Xu Shijie, Sherry
University of Mannheim, Germany
I waited for celebrities to arrive on the red carpet for the Berlinale opening ceremony for four hours!. The Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) ranks as one of the world's top three festivals alongside with Cannes and Venice. As a filmophile, it is also the reason why I chose Germany for exchange. Unfortunately, I lost the best position to request autographs since I was interviewed by a local film critic newspaper, Cult. The red carpet session officially opened at 7:30 pm, but the fan area was packed since 4:30 pm. Even though it was snowing, I still felt the energy and enthusiasm of fans from all over the world.
Can you imagine that! I was lucky enough to get a ticket online to the premiere screening of the Isle of Dogs by Wes Anderson (director of The Grand Budapest Hotel). In fact, the online tickets were sold out in a trice, considering that it was the first time that an animation film opened for the Berlinale. It was also my first time to walk the red carpet and watch a film with more than 1500 audience members. What a large screening hall! The film was originally in Japanese and English, with German subtitles only, so I had to listen very carefully to every line to follow the story.
I was invited to a potluck dinner party yesterday, where everyone had to bring a homemade – and hopefully distinctive – dish to share. We ended up with a feast! The host was my flatmate, Veronica, who is a master’s student from Bulgaria. Veronica also invited a couple of her classmates from Russia, Germany, and Taiwan. They made a Russian salad, Bulgarian banista (a type of pastry), Japanese curry, and more. I decided to make a classic Sichuan dish – Kung Pao Chicken. However, considering that the others (especially the European girls) could not handle spicy food, I attempted to localize my dish with less chili and more sugar. Surprisingly, it was still too spicy for them and Veronica even had to drink water to relieve herself from the burning sensation. To my delight, they still thought it was delicious and cleared the plate.
Being surrounded by a bunch of like-minded people is absolutely wonderful. Last week, I joined a university society – CineAsta (in German, Asta is short for The General Students' Committee), which shows free weekly screenings of specially selected films in their original language. My duty is to help set up everything before the screening and sell fresh popcorn (made by myself!) with a selection of drinks.
In fact, I was always curious about how they solve copyright issues, and last night Manuel (the PIC of CineAsta) told me that they paid major studios for broadcasting rights every year, with the admission of university students only.
As for film selection, they always try to find a good mix of genres and popularity, and therefore include a variety of genres such as independent films, but this usually ends with only a few left in the audience. Manuel was quite frustrated when he found out that last night we had 60+ audience members for Get Out, which is nominated for 4 Oscars, whereas only 7 viewers attended America Mistress two weeks ago.
I didn’t know how to comfort him. There is no denying that people tend to refuse films they have never heard of and turn a blind eye to those hidden gems. It’s also true about life – we have to step outside our comfort zone, push boundaries, and start new adventures to live a lively life. And exchange is definitely a perfect opportunity to cultivate your openness to experience and explore your inner and outer self!
The International Dinner was a perfect cultural exchange experience, where I got to taste a variety of culinary specialties, while offering delicacies from my home country. I made spicy eggplant with minced pork and chilli bean paste; and to my great pleasure, they were almost all finished by the end of the event. In turn, I was able to try really interesting foods, for example Finnish salty black liquorice, Colombian sweets, and an alcoholic beverage called sangria (originally from Portugal and Spain, here it was showcased at the French counter). What impressed me most was this very hospitable Egyptian guy. He invited my friend Isa and I over to his counter and we chatted for an hour about why he came to Mannheim and the revolution in Egypt. Overall, it was a great night.
Last night, we had a meal made by two ‘Master Chefs’. Franziska and Julia cooked a delicious salmon risotto. An interesting fact is that I had met them before and was invited to dinner shortly after adding Franziska on WhatsApp. Franziska will go on exchange to CityU next semester. The highlight was actually the five-hour fascinating dinner table conversation where I learned a lot about German culture. For example, Franziska told me that Germans had a weak sense of national identity, as a result of WWII, except when it comes to the World Cup! Besides, there are 35 dialects of the German language. As a result, they can’t always understand each other, although they can understand Dutch somehow.
As I was born and raised in Southern China, I always feel excited when it snows. I know it’s quite silly, but please don’t laugh! This was my reaction when I saw snow in Mannheim a few days ago: at 8:30 pm, I noticed that it was snowing. I put on my coat and rushed to the supermarket (supermarkets usually close at 9 pm in Mannheim), as I thought I should grab some drinks and food to celebrate the snow. With a bottle of spirits and a tub of chocolate ice cream, I came back to my dorm, turned off the lights, and lit a vanilla candle. Leaning on the windowsill, I enjoyed the snow outside my window.
I couldn’t ask for a better host than the Sebastians. They gave me a helping hand when my last host canceled my stay due to an unexpected business trip. They lived in a renovated apartment in a house built in 1815. The French always seem to preserve their historical buildings quite well, don’t you agree? The old-fashioned spiral staircase, retro carpets, and green doors threw me back to the Renaissance era. However, you shouldn’t be misled by appearance! All of the furniture and equipment inside was super modern and smart.
My host, Mr. Sebastian is a typical romantic and artistic Parisian with a passion for art, photography, and music. He took me to one of the most prestigious bakeries on the day that I arrived. We had French baguettes and croissants for breakfast with homemade jam and three types of classic French cheese – Brie, Cantal, and Comte. For those who have never tried them, I highly recommend stinky Brie cheese – a sort of soft-ripened cheese which smells like ammonia but tastes awesome (sounds like stinky tofu in China, LOL)!
Bread to the French is like rice to the Chinese – it’s a staple at every meal. The French also like to mop up sauce from their plate with bread, which they refer to as ‘sauçons’. For dinner, we had homemade quiche – a traditional French tart consisting of a pastry crust filled with cheese, seafood, and vegetables. On the left side of plate is Radicchio, also known as Italian chicory, which is usually made into a salad in Europe. It was my first time to taste it and it is rarely seen in Asia I think.
After breakfast, Mr. Sebastian told me about the origins of his collections showcased on a shelf. The most impressive one was an old-school Rolleicord (brand name) medium-format reflex camera with two lenses from his grandfather. It’s always good to know that someone is still collecting these vintage cameras in this age of digital disruption. Mr. Sebastian is also into music. He plays music whenever he is at home, except for bedtime. He also played some songs composed by his friends. I just feel that every Parisian is a born artist!
Paris is more than a tourist attraction. If you just go sightseeing, you can only feel a small proportion of its beauty. So if you get a chance, live here with real Parisians. They will definitely show you a fantastic side of Paris!
I met Tara and Anna in my Couchsurfing host’s house. They were hosted before me and left Paris the day I arrived. They both live in Germany and work as au-pairs for the same host family. Anna is originally from Russia and Tara’s hometown is Bosnia and Herzegovina. What a coincidence that we all live in Mannheim now!
After a friendly chat over breakfast, we decided to explore Paris together. They told me that before moving to Germany, they could speak good English, but now they often mix German with English unconsciously (and it is also the case of another friend of mine). Modern German descended from old German, and both English and German are Western Germanic languages, sharing a great deal of vocabulary and grammatical features. But we could still communicate smoothly anyway.
Anna said that she is smiling a lot more now. If you’ve heard the phrase ‘Russian poker face’, you’ll know that this is definitely a big transformation for Anna. Another Russian friend of mine also joked about stern Russian expressions before. There are two other stereotypes about Russian women: never leaving the house without make-up (my friend’s mom used to spend 20 minutes doing make-up before throwing away rubbish, and it’s only a 2-minute walk, LOL) and wearing high-heels and feminine dresses.
Our first stop was a modern art centre – Pompidou, since Anna’s major is Architecture. She is really into modern arts and so am I! Then we had a Turkish kebab for lunch – kebab shops are everywhere in Europe. In the afternoon, we tried the best ice cream recommended by our host, which tasted more like sorbet. Our trip ended at the lovely Highline Park in Paris. What a lovely day it was with these two amazing girls!
Me and Tara
I met Tara and Anna at my host’s Couchsurfing house. They were already there before I arrived. Tara is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country on the Balkan Peninsula. I’d only ever heard about the country before when we were studying the Bosnian War during my high school geography and history classes. Tara is the first Bosnian I have ever met.
After high school, Tara had wanted to go to the college in Germany. Unfortunately, her family isn’t that well-off so she has had to finance her studies herself. In order to do so, Tara became an au-pair. Doing so would help her to learn more about Germany and would better prepare her for her university application. In addition, her German had reached a proficient enough level after six months with her German host family that she was able to enjoy free education. A fact about free education in Germany: Education in Germany is generally free of charge, except for one state – Baden-Württemberg. Since 2017, universities in Baden-Württemberg have started to charge non-EU students. For Bosnian students like Tara in Baden-Württemberg, if they take courses in German, tuition fees will be waived in most cases. If they choose English-speaking courses, they have to pay for them. This was why Tara had to learn German before she was able to apply to university.
Inspiring stories from people with diverse backgrounds are always the highlight of Couchsurfing. Every now and then, I realize how privileged I am to be supported in every sense by my family. At least, I am able go to university without worrying about my tuition fees. I always thought I was independent enough to handle many difficult situations when studying abroad. However, after hearing Tara’s story, I feel that I am still well-protected by my family and the people around me.
For the first time, I am keenly aware about the benefits of free education, which provides an equal opportunity to people from different family backgrounds. I discussed free education with my German friends, Julia and Franziska, and they both told me that the German government even pays for unprivileged students’ daily expenses, on top of their tuition fees, in order to ensure that they can finish their education without financial burden.
Paying to use a public toilet is a European custom that irks many foreigners, including me. However, I can’t really complain, considering how clean, well-equipped, and maintained they are. Commonly, there are turnstiles at the entrance where you pay with coins prior to entry. In Swiss toilets, there are change machines available for people without coins, but don’t expect too much. If you want, you can leave a tip for the attendant in a dish by the entrance. You can chose the amount, but I suggest the local equivalent of HK$6-8. If you’re lucky enough to use the toilets in Zurich Central Station, then congratulations, you’re going to have to pay HK$20 just for a pee!!
Cedric is my second Couchsurfing host here in Paris. I don’t even know if I have the words to describe such a hospitable and interesting host. He showed me his collection of thousands of films, covering pretty much every genre. Because he watches the films in their original language, Cedric speaks perfect English, unlike most French people who are not very confident speaking in English.
When it comes to cooking, he is also extremely talented. He made Raclette (in French: Racler) for me, a dish where you melt delicious Alpine cheeses over a plate full of potatoes, ham, pickles, and much more. However, when I searched online I found that it’s not actually French, even though Cedric thought it was all his life (since it is also popular in France). The real origin of Raclette is in Switzerland. Most people though, only know of Swiss fondue. So, if you travel to Switzerland and want to try something different, Raclette would be a good choice. That said, French cheeses also deserve a place on your must-try French foods list, along with red wine and pastries.
After dinner, Cedric shared his music, experiences, and life philosophy with me. This really cool guy even stayed in Pyeongchang for two months to report on the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. I have to say, Cedric is the epitome of what Couchsurfing is all about.
Have you ever seen Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen and fallen in love with the illuminated city? Have you ever dreamed about travelling around Paris at night but were worried about your safety? If so, then don’t hesitate to join me and Cedric on our free ‘Paris by Night’ tour, where. Cedric will be our local tour guide. He will tell you all the stories about the landmarks and museums, and take you to the best photo spots that no one else knows about.
Our first stop – Notre Dame. There is always a long queue in front of Notre Dame during the daytime. But don’t worry, there is barely anyone here at midnight. From the back, Notre Dame looks quite spooky. After that, feel free to walk along the nearby Seine and enjoy the breathtaking night view.
In front of you now is the Louvre. The illuminations enhance the architectural details of the palace, with the delicate glass pyramid in the centre of the Napoleon Courtyard.
The Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe are always stunning places to visit at night. The street provides a romantic ambiance and if you want, you can grab a drink from one of the upscale bars along the way. If you want the best shot of the Arc de Triomphe, the waiting zone for the traffic lights in the middle of street is your best choice.
Hurry up! The Eiffel Tower lights up at night and flashes for five minutes each hour on the hour mark. Let’s end our tour with the flashing Eiffel Tower at midnight. Although we can’t travel in time like Gil does in Midnight in Paris, we still hope you enjoyed the trip. See you next time and thanks to our lovely guide Cedric, who took us around.
Paris, a city of lights, is more beautiful than ever at night.
Hanging out with the locals is always the best way to explore a city. They know the ins and outs, the dos and don’ts, the where-to-go’s and the where-not-to-go’s. Pascal and Tarik are the best tour guides I could have wished for. We visited a legendary bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, walked along the Seine, and chatted for an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens.
Pascal is a French-born Chinese who can only speak a little Mandarin, so we communicated in English. He used to be a successful entrepreneur, running a coffee shop and working hard day in and day out. One day however, he decided that life without leisure is not worth living, so he sold his café and started to travel. He is such a thoughtful, passionate, and kind person, who treated me to two meals and showed me around Paris.
Tarik is only half Parisian, originally from Algeria, he is now pursuing his master’s degree in Paris. He told us a great deal about his mother country. Algeria was a French colony for over 100 years, so most Algerians speak fluent French. To my surprise, Tarik explained how the Algerian government provides free education, housing, and food to its citizens due to its profitable oil and gas industry. Unfortunately, rampant corruption is plaguing the country.
Every March, Hong Kong revels in its Arts Month. Global artists present their ideas in various inspiring ways, through cinema, exhibitions, etc. Art Basel, Hong Kong’s world-class art fair, is my favourite. This was the first year I would be absent from the event, so as a substitute, I decided to feast my eyes on chic contemporary art at the Centre Pompidou. My friend told me that the colossal thumb in front of the place embodies human intelligence – the opposable thumb being a result of physical adaptation. To my disappointment, only a few exhibitions were open to the public, but nevertheless I was still delighted to be able to see my favourite minimalist artwork – a simple composition of three colours. All in all, Art Basel surpasses the Centre Pompidou in terms of scale and quality of the art. I really do miss March in Hong Kong, with its wide range of art events.
Spring has finally arrived in Germany. So it was time to go on a picnic! The first step was to find a good spot, and where better than by the river. We had a talented guitarist, Rene from Mexico, who could play loads of songs in both Spanish and English. To my pleasure, he even taught me how to sing Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan. Emelie and Ilona, two Finnish girls, were so considerate, they brought everyone ice creams and snacks. But come on, it’s Germany! You can’t have a lovely spring picnic without refreshing beers. Big thanks to Guy for bringing the icy cold beers. Guy is a lovely Englishman who lived in Hong Kong for seven years when he was a kid. He told me that he loves Hong Kong a lot and will revisit the city in September. I hope we can all meet up in Hong Kong again.