How is life in Memphis

Walking in Memphis

Study city with rough edges

  • COUNTRY: United States
    NO. 6/2016, pp. 56-57

The wind whistles, the frosty air has long since penetrated my gloves. The first snowflakes could fall from the oppressive gray up there. But the weather is irrelevant right now. Again and again I have to avoid garbage bags, tree branches or car parts that are on the way.

Almost in slalom I drive around potholes and descend every few meters, because there are no lowered curbs here. I really imagined cycling differently in my new home for a while. Even the trip to the supermarket quickly becomes an adventure. For a few days now, I haven't been living in the depths of Siberia, but in Memphis, on the outskirts of the US state of Tennessee. The southern metropolis on the Mississippi is home to Elvis Presley and Justin Timberlake. It is known far beyond the borders of the USA as a stronghold of soul and blues music. Still, Memphis isn't exactly the dream destination for students moving abroad. The glittering metropolises of New York and Los Angeles are far away, and Memphis appears in the media mostly in connection with poverty and crime. In fact, at first glance, Memphis makes life difficult for its guests: The city is so extensive that it makes no sense to go anywhere on foot. Local public transport is miserable, and getting around is difficult without a car.

Many neighborhoods are shabby, some too dangerous to be in. Even the city center is anything but lively - with the exception of the tourist and pub mile Beale Street. But it is precisely the rough edges that make Memphis interesting, authentic and worth living in. I am studying at the University of Memphis for four months. There has been an exchange program with my home university, the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, for years. I am enrolled in the journalism master’s course there. Together with two of my fellow students in Mainz, I inserted the “Spring Term” in America between the German winter and summer semester. Thanks to the university partnership, this works very well. In addition, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) supports our stay. This saves us the tuition fees - they alone would have amounted to several thousand euros. The application for the semester abroad in America is very complex and detailed. I can't remember how many forms I filled out in total and how many fees I paid to get my visa. There are a total of ten students from abroad who have decided to spend the “Spring Term” at the University of Memphis - not much for a university with more than 20,000 students. In addition to the three of us from Mainz, there is another German, as well as two French, two British, a Spaniard and a Mexican.

For many of us, a visit to the bike rental shop on campus is one of the first steps on the way to our new everyday life. Since pedestrians and cyclists in Memphis lead to irritated behavior on the part of drivers, I first have to be prepared for my role as exotic: In a video I learn how to give strange signs with my arms while braking. In the parking lot, I have to show whether I can handle a bike at all. And then there is the double locking system, consisting of a flexible loop cable and a U-shaped padlock. Since my first trip to the supermarket, I have known why all of this was necessary. During my semester abroad, I find accommodation in a residential complex that is only separated from the campus by a huge parking lot. Behind the barriers and gatekeepers' houses, three-story apartment buildings are lined up with apartments, each designed for four people. In contrast to the dormitories, everyone here has their own room, even if this is reflected in the rent. Bed, desk, chest of drawers and a wardrobe are part of the basic equipment of the rooms. In addition, each apartment has two bathrooms and a large living room with an open kitchen, and of course air conditioning.

"Especially in the southern states, religion plays a major role and influences everyday life"

One of my roommates is studying theology and politics. There is a Bible on our dining table, and sometimes flyers come with it inviting people to attend events such as “Men’s Bible Study”. In the southern states in particular, religion plays a major role and influences the everyday lives of many people. In Memphis, churches are an integral part of the cityscape. There are numerous congregations, from the Bellevue Baptist Church to the Calvary Episcopal Church. Many young people are also very religious and attend church regularly. A member of the “V.I.S.A.” Group, “Visitors and International Student Alliance”, joins us to greet the international students at the university and hand out biscuits and pens. "V.I.S.A." organizes numerous events, so an organization like this is an asset for exchange students. Once we go to an American picture book family in a posh neighborhood. The invited guests to an evening to get to know each other and to play games, including a huge buffet for their guests. Even if it was a great experience, I didn't feel completely comfortable. The background of belief and the attitude to life always resonate subliminally. Nevertheless, such experiences are what make a longer stay abroad so appealing to me. Coming into contact with other cultures and ways of life is one of the most valuable experiences of all for me. That's why I didn't hesitate to spend part of my studies abroad.

"In any case, especially in the southern states, there is hardly a way around fried, greasy food"

Even if the typical clichés about the southern states are a bit worn, in many cases they have their right to exist. This not only applies to people's religiosity, but also to the kitchen, for example. “Southern cookin‘ makes you good lookin ‘” - some people here probably really believe that food makes you more beautiful. In any case, especially in the southern states, there is hardly a way around fried, greasy food. There are fast food restaurants on every corner of the city. The central university building is also equipped with a “food court”. Burger King, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin ‘Donuts and Co. operate branches directly on campus. There is also an all-you-can-eat canteen: You pay a fixed price at the entrance and can eat and drink for as long and as much as you want. Some use this very extensively and stack towers of pizza slices on their plates. It is also very significant that water is usually not even available at beverage dispensing stations. The University of Memphis is an American campus university as I always imagined it to be, with imposing portals, glass facades and a clock tower. The entire area is like a park, squirrels cross the paths, the grass is green. During leisure time, there are fitness centers, indoor swimming pools and museums, as well as restaurants and cafes. The bookstore has the full range of merchandising products - from hoodies to cuddly tigers. So there are enough activities on offer to spend the whole day at the university.

"I always have a lot to do outside of the course times"

As an exchange student, I take part in four courses. These are very much oriented towards journalistic practice, a lecture in the lecture hall is not part of my schedule. Instead, the courses take place in small groups with around 20 participants. That makes for a very pleasant atmosphere. With my school English I have no problems meeting the respective requirements. However, there are always deadlines for homework and work during the semester. Whether research work, blog posts or design projects, I always have a lot to do outside of the course times. Still, the fun is not neglected. I have enough time to explore Memphis and go on major trips. Of course, the huge country has so much to offer that the "spring break" holidays and a few weekends are by no means enough to get to know America in all its facets. Nevertheless, every trip is a highlight and I always have the feeling of getting to know new cultures and lifestyles. Memphis as a typical city in the southern states cannot be compared at all to San Francisco, Chicago or New York. In the first few weeks, I am mostly out and about with the other exchange students in my free time. We cycle to the sights of the city or go to party on Beale Street in the evening. It is one of the few streets in the United States where alcohol is allowed outside. At the latest after the end of the cold winter months, when it stays relatively warm at night, people crowd there.

"Again I am completely surprised by the hospitality"

Since many American students are very interested in their fellow students from abroad, it is not difficult for me to talk to them and make friends. Soon it will be part of the daily routine for me to have lunch with an American fellow student, to go to the cinema, to the shopping center or to the basketball game together. Even one of my professors invites me to lunch and sightseeing a few times. One weekend I am visiting an American student at her parents' house in Nashville with a couple of exchange students. Again I am completely surprised by the hospitality. They serve us dinner, organize a barbecue, and we are part of the family for a weekend. To sum up my stay, I can say that Memphis is anything but perfect and has to struggle with numerous problems, but that is precisely what gives the city a special charm and an authentic character. Mainly because of the people who live here, it is worthwhile to come to the southern states for a longer period of time. Seldom before have I experienced so much hospitality and warmth. That made it a lot easier for me not only to live there, but also to feel good.

Aside from his stay in the USA, Robert Köhler, 27, also studied in Peru and Poland and would like to work abroad for a while after completing his master's degree.

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