learned that it really is like a job for Markus because of all the hours required for team practice, travelling for away games, and the constant pressure of performing well on the field.
It was quite the relaxing few days as I kept Cara and Markus company during their every day activities. As usual when you go to visit family, we ate lots of food, caught up a bit, and had a generally lazy time. I wasn’t complaining though! With all the travelling, it’s nice to have some downtime and spend it with family. The first night we watched two movies.
Let me just say that it’s hard to come across another couple as in love as these two: they have been together for 5 years (ish?) and genuinely just enjoy each other’s company. They seem to understand each other, and rarely have to make compromises because they’re both on the save wavelength. They never get tired of each other. At least, that’s how I perceived it as a third party. I love them so much together, and I can’t wait for their wedding next year!
The next day, the two lovebirds took me to the Baltic Sea, a big destination for domestic German tourism. Although it was freezing in mid-December, it was beautiful! I was pleasantly surprised by the cotton candy gradient skies and crisp blue water.
That afternoon, we went to the local Christmas market. The Rostock Christmas market is pretty huge, and is the only market that serves the surrounding towns and cities, making it quite crowded each day.
In the evening, Cara and I were in for a treat: Markus was making a typical German meal for us! It consisted of frikadellen, stewed vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes. You really can’t beat a home-cooked meal… it was soooo delicious. That evening we watched yet another movie and lazed it out.
Sadly, the next day I had to leave the cousins in Rostock. Aside from the few weeks prior, the last time I’d seen them was 4 years ago. It’s always a pleasure visting family members, especially when they’re halfway across the globe! Thank you Cara and Markus for a wonderful few days. 🙂