After seven days of riding down the Rhine I was ready for a break. Tubingen wasn’t originally where I had intended on stopping. In fact I wanted my journey to take me to the Czech Republic and then through Austria but I realised that that may have been a bit ambitious so I decided to take advantage of an invite that I had received from a friend I had made at the 2015 Capoeira Camp. Elif Sophie, a German of Turkish descent, had asked if I would like to stay when I passed through. A free place to stay with a someone you already know should never be sniffed at.
I arrived in Tubingen at night and had to push my bike up a massive cobbled street with the help of a passerby. When I got to Elif’s digs I didn’t quite know whether I had found the right place. Her student house looked like something you might see in a Harry Potter film. When she finally came out to meet me I was lead into the reception hall of a mansion, a former university fraternity house that had abandoned the exclusive pretence of the fraternity system in favour of a very German postwar social-democratic philosophy. However I was told by Elif’s housemate, an American by the name of Michael, that there are still some exclusive fraternities some of which have only men and verge on the far right side of the political spectrum. The people I met from the different houses were really interesting; they were studying subjects like neuroscience, archaeology, nanotechnology among others.
Michael Hollingsdale and Max Street were my two companions and guides during my stay mainly because Elif had a lot of work and they happened to have time on their hands… oh to be a student again! Tubingen reminded me a lot of my own student life in Edinburgh. A charming town set into the hills of southern Germany between the Neckar and Ammer rivers about 30km from the state capital of Stuttgart. The university is world renowned for Science, Archaeology, Anthropology and a host of other specialisms, the town is also home to three of the many Max Planck Institutes, one specialising Biological Cybernetics. The geek in me wanted to visit but alas the chance did not arise so I’ve vowed to return one day perhaps in an academic capacity.
The plan was to stay for three days in the end. Three days turned into to four, four turned into five until by the time I had to leave it had been one week and I had helped my temporary housemates to win a competition organised by a rival house.
Games ranged from capture the flag, a paper-scissors-rock game where winners evolved to higher life forms loser devolved back to earlier life-forms. There was a game in which you had to write words with your bum that your team mates had to guess (this was particularly funny to watch) but impossible for me to get as the word were in German. There was also a flag making competition and parade as well as a man versus food challenge to eat some sort of giant maggots or grubs. My personal favourite was a game in which you have to find the ‘uncoolest’ way to make a ball go over a line. I decided to do an impression of a heavily pregnant young woman smoking and drinking then suddenly giving birth to the ball while continuing to smoke and drink. As it turns out the Germans don’t think pregnant young mothers smoking and drinking is cool so I was voted the winner, which was nice.
I was to the games by Pablo whom if I remember correctly was Argentinian in origin and a was a natural leader and veteran of the house. Beer drinking was happening throughout, this was Germany after all, and food was served up by members of the house organising the whole thing. At the end of the day there was a party in the field where the games were held. Alba, one of the girls from house Lichenstein, said with a look of worry that now that we had won the competition is was on them to organise it for next year. It’s a lots of work and they have to come up with games and activities to out do the previous year’s organisers
I couldn’t help thinking to myself that despite the awesome time I had at Edinburgh I could not recall such interactions between the different students, all of different ages, except within the university societies. There were even children and young families involved in the festivities. I think in comparison the UK has quite a rigid hierarchy between the ages groups and it was refreshing to see a different type of student life and talk to people who were very engaged politically and socially within the university.
I had a chance to take a capoeira class back at the house thanks to the fact that Elif invited her teacher to use the amazing banquet hall to teach. I was also treated to a performance of the band she sings in as they practiced in a room in the house which they usually use for parties. Did I mention this place is a rabbit warren. Fifteen people living together, sharing food and social spaces among themselves and with the community at large.
The garden was huge tiered hill and extended down the about 300 yards complete with lawns, BBQ area and a treehouse that a former member of the house had constructed which someone now lives in.
One morning I ventured out with Max to pick elderflowers growing on the hill to make elderflower cordial. One of his jobs is to bail out the punt belonging to the house. It lay at the bottom of the hill on the river. It can rain a lot in Tubingen something he didn’t realise when he volunteered for the task he told me, this results in a lot of hiking up and down the hill for him.
One of the other members of the house, a Greek girl named Deborah specialising Paleolithic Archaeology invited me to her institute after I mentioned that I had studied Classical Archaeology. Again my inner geek took over and I got to see specimens from a site near Tubingen and she explained how she has to stare at these fragments everyday and decipher what the different marks on them were, whether it was a stone tool, if a bone was using these tools or whether striations were caused by animals like hyenas gnawing on the bones. Suffice it to say it is a laborious process.
We talked about the merits of the narratives that archaeologists like to create to explain their finds – essentially they make up stories to fit what they have found. It’s funny that we need to create stories to make sense of things. In reality we really don’t know much about the daily life of a Neanderthal from looking at a bunch of old bone fragments and yet with more data, more information we can piece together perhaps a fragment of a day in the life of early hominids and maybe use anthropology to guess at other common behaviours.
The whole experience triggered an idea for a possible PhD topic that I’m considering researching. I haven’t thought about pursuing something in the academic world since the rather disappointing experience I had on my Masters course. Despite spending a stupid amount on the course my interactions with my tutors followed this formula:
A brief introductory lecture into something complex like 3D Modelling in Maya, then a practical assignment followed by the advice to ‘learn from your peers and use Google’. So basically I was paying £5000 to use the design studio and the computers therein – the taught part of my Masters was a joke.
Despite this I learned the digital skills I now use everyday though at the time coming from a Classics background it felt like climbing an impossibly high wall without a rope or crash mats. The architect who was head of the program was more keen on promoting his own books in the lectures and having intellectual discussions on design rather focusing on practical teaching. With titles like Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor I wasn’t exactly rushing out to buy his ponderous tomes. I was probably more suited to something like ‘An Idiots guide to Wanky Intellectual Masturbation’. Anyway back to Tubingen.
My final day was at last spent with Elif. Shoe took me to the best falafel place in town for lunch and then she also gave me a tour of her Anthropology department, another Harry Potter-esque affair at the top of a massive hill. It was an old castle complete with bridges. Some of the wood carvings in her building had been created during the reign of the Nazis and bore some their influences inspired by German folkloric myth and naturalism – in the photos here you can clearly see a swastika on the staircase.
The whole experience left me wanting more and reignited some passions that I hadn’t thought about in quite some time. Perhaps I’m being sentimental or nostalgic, yearning for that student life again but perhaps we lose something when we join the professional world and we no longer the time to think, have meaningful discussions, joke around, play games and music and generally be inspired by other people from different backgrounds expanding our minds and experimenting with who we are.
Studying at Tubingen will set you back something like 140 Euros a term and, if you’re lucky enough to be invited to live in one of those former frat houses, your rent is negligible. Alas the UK opted out of the EU so chances of affordable study may become a distant memory. I really feel we’ve lost something in the UK in terms of how we approach education and probably even life in general. Education to an Englishman is for getting a job in an ever diminishing market of shit jobs half of which don’t require a university education anyway.
Long live the students of Tubingen, their free spirited antics and studying what you love because you can. Many thanks to my hosts for welcoming me into their home and treating me as one of their own. Beware I may return to resume my role as the dude on the couch sooner than rather than later!