It’s been six years since I moved to Germany. I had always wanted to live here, and that luckily became a reality. I took the time to learn the language, read the literature and dabble in the philosophy.
Before coming to Germany I was double-majoring at Portland State University in History and German. I was given the opportunity to come for an exchange semester and ended up staying here. Back when I was asked where I’d like to study here I said Heidelberg. I had been here before and knew the university.
Flash-forward six years. Heidelberg almost feels like my hometown, though I still am part of that amorphous mass that are the “Ausländer.” That nevertheless also means that Germany has become normal for me. That normality was luckily characterized by integration and inclusion and not alienation or, even worse, isolation, as can also be the case. I like it here and I like speaking German, but that initial pull of relative unfamiliarity has faded. Moving abroad is exciting due to the potential for discovery. I’ve been discovering and figuring out Germany for a while now. Can’t say I’ve achieved it because that, if at all possible, would take a lifetime. That’s nevertheless neither the point nor the goal. Yet, with discovery comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes the itch to move elsewhere and repeat the experience. At the same time, I genuinely like it here.
Heidelberg is mainstream. The throngs of tourists that clog the main street in summer know it, and so do the tour organizers who bring them here. The reason for that is: Heidelberg is just beautiful. It makes for a great weekend if you’re a tourist or a great exchange semester if you’re a student. Nevertheless, routine will at some point set it and ruin it for you. I don’t know when that happened in my case but after a while, especially after my first winter here (mild for German standards), I stopped looking at the castle whenever I crossed the Theodor Heuss bridge. Walking through the old town became an annoying chore due to the people for whom doing the exact same thing might have been the highlight of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As bad and unappreciative as that sounds, I still like the city a lot, just in a different way.
Moving to Heidelberg as a foreigner is an interesting experience. Multiculturalism is the norm here. My circle of friends, for example, is made up of Russians, Italians, Colombians, Americans, and Germans. Any party here puts the UN to shame. There are many cities in Germany where to experience academic life, yet Heidelberg is just a city made for students, as though the town had grown around it.
I myself came to Heidelberg the first time I was in Germany back in 2004. I didn’t know back then I’d end up coming back and spending almost 6 years of my life here. Heidelberg is a small baroque city on the Neckar. It’s small and provincial with both lots of conservative older people as well as a large young and educated chunk of people from all over the world. Thus, that “Germanness” we foreign students usually appreciate mixes with the richness of a solid international community.
A former professor of mine once told me “Heidelberg is Disneyland”, and he was right. Heidelberg is a bubble and life here doesn’t really reflect the reality of most other cities in Germany. Heidelberg is both a tourist’s and a student’s paradise. It is clean, small, and safe, and those three things combined usually add up to one: Boredom. Heidelberg is nevertheless not (that) boring if you have the right people around you. For that, it helps to be a student. On the other hand, if you’re a student, your life is basically limited to the city center. Chances are you’ll work in the city center, study in the city center, and go out in the city center, which is basically composed of three streets. (Luckily, should you need your fix of grit, Mannheim is but a 15-minute train ride from here.)
Heidelberg is a city with basically zero venues, few alternative bars, no soccer team, and little excitement but with a beautiful, if small, city center and a prestigious university founded in 1386, being the oldest German university still within the borders of a German state. (The university of Prague is the oldest “German” university.) One of my biggest problems with the city is that it’s incredibly small. I grew up in Guadalajara, a city of over 7 Million people. That’s already twice as big as Berlin. Heidelberg has only about 120,000 inhabitants and is thus the smallest city I’ve ever lived in.
I’m now trying to get a job in Berlin. Though I’ll miss Heidelberg, I did what I had to do here and now it’s time to go. At times I even feel like I’ve been here for too long. Still, looking back this has been a great experience. Graduating twice (BA and MA), loitering by the Neckar with a beer in my hand, grilling, partying at the Villa Nachttanz, going up to the Thingstätte on April 30th, drinking at Betreutes Trinken, etc… I’m also pretty sure I’m the only Mexican who has ever worked as a research assistant at the Seminar for Eastern European History here, and I’ll reminisce of that down the line too. Heidelberg is cool and all, but it’s the kind of town you’ll come to dislike if you stay in it too long. The character of the city is transitory. People come and go. Fuck that “Ich habe mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren” crap. Leave that to André Rieu. Heidelberg is cool and it was an awesome chapter but it’s time to move on.
EDIT: Three days after posting this I got offered a job in Berlin. Ten days after that I was on my way to the capital. Read all about my move here: https://betweendistances.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/take-it-as-it-comes-from-heidelberg-to-berlin-on-a-whim-2/