Austria, Graz – Richard Meachin – 2005-2006

Getting to know the city and getting around

When you first arrive in Graz the most important thing to do is get to know your way around the city. Maps are widely available from hotels, tabaks etc. The city itself is split down the centre by the river Mur. Near the river you will find Hauptplatz, which is the main square of the city. From here you can get on most of the trams, although the main transport hub is just down the road at Jakominiplatz, where a network of buses and trams are available going to all parts of the city and beyond. These are two key locations to remember!

The transport system in Graz, as you would expect, is extremely reliable and easy. You can buy tickets for the buses and trams in tabaks or one the bus/tram itself. Once you buy a ticket it is valid on both the trams and buses, so you can hop on and off as much as you like. There are various durations of tickets available; hourly (€1.70), daily (€3.50), weekly (€8.20), monthly and possibly yearly. You simply get the ticket and stamp it (only once) using the time-stamp machines on the tram or bus. The bus/tram numbers are shown on most of the maps. Trams are numbered 1-7.

The main train station in Graz is Hauptbahnhof. This is located on Eggenburgergurtel, which is the other side of the river to Hauptplatz, at the end of Annenstrasse. From Hauptbahnhof you can get pretty much anywhere in the vicinity. The prices of trains are cheaper than in England, and it is worthwhile signing up for a Vorteilskarte, which is the equivalent of the Young Persons Rail Card. From memory I think the discounts are around 30-40%. I often traveled to Vienna for about €30 return.

Then there is Graz airport. Not much to say here as it is tiny. However, it is very modern and rarely busy. Those of you flying with Ryanair from London Stansted to Graz will get to know the airport very well! There is a bus service from the airport calling at Hauptbahnhof, Jakominiplatz and Griesgasse amongst other places which costs the price of an hourly bus/tram ticket. If you are traveling to the airport and have an existing bus/tram ticket, you can use the bus for free. The other option from the airport is a taxi which costs around €15 to Hauptbahnhof. There is also a train from the airport to Hauptbahnhof but I am not sure of the price.

The language and the people

When I arrived in Graz I had only GCSE German and one module at uni under my belt. Needless to say, my German was pretty poor. It was a very scary prospect to be living somewhere I didn’t speak the language very well. However, I was surprised at how much the people understood me, even though I knew I was speaking terrible German! If I couldn’t get my point across my last resort was to ask if people spoke English, which I would say the majority do, at least to a basic level.

The best thing to do is to sign up for the two week intensive language course offered by the university in early September. It does cost around €150 but it is definitely worth it. You are required to take a test in order to determine your lingual ability and be assigned to a class that is at the correct level for you.

I found the course extremely useful in many ways. Obviously it helped my German enormously. I learned more in those two weeks than I had done in the previous year at university. I felt much more confident with my own ability afterwards and made me feel more comfortable with my surroundings. The course is also a great place to meet the other foreign students who are in the same boat as you. My class had around 20 people and a real mixed bunch of nationalities; American, Spanish, Finnish, Polish, Swedish etc.! It is the ideal place to make friends and really settle in to life in Graz. Plus it’s worth 6 ECTS credits!

As I said before, a majority of the Austrians do speak English and they love having the opportunity to show off how good they are! And some of them really are good! On the whole I found the Austrians to be very friendly, contrary to the stereotype. In order to get on with the locals however, you must respect their traditions and ways of doing things. For instance, waiting at the traffic lights until the little man is green before crossing – even if there is nothing coming. And trying not to laugh when you see the men donning their Lederhosen on a Sunday.

I was amazed at how little trouble there is around the city. This is because if you do anything wrong (such as crossing the street on red), a lot of people berate you for it. The Austrians are honest, rule-abiding people and it creates a very peaceful atmosphere around the city. You will notice that there are large colonies of Turkish people in Graz too, so a kebab is never too far away, which is great after a night out! Also, don’t be afraid to check out the Turkish Lebensmittels. Here you can pick up groceries and foreign foods much cheaper than you can in the shops and the shopkeepers are really friendly.

University

There are actually four universities in Graz. Karl-Franzens University (KFU) is one of the biggest and offers courses in the Social Sciences, History, Modern Languages, Chemistry, Medicine and many more. The other big university is the Technical University. They offer courses such as; Engineering, Biochemistry, Astronomy etc. The other two universities are to do with Music and Performing Arts.

KFU is a stunning campus university with really impressive buildings, although the campus isn’t quite as big as Exeter. The Business school at KFU is very modern and stylish. It offers an extensive range of courses taught in both German and English.

On arriving at the business school I was introduced to the Business School Erasmus co-coordinator who gave us a talk on studying in Graz and various other things. There is also an Erasmus co-coordinator who looks after all the incoming Erasmus students. She was incredibly helpful for any problems that I had. KFU has a dedicated time for the Erasmus students so help is never far away, although they are only open for about 3 hours per day so check the opening hours carefully!

As Anne will have mentioned, you are allowed to study whatever you like (within reason), although it should be similar to what you would be studying in Exeter. I chose to study a mixture of Business courses and German language courses to keep progressing with my German. If you do fancy studying some of the courses offered at the other universities it is possible. In Austria they have a strange system where you entitled to sign up at another university and study courses there too. Speak to the Erasmus office if this is something you might want to do.

KFU also has its own sports centre and field called USI. At the start of each semester they offer a huge amount of classes to sign up for, ranging from football to darts. Again, the classes are a great way of meeting people but be aware that not all classes are based at the USI and require some travel around the city.

Cost of Living

In general the cost if living in Graz is cheaper than in England. For instance, the rent I was paying per month averaged at around €200. Food is roughly the same price depending on how fancy you want to be, or even how daring. However, don’t let this trick you in to thinking you will be able to pocket that nice Erasmus grant that you will get. There are always hidden expenses to consider when living away from home. Transport costs around Graz will set you back around €35 per month if you use the tram system. The German language courses need to be paid for; €150 for the two week intensive and about €50 for the modular courses.

On top of that I spent quite a lot on traveling – it is more expensive than you think! So just keep that in mind when planning how much cash you want to throw around at the supermarket or pub! The Erasmus grants are there for a reason, so use them wisely.

Shopping

Shopping in Graz is generally quite good when it comes to clothes and electrical goods. However, large supermarkets like Tesco are few and far between. Instead there are lots of smaller metro style supermarkets where the range of items is adequate but not great. Be aware that on a Sunday pretty much everything closes down as Graz comes to a stand still. The only places open are some Turkish stores and the Spar at Hauptbahnhof. So don’t get caught short needing to buy groceries on a Sunday!

In the mini markets you can buy most of the things you would normally buy in England with a few exceptions. Despite their obsession with pork products, the Austrians have yet to discover the art of making good or any bacon. English style bread is also quite hard to come by, and is often labeled as American! Tea bags are rare and expensive and Marmite doesn’t exist. Apart from that it’s bearable.

There is a big shopping centre including an Ikea at a place called Shopping Centre West. This is located some way out of the city and it accessed by a combination of tram and then bus. You take the no. 5 tram until Puntigam and then get a bus from there to the shopping centre. In total it is about a 20-25 minute journey from Jakominiplatz.

Bars and clubs

Graz has quite a good number of bars and clubs. Most of the latter are found near the university on Elizabethstrasse. Certain nights are dedicated Erasmus nights which are always good fun. Bars and pubs are dotted all over the city. A favourite amongst the English speakers are the two Irish pubs Flann O’Brien (Flanns) and O’Carolans. Both of these can be found just off Hauptplatz. Flanns is on Paradeisgasse (quite an appropriate name) and O’Carolans on the following side street. Both have a great atmosphere with genuine Irish bar staff! Flanns is open all day and in to the early morning whilst O’Carolans is open from 7m until around 4am. Trying the food in Flanns is a must, especially the Fish and Chips. Although once you have been there, you will probably be back most days!

The beer in Austria is one thing I will miss the most, along with the service! You just walk in to a pub, sit down and get table service all night and a tab to pay at the end. A 0.4l (grosses) glass of beer will set you back around €2.90. The local beer is Puntigamer, with the brewery at the end of the no. 5 tram. You can go on a brewery tour with free beer and food for around €5 which is a definite must. Doing the tour with a hangover was maybe not the best idea to make the most of it.

The drinking age in Austria is 16 so don’t be alarmed to see lots of little ‘kids’ in the pubs. Although they aren’t allowed to touch anything stronger than 11% until they are over 18.

Other things to do

There are lots of things to do in the city depending on how you want to spend your free time. There are two cinemas in the city and another large cinema complex at the Puntigam stop of the no. 5 tram. One of the cinemas in the city is the Royal Holloway which shows films in English. It is located about two stops from Jakominiplatz on the no.5 tram in the direction of Puntigam. Tickets cost around €6-8 and it is often so quiet that you can sit pretty much anywhere you like.

If keeping fit is your thing there is a very good and cheap fitness studio at Hauptbahnhof called Fit Inn. For €20 per month you can get free use of the gym and other facilities. Miss Bodybuilder 2003 can often be found flexing her abnormally large muscles in the gym. It is one of the sights in Graz they don’t tell you about! There is also a large swimming pool at Bad Eggenberg located on one of the streets behind Hauptbahnhof.

I decided to leave a lot of the sight-seeing stuff until the end of my stay in Graz but I wish I hadn’t. There is a surprising amount to see and do and it is actually quite fun. I’d recommend just picking up one of the tourist guides and doing a majority of things they suggest throughout the course of your stay.

Overall The year I spent in Graz was one of the best times of my life. It is an opportunity that needs to be grabbed with both hands. Get yourself out and about and just enjoy being in and learning about another country and culture. It is best to go there with an open mind and take everything as it comes. Sometimes it is not all plain sailing and there are some difficulties along the way but that is part of the experience.

The best thing about being abroad for the year was all the different people I met, particularly the other Erasmus students. Everyone bonds quickly because they are all in the same boat and a long way from home. Undoubtedly it was the people who made my year abroad so enjoyable, although the lovely city did play a huge part. My German has definitely improved having studied abroad but I wouldn’t regard myself as fluent. German is a fun language to learn but becoming fluent takes years of continuous learning that I hope to achieve in the future. By the end of my stay I was able to communicate myself clearly with the locals, be understood and understand them. That was the most important thing for me. I am already planning to go back out there soon to see some of the friends I have made. I just wish I could go back a year and do it all over again.

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