My Erasmus exchange was to Münster in Germany. I worked for six months on my fifth year MPhys project in the Nonlinear Photonics group of Prof. Dr Cornelia Denz.
Münster is a beautiful historic city with more bicycles than people. I was kindly loaned a bike from someone in the work group which made settling in to this culture very different to Glasgow considerably easier. During the summer months, I spent a long time cycling around the city and getting lost.
The Erasmus network in Münster is very active, which allowed me to make friends quite easily and naturally, everyone is in the same boat and eager to make friends. I met some amazing people with different backgrounds, academic interests and languages and was sad to leave them at the end of my exchange.
Christmas time in Münster is typically German and traditional. The Weihnachtsmarkten are beautiful places to wander around or huddle with friends and a Gluhwein. This time makes up a fair chunk of my good memories of Münster.
While culture shock is something that is natural, I don’t believe there is a massive difference between Germany and Scotland other than the language. A pitfall that I fell into was getting too comfortable with the fact that I worked in English and made English speaking friends, and my opportunities to practice German fell to the side. We are incredibly lucky to have happened to be born into the most widely spoken language, particularly in science, but I believe I would have had a better experience had I branched out of this comfort zone earlier on in my exchange. Most people that you meet are kind and allow you to practice your bad German.
Homesickness is just one of the inevitabilities, particularly when, like me, the furthest you have lived from home is about 10 miles. It is not something you can prepare yourself for. Mine didn’t really go away as I wasn’t away for long enough, but when I got more comfortable in Münster and made some friends, it was easy to forget about. It was also helpful that I took full advantage of how easy it is to travel in mainland Europe and visited some friends in Stuttgart and Amsterdam.
Studying or working abroad is something I would highly recommend. I am now a more confident scientist, for a few reasons. The lab group that I did my fourth-year project with I also did a few summer projects with, and so became very comfortable in the group. Münster, at least at first, was the exact opposite. After a few weeks, I realised that again the only great difference was the language. Looking on my experience now I wish I had been a little more confident in the first few weeks, as I became the “shy English girl” rather than myself. However, everyone in the workgroup was lovely and welcoming and I was invited along to work and non-work-related events. The all-inclusive nature of the group allowed me to hear about the many areas on nonlinear physics that everyone was working on and hear about new interesting areas of research.
I would suggest to anyone going abroad to be fully aware of the requirements of living elsewhere. For example, in Germany you are required to register where you are living with the city and to pay a semester fee which acts as a travel pass (non-negotiable but entirely worthwhile). It is a little stressful to sort these things out when you are unaware and in the country. I would also suggest Facebook groups as a means of securing accommodation particularly in densely student populated areas like Münster. I let a room from a student who was going on Erasmus herself, and it turned out to be simpler and more suitable than applying for student housing or looking through websites like wg-gesucht.
Also, and this may seem obvious to you, I can’t emphasise enough how important language skills are. I spoke ‘conversational’ German before I left, which you soon realise isn’t enough to have any meaningful conversation. It can feel very isolating to be in a group of people who are chatting away and you are struggling to keep up.