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Una with the partisan women in Zagreb, Croatia (Credit: Personal Archives)

Una Blagojevic, a Serbian 2013 BA graduate, has been around the world. Currently residing in Budapest, Hungary and beginning her master’s thesis at the Central European University, Una looks back on her time at Bard Berlin, then ECLA*, with great fondness. I sat down for a late-night Skype chat with Una to discuss the transformative and orienting powers of core courses, her shift from Berlin to London to Uganda to France to Budapest, and the consistent and enduring eccentricities of Pankow wildlife.**

Tell me about your time in Uganda.

My Uganda trip was quite amazing! After I left ECLA, I was planning to stay in Berlin for my  master’s, but the program I applied for was all in German, and my knowledge of German was not high enough. I also couldn’t find any scholarships to do my master’s in England, so I was quite unhappy and disappointed. And then, just totally coincidentally, a friend of mine saw that there was a safari company in Uganda looking for interns, which was a totally new thing for me because it had nothing to do with my undergraduate education at all.  

Right. After four years of doing school, this is something completely different.

Yes, totally different! Sometimes when I tell people that I spent a year working for a safari company they think that this was some kind of place where people go to shoot animals, and I would never do something like that. I didn’t do that and this was not that kind of company. They had some lodges all around Uganda, large lodges in the savannas of a national park called Kidepo Valley. I spent approximately four months there. It was so beautiful. I was always in nature, helping out. My tasks also included working in an office and helping with boring administrative stuff, documents, calculating budgets in Excel. I always wanted to escape from this sort of work after finishing my Gymnasium. There, in Serbia, you usually go and work or study in a department, like natural sciences, math or physics After I finished Gymnasium  I said ‘Never again!’ and then I turned to humanities. It was nice to do it again in Uganda, though.  

What was the community in Uganda like?

Even though the administrative work was boring, I was very close with the staff, helping out as much as I could and also hanging around with the guests. It was a very small, intimate approach to work, so we would all eat at a big table and they would serve us and we would all sit and talk about which animals we’ve seen and things like that. Sometimes I felt like it was strange because it was a place where very rich people would come and spend time in a ‘wonderful African, Ugandan experience’. Sometimes I was kind of not sure what to think of myself being there. But I had this great time where every day was filled with new and crazy experiences. I lived in a small hut, too, made out of wood and leaves and such: They tried to make it as natural as possible to give an ‘explorer’s experience’. I lived in one of these, and in the morning I heard animals making such crazy sounds, and, even though the hut was off the ground for security reasons, we would get woken up by screaming animals. It was always wild boars.

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Congratulations! You’re on your way to a legal stay in Germany. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, modified)

An essential part of the Bard College Berlin experience for all foreign students is the residence permit application. The school provides assistance to obtain one, and the process generally goes smoothly thanks to Xenia Muth. But sometimes, things happen: you forget to submit a document, you fill out a certain form incorrectly, you put all of it off until it’s three days before your 90-day window. Should you find yourself in the sad — but not uncommon– predicament of waiting outside the Ausländerbehörde all night, here are a few tips to make the experience as enjoyable and memorable as possible:

Stage 1. Before Arrival

Preparation is everything. It is the lack of such a thing that landed you in this situation in the first place, so make sure you’re prepped and ready to go for your adventure.

Step 1.1. Be too nervous to take a nap before your overnight visit, and make irresponsible decisions that will come back to bite you later. For example, go out to dinner in Mitte and forget how long the M1 ride back home is.

Step 1.2. Make sure you dress for the occasion. If you’re planning on paying the infamous bureau a visit soon, wear three pairs of wool socks, all the shirts you own, and two scarves. Conveniently forget a hat and gloves.

Step 1.3. Pack yourself too many snacks that you will forget to eat while waiting outside the office and will find squashed in your backpack a few hours later. Make sure to download podcasts, music, or Netflix episodes that you won’t be able to watch because of some unforeseeable technological problem.

Step 1.4. Decide to get there at 1 AM instead of the recommended 3 or 4AM to ensure yourself a spot. You could probably afford to arrive at 3 or 4AM, but you want to feel safer and more responsible than you actually are.

Stage 2. On Your Way!

Congratulations! You’re ready to leave. The most important thing is getting there, so here’s how to do it right:

Step 2.1. Make sure you bring more bags than necessary so that everyone notices you struggling to leave campus and you have to explain in great detail where you’re going. Pretend that the “Good Luck!” calls aren’t patronizing and reminding you of your mistake.

Step 2.2. Get on the bus and type some journal-y sentiment with the notes app on your phone in an attempt to reflect on your predicament. Immediately get sleepy because of how nice and warm the M27 bus is, and think about how sad it is that such extreme circumstances finally led you to do the Berlin exploration you promised your friends and family you would do much earlier.

Stage 3. Arrival and The Infamous Wait

You’ve arrived. You’re armed and ready. Nothing can stop you now.

Step 3.1.  Get lost trying to find the nondescript parking lot and the tiny nondescript door to the Ausländerbehörde. Walk in a circle about eight times until you see some other sorry souls holding a piece of paper. Feel silly signing your name on the sign-up sheet.

Step 3.2. Have a seat in the parking lot where you will spend the wee morning hours. Make small talk with the group of people in front of you. You’re one of the first, which fills you with ease. Thank whatever you believe in for the fact that it’s not raining. Preoccupy yourself with your expertly packed activities until your hands get too cold or your eyelids begin to feel heavy. Stand up, call a friend or your brother, talk for awhile and be amazed at how quickly the hour passes. Maybe this won’t be as bad as literally every other person you talked to said it would be.

Step 3.3. At 4 AM, go with all the women that are waiting in the parking lot on a journey to find coffee. Ask where everyone is from, smile, and revel in your absurd shared experience. Cheer loudly upon finding a Späti, and drink your cup of watery, terrible coffee. Unexpectedly make a new friend.

Step 3.4. Pace the parking lot with your new friend. Talk about politics, friend each other on Facebook, talk about how annoying German bureaucracy is. When your new friend says she has to pee, spot her as she ducks behind a car. Afterwards, give her hand sanitizer and congratulate her on her first outdoor pee.

Step 3.5. Pace some more until all of a sudden it is time to line up. Stand in a huddle by the door until someone takes charge of this group of grown adults. Form a line, and laugh uncontrollably as one of the people ahead of you turns around and says, “It’s lonely at the top.”

Step 3.6. Struggle your way through the German and explain to the security guard at the door that you are here for your student permit. March up the stairs, take a seat. Fight sleep by making conversation with people who have a passport from the same country as you or your new friend.

Stage 4. The (Possible Non-)Bestowal of Your Permit

Step 4.1. Wait for your number to be called, and be greeted by an overworked, sleepy Ausländerbehörde employee. Try not to get mad when he tells you that your bank documents should have been notarized but that you’ve got some time to fix it. Ask him repeatedly that your overnight wait was not in vain. Receive a temporary extension and make a new appointment to come back that is at a reasonable hour. Alternatively, receive your resident permit and march out, successful. Pay for your permit at a nondescript kiosk while a security guard stares at you the entire time. 

Step 4.2. Congratulations! No matter what piece of pretty, pink paper you received in that hellish office, you’ve escaped. You’ve made a new friend, you’ve heroically pulled an all-nighter, you’ve experienced servicewürste firsthand, and you’ve got something that makes it acceptable for you to live here — at least for now. Emerge into the cold, cloudy morning and fall asleep on both the bus and tram ride home. Eat the food you packed for yourself when you arrive and remember you are hungry. Get your first sleep in 40 hours, wake up, go to class, and accept that your sleep schedule will take weeks to repair.

A night at the Ausländerbehörde won’t be as scary as other students have told you if you follow this expert guide. Embrace the restlessness, the bad coffee, the absurdity, and, most importantly, keep your new document close.

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