Welcome to Saarbrücken: where the grass is green, the sky is blue and the buildings are a sort of browny-grey

I know, everyone else is talking about the Easter holidays and I’m still posting about last September. There’s actually a really good reason for why I’m so far behind (it’s certainly not that I’m lazy and incompetent!) but unfortunately, I’ve forgotten what it is. Oh well. Enjoy reading!

1 – Went for a walk in a forest, found a university

Now, if you can recall, my last blog post left me sitting in a hostel near the university shortly after arriving in Germany. After a couple of beers and a good night’s sleep I sprung up bright and early, robbed the breakfast buffet blind and skipped off down the road to the Universitaet des Saarlandes, happily munching sandwiches and handfuls of cereal from my pockets.

The campus is about 10 minutes outside the city of Saarbrücken, and is surrounded by dense but beautiful forest. Through an impressively sizeable and authoritatively old-fashioned stone gate, the University hosts an attractive main lawn bordered by ivy-covered red-brick buildings, as well as a glass “hub” structure of elegant contemporary design. The hub houses the international office, administrative facilities, a café and a hairdresser.

There is actually a small shop on campus, but they've realised they've got a monopoly on lazy students and marked up their prices by about 300%.

“You’ll live in a campus in a beautiful forest outside the city!”. Sounds great until you need to get your shopping…

Do you see that? Those three sentences I just wrote? That is a complete list of everything on campus which is even remotely architecturally appealing. The remainder of the hundred or so buildings consist of a labyrinth of drab concrete monoliths which make you feel like you’ve accidentally walked into some sort of Orwellian dystopia. If you want a lederhosen-and-beer traditional German town then jump on the next train to Heidelberg; Saarbrücken University is largely composed of 50’s/60’s era architecture, which makes everything look like it was built from a giant, grey Lego set.

The pinnacle of this architectural disaster is the massive nightmarish bunker which serves as the University canteen, and it was here that the “2011 Summer Language Course Introductory Breakfast” took place.

They’ve tried to make it more appealing by smearing the occasional dab of paint on the concrete protrusions, but it’s just ended up looking like some evil clown-fort.

Having grown up in a quiet town on the outskirts of Glasgow (which would refer to itself as “multicultural” on the basis that it has a Chinese restaurant), walking in on over one hundred students from every corner of the world having breakfast together was quite an eye-opener. Who would I meet over breakfast? Mexicans? French? Russians? Chinese?

Well, as it turns out, nobody. I couldn’t speak any German and anyone who did speak English was completely unable to understand my Scottish accent. Remembering the confession of a girl from Budapest I had met in my first year at Edinburgh (“Charlie, I’ve just been nodding my head when you speak to me. I have no idea what you are saying” – I thought we’d been friends for six months) I eventually gave up the linguistic struggle and resigned myself to topping up the cereal reserves in my pockets. Perhaps not an ideal start, but it’s hard to be in low spirits when you’ve had two free breakfasts.

Afterwards, we were given a short placement test to assess our level of German (they might as well have poured alphabet spaghetti over my desk and asked me to translate it. What the hell does “ß” mean?) and then given the rest of the afternoon off to explore the campus and get settled in our accommodation. It was at this point I met Sarah (the words “I’m English” were like music to my ears) as well as Katya and Daniella, who were from Belarus and Moldova respectively. Their German was at a level far beyond where I will ever reach, but Sarah was good enough to patiently translate or provide guidance whenever I started to look a little blank. Which was literally every sentence, in every conversation, for a month. Shout-out to Sarah.

At night there was an introductory pub crawl, which looked like this:

Apologies to the other people in the photo (and the photographer) but I can't remember your names...that wasn't my first beer though

Daniella is on my right, Katya and Sarah on my left. You’ll notice I’ve positioned myself tactically close to the free breadsticks.

Which is a bit more bloody like it, in my book. It was here I learned ERASMUS lesson #1: There is no language barrier that hand-signs, scribbling pictures on napkins and a few litres of German beer can’t bring down.

Now I’m getting dangerously close to that terminal scrollbar length at which people abandon your post in favour of 9GAG or photos of Kim Jong-un looking at things, so I’ll need to wrap things up for now and leave it to the next update (which is really “an update on what I was doing 8 months ago”). I had hoped to cover the language course in one post, but whatever, I get paid per entry. If I drag this out long enough I can pay off my student loans before I go home.

In the next instalment I will cover the curriculum and social life of the summer language course. Sounds boring? Here’s a photo I took from one of the lessons:

If I'm being honest, this is photoshopped.  The dragon was blue in real life.

..and that was a quiet day.

See you then.

2- doch doch goose

There is no argument like a German argument. Imagine you are happily chatting with a friend, when all of a sudden he starts to explain to you why he thinks the new Facebook Timeline isn’t quite as bad as everyone thinks. Quite rightly, you are incensed by this nonsense, and can’t wait to cut in and pull his views apart with your own astute critical observations (“It looks like crap and everyone hates it”). But how do you stop him in his tracks? How do you break his argumentative flow and pave the way for your own counter-attack?

Shut up, Mark Zuckerberg.

You can tell a design is flawed when people start making applications to remove all the new stuff you’ve designed.

You might simply say “no” a few times; this correctly expresses that you don’t agree with what he’s saying, but gives no indication of the extent of your displeasure. Are you willing to compromise, suggesting you don’t mind scrolling at tortoise-speed through the traffic jam of irrelevant information Facebook highlights for you?

You could also try “but”, which has the advantage of implicitly stating you intend some kind of counter-argument. Again, however, it says nothing of the strength of your argument, and has the undesirable effect of making your retort sound like that of a small child who has been refused his favourite treat: “but, but, but…”. You don’t want to sound like a child, do you?

Introducing doch.

Doch (pronounced similar to the Scottish loch) says, in one word, “Hey, shut up. Not only are you wrong, you’re actually so wrong that the opposite of what you said is true. Now sit quietly while I explain exactly why that is the case.” It embodies German strength and efficiency, and is the linguistic equivalent of punching someone in the face. I first heard it at a party while I was trying to convince a German girl that smoking was unhealthy; she pulled doch on me and I instantly apologised, went out and bought a 20-deck and started chain smoking. Doch wins arguments.

Where do you think they got the idea for the atomic bomb?

Never reply to doch with another doch…

As if that wasn’t awesome enough, doch has another great trick up its sleeve. I’m sure you will have experienced being on the receiving end of an awkward question such as “Have you not received the money yet?”. Neither “no” or “yes” provide a clear answer, so usually some form of further clarification is required.

Not in Germany.

Petty misunderstandings are eradicated by doch. When faced with the former question, a German-speaker can give a perfectly unambiguous one-word answer in both cases: “No” will indicate he does not have the money, “doch” that he has. It is a piece of linguistic genius to which the English language has no answer (and before anyone suggests “on the contrary”, that only works if you’re Stephen Fry or in a Jane Austin novel).

I could go on for hours about doch, but I think if I wrote any more today I’d pass out from the sheer excitement. Join me next time when I’ll talk about the 371 different words Germans have for “pickle”.

– Charles

Categories: Uncategorized


  1. I finished my dissertation today. It took me 6 months and countless hours. But THIS has made my day complete. Good to see you back on the scene!! Excellent read. And compared to all the other students doing blogs on this, yours at least has a bit of personality.

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