Culture Exchange: Year Abroad

15/05/2017 12:22

Prior to Erasmus year, preparations centred around the financing of it, grants, part time jobs, au pairing etc.

It isn't long before the penny drops, the realisation that the primary currency of worth is that of language. Singular words become coins of different values at various times. Legal jargon, pithy one cents in everyday exchanges but worth euros in lectures (except for the natives who are perpetually abundantly wealthy). Notes acting as conversations, phrases, our purses need to be stocked to thrive. Every transaction, a laboured effort. Erasmus; living in a country with a proficient level of the language, because of a healthy savings account from years of learning German, sounds reasonable... right?

Landing in Deutschland, equipped with a willingness to work, cash in hand of the everyday vernacular, a secondary school level of German savings account and of course, the emergency credit card of "I'm not a native speaker", that can be drawn on at any time. Supernormal profits in secondary education lull you into a false sense of security, not fearing or anticipating a deficit.
Surviving is easy, living is difficult; college no longer a platform to share ideas, but a challenge of basic understanding. The savings account of success in exams is not as much as you remembered. The Leaving Cert may turn a profit, and college may allow you to breakeven but studying abroad is initially a deficit.

Speaking another language is expensive when scarce on resources, worse still if a college degree depends on turning a profit. Invited into the parlance of German legal students by the Erasmus course requirements is no mean feat, and you learn to rejoice in little victories, with the constant, over looming threat of losing big. (But what's life without a little risk?) Comforted by the thought that every venture experiences stumbling blocks and that all investments, worth undertaking require some level of risk.

To survive and then succeed in this new Heimat, a part time job of studying should be undertaken. Similar to most typical student jobs, it comes in at less than minimum wage, with long, inconvenient hours, spending a painstakingly lengthy time doing a minute task. Coins trickle in hour by hour as understanding is an intricate process, first the word, then the sentence, then the legal connotation and then wonder if it's relevant for the exam? And if the exam is oral, how is the word/phrase/sentence pronounced?
Irregular legal jargon and vocabulary from reading comprehensions are figurative coins, small and not worth much alone, but make up something substantial on being counted together. Becoming both an early bird and a morning owl, just to make ends meet. Every hour of work does not guarantee financial success but merely adds to overall returns on this year long project ( or so you hope!).

Conversations can be expensive; ruling out petty change, a hefty stockpile of notes needed, whether they be with landlords, bank clerks or native speakers. The basic law of economics says that an exorbitant supply of a good, drives demand down. At home, an excessive supply of small talk renders it worthless. Here, the rarity of casual, throwaway conversation ensures that it is priced at a high value for foreign investors/consumers such as myself. Impulsive spending is a sign of success, can afford to spend for the sake of it.

Firm believers in the phrase "cash is king", Germans deal primarily in bargeld, rarely cards. A test: show up with something tangible or you'll be left with nothing. And although sometimes that means you stand there stuttering, figuratively fumbling for change at the depths of your bag, it also on occasion means that you can be surprised, finding a ten euro note you don't remember stashing away.

Only in the supermarket or on being introduced to people are we saved from the harshness of scarcity. There, using a card, a number you alone know gains access to your whole supply. Cashless transactions then becomes the easiest thing, a simple execution of something irrefutably correct, and, whether that be your pin number, or the off by heart introduction "I'm Louise Lawless, here for a year studying Law and German, from Ireland, 21 years old etc etc etc. ". Like a loan, knowing you're on borrowed time, with interest. Answers to questions we were expecting feel great, but aware that you'll be paying for it later,mindful that it'll cost you as the conversation develops and they ask more questions, leaving me again at a loss for words, but in the short term, it's enough.

Luckily, Investments occur everywhere, but chiefly in pubs, bars and beer halls. It's astounding how rich you become almost immediately, once alcohol is invited. Oktoberfest invited a period to make friends with German natives, and an inebriated refusal for the English speakers to converse in their mother tongues. Paying the price for judgement to be alcohol fuelled rather than incompetence.

Lectures also become investment hubs, everything that is said is useful, ubiquitous words that don't require extensive learning because of their repetition. The luxury of vocab tests a distant memory, in favour of European Law essays. Throwing out money for the foreign investors who must work harder to make the same amount as the natives. The chance to win big is there if you have the mental grasp to listen for the duration of a lecture.

An unexpected element is thrown into the mix; regional monopolies dominate the linguistic market. The provincial vernaculars, a familial inheritance, are untouchable in their wealth, holding a monopoly on grammar changes, spelling, pronunciation, even vocab, boasting entirely different words for the same product. Almost a birth right, not for anyone born outside the family. Can be gained through direct beneficiaries of the inheritance. Causing you to doubt both the money earned and saved, before being relieved that this is one thing you can't overcome. The sole liability/issue/fault is not being born and raised in a certain region of this new market place.

Investments, cash in hand and the initial experience of deficit have expended all my savings for this project but thankfully further investments have been wisely made in subjects like Human Rights Law, International Public Law and Constitutional. The back-up "I'm not fluent" credit card is always there but you'd prefer to not use it, relying on cash alone, progress implied in the fact you've more cash to spend day to day.

And abroad as at home, student life is composed of a sufficient amount of time, energy and a constant shortage of finances. And just like at home, having the craic isn't about how much is spent, especially if you're all broke together.

Making money doesn't guarantee rewards or success. It's not easy. There is no promises that it'll be worth it and you have to give it 110%. Similar to learning a language, there is no distinguishable finish line, that tells you you've made it. There's just having more to spend, or succeeding in exams that once seemed impossible.

Erasmus, initially costly, ultimately priceless.