If internationalisation were to have a face, it would be that of Johannes Steibl (pictured), a 5th year medical student at RSU. As the former vice-president of Deutsche Studenten im Ausland (German Students Abroad) and the vice-president of RSU International Students’ Association, not only is he the perpetuum mobile of the international students’ community but also an ambassador for the Latvian language, culture and traditions. Before taking a seat in the RSU cafe, Johannes orders coffee in Latvian and as we talk, now and then he drops in a word or sentence in Latvian, Russian or Spanish. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, he will later quote his dad who, in turn, is quoting St. Ambroise. We start our conversation over a map of Europe, where Johannes vividly points out his hometown Bruchsal in Southwest Germany and two other spots – Tarragona, Spain and Rīga, Latvia – places he has called home during the 24 years of his life.
– I consider myself a modern European who has lived in “European extremes” – both in the South West and North East of the EU, and therewith able to take advantage of European integration. When I was four, my family moved to Spain, and we lived in Tarragona for three years. I learned Spanish like a papugai (parrot in Russian), just by repeating what I heard. That’s why my first foreign word was tonto which means ‘idiot’ – a compliment paid to me by a local girl on the playground.
So you speak German, English, Spanish, some Latvian and also Russian, judging by the papugai you mentioned?
– Russian does not really count, I speak German and English fluently, my Spanish is still fine and I pretend to speak French which I had to learn at school, and of course, currently I am learning Latvian. Papugai is what my friend Stav Brodsky, ISA’s president, calls me when I pick up some new word again. I have a huge vocabulary from a bunch of languages – a vocabulary that does not make sense when it’s all put together.
My dad always says – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So when I’m abroad, I try to understand the local people, culture and traditions. In Germany I’m Johannes, in Spain I’m Juan, and in Latvia I’m Jānis. I’ve also spent a month both in Costa Rica and Brazil – places where Juan kind of works. Laughs.
How did you make the decision to study in Rīga?
– The story behind this decision is a long one, I’ll try to cut it short for you. Back in my high school years we had a broken old bike that had been my grandpa’s lying in the cellar. My Mum once said to my dad that if he is not going to use the bike standing there for over 20 years, she will throw it out. Even though my dad praised the bike, he did not have the time to repair it, so I stepped in. I took it to the bike store in the nearest city seek advice on necessary repairs, parts that should be replaced etc., so that I could fix it by my dad’s birthday. When mom would see it in use, the question of throwing the bike out would no longer be on the agenda, and everyone would be happy. Harmony is very important for me, especially within my family.
The shopkeeper at the bike store turned out to be the mum of my kindergarten friend, who was preparing to study in Rīga. In the end, he did not start his studies here, but I did.
So you ended up in Rīga because of a broken bike. How long before fixing the bike did you know that your study choice will be medicine?
– When I was at high school, I spent most of my time at the German Life Saving Association (DLRG) where, as part of a program called Notfallhilfe, a team of trained volunteers provided support to the ambulance. We had two cars equipped with a defibrillator and basic intubation systems and in the event of a shortage of ambulances we were taking on-calls with easier cases 24/7. Once we were called to an elderly lady who was dehydrated and while we were treating her together with therecently-arrived paramedics, our beeper went off for the second time. While our colleagues took over here, we ran to intensive care, which was literally 500m away from our location – what a lucky patient! So my team was ready to start working a minute and 50 seconds after the call. It turned out that the patient had a lung embolism – a diagnosis that very few people survive without medical intervention. Because we were superfast and had the knowledge, we got to her and the story had a happy ending.
It was then I realised that I want to do everything it takes to be able to prolong someone’s life, to increase the quality of one’s life and to be able to do a better job by starting my medical education. I’m sure I would have been a great biology teacher – I love kids and I’m good at biology – but in the end medicine it is.
What was the first year at RSU like?
– The first two years in Rīga were hard for me. The problem was that I came to leave, but forgot that in order to come and leave you need to stay in between. I thought that I will be going to be one of those German students who goes back home in order to apply to German medical schools after two years of studying in Rīga. All I did was study very hard, not to mention a total lack of social life – something I have a lot of today. When I eventually decided to stay and complete my medical education in Rīga, it was like some inner penny had dropped. I completely immersed myself in social life and things suddenly changed for the best.
Every new start brings along a lot of uncertainties, so one of the first activities I worked on, was sharing the best places in the city that might be helpful for freshmen – students who have just arrived. I also joined the Buddy/Mentor program which is great support for newcomers. When I first arrived in Rīga it was still a terra incognita for German wannabe medical students. During the past few years, Rīga has become better known in Germany as a destination for medical education.
Ever since you decided to do more than study at RSU, we have seen your talents one after another. You’re politically active at the ISA, running social projects at the DSiA, a fan of the Rīga Marathon and in the student festival Taurenis 2017 you came second in the talent show with your iconic performance of Englishman in New York, i.e., a German in Latvia. What other talents do you hide?
I would not consider myself talented but I do like to try out many different things. One of them is cooking – a passion I share with my mother who owns a little restaurant in my hometown. If I decide to do something, I give it a try, or as many tries as it takes and eventually it works. In this respect I’m too German to start something and leave it halfway. As my dad says, if you want to bowl a perfect strike, you have to try many times in a row. Out of ten balls one usually knocks all the pins down, you just have to be patient and persistent.
For a global citizen like you, is there any specific destination in mind where you would like to settle in the future?
– It is true, in a way I’m a global citizen, but I feel I will eventually end up very close to this little spot here [points at Bruchsal in Southern Germany], a place where my roots are.
My generation, I think, has a problem with making decisions. I don’t like to make them either. One has too much information that makes it hard to know which sources to trust, what to pick. Although in the end most probably it is enough knowing the direction instead of the destination. For me the direction is clear – medicine and family, supplemented by a social life filled with activities that are meant for the greater good.