You may wonder why a student of English Philology would choose a German city as an Erasmus destination. Everyone does. My innocent answer to those musings used to be: “I chose Germany because I already know how to speak English, and I am eager to learn German too”. This eagerness came from the fact that, after taking the German course for beginners at the UGR, I went crazy for that language. Of course my experience in Germany showed me that, firstly, my English was not as functional as I thought; and secondly, that what I learnt from the A1-German course allowed me to say only things like “danke schön” at the supermarket.
But as Lord Byron would say: My way is to begin with the beginning.
Really: why Potsdam?
The city I chose out of all the destinations offered by the University of Granada was Potsdam–which nowadays my parents still insist on calling Postdam, but let’s not “ask the elm tree for pears”, right? Perhaps you have already heard of this city thanks to the Potsdam Conference, held at the Cecilienhof Palace right after WWII; you know, that casual meeting where some friends agreed to share out Germany, among other casual plans and which I am not going to deal with now. This historical fact is not, however, a determining element for students to choose Potsdam as a destination. The main reason is usually that it is really close to the capital, Berlin.
As a matter of fact, Potsdam is roughly 25 km. away from Berlin (35 minutes by train), which makes it an attractive place to live if you are not comfortable with the capital’s overwhelming way of life, but you still want to enjoy everything Berlin has to offer. Since that was all I needed, in 2011, Potsdam became my home during the nine months of my Erasmus experience.
The Pre-Potsdam times
First thing I had to do (after all the jumping and celebrating that I finally got to go to Germany): learn German. Any German. Enough to be able to read the street signs and not get lost. So thanks to the Beca MEC, I spent September doing an intensive German course in Berlin before moving to Potsdam.
I am not going to talk here about the capital and what an amazing, mind-blowing city it is, because the focus has to be on my Erasmus in Potsdam, but seriously: visit Berlin. Meet the people. Get lost in its neighbourhoods. Nowhere else will you see the contrasts you find in Berlin: not only because of the varied origins of the people living there, but also because only 26 years ago that city was split into two separate, opposite worlds. I imagine the result of joining them together after almost 40 years… Well, you can’t imagine. That is why I am telling you: Go to Berlin and amaze yourselves!
After a month in the capital getting in touch with my new German surroundings, I moved finally to Potsdam. There, right at the train station, the nice people of the ESN Potsdam guided all the international students like me to our Studentenwonheime (hall or dorms, whatever you call it) and get there safe and sound.
The Uni Potsdam offers its students different options for accommodation, so you can live right by your campus (whichever it is) or in the city centre. Of course, you may prefer renting an apartment in Potsdam or Berlin. The latter option becomes really tempting when you realize that, thanks to your Studentenausweis (fancy German term for student ID), you can use public transportation to get around Berlin and Brandenburg for free.
But I need to talk about the campus now. If you look at the picture, you will know why I am so fascinated with that place. That is the main, and most beautiful campus of all: Neues Palais. There, my friends, Humanities are taught, and you can imagine the pleasure of going to class and going into these majestic buildings. As a matter of fact, the campus is situated within the main attraction of the city: Sanssouci Park, which I am going to describe afterwards to amaze you even more.
As for the academic experience and the lectures, you do not necessarily have to bust a gut to pass, since all the lectures of our degree are taught in English and, even if you don’t know any German, you can attend class like any other student. However, getting a pass is not all roses: There are a lot of essays to do, presentations and, most importantly, you have to get used to the pace of the classes. I am not going to lie to you: Our English, dear Spanish students, compared to that of Germans sucks is not enough. To say nothing of the fact that they participate in class massively, so much so that sometimes the lecturer becomes a mere moderator in the debate among students. The first time I saw this I was amazed and it took me months to dare to participate once. But on the bright side, the classes were extremely interesting and dynamic.
I am not going to get all encyclopaedic because Wikipedia would do that job much better than me. Yet I have to say something about the city. When people ask me to describe Berlin, I always say amazing, mind-blowing, superb. When they ask me about Potsdam, on the other hand, I say beautiful. Although the most accurate term would be picturesque, and you will understand why in a moment.
Potsdam is a small city–slightly smaller than Granada–which has been one of the places of residence of the Prussian kings and the German Kaiser until 1918. The city was designed to be the perfect combination of Neoclassical buildings and works of art. There are more than fifteen palaces all around Potsdam, three great parks and even an architectural ensemble of antique-style ruins, built especially for the king in the 18th century. Not to mention the centre of the city, which would instantly transport you to another age. Among other monuments and buildings, one of the most curious is the original Brandenburg Gate. Indeed, the one in Potsdam was built ten years before the one of the same name in Berlin. Have a look at the video and you will see that maybe one day you just go out for a walk and suddenly you run into an orchestra playing the Pirates of the Caribbean’s song. Because those things happen in Potsdam.
Sanssouci Park is the main attraction of the city. As I mentioned earlier, that’s where you find the main campus of Uni Potsdam. The most famous palace is Sanssouci, the summer residence of Frederick the Great, but if you go, don’t just stop there. Inside the park, there are also three more palaces, Neues Palais, Charlottenhof and Orangerie, as well as Roman baths–not actually Roman– two chinoiserie style houses and many other buildings and monuments worth seeing.
But Potsdam is not just picturesque and 18th century. In the south-eastern part of the city, you can visit the Babelsberg Film Park, the oldest large-scale film studio in the world; and if after the visit your artistic self needs to be shown to the world, you can work as an extra in the soap opera Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten. Let’s say it is the German Amar en tiempos revueltos. Additionally, if you are feeling sciency, you can also visit the Albert Einstein Science Park, which holds the Einstein Tower, an astrophysics observatory that was built to perform checks of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.
Living in Potsdam
There are about 20 lakes and rivers in and around the city, which are great for canoe trips or just swimming in summer. Potsdam is ideal to explore by bike, so if you move there, get a bike. They are not expensive if you buy a second-hand one, plus it will help you lose all the weight you will gain from drinking beer. Oh, yes. Because in Potsdam beer is crazy cheap–as crazy as half a litre for less than two euros at the students’ pub. Of course, if you want to party properly you must go to Berlin, but in Potsdam there are some pubs and clubs that would be more than enough if you want to have a good time with your friends and other students.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend Potsdam as destination for the Erasmus experience. It is understandable though that, if you want to achieve a higher level of English, you’d opt for an English-speaking country. However, in my case, my English got much better thanks to the lectures, and at the same time I learnt an awful lot of German. Plus I got to know two of the most amazing cities I have ever seen. So if you’re not going as an Erasmus student, just go and visit them. I warn you though that you will want to stay for a while.
Correction: Dr. Graeme Porte
- Churchil, Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference (1945): https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potsdam#/media/File:L_to_R,_British_Prime_Minister_Winston_Churchill,_President_Harry_S._Truman,_and_Soviet_leader_Josef_Stalin_in_the…_-_NARA_-_198958.jpg
- Campus am Neuen Palais: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuevo_Palacio_de_Potsdam
- Sanssouci, Neues Palais, Orangerie and Charlottenhof Palace – Sanssouci Park: (1) http://wevillas.com/imagew/1000/news/news/sanssouci-palace-in-potsdam-things-to-see-and-entrance-times-80_2377_1596x982.jpg (2) http://www.abacho.de/wp-content/uploads/5_SPSG_NeuesPalais_2.jpg (3) s1.germany.travel/media/content/staedte___kultur_1/unesco_welterben_2013/schloesser_parks_sanssouci_potsdam_berlin_1/3889_RET_1024x768.jpg (4) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanssouci_Park#/media/File:Schloss_Charlottenhof_Sanssouci_2011_Garten.JPG
- Other pictures: F.G.R