Back to school: Taking the TISUS test

Paradise for me

Paradise for me

Yesterday, I left Hamburg at 6.45 a.m. to go to Kiel, a city 100 kilometres north. Unlike Hamburg, Kiel still has a university department that teaches Swedish, or rather Scandinavistics, and there I was called to do the TISUS exam. TISUS is recognised by all the universities in Sweden as a statement of eligibility regarding Swedish language proficiency. Unfortunately, the test started at 8.30 a.m., so I was dead tired when I, together with two others, started reading the texts about “torv” (english: turf) as part of the reading comprehension.

It felt just like being back in school and writing a long exam. In German schools, students write six 2-hour-exams every year in every subject (usually you have 10 to 15 subjects, I guess). With a school system like that, you develop exam-skills that you at the latest need when you write your Abitur, the A-Levels, that make you endure four 6-hour-exams. You learn what to eat,  how to cheat,  how to study, and most importantly how to manage your time. When I was in high school, I always had a watch with me and when I got my sheet of tasks, I – even though maths is not my strength – calculated at which time I should be done with which task in order to complete the entire assignment. Well, interestingly enough, these competences seem to be forgotten by the brain after some years. University meant writing long complex papers instead of putting knowledge onto a paper under time pressure (#bulimiastudying). So yesterday when the instructor said, “Ni har tre minuter kvar!” (You have three minutes left), I had ten unanswered questions…Luckily, I work okay under pressure and managed to scribble down the answers to “Who can get legal aid?” (Not all texts were about turf…).

After the test, I met my aunt Karin who took me to the Baltic Sea

After the test, I met my aunt Karin who took me to the Baltic Sea

TISUS consists of the reading comprehension, an oral exam and an essay. The essay had a political topic asking about “global development, is the world changing for better or worse?” In early stages of high school, we used to first write our notes, then write the entire essay as a draft to then copy the whole thing in the neatest handwriting. I considered that yesterday but deemed the time to short. So instead I found myself taken back in time to 13th grade where one wrote all these little asterixs because “ah, I forgot to mention this” and the words above other words because “I guess this needs a preposition”. It was really just like being back in school!

Love in the Scandinavian languages

Love in the Scandinavian languages


Given the political topic, I got a bit carried away I guess, phrases like “leva på andras bekostnad” (to live on others’ expenses), “klyftorna ökar” (the social gap grows) as well as “miljöproblem”(environmental problems) and”rättvis handel” (fair trade) lined up in my 711 words. (Remember counting words in your essays in the end of an exam? So terribly annoying.) I might blame my friends for my green-left plea that I submitted, or differently phrased: Josefine will be proud of me! And Magdalena. And Martina. And Annika. Nils as well. You get the idea.

Something that is funny with me and languages, and especially the Swedish language, is that I have some kind of register even beyond passive vocabulary. The definition of passive vocabulary is that you understand when you see them but you do not actively use them. I have an instinctive vocabulary: I want to write something and in the very last corner of my mind I find a word, like huruvida, and I am not even sure if the word exists and unsure whether it means what I think it means at all. And then in 99% of cases, it turns out to exist and mean what I think. I never trust this guessing vocabulary though, I always think I’ll make a fool of myself next time I try. (I am more often wrong when it comes to articles, prepositions and conjugations. Can’t trust instinct there.)

The oral exam was on gender roles and I told the instructor about my all girls’ school, my female Swedish bosses and how German men usually don’t dress as elegantly as Swedes. This time, I made sure I had my phone counting the minutes. When I took my oral Abitur exam, I spoke so quickly that I was done with the assignment in 7 instead of 25 minutes and the teacher had to start asking me questions about a topic that was not on the agenda. That didn’t happen this time! 😉

The room we were sitting in was albeit being borderline filthy, a paradise for me: lots of Swedish language books and beautiful posters for scientific gatherings. The thing that impressed me most at Kiel university was the art on their library, the writing “Some glow” and on the other corner, “When you read them”. So beautiful, so poetic, so true. 

somw glow

My communist university


When I declared seven years ago that I would begin my studies at the University of Bremen, a close family member patted my arm and said worryingly, “Are you sure about this? Do you think you will get a job with a degree from The Red University?” My first alma mater has quite a reputation in Germany and especially in the Catholic, conservative region where I partly grew up. Revolutionary, left, communist are some of the attributes to describe the “reform-uni” that was founded in the 1970s.

I might as well admit it, I chose this university because of the fabulous city it was situated in. Back then, the criteria were

a)      does the city have a large railway station? b) does the city have an airport with a direct flight to Stockholm? c) does the city have an IKEA? d) how many cinemas does the city have? E) does the university require tuition fees?

Perfectly reasonable criteria, aren’t they?

Bremen won the race maybe because of its Semesterticket, a railway ticket for students that each university negotiates herself. In Hamburg, students only get to go in the city itself, Bremen has negotiated probably the best Semesterticket in Germany. For 80 euros a semester, we travelled for free three hours in every direction. Hamburg, Hannover, Holland? Just jump onto the next train.

Not only because of the Semesterticket (can you imagine the post-university shock we all suffered realizing we actually have to PAY for travelling ?) Bremen holds a special part in my heart. It is here I grew into an adult. My eyes lighten up when someone mentions the town. Visits to Bremen are almost mandatory whenever I am in Germany, and so I made my way there yesterday.

Just like with Stockholm, you pass the water when you come in with the train or bus, and what the sight of Stadshuset does to me in Stockholm, is the Schlachte river bank for Bremen. The rich history of hundreds of years of successful trading in the Hanse union (quote my mother, “Go to Bremen to study, it’s a Hanseatic city and Hanseatic people are always cosmopolitan and pleasant!”) are displayed on this river bank with the pretty houses.


Guessing game: how much did this cost? (Not a menu, freely chosen.)


When you exit the central station, it is more ugly beauty that sweeps you off your feet. I walk to tram number 6 in a trance, this is still my territory. This is one of two, maybe three, cities in the world where I know my way. What a feeling.

I know how to run and take shortcuts, and look, that’s that dubious club we partied at until 7 in the morning. The announcements on the tram are like the voice of a friend. Here was my first own home. This stop was the hub for all our friends. It feels like everything happened in this house, in those few intense years. Later when I talk to Rebecca, we realize we only lived there for maybe 9 months at the same time because one was always on Erasmus. But when one was in France, England, Sweden, we got new temporary additional to what we called The Commune, and, let’s say that always  added quite some action to the story as well.

Seven minutes to town, seven minutes to university, at our bakery you could pay by leaving your name, people envied us.

It feels like I am in a play called Helen’s past. The students on the tram, they look like us, but this is so not our generation. They must be even further in their studies than the freshmen I used to teach. The tram speeds up like Stockholm’s number 7 never can in the busy traffic. We are going through green meadows, there are horses and cows, a tunnel and suddenly within a minute, we’re at university. This educational center is also called “the university in the green meadow”. They have torn down things, the biggest part of the meadow is gone, those fields that we used to hurry through at 10 pm after the last lecture to catch the last tram home. Deine Mudda ist ein NW1-Aussteiger, I remember our silly inside-jokes.

University still looks quite the same. I remember the very first time I came here and was shocked by all the graffiti and the banners. “Free education for free people”, it read then. Now some aggressive person has sprayed, “800 teachers less, 800 broken windows. Your financial cuts will be expensive”. Of course there is an announcement for the gender-sensible newspaper and agitation against Germany’s involvement in armed conflict.

When this university was built, the rooms didn’t have walls because that was considered too restrictive. I think I even read that all decisions had to be accepted by 30% of the students. Some things have changed (I always had class within walls), still the red spirit remains and it has mostly been to everyone’s advantage. Tuition that almost all federal states introduced (and abolished by now)? Never in a million years at the communist university. When there was not enough room for teaching in the university a few years ago, students started building a little house next to the bus stop. It was more a pointless protest than something that is used now, and the object of our ridicule, but you can be sure that there is always someone using their energy and time on a political project at that university.

The amazing thing is that the university has grown into what German media calls, “The miracle on the Weser river”. Some subjects keep ranking highest in national comparison and last (?) year, Bremen was officially given the title of German ivy-league university (“Exzellenzinitative”).


The house students built


I walk through the landscape of ugly 70ties-buildings, there is barely a house that I do not have a connection to and then there is those that I have spent oh-SO-many hours in. That library. Federal state library, open daily until 10, and I used to be one of the last ones to leave during thesis writing because, well, my work rhythm then was 14-22 rather than 9-5.

I have to think of the good education I received here. At that time I never realized how thoroughly I was trained in scientific methods. Compared to what I saw later during my studies in other places, Bremen has asked much of us and taught us quite well. It was far from only bullshitting.

Hannes and I meet on the so-called boulevard, in front of the Mensa where thousands go every day. To take care of your friends was so much easier then because we had Mensa-dates. Wednesdays, always eating lunch with Joraine, an hour to catch up. Mensa is not the organization for hyperintelligent people but the university’s lunch restaurant. Far from being comparable with anything non-German universities offer (Glöm Lantis bara.), Mensa offers an amazing variety of food. There are at least 6, 7 menus to choose from every day and the main advantage is: a lunch starts at 1,35 euro. That’s like barely ten Swedish crowns and we are speaking about a full meal here. When I started studying, Mensa was still better than it was yesterday, and even cheaper. We used to eat for one euro a day. It is calm here today, no queuing and Hannes reminds me that everyone is on spring break. Those odd breaks German universities take, February to April and July to October, where no one is really off duty but has to write three theses that each equal a Bachelor’s Thesis within a few weeks.

I always come back here. I always regret that many friends have moved away, moved on. But that’s the whole point with studying and that’s part of the magic of your university town. I have outgrown Bremen, but it will always hold that special part in my heart. That part that has made you into what you are today: an alumna of a red university.