Despite having studied German for eight years having lived in Germany for the last three years, I find myself this morning outside the main lecture theatre in Marburg waiting for die deutsche Sprachprüfung für Hochschulzugang, the German language exam for university access. It is merely a formality, say those in the admin office. My degree here is in French and Italian, but if I don’t sit and pass this exam, I can’t complete the course. So here I am, somewhat excited for my first exam in three years.
Originally scheduled to be in March, the exam was indefinitely postponed in light of the current pandemic. Last week we received an email with the date and the three things we mustn’t forget: a mask, a German dictionary and our passports. I arrive ten minutes early and a crowd of roughly a hundred people stand outside, a tenth of whom forget to respect the social distancing rules.
As we waited, I stood as far to the back of the group as I could. A young German couple walk past. At eight a.m. on a Saturday I can only assume that their night has just come to an end. As he carried a bottle of wine in his left hand, his right arm was casually propped up over her right shoulder, a cigarette in her right hand, her left hand stroking the back of his neck. They stood for a while and watched this mass of people. After a few minutes their interest turned towards the trees behind me and they walked down to river. I imagined them sitting by the river finishing the remains of the bottle as the sun hung low in the morning sky and the Lahn glistened.
At nearly ten past eight the double doors overlooking a staircase, at the bottom of which the crowd stood, swung open and three masked figures stood in its threshold. The message was clear: without a mask, you weren’t getting in and if your passport shows that you arrived in Germany in the last month, you weren’t getting in either.
Some people start to fidget nervously and some get out their phones. In groups of 10, we are allowed in. A bit like when boarding a flight, I can’t understand why people rush to the front. Like on a plane, we have designated seats. Why choose to wait inside rather than in the fresh air? Fifteen minutes later the last ten of us are called in and we move slowly into the building. Another staircase stands before us and we wait, spread out from one another, near the last step.
Half an hour later I’ve reached the top of the stairwell and the queue snakes around the second floor of the building into an unknown room. I ask the bubbly invigilator if this is the first exam to take place, referring to university exams in general. “Yes, it is”, she said followed by a strong laugh that cut through the tension around us. Perhaps she understood exam to mean our ability to demonstrate proper mask-wearing and social distancing etiquette. The queue is slowly diminishing and I return to a last glance of my notes.