A (foreigner‘s) very brief guide to the Universäts- und Festspielstadt Bayreuth

Von Miriam Ghobrial

If your trip to Bayreuth includes a flight (or maybe even two), several train rides, doubt and confusion, this article is for you. If you were met with a “Where the hell is Bayreuth?” or maybe, if they’re Wagner fans, a “Why would you go to Bayreuth?” from your friends, family, teachers and peers, this article is for you. If you had to listen to jokes like “Isn’t Bayreuth in Lebanon?!”, I’m sorry – and you are not alone.

Whatever painful process you had to endure to learn the German language – whether it be an Internationales Abi, a B2 certificate from your local Goethe Institute or any other German-learning torture method – congratulations, it brought you here. It brought you to the University of Bayreuth. Germany’s greenest campus. Whether you chose Bayreuth or whether Bayreuth chose you – I’d like to welcome you with a Servus and a Grüß Gott and give you some words of wisdom that will hopefully make the loneliness of being a foreigner in a city with a population of 75.000 a little more bearable.

Bayreuther Exoticism

1. Festspielhaus – Wagner

When I came to Germany/Bayreuth in the gray autumn of 2019 (pre-covid, almost a century ago), I vividly remember how nervous that last train ride made me. It seemed like the longer I traveled, the greener my surroundings became. The number of houses were decreasing, making way for vast green fields where cows and horses roamed freely. McDonald’s signs became a rarity in the green Franconian abyss and I started getting worried. I was born and raised in a city with millions of inhabitants. My surroundings were full of honking cars, motorcycle screeches, prayers erupting from mosques and the occasional squeals from a cat giving birth in an alleyway. Amalgamations of noise – frantic third world capitalism and class division.

How was I going to survive without the noise that raised me? What was I going to do without the comfort of chaotic anonymity?

I was relieved to see that Bayreuth wasn’t as small as the towns I passed along the way, but the fear of boredom and possible regret hadn’t completely left me yet.

Walking along the Bayreuther Streets I saw the littered statues of Richard Wagner everywhere. His arms are stretched out, as if inviting you to his little city. The whole city is like a Wagner-shrine. Some streets are even named after some of his family members. And every year, Germany’s most elite pay hundreds of Euros to watch his operas at the Festspielhaus, where a few hundreds of years ago he conducted them himself. The Festspielhaus itself is something of a historical monument, basically realized by Wagner himself in the 1800s, which more or less cemented Bayreuth’s cultural importance, making it the city that it is today.

It wasn’t long after my first semester started that I learned that Wagner was an anti-semite. One of his descendants – Wieland Wagner, who also has a street named after him – was even strongly associated with Hitler. To live in Bayreuth is to be confronted with uncomfortable histories, grey-area confusion and the eternal question of separating the art from the artist.

It is, after all, important to know the histories of the people who walked and built the streets you’re about to live on.

For a foreigner, some of these streets may seem like they’re from a fairytale book. Bayreuth has her share of castles and gardens with 200-year-old trees – some of them even worth visiting. And some may even pass you by everyday. From the Margravial Opera House, to the Hofgarten, the Neues Schloss (new castle) and the Erimitage and its maze of gardens – there certainly is a lot to see. And if you’re new in town, don’t forget that you have free access to many of these places if you use the little booklet they gave you at the Bürgeramt or the one you get in your freshman bag!

2. Universitäts-stadt: Bayreuther Hell

As soon as you get off at Bayreuth’s train station you may notice the words Universitäts-und Festspielstadt Bayreuth written on the plaques along the (very few) platforms.

Romantically and poetically, this might be an attempt at intertwining the past with the present. There’s nothing like building a university to keep a small historic city young and lively. The students are the ones who take nightly summer strolls and bar hop in the winter. They walk up and down the Maxstraße for daily errands. The Rewe frozen pizza consumers, the Bayreuther Hell guzzlers, the Hofgarten picnicers, the Rondell chillers, the UBT-cup hoarders, the Glashaus party goers – these are the students of the University of Bayreuth. There might not be many of us and our campus might not be the largest, but I can guarantee you there is something here for everyone. Here, everyone can find a friend. Yes, that may seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re a foreigner. It may sometimes feel like whatever you do, you will always be the odd one out. I remember the awkwardness of introduction rounds where everyone said which German city/town they’re from – having to explain you’re from somewhere else, where and why you learnt German and why and how come you chose Bayreuth. I remember being scared to talk. Sometimes I’m still scared. What if my accent is too thick, what if my grammar is incorrect. What if they notice how different I actually am? There was something of a barrier that I couldn’t overcome. I couldn’t casually crack jokes, I couldn’t express my feelings and I couldn’t flirt – these aren’t exactly things you learn how to do in a German language course. If you feel this way now or if you’ve ever felt this way, I am here to tell you that these things will change.

If it’s any consolation, the German freshmen are just as nervous about the university experience as you are. It may not be on the same level, but for many Bayreuther Students, Bayreuth is just as new and unfamiliar as it is to you.

With time you will get used to your surroundings, you will start daring to talk even if your German isn’t perfect. I swear it doesn’t matter. It’s not as bad as you think.

And besides, you can always take a break from being “different”. Some of us are lucky enough to find other international students to connect with in courses, on campus, on the street or even on the bus. Sometimes I’d be sitting in my dorm room and hear my mother-language being spoken outside and I’d remember I’m not alone.

Language courses are also a great place to find (international and German) friends outside of your major. Or if you’re athletic, unlike myself, you can always sign up for the university’s Hochschulsport, where you can find many different activities and various kinds of people to connect with. Or you might be interested in the university’s Buddy-program, where long-time students are paired with freshmen at the beginning of the semester. Don’t forget the bar tours organized by the various faculties and majors at the beginning of each semester!

There are political groups, a university choir, an orchestra, various university papers and blogs, religious groups and more things to involve yourself in. Don’t hold yourself back!

And if you ever get home-sick, which you will whether you want to or not, you might just find a restaurant or a supermarket that has just what you need. There are two Asian and two Middle Eastern supermarkets in Bayreuth that I know of. Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Syrian restaurants line some of Bayreuth’s streets.

However, if you don’t find what you’re looking for in Bayreuth, there’s an alternative that isn’t too far away. Whenever you feel like the Wagnerstadt is suffocating you with its statues, its routines, and its limitations, you can always just spend the day in Nürnberg.

And in case you’ve already forgotten, I’m here to remind you that you’re not alone in your suffocation.

Miriam Ghobrial
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