How I plan my trips (with little time and money)

tripplanning

Here is the first part of this article:
“How do you manage to travel so much?”

So if traveling is a priority for you in your leisure time, you should pursue it. And the best way to optimize your maybe-not-so-abundant amount of time and money is to plan in advance.

There are several ways of planning a trip that work just fine. Here, I’ll explain step by step how I do it and what works for me. (You’ll see I’m quite methodical.)

I’ve never used the services of a travel agency I always check and book everything on my own. This method might be a bit more time-consuming, but I prefer it as I have more control over my trip and I believe it to be less expensive as well.

For me, planning a trip is like getting ready for a party: it’s almost half the fun!

Things to consider:

HOW:
Define the style of traveling that works for you, i.e., what is doable (several small trips a year, or one or two longer trips a year, or a mix of both; traveling inside your country or continent, or traveling to further destinations, or a mix of both; etc.)

WHEN:
Here is what I do first of all: I open a calendar that has all the bank holidays of the year. (Important: make sure they are actually valid for the city where you live! Many holidays in German calendars, for example, are only valid in certain states, and unfortunately not in Berlin.)
Then, I list the long weekends I will have throughout the year. As an example, here are the ones in Berlin in 2016:

  • Easter: from 24/03 evening to 28/03 = 4 nights
  • Ascension Day (Christi Himmelfahrt): from 04/05 evening to 08/05 = 4 nights
    (Note: here, only Thursday 5th is a holiday – Friday 6th is not. But it is clearly worth it to take this day off, as you get a 4-day holiday for the ‘cost’ of 1 workday.)
  • Pentecost / Whitsunt (Pfingst): from 13/05 evening to 16/05 = 3 nights
  • German Unification (Tag der Deutschen Einheit): from 30/09 evening to 03/10 = 3 nights

As you can see, it’s only 4 (May 1st will be a Sunday and Christmas / New Year’s doesn’t really count). So I know that this year I have 4 opportunities of long weekends to travel: 2 x 4-night trips and 2 x 3-night trips.

WHERE:
When choosing a destination, first estimate how much time you would need to cover that place. This is a very personal decision, as different people have different paces when traveling. It also depends on whether you want to visit all the museums in town, for example, or just the must-see tourist attractions. I usually google for ‘how many days in …’ and check what other travelers think in travel forum discussions, such as Tripadvisor. If you’re a no-wasting-time traveler like me, you should also check the website Days in a City, which usually has good suggestions.

So after I’ve defined on which days of the year I can travel and how long the trips can be (see WHEN section), I can check which trips would actually fit in this amount of time. For example: I know I can’t plan a trip to Southeast Asia for a 4-night break, because that’s not enough time for this destination. So I try to find destinations that are doable in 3- or 4-night trips.

As I said in the first part of this article, I usually have 5 to 10 days of vacation per year, apart from long weekends and my time spent in Brazil. So when I want to go on longer trips (longer than a long weekend), I usually use some of those vacation days. And to optimize my time, I try to combine it with weekends. For example: if I take 5 days off (Monday to Friday), I can actually go on a 9-night trip, including the weekends before and after. So it’s a ‘9-day-for-the-price-of-5’ deal.

To decide where I’m going to travel to, I always consider:
1) Where I can go in the amount of time I have;
2) Where I am interested in going;
3) Where I can find cheap tickets to and from.

The two most expensive things to pay for in a trip are: transport (to and from your destination) and accommodation. (Food doesn’t count so much, as you will have to eat either on vacation or at home.) Fortunately, there are ways to save a lot on these two points.

TRANSPORT

I’m a scientist, so I don’t trust only one source. I like to check flights in more than one search/comparison website. I use: Google Flights, Skyscanner and Kayak.

Google Flights: this one has been my favorite for a long time now. It allows you to search for flights going ‘everywhere’, or to a country in general. You don’t necessarily have to choose a specific city or airport. You can also see what the prices look like in a whole month and which days are cheapest. You can of course filter your search according to the time when you want to fly or the number of stops, for example. Another big advantage of Google Flights is that you can save a flight that interests you and follow it over time as they show you graphs of the prices. So if you’re logged in on your Google account, you can simply go to Google Flights and see how the prices have changed in the last days. After using this tool for a while, you get a pretty good idea of how much the flights that interest you cost. I use Google Flights so much to keep an eye on ticket prices for the destinations on my bucket list that I’ve grown to learn what’s the cheapest I could pay to fly from Berlin to Stockholm, for example, and what would be paying too much. I also use it a lot to follow flight prices from Germany to Brazil, since these are so expensive and I want to get a good deal. Sometimes it feels like following the stock market: when prices go down, I’ll buy.

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Example search on Google Flights: following prices over time

Skyscanner: has the same search advantages as Google Flights, but doesn’t have the option to save flights and see the graphs. The reason why I still use Skyscanner in addition to Google Flights is that sometimes Google Flights gives me inaccurate prices (maybe it’s not updated as often), so I like to double-check it.

Kayak: since it doesn’t have the ‘everywhere’ search option like the other two, I’ve only been using Kayak now when I want to search for flexible dates. You can search using an option of +/- 3 days for both the outbound and the inbound flights, and they will show you a table with all the possible combinations, and which one is the cheapest. For example:

kayakexample
Example search on Kayak: in this case, the cheapest option is to depart on 15/07 and return on 18/07

It’s a great feeling to find a good bargain. I’ve booked return flights from Berlin to Copenhagen for 50 euros, to Cologne for 20, to Malta for 70 and to Salzburg for 77.

For train options: every country usually has only one national railway company, so I always check and book on their official website it’s not going to be cheaper anywhere else. For German trains, that’s Deutsche Bahn. The train companies do offer cheaper tickets if you book in advance, so it’s always a good idea to check as soon as possible.

For bus options, or for when you don’t know which option is the best (bus, train or flight):
For European destinations, I like to use GoEuro. This website allows you to compare all the transport options (also car rental). And it gives you a nice comparison list of all the different bus companies. (For some time now, Megabus has been offering some of the cheapest bus tickets in Europe. It’s the new Ryanair of the roads.)

Note: I only use all these websites to search and compare prices. Once I’ve found a ticket I’d like to book, I do it on the official company website (I find it to be more trustworthy and cheaper).

There is also the option of car sharing, like BlaBlaCar in Germany (which is quite cheap), or even hitchhiking (which is free). Personally, I’ve never used these options, but go ahead if you feel comfortable with them.

Other things to consider when deciding on transport:

  • Sometimes flights are cheaper than trains or buses;
  • Sometimes buses and trains take the same amount of time (and buses are usually cheaper) one example is the ride from Berlin to Prague;
  • Flight prices don’t always only increase over time with Ryanair, for example, they can fluctuate A LOT.

ACCOMMODATION

I always book my transport tickets first, and only then my accommodation, because the former is usually more expensive. Also because you can often change or cancel your accommodation booking for free, but the same is not true for transport. But it’s a good idea to at least have a look at accommodation options before booking your tickets, to avoid surprises. Some local events such as Oktoberfest in Munich and St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin make accommodation prices become 10 times more expensive.

You should think of what is most important for you when choosing travel accommodation. For me, it’s price and location. (OK, comfort comes third…) And if you don’t mind sharing a room or a bathroom, you will usually find cheaper offers.

WIth this in mind, I usually consider 3 types of accommodation: hostel, hotel or Airbnb.

Hostel: I take this option about 90% of the time. It’s the option I take when it’s a lot cheaper than the other 2 options; or when I’m traveling alone.
To compare and book hostels, I use the websites Hostelbookers and Booking.com.

Hotel: of course, this is the option I give preference to since it’s the most comfortable one but it’s usually also the most expensive one. I take this option about 10% of the time: when it happens to be the same price as the hostel option, or almost. This usually happens when I’m traveling with a group of people. (Note that it’s usually a low-budget hotel or pension.)
To compare and book hotels, I use the website Booking.com.
I really like Booking.com as the platform is very clear and easy to handle (e.g. to filter searches, make alterations in your booking, etc.). And if you have any problem, they have a good customer service and will mediate everything you don’t need to contact the hotel on your own. Plus, after you’ve booked a few places, you become a ‘Genius’ client and get special rates.

Airbnb: this is a website where you can rent a room in someone’s apartment. I’m just starting to experiment with the Airbnb option. I’d take this option only when:
a) hotels are way more expensive than hostels and Airbnb;
b) plus the Airbnb offer and the hostel both have great locations but Airbnb is the same price or cheaper than the hostel;
c) plus the Airbnb offer is a private room (so more comfortable) and the hostel option is a shared dormitory;
d) plus the Airbnb host has great reviews and looks trustworthy;
e) plus when I’m not traveling alone.
(So as you can see, I’d only use Airbnb in very particular cases.)
Website: Airbnb

One also has the option of CouchSurfing staying at someone’s apartment for free. I’ve never taken this option as I don’t feel comfortable with it, but you should consider if it’s worth it for you.

In general, prices for low-budget accommodation in Europe range from 10 to 30 euros per night per person.


I hope this very thorough description of how I plan my trips can be helpful and inspiring! If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

Checking travel tickets online is harmless and costs absolutely nothing. So just try it. You’ve got nothing to lose.  🙂

(Note: this post was not sponsored by any of the companies mentioned here.)

“How do you manage to travel so much?”

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First of all, I must say I don’t think I travel so much. I surely don’t travel as much as I would like to. I’m not a full-time traveler – I’m just a free-time traveler (after all, I’m a PhD student). But still, I get this question often. I guess one could say I’ve managed to travel quite a bit in these last years, in parallel to my Master and PhD programs. (For a summary of my trips in 2015, click here).

So I decided to try to answer this question: how is it that I manage to travel as much as I do? After all, traveling requires two basic things: time and money. And students don’t have either of those. So how does this work?

My first answer to this is: PRIORITY.

In my leisure, work-free time, it is my priority to travel. It’s what I like to do the most whenever I have some extra time. Sure, I have other hobbies, like dancing, writing and learning foreign languages. But these I can do anytime, during regular weekdays after work. So when I have that extra free time, like weekends and bank holidays, I make sure to spend it the way I like best: visiting new places.

Some people prefer to spend their free time resting at home, or going hiking, or catching up on some reading, for example. And that’s completely fine – each person should do what makes them happy. Me? I like to use all of my free time traveling – if possible somewhere I haven’t been to before.

So one of the biggest reasons why I manage to travel so much is because I actually see it as a priority for my leisure time.

That being said, we are still left with two problems: little time and money.

Problem #1: TIME

“It’s easy for YOU to travel, because you live in Europe.”

Sure, living in Europe, like I do, makes it a lot easier to travel frequently. It is very practical to get around different countries here, for their proximity and the affordable options of flights, trains and buses. BUT… there is a catch. If you’re a foreigner living in Europe like me, you probably spend most of your vacation days going to your home country. Yes, that is great, and necessary for my inner sanity (again, priorities!), and I wouldn’t change it. But going home doesn’t really count as real traveling for me, because I grew up there, and it’s not exactly new.

I can take 30 days off from work per year, not counting weekends and bank holidays. I usually go to Brazil once a year, and spend about 20 of my vacation days there. This means that ⅔ of my holidays are used up just by going home. And when I eventually fly there twice a year (as I’ll be doing this year to attend a wedding), even less vacation time is left for me to visit new places – around 5 days a year only!

Bottomline: don’t be fooled – it may look easier for me to travel to new places because I live in Europe, but in reality I don’t really have so much time available for it.

So how do I deal with the problem of having such little time? I basically try to make the most of the little time that I do have.

“I can’t do [insert anything here] because I don’t have time”.

This is NOT TRUE. Everyone has time, even if a little. What varies from one person to the other is what they actually decide to do with that time. It’s not lack of time that stops you from doing something – it’s that you are not willing to spend the time you have doing that. (Maybe because it’s not your priority.)

Like I said, I usually have around only 5 to 10 workdays per year to use for my travel purposes, depending on whether I go to Brazil once or twice a year. However… the good news is that these are only workdays – there are still weekends and bank holidays that are not included in the count. So I really, REALLY, try to make the most of the bank holidays and long weekends that Germany provides me with. And, trust me, they are not frequent at all – at least not compared to Brazil.

What I do is: I plan in advance and accommodate different trips in the holidays that I know I will have throughout the year. The calendar is fixed and you can get that information way in advance, so use it to your advantage. You will most probably not find me in Berlin during a long weekend (unless there is something exceptional happening in town). For me, this would feel a bit like a waste of time. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Berlin and there is still so much I want to do and see here, but my logic is: I can spend time in the city where I live on any normal weekend. Long weekends? These are rare and precious, and should be spent wisely.

If you live in Brazil or North America or Australia, for example, it’s not that easy to go visit a different country for a long weekend. The distance is huge, and prices are not very welcoming. Living in Europe, I usually go on several short trips throughout the year. But if you don’t, maybe you can go on fewer trips a year, but for longer periods of time. Or instead of trips abroad, you can explore your own country. These are just different styles of traveling, but possible and enjoyable either way. Plus, in Brazil there are so many long weekends – sometimes 11 per year! – so make use of them.

Problem #2: MONEY

This problem is not so much of a problem as long as you’re OK with traveling on a low-budget. Low-cost airlines, low-cost hotels, buses, hostels, etc. At this moment of my life, I really don’t mind staying in a shared dormitory with a shared bathroom for a few nights. I don’t mind eating fast-food eventually, or using a kitchen to cook something easy. I also don’t mind flying on less comfortable airplanes inside Europe and taking hand-luggage only. Probably, in the future, I will want to set higher standards, according to my age and salary, but not for now. Because I know all that means saving A LOT.

Like a good Brazilian, I like to make sure that I pay the best prices. It’s not that I’m cheap when I’m traveling – I will gladly spend my money on a nice meal or an experience that I believe is worth it. But I don’t like to spend extra on things that can be avoided.

“Spend money on experiences, not things.”

The ultimate answer to everything: PLANNING

I ❤ planning. I am a strong believer that by planning in advance you can get the best cost/benefit ratio. And I think I know why I love to plan so much. I’m a very anxious person, and planning gives me some sort of feeling that I’m in control of my life and the future. Sure, this is not always true, and you can only plan certain things. But, fortunately, a trip is one of the things that you can actually plan to a good extent.

By planning in advance, you are able to fit one or more trips into the little free time you have per year, plus you save money. There you go: a solution to both our problems.

To summarize:

  • Find out what your priorities for your free time are. Figure out what you love to do the most. (Also, try new things. That’s the only way to really find out what you love to do.)
  • You do have some free time – use it wisely (on your priorities).
  • If traveling is a priority for your leisure time, plan in advance to optimize time and money.

“OK, planning a trip sounds very advantageous and easy in theory, but how do you actually do it?”

Check out the answer on my next post here:
How I plan my trips (with little time and money)

Looking back: my trips in 2015

I know January is almost over, but I hope it’s not too late to look back on 2015. Last year was hectic at work for me, but still I managed to travel on bank holidays and vacation days. Actually, I realized that in 2015 I was able to travel in every single month of the year (which should become a goal for all the following years!).

So here is a summary of my trips in 2015. Hopefully it can inspire some ideas!

JANUARY: Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
As usual, my year starts in my hometown, Rio.

riosunrise
Sun rise in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

FEBRUARY: Frankfurt an der Oder (Germany)
A short day trip on Valentine’s Day from Berlin to a German city that shares border with Poland. We went there just for the fun of crossing to Poland on foot over a bridge and have lunch in a different country. Because… why not?

MARCH: Dresden (Germany)
Nice weekend trip to meet dear friends and get to know Dresden. Super close to Berlin.

APRIL: Prague (Czech Republic)
First time in Prague, during Easter holidays. Just a short and cheap bus ride away from Berlin.

prague
View to Prague Old Town

MAY: Lübeck (Germany) + Warsaw & Krakow (Poland) + Göttingen (Germany)
I spent one of the long weekends of May (4 days) discovering Warsaw and Krakow, in Poland. Besides exploring the cities, my friend and I visited the Wieliczka salt mine and Auschwitz. I also went to Lübeck for a day and went back to Göttingen, a German city where I lived for almost 2 years, for a conference and to visit friends.

krakow
Main square in Krakow

JUNE: Salzburg (Austria) + Berchtesgaden (Germany) + Munich (Germany)
Three different locations, but on the same trip. We stayed in the beautiful Austrian city of Salzburg and went on day trips to Germany (to the Berchtesgaden National Park and Munich). The highlight was definitely the stunning Ostsee lake.

obersee
Ostsee, Berchtesgaden

JULY: Amsterdam (Netherlands)
This was a business trip (though I also had leisure time). It was my third time in Amsterdam, but the first one during the summer.

AUGUST: Romantic Road (Bavaria, Germany) + Innsbruck (Austria)
I had been wanting to go see the small medieval towns of the German Romantic Road for a long time – and in August an opportunity came up. I wrote a detailed post about this route here.
And since we were staying overnight in Munich and had a car, why not drive only 2 hours to visit Innsbruck for a day? It sure was worth it – what a gorgeous city!

SEPTEMBER: Viseu/Coimbra/Aveiro/Porto (Portugal)
My dad came from Brazil to visit me for a few weeks, so we went to Portugal to see our family from there, and went through mostly northern cities of the country. It was my fourth time in Portugal – amazing as usual.

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Street in Águeda, Portugal

OCTOBER: Bonn, Linz & Phantasialand (Germany) + Göttingen (Germany)
My dad and I visited relatives who live in Bonn, and they also showed us Linz am Rhein. And since we are both crazy about amusement parks, we spent a day riding roller-coasters and watching shows at Phantasialand. And I also took him to see my former home, Göttingen.

NOVEMBER: Quedlinburg (Germany)
Day trip to a medieval German town around the Harz mountains that is in the UNESCO world heritage list. As it was untouched by the war, it has constructions from the 10th century, including Germany’s oldest half-timbered house.

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Quedlinburg, Germany

DECEMBER: Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
And the year finishes again with Christmas holidays in Rio… Feels almost like a cycle that is completed.

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View from Dois Irmãos mountain, Rio de Janeiro

Now looking forward to the trips that 2016 will bring… : )

(Let me know in the comments below if you would like me to write a post about a specific destination mentioned here!)

Tips: what and where to eat in Berlin

Berlin is a city that has a lot of good things to offer, and one of them is food! It is perfectly possible to find good and affordable places to eat around here. And note that I said places and not restaurants. That’s because street food has a very strong presence in the German capital.

Here are some tips of where to find food that is Berliner style: tasty, multi-cultural, inexpensive and far from posh.

  • 1) Döner kebab
    doenerkebab

How can one not recommend a döner to someone who comes to Germany? Of Turkish origin, it’s one of the most popular fast foods in the country. It’s delicious, cheap and is worth for a whole meal. The döner kebab is usually served as a sandwich, in a crunchy, triangular Turkish bread. The meat is roasted in a rotating spit with the shape of an inverted cone, and the crispy meat is then sliced vertically, like a barbecue. The classic version has lamb meat, but some places also offer the chicken option. The döner also has a lot of salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onions, red cabbage) and sauce (herbs, garlic or spicy). The vegetarian alternative to döner is the falafel which, instead of meat, has the tasty deep-fried balls of chickpea with spices. It is also nice for the Berliner carnivores that wish to vary a bit from the döner. Another variation is the dürum – instead of a sandwich, it’s like a wrap: it comes in a thinner type of bread in the shape of a cylinder (and is usually even bigger than the döner).

Usual price: between 3.00 and 3.50 euros (above this, it’s overpriced)

Where: in one of the thousands of kebab kiosks throughout the city. One of Berlin’s favorite is Mustafa’s, which offers not the classic döner, but one with chicken, cooked vegetables and feta cheese. Because it’s so famous, the lines are always long, even in the middle of the night. (Subway station: U Mehringdamm)

  • 2) Santa Maria

    santamaria
    Chilaquiles in Santa Maria

If you’re a fan of Mexican food, you have to go to Santa Maria. There they have real, authentic Mexican food, not Tex-Mex. Every time my friends from Mexico visit Berlin, they insist that we go eat there. Santa Maria is a small and cozy restaurant, with very reasonable prices: around 7 to 12 euros per meal (well-served). They also have Taco Tuesdays: tacos and tequila for 1 euro each. But be aware that it’s better to arrive with a bit of spare time – they don’t make reservations. Recommendation from my Mexican friend Sharlen: get the ‘chilaquiles’ with green sauce (for those who enjoy spicy food) or the ‘tacos de carnita’ (if you’re weaker, like me).

Where: 2 locations, the original one on Oranienstr. 170 (subway station U Kottbusser Tor) and a new branch on Krossenerstr. 18 (U Warschauer Str.)
http://santaberlin.com/
→ A good thing about Germany: restaurants usually show their menu (with prices!) on their websites.

Another option for good Mexican good is the Taqueria Ta’Cabrón (U Schlesisches Tor).

  • 3) Thai Park

The “Thai Park” is an example of the peculiar multiculturalism that defines Berlin. It is a public park (official name: Preußenpark) where dozens of Thai people at small stalls sell the most diverse typical homemade dishes from their country. Fried dumplings, fried bananas, fried shrimp… Fried everything! They also sell a delicious dish of sticky rice with coconut sauce and mango slices. You will find even insects to eat at the Thai Park. Unfortunately, this culinary wonder only takes place during the warm months of the year. Highly recommended to those who are in Berlin in the summer! You can find it any day of the week, but on Saturdays there are more stalls. A tip: the 5-dumpling dish with different fillings of your choice for 5 euros.

Where: Preußenpark (subway station: U Fehrbelliner Platz)

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  • 4) Al Andalos

Al Andalos is a Lebanese restaurant, the kind that only locals know about. Small and unpretentious, I only found out it existed because a friend took me there. The menu behind the counter, in German and Arabic, offers sandwiches and very well-served dishes, typical desserts, and vegetarian or meat options. The food is not only tasty and authentic, but also quite cheap, with sandwiches for 1.50 euros and dishes for 5 or 6 euros. A tip: for two people, order the Al Andalos dish, which comes with a bit of everything (falafel, halloumi, kafta, Lebanese rice, salad, etc.) for 11 euros. This amazing place with friendly staff is open until very late in the night. Although the food is Lebanese, the background music is usually salsa or flamenco. Hard not to love.

Where: Sonnenallee 40 (between subway stations U Hermannplatz and U Rathaus Neukölln)

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Al Andalos in Neukölln
  • 5) Burgermeister

Another example of the “it-had-to-be-in-Berlin”: Burgermeister is a street burger place located beneath the tracks of a subway station, where the public toilets of the station used to be! Recently, a “restaurant version” branch opened near the original one. The name is a wordplay: Bürgermeister (with umlaut) means “mayor” in German, but in this case they are referring to the “master” (meister) of burgers.

Where: original “kiosk” version at the U Schlesischer Tor subway station and the “fastfood restaurant” version at U Kottbusser Tor.
www.burgermeister.berlin

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Burgermeister at U Schlesischer Tor

Other places to eat a good hamburger in Berlin:

Kreuzburger (another wordplay!): has 3 stores in Berlin (Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg) that stay open until late or make deliveries. Make sure to order the sweet potato fries!! It’s one of the things I most love in this city.
www.kreuzburger.de

The Bird: a very famous restaurant. It’s best to book a table in advance and go with some time to spare, because it usually takes a while for the burgers to be served (2 locations: subway stations S+U Schönhauser Allee and U Schönleinstr).
www.thebirdinberlin.com

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Kreuzburger and their divine sweet potato fries

Guten Appetit!  : )

The phases of learning a foreign language

idiomas

Thinking about it, I’ve already spent over 16 years (around 60% of my life) learning 3 foreign languages. I’ve always studied languages in parallel to my main activity (school, university, work) and – due to lack of time – never in an intensive or full-time mode. And I feel that I go through different phases in the process of learning a new language. Nothing that is an absolute truth or scientifically proven just a conclusion based on personal observation. I’ll use the German language as an example, since it’s the one I’m currently learning.

Phase 1: The initial shock

The experimental phase. You just started learning the language. Everything is new. You still don’t know what exactly to expect, and it’s too early to have a verdict. At first sight, the language seems to be a lot more complicated than you imagined.
Frequent thoughts:

  • If in the first couple of German classes I learned that “excuse me” is ENTSCHULDIGUNG, imagine what is coming next!
  • Who said that German is similar to English?!
  • I wonder if I’ll ever be able to say with confidence that I speak this language…

Phase 2: The exponential progress

The initial scare is over. You’ve grown to accept that German has 4 cases, 3 genders, inverted tens and units digits, verbs at the end of sentences and super long words. It doesn’t surprise you anymore. You’ve got the hang of it. Every class you learn something new. You really feel that you’re improving each day, which gives you motivation to keep going. You can even have simple conversations and understand what others are saying – at least the topic.
Frequent thoughts:

  • Oh look, I was able to understand this Internet joke in German! That’s amazing!
  • Sure, I don’t know everything yet and I make many mistakes, but that’s to be expected, given the level which I’m in.
  • You know, German is actually not that hard.

Phase 3: The bipolarity: pride vs. frustration

You’ve been studying that language for some years and are now at an advanced level. All the grammar has already been taught, there are not many new topics, and everything is basically just revision and exercises. It’s not every day that you feel like you’ve learned something new, which can be frustrating. You’re able to communicate, you get around quite well, talk to everyone, but you’re not 100% confident yet. You make mistakes and often miss some vocabulary. You feel like you DO know the language, but not as much as you would like to. Self-demand and other people’s expectations are high, given the elapsed time. Sometimes, you think you know a lot and feel super comfortable with the language; other times, you feel that there is so much more that you don’t know yet and that it will still take quite a lot to achieve proficiency. If someone asks you if you speak German, the answer is: YES – but not exactly fluently. Your German friends compliment you on your language skills and this makes you proud. You try to remember that positive feeling to keep motivated.
Frequent thoughts:

  • Wow, I just debated a complicated topic in German… I didn’t know I was capable of all that.
  • Why did I make that stupid grammar mistake? I should know that by now.

Phase 4: At last, the effortless proficiency

Now you feel reassured. You can have conversations with any native speaker without a problem. You know difficult and specific terms. You live the language. The construction of sentences comes naturally, without having to think before speaking or writing. If you make a mistake, you realize it immediately and correct yourself. Usually you only realize you’re in this phase after having been there for a while.


When we place these phases in the famous “learning curve”, it looks like this:
phasesincurve

As to German, I’m currently in phase 3, dreaming of phase 4. Since I unfortunately don’t have all the time in the world to dedicate to studying the language, I try to find a balance between perfectionism and resignation. I have to constantly remind myself that I should always aim at improving, but without demanding too much from myself. The key is having constant exposure to the language. Slow and steady.

How the German school system works

classroom

The German school system is quite different and curious.

The first level, equivalent to pre-school, is Kindergarten – a famous German word that is also used in English. It is not mandatory in Germany; parents decide whether or not to enroll their children. Then comes Grundschule, the elementary or primary school. It lasts 4 years, usually from ages 6 to 10. Starting from Grundschule on, education is mandatory (and free!) for everyone.

Until that point it is quite similar to other countries. It starts to look different at the end of Grundschule.

When the child is almost finishing Grundschule, around the age of 10, a decision needs to be made: which of the 3 types of school he/she will pursue. This is usually decided by the teachers and advised to the parents, based on the child’s school transcripts.

Now let’s go through the different types of schools: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium.

Putting euphemisms aside and explaining it in a clear, straightforward way (as the Germans do): the difference between these 3 schools is the level of difficulty and demand on the students.

Hauptschule is the easiest school out of the three, demanding less from the students. Realschule is the one with intermediate level of difficulty and demand. Gymnasium is the hardest one, where the intellectual demand is the highest of the three and the student has to dedicate more time and effort to the studies. At the end of Gymnasium the students take an exam called Abitur (also referred to as Abi), which is somehow similar to the SAT in the U.S. or the Baccalauréat in France. The student who does not have high enough grades to pursue the Gymnasium straight after primary school can still (given that his/her performance improves) attend Realschule first and then Gymnasium, or even take a longer path of Hauptschule, then Realschule and then Gymnasium.

But what about those who attended Hauptschule and/or Realschule, without having finished Gymnasium and Abitur? They pursue vocational training, or technical courses.

Something one should know about German society:

In Germany, a university diploma is not a necessary requirement to land a good job with a good salary. That’s because there are hundreds of vocational training courses (Ausbildung), which are schools that prepare people for all the non-academic professions. For example: retailer, mechanic, hair dresser, product designer, dental assistant, among many others. And all professions are relatively well-paid. Of course some get better salaries than others, but the discrepancy is not as big as in my home country Brazil, for example. This results in a society with skilled workers in all areas, of both manual and intellectual labor. Each technical course lasts at least 3 years, and the apprentice has to go through theoretical and practical training and evaluations to be able to practice the profession. While in Brazil it’s very common to hire an electrician, for example, only based on referral, in Germany one can, in theory, trust any professional electrician, as they are all equally well-qualified.

Therefore, it is natural that not all Germans decide to go to university – since there are other attractive options where one can start working and earn money sooner. Some people also say that those who go to university spend years learning many things in theory but, at the end of the day, have no work experience and don’t know how the profession works in “real life”.

Indeed, a store salesperson probably does not earn the same amount as a medical doctor – but he/she earns enough to live well. In Germany each person has the opportunity to make the professional choice they consider best for themselves.


Pros and cons of the German education system:

  • CONS:

It is quite segregationist, since students are divided into schools of different difficulty levels.

It is a way of labeling students by their potential, and judge them for their school grades.

Kids are forced to decide on their future at only 10 years of age. They are too young to know what they will want to do afterwards.

If the children from Hauptschule were surrounded by dedicated classmates during high school, as the ones from Gymnasium, maybe that would motivate them to study more.

  • PROS:

This system is already so embedded in the German culture that they don’t see it as segregationist. Children grow up knowing this is how it works, and nobody thinks of it as ‘perverse’.

Different people have different rhythms and interests. Not everyone is meant for university. Not everyone is willing to study really hard at school.

A society is not and shouldn’t be made of only intellectuals, but also of skilled workers from all areas.

Placing all students in one single type of school would mean to slow down the ones who are willing to study harder because of those who prefer to pursue the path of technical training.

The decision is not irreversible. There is mobility and the students can change their minds and swap their school type if they want to and show interest for it.


This is a basic summary of the main points of the school system in Germany. It varies a bit from state to state and there are some exceptions, such as the school that integrates the Hauptschule and Realschule (Integrierte Sekundarschule) and the Gesamtschule.

I find some points very interesting, but disagree with others. But in general, this curious school system seems to work, and is strongly related to the job market and to the German society.

Germany’s Romantic Road

rothenburgThe Romantic Road (in German, Romantische Strasse) is a route that leads through several small medieval towns and villages of Bavaria, in Southern Germany. It’s a region known for its castles, vineyards and colorful half-timbered houses (typically German). The full road is 350 km long and goes from Würzburg to Füssen (where the Neuschwanstein Castle is).romantischestrassekarte

Which towns to visit

This theme route was created by tourism agents in the 1950’s as a marketing strategy to encourage tourists to visit those small villages. In fact, nowadays there is also a Romantic Road in the South of Brazil.
But the main destinations to visit on the Romantic Road in Germany are:

  • Würzburg
    wuerzburg wuerzburg2
    Würzburg shares many similarities with Prague, such as a bridge with statues (which resembles the Charles Bridge) and a fortress on the mountain top on the other side of the river (Festung Marienberg), giving the city a fairy-tale look.
  • Rothenburg ob der Tauberrothenburg2Rothenburg is the most famous town in the Romantic Road and perhaps the most charming one in Germany. Walking along its streets makes one feel like in a Disney World park (that is, it’s lovely).
  • Dinkelsbühl
    dinkelsbuehl dinkelsbuehl2
    Dinkelsbühl is a small historic and preserved town that still has walls and towers from the Medieval times. And (many) colorful houses.
  • Nördlingen
    noerdlingen noerdlingen2
    Like Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen is also surrounded by old medieval city walls. Seen from above, the city is shaped like a circle and displays 5 equidistant towers in the perimeter (perfect for those who love symmetry, like me). Fun fact: Nördlingen is shown in the original version of the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
  • Neuschwanstein CastleneuschwansteinThe Neuschwanstein Castle in Füssen needs no introduction. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Germany. The best view spot to admire it is from the Marienbrücke bridge. The Hohenschwangau Castle can also be seen nearby.

How to get there and to go around

The best way to go along the route is by car. There are also bus tour companies, and some people even make the journey on bicycles! However, if you don’t have much time to spend and would like more freedom to choose where to go, taking a car would be ideal. Inside each town it’s perfectly possible to walk around – they are all very small.
The road is in general well signposted, with road signs indicating the Romantische Strasse. Before going, we thought the Romantic Road itself would be a longer, slower path going through all villages, parallel to the fast lane (Autobahn). But actually, most times the Romantic Road was being indicated on the Autobahn itself. So this route is not just a road per se, it is the whole region.
Coming from a different country, the closest airports to the Romantic Road are Frankfurt (north of the route) and Munich (south of the route). And, of course, you can make the journey in any of the directions (north-south or south-north).

How much time to spend

That depends a lot on how many towns you want to visit. The complete road comprises 27 small towns and villages. To visit the main destinations on the circuit presented here, you’ll need at least 3 days. I’d recommend: 1 day in  Würzburg; 1 day in Rothenburg + Dinkelsbühl + Nördlingen; and 1 day in Füssen. As the route is very customizable, more days could be added to also visit Munich, for example, or other villages along the road.

romantischestrasse2The Romantic Road is a great choice for those who want to visit medieval, picturesque and typically German towns of Bavaria (Bayern, in German).

To see more pictures, click here.

What it is like to live in Berlin

berlin
Photo by Mari Cerdeira

Berlin is a big, cosmopolitan, young, alternative, lively, laid-back, cool city.

It has people from all tribes. On the subway you will see a blue-haired girl sitting next to a white blond child, next to a rastafari guy, next to a Turkish family, next to Spanish tourists. Berlin is diversity!

Berlin has even been elected the most fun city in the world.

Living in Berlin means always having something to do. Every weekend you can find out a new nice place that you didn’t know before.

It means living in an inexpensive city! – With a law that limits rent prices.

Germany is an affordable country, by Western European standards. And, within Germany, the cost of living in Berlin is way lower than those of other cities, such as Munich or Hamburg, for example.

“Berlin is not Germany.”

Berlin is very different from Southern Germany. It is not conservative, and not as flawless. And not as wealthy either.

It’s a city that is booming and transforming itself at this very moment. It’s very different from what it used to be 20 years ago, and will be very different 20 years from now.

It has a very strong urban and artistic culture. And restaurants from all countries. And very well-known nightclubs – especially famous for their electronic music.

It’s living in a multifaceted city. Some neighborhoods are very residencial, others very touristic, others very hipster, others super fancy. Berlin is the result of an amazing mixture of several elements.

“Berlin is the New York of Europe.”

It’s a city with a very efficient public transportation system that covers all places. And that has no turnstiles for control.

Living in Berlin is being able to go back home from the bar or club by subway. That’s because public transportation runs 24 hours the whole weekend. (!!!!) And on week days? The subway closes at around 1 am, but there are still buses running all night long. You don’t really need to take taxis.

It’s a flat city, great to move around on a bike too.

In general it’s very safe but, being a big city, it DOES have pickpockets, and one should keep an eye on their belongings.

It’s a very green city, with many parks and lakes (40% of the total city area!).

The outskirts of Berlin, not too far, already feel like a different world. One can live very close to the excitement of the city and still have a house with a backyard like in the movies.

It’s a city that exhales history.

Many people speak English here, but not everyone.

It’s a city where temperatures range from -7 to 37 degrees Celsius.

A city with many train stations, a gigantic central station, and 2 airports (because the airport that is going to replace the 2 existing ones is taking forever to open).

It’s living in a city that changes when spring and summer arrive. The sunshine and heat modify the city’s vibe completely. Everyone goes outside, the sun sets a lot later, there are festivals and open-air events everywhere…


Is it too obvious that I like living in Berlin? =)

7 thoughts to help dealing with homesickness

saudade

“So you love to live there and you’re already quite used to your life abroad, but… Don’t you feel really homesick?”

This is one of the most frequently asked questions to people who live abroad. And with me it’s not different.

The answer I always give is: of course I miss my family, my friends, the weather, the food, and my home country itself. Some days the feeling is stronger than the others. But in general it is a bearable homesickness, and not an undermining one.

With time, one ends up developing “techniques” to deal with homesickness. And I’m going to tell you mine. These are points which I try to remind myself of when homesickness tries to strike.

  1. Life if full of choices

“Either this, or that”, as Brazilian writer Cecília Meireles would say. “It’s a pity we can’t be in two places at the same time”.

One of the things that activates homesickness the most is to keep thinking about all the enjoyable things that you are “missing” in your hometown. Indeed, there are many nice things happening there in your absence, but it’s a trade-off: you are not living several things there in order to live several others here. It’s important to focus on all the things you are profiting from being where you are, instead of the things you are missing in your home country. Be happy in the here and now.

“It is shocking and liberating – nobody needs you to keep living their lives”
(quote from the blog Antônia no Divã)

  1. My life abroad pleases me

In order for method #1 to work, it’s crucial that you are happy with your new home. Sure, no place is perfect, and everybody has their problems, but it’s important to clearly know your goals and reasons for living where you live. For those who live in a foreign country out of obligation and not personal choice, or hate their job, or left a partner back home, homesickness tends to feel a thousand times stronger. It’s essential to enjoy (if possible, love) living in your new city and to build a life (including housing, work, friends, social life and hobbies) that gives you pleasure.

  1. Leaving the comfort zone is part of the experience

As said in point #1, thinking about all the things that are better back home causes homesickness. The same way, thinking about everything that is worse in your new home place also leads to comparisons and, consequently, homesickness.

They say you need to have an ‘open mind’ to live in a foreign country, and boy that is true! Is winter in Europe freezing cold? OH YES. Do I hate cold? Very much! But I’m willing to try to put up with it, for some months a year. Are some Germans rude? Sure. But this actually makes me develop ways of communicating with different types of people, as I was previously used to dealing only with smiley folks. Everything depends on the point of view.

Some people don’t like changes and simply do not want to change. And that’s OK! Each person has their personality. But whoever wants to be happy while living abroad must be willing to live differently. Do I really suffer for not eating typical food from my country every day? Not really.

  1. Gotta love the Internet!

In this wonderful age of technology and globalization, it gets very easy and practical to keep in touch across countries. I always try to stay updated about my friends’ lives, even from afar. I try to catch up on how they are, what they have been up to and what their future plans are. And every time I see something that reminds me of someone back home, or when I have something to tell them, I immediately send them an audio message, a link, or a photo.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same when you talk to a friend over Skype, Whatsapp or Facebook…
In person is a lot better.”

FOR SURE in person is way better, and there is no social media that can replace a hug, or your presence in the flesh at your cousin’s wedding, or at father’s day lunch. That is unquestionable. But… it’s already a BIG help. I talk to my parents on Skype at least some 3 times a week. My mom in fact says that I talk to her more when I’m abroad than when I’m in Brazil visiting, when I have to share the attention amongst so many relatives and friends (lol). Which brings me to the fifth point…

  1. Soon it’s time to visit home

And what a happy time that is!!!

I try to go to my home country at least once a year. And, having many friends and relatives and only a few weeks to visit, I try to optimize my time there. I schedule each hour of each day to visit someone and/or some place and/or to eat some typical food. If possible, all these options together.

I also prefer to go for Christmas and New Year’s because it’s precisely during this time that most people get together for the season’s celebrations. This way it gets a lot easier to meet with different groups of friends and catch up with many of your loved ones at the same time. Making the most of each visit is essential (and sufficient) to be able to reset homesickness back to zero – at least for a while.

  1. It’s not just because I live far away that I don’t see all my friends all the time

When I’m in Brazil catching up with a group of friends, it’s very common for me to hear:

“You know, we meet only once a year, but when I think about it… I see these other friends here maybe twice, 3 times a year tops. And they actually live in the same city as I do.”

This is a fact which, although pitiful, comforts me. I try to remember this when I think that back home everybody gets together all the time and I’m the only one far away, excluded. Truth is everyone has their life, their work, their everyday obligations, and can’t always see friends, even those who live close by (which is a shame). And when I’m in Brazil visiting, my friends make an extra effort to be with me, because they know I’m not there all the time. Such a privilege!

Besides, my friends from Brazil very often communicate with each other through… that’s right, Whatsapp and Facebook! The same way I do with them.

This is my “in case it makes you feel better” reminder.

  1. What is true, remains

We all change with time – whether you live abroad or in your hometown. People change, circumstances change, but friendships not necessarily. Every time I go to Brazil, I’m able to look up close and feel lucky to see that my relationship with friends and dear relatives hasn’t changed. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed: when I am with them, it feels like I had been there all along.

And then I think: PHEW! =)

“True friendship is not about being inseparable,
it’s being separated and nothing changing”

And that certainty is greater than any homesickness.