Ipeleng Kgatle on Germany
Heidelberg: One of the most attractive sights for any visitor coming to Germany - including students from South Africa
For the longest of times, I have always dreamt of coming to study in Europe. Germany seemed to the best country to further my opera studies because it is counted among the best countries to study this art form and also because it is one of the countries that have opera houses in almost every city around the country. This is a great prospect because it offers opera singers more job opportunities, unlike back in South Africa, where there are not enough opera companies for all the singers coming out of the Universities.
At the moment South Africa only has two operating opera companies which is why most of my fellow colleagues have resorted to go into teaching. They opted for this route because they could not find employment in this field. So, as sad as it is, if we want to have a sustainable opera singing career, we are forced to leave our country and our families behind. It is the only way we can fully live out our potential as opera singers.
Having said all this, opera in South Africa is still in its development stages and still has a long way to go. My hope is to one day return home to give back and help grow this art form with the knowledge I would have acquired here. This giving back would be in a form establishing an opera company that would help with employing young opera singers. This would afford young singers an opportunity to work and thrive in their home country.
Germany in general and my experiences (so far)
My first impression of Germany when I first arrived here was that the weather was lovely which was the opposite of what I had expected. This was a good surprise because I was told that Europe was always cold. My second impression of Germany was that it was a more advanced country than South Africa. This is particularly with regards to the transport system here. Everything seemed to run smoothly, particularly the trains. They ran efficiently and were very reliable. This not a reality I am used to back at home. In South Africa, the trains (Metrorail) are the most unreliable forms of transport. Also, here, everyone uses trains, the old, young, rich and poor. Back at home, trains are mostly used by poor people from the townships, mainly because they are very affordable. Another form of transport that is mostly used in South Africa that is not used here is the taxi. This is also a very affordable way to get around, mainly used by the poor and middle class without cars. The taxi takes about 14 passengers and drops them off at different locations. This is very commonly used, followed by cars and buses. What I found surprising when I arrived here was the number of bicycles I saw on the roads because no one uses bicycles to get around back at home.
My time in Germany has been interesting so far. When I arrived here, my first experience was a rather sad one, I was walking, struggling with my bags and trying to find the apartment I was going to be staying in when two white boys started laughing and screaming at me. They uttered a word I did not understand and kept screaming “Afrika, zu viel Afrika”. I was almost about to lose it when I decided to walk away and not mind them. But when I got to my room, I cried about it. I was in utter shock at how people could treat other people like that. Sadly, this was not the first time I had heard about something like this happening to foreign people in Germany. A friend of mine once wrote of Facebook that a banana peel was thrown at him while he was walking in town in Berlin. I knew there and then that it was going to be hard, but we learn to carry on and stay positive, always.
Fortunately, this incident has not happened to me again. Since then, things have been better, and the people here have been very friendly and receptive. It gets better with time.
Settling in has been quite difficult as a lot of things are different compared to South Africa. The people, food, culture - to mention a few - are different to what I have been accustomed to all my life. There are a few differences between South Africa and Germany that I have noticed within the short period of time that I have been staying here. The biggest difference has to be the crime rate. South Africa has a very high crime rate in comparison to Germany. One can feel safe here. One can walk at night without the fear of getting mugged, raped or killed. One can walk around town without the fear of their bag or phone being snatched away from them. It really feels safer and easier to live here. The crime at home seems to be getting worse and sometimes I just wish my family could come and stay here so that they would be spared all the trouble.
Another thing that I have noticed that is different is the health system. Back at home we have the public and private health system. The public is for everyone and is free. Anyone can get free assistance and medication, but the quality of this service is mostly poor. This is so because the public health sector caters for large amounts of people with not so good facilities and equipments. The public clinics and hospitals are always full, resulting in patients waiting longer than six hours to get help. While this is happening in the public health sector, the private health sector receives the best because they pay (medical aid) a not so cheap amount every month for these services. A person without medical aid can go to a private doctor but they would have to pay an expensive amount of money to get help and most of the times for lack of money we are left with one option, public clinics/hospitals.
Unlike at home, here, everything is paid for and the quality of the services, equipments and facilities is very good. This is less stressful and convenient, which I love very much.
Another difference is in the people. The people back home are much more approachable than here. I could get into a taxi, greet the people in the taxi and have long conversations with them. Here it is very different, no one talks to anyone, everyone just goes about minding their own businesses. In South Africa there is a spirit of togetherness amongst the people- the spirit of Ubuntu that I mentioned in my earlier passages. I can literally go to my next door neighbor and ask for sugar and get help, and it would totally be normal. This for me is really amazing!
German City (Mannheim)
Mannheim is a small city compared to my city back home. It is a crowded and fairly compact city compared to where I am from. I am from Tembisa, one of Johannesburg’s townships. The township comprises of formal and informal settlements (shacks). This is very different to Mannheim because I have never seen any informal settlements here. Also, Johannesburg has a lot people. People come from all over South Africa and even neighboring countries to come find jobs and better lives. Johannesburg is also known as the “City of Gold” because in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s men used to leave their families in the rural areas to go work in the mines in Johannesburg.
Staying in Mannheim has been okay so far. I love the old buildings in the city, like the churches and museums.
I am currently staying in a student WG which is about 30 minutes from school. This living arrangement is not so different to what I have been accustomed to back at home. Through all my University years, I stayed in shared student accommodations. So, I have gotten used to staying with different people and have learned the skill of living in harmony with them. I love it here because we are all students and because it is a relaxed and safe environment.
German administrative office
The support by the administrative office has been of great assistance. I highly appreciate it. When one moves to a foreign country, it is often very hard to start over and one never really knows where to begin, but the administrative office guided me through everything. They helped me a great deal with regards to the German embassy back in South Africa and made my visa application less stressful. They also made everything concerning the visa process possible. When I finally came to Germany after months of struggling with my visa application, the DAAD-Stiftung assisted me with the foreigner’s office. I was able to receive my residence permit after a short period of time after applying for it. They continue to strive to make my time away from home bearable and are always there to assist me through my unsure moment. One thing I would also love to applaud is the communication. They communicate with me and it is always clear and easy to understand.
When I first got here a few months ago, I fell in love the Currywurst with bread and the Döner. This is not common food that is sold in South Africa. Though we have the same fast food shops such as McDonald’s, Burger king and Kentucky fried chicken, our famous township fast food dish is the Bunny chow, mostly known as “Kota”. This a quarter of bread stuffed with many times of fillings, from burger patties and cold meats to potato chips and salads. Some other foods that are eaten in South Africa that I haven’t been able find are Maize meal, Biltong (dried meat) and Skopo (a Pig’s head). These are the most common dishes one can find in South Africa.
From the German dishes, so far, I have come to love the Maultaschen and the Rouladen. Most of the other foods are the same as the foods back at home, foods like rice, pasta, chicken, beef and schnitzel.
(German) Social Life
I love socializing and have never struggled to make new friends before but when I came here, it was hard. This was mainly because of language barriers, because we could not understand each other. I spent weeks on end mostly alone. I was then able to meet and make friends the more I took part in the school activities as time went by. At the moment I have a few friends and I enjoy spending time with them. It is great to have friends in my life because although I call and video chat with my family at least three times a week, it does get a bit lonely being so far away from them.
Together we enjoy meeting up, cooking and sharing a meal together and also enjoy chilling by the Rhein river with some snacks and endless conversations. I also have a few South African friends staying in Cologne and Berlin but because they are a bit far, I haven’t been able to see most of them. Because I am new here, in my spare time I enjoy exploring Mannheim, Heidelberg and the nearby cities. Some of the places I have visited so far are the Schloss and Castles in Heidelberg, Stuttgart and Duisburg to watch some concerts. For me, the socializing here has not been different at all compared to South Africa. I still talk to my friends on Whatsapp, call them and meet with them like I used to back at home.
I was also in Herxheim taking part in a singing competition where I awarded the Förderpreis and a price money of 500 Euros. I was invited to sing the national anthem of Samoa at the rugby qualifying round between Samoa and Germany in Heidelberg, too. It was a great honors to sing there because I had never done anything like that.
It has been a great honor to be living and studying here and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for me.
In my German language class I also got to learn about the German culture and how they do things, which is sometimes different from the South African culture. Some of the culturally different things I got to experience was that German people prefer to be direct and honest instead of falsely polite. In South Africa, we always opt for politeness, as to not offend anyone. At first I thought German people were very rude people, but as time went by, I got to understand that they do not mean to be rude, but it is just how they are used to doing things. Another cultural shock was when I noticed dogs being allowed in bars and restaurants, actually dogs were everywhere, in the trains, at the malls and back in South Africa, most places do not allow pets, especially in bars and restaurants. This was very interesting to see though. Another observation I made was that Germans are extremely sensitive to any kind of noise. I was in a tram one afternoon when a baby started crying, the people sitting in front of me seemed very annoyed by it and kept looking at the mother in a not so friendly way. To me, this just felt a little weird because such things are not necessarily bad and can happen anywhere. Also, a German friend of mine told me that German people love their peace and back at home it’s mostly the opposite, the people are generally loud and would not mind to scream from one end of the room to another just to pass a greeting. We are in most cases very used to noise.
Festive Season in Germany
It was the first time I was spending my festive season so far away from home.
When it was approaching, I felt a deep sense of sadness and loneliness. I was missing home and my family. Everyone else was with their families or was going home to visit them. The reality set in a bit harder when my flatmates left for their homes and I was left alone in the flat. It was hard, and I wished I could just go home, even for a day. The only consolation I had was that my South African friends didn’t go home either. These are friends I met in South Africa already that also came here to study, in other cities though. Having them around and seeing them once in a while makes Germany feel a little like home, mainly because I get to speak South Africa languages with them. It also gives me a certain amount of support because we are all foreign students here and we experience similar thing, such as the difficulty of the language. It was also nice that the city looked absolutely beautiful with all the Christmas decorations as opposed to back in South Africa, where there aren’t a lot of decorations in the cities’ streets. I would often grab a friend and we would walk around in town, looking at all the beautiful lights.
The feelings of sadness disappeared as I started feeling the Christmas spirit. The town was always full and busy. People were always out and about, shopping and going to the Christmas market. Everyone seemed happy. I went to the market a few times with friends, where we had Glühwein for the first time and got on a few rides. Everything was different to what I had gotten used to, which was that my family and I did not really celebrate Christmas. We would normally not have decorations or Christmas gifts, and it has always been like this, but none the less, I had a great time. For Christmas, I visited my friend who is in Berlin for a few months for work. I had not seen her in a long time, and so, I was very excited to be spending Christmas with her. I was also very happy because I was going to spend Christmas with a good friend and a fellow South African, which made me feel a bit like I was at home. I visited her two days before Christmas and was able to see a little bit of Berlin, It was my first time being there. We visited Alexanderplatz and saw the iconic tower and also went to the Christmas market that was close by. We also visited the Reichstag building. Other days we would just walk around the city, trying out new restaurants and bars, and taking lots of pictures.
On Christmas day, the first thing we did was to go to church in the morning. We went to the Old Apostolic Church which is also a church my friend attends back in South Africa. We didn’t understand a lot of what was being said, but we sang and prayed, and it felt good. We then stopped by the Christmas market again to buy a few things. We then went back to her apartment and started cooking. We played our South African music while cooking and video called our families back home. At some point, we both shed a few tears because both of our families were having family gatherings and we were missing them. Of course, we video called them and were able too see everyone at the family gathering. The feeling was bitter-sweet. It felt great to see everyone but also, my heart was a bit sore because I was very far away from them.
That is how Christmas is mostly celebrated in South Africa. We go to church and then gather together with all our relatives and cook, laugh, tell stories, play music and dance. So, we also did that here, just the two of us though. We ate, drank wine and danced to all our favourite South African songs till very late in the night. It was fun, and I wouldn’t have spent my first Christmas in Europe any other way.
The weather was also very different to the weather in South Africa in the festive season. It was super cold, that when I was not out in the streets, seeing the beautiful city and meeting up with friends, I was in doors, covered and in front of the heater. It was very interesting to see such a lot of people out and about in the city, in the cold and snow, but I guess they were used to this kind of weather. In South Africa it’s summer around Christmas and it’s extremely hot. People are out in parks, braaing meat (having a barbeque) and partying. So, it was very interesting to be here in the winterzeit.
For New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day I visited another friend in Cologne. We didn’t do much, but just met with a few other South African friends, cooked and went out for drinks later. This is mostly what the young people do in South Africa on New Years Eve, which I have noticed is similar to how German people also celebrate New Year’s Eve. They go party. Some go to church but the most are out and having the times of their lives till they cross over into the New Year. So, we shared a meal with my friends and then went to an African bar in the city.
I returned to Mannheim a few days after the holidays and started my preparations to get back to school.