When I first started looking into studying abroad, I repeatedly heard stories about the workload while abroad and how the “abroad” played a much bigger role than the “study.” Well, they fooled me. Now, my program is a unique one, because it focuses on the European Union and has three week-long trips throughout the semester that are designed to align with our studies. We just returned from the last of our trip, where our program split us into three groups, of which mine went to London, Belfast, Dublin, and Stockholm. These trips leave the rest of our class schedule packed, to say the least.
So what have I been learning? To start, I know much more about the European Union than I ever expected to. How it started as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 as an economic organization that could help prevent further conflict between the major powers in Europe of France and Germany. How it is now made up of 28 countries, but is likely losing a member state for the first time during finals week next semester on March 29 when the UK exits. That’s right, I can tell you just about everything you could ever hope to know about Brexit as well. Insider scoop – Britain is probably in trouble.
The great part about this program is that we get to travel to the places where the most important decisions are made in the EU and talk to key officials. We have been to the parliament buildings of the EU, the UK, and Sweden, and talked to members of the EU and Swedish parliaments. Apparently the parliament members in Britain have other things to worry about currently…
Speaking of, my Brexit class and I got to meet with negotiators who have been working in overdrive to hammer out the details of Brexit deals on both the UK and EU sides. Additionally, the final project for our class was to meet with a class of students doing the IES program in London to present and debate our own terms for a Brexit deal.
My favorite parts of studying abroad come when ‘study’ and ‘abroad’ stop being mutually exclusive. Though much of our mornings or afternoons were filled with meetings, we had the opportunity to go on city tours and go off on our own. Our first night in London, I went to a friendly of the US men’s soccer team against England at Wembley Stadium, the largest in the UK.
I also got to meet up with a friend I made during an international leadership conference in Liverpool that I went on with a group of students from Hope College. We met up and went to see incredible artifacts like the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.
Thanks to my crazy network of friends and family spread out all over Europe, I also got to see many other people from different stages of my life:
Yes, I have been very busy and I should probably get started on that 12 page paper due soon, but in the past month I truly have gotten to experience a great blend of both studying and being abroad. I am developing a much greater understanding of Europe as a collective whole – its problems and its functions. At the same time, seeing old friends during my travels is a good reminder of why we do it in the first place. To meet people from different places and share ideas and experiences with each other.
I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you did not get to bed before 10 pm on your 21st birthday, and I am probably right. I, however, had a slightly different experience. For one, the only thing you get in Germany for turning 21 is the ability to legally rent a car, so it is not nearly as significant as in the U.S. In addition, I had to be ready to leave for the Freiburg train station by 5:45 am for our first week-long trip with our program.
The train ride to Berlin took about 6 hours, during which many of us got to get to know each other better, listen to music and read, or (the most popular choice) sleep. After arrival, we were confronted by the extensive public transportation network in Berlin and managed to locate two very important things. 1) Our hostel and 2) The best döner kebab place in town.
We then were taken on a two hour walking tour of Berlin which started at the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Our tour guide then took us to see many famous sights in the area including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As we made our way through the city, our tour guide stated that during WWII, roughly 80% of Berlin was destroyed. In fact, much of Berlin is filled with modern-looking buildings and looking back, I would argue that it was more similar to most big cities in the US than it was to Freiburg.
This line of cobblestones marks where the Berlin Wall once stood. Behind is the Brandenburg Gate.
The next day we took a visit to the former Stasi prison, where the GDR (former East Germany) held many political prisoners and dissenters for interrogations. This ruthless prison was hidden from the public and many forms of psychological torture were used by the Stasi to get what they wanted from their prisoners.
After eating another kebab for lunch, we heard from a political analyst on Germany’s role in the European Union and went to the East Side Gallery to check out the artwork displayed along a long stretch of a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The following are some of the highlights I saw
After hearing from a German professor from Stanford University about the German perspective on the migration crisis, we had plenty of free time to spend around the city. Another aspect of Berlin’s rich history is the plethora of fantastic museums located right in the city. Though it has been going through major renovations, the Pergamon Museum has incredible displays of historical architecture and artifacts from the times of ancient Babylon to the Roman Empire. The Neues Museum was another museum I visited, and it is the home of the famous bust of Nefertiti.
After our time in Berlin came to a close, we took another train out to Warsaw, where we would be for the next two days. Upon our arrival, we made a quick stop at our hotel and headed straight to the city center for a walking tour with our hilarious Polish tour guide who went by the name Jack. For some reason I had a hard time believing that this was his given name, but he was funny so we just went along with it.
By the time we finished our city tour it was dark outside, and we made our way to another beautiful square for dinner. Most of the city was destroyed in WWII, so almost all of the buildings around us had been built (or rebuilt) in the last 70 or so years. Thanks to some precise artwork from an artist before the war, the buildings in this square were intricately repaired to appear almost identical to what they were before. In the center of this square, you will also find a statue of a mermaid who was said to have lived in the waters of the Vistula river that runs through the city. Some claim that this same mermaid is also the inspiration for the story of the Little Mermaid, though the mermaid statue in Copenhagen generally gets credit for being the true source of the tale. Unfortunately this is the extent of my mermaid knowledge, so I’ll leave you to re-watch the Little Mermaid and decide for yourself…
Much of the next day and a half in Poland was spent doing class-related activities, like meeting with experts on Poland and it’s relations with the European Union. One of the most common topics was the ‘immigration crisis,’ and we heard from both sides about why Poland should or should not be doing more to help refugees looking for help. We heard the Polish perspective from representatives from The Polish Institute of International Affairs, who supported a very strict immigration policy for their extremely homogeneous nation, and for the first time in our program were confronted with lots of ideas that went against the EU’s opinions and goals.
We also got to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum, which was about a resistance uprising led by the local citizens in Warsaw to try to oust the Nazi troops near the end of the war. The idea was for them to revolt in time to take the city just before the Russians arrived to ease the Russian push west, but the plan failed. Allies managed to send in bombers with care packages, but the Russians never got there in time and after a month or two of Polish resistance members controlling parts of the city, the rebellion was suppressed.
Just like in Berlin, there was not enough time to see everything I would have liked to, but both museums were fantastic. On our last day we made sure to eat even more pierogies, capping off a full week of incredible food. By the end, however, we were all looking forward to getting back to Freiburg and sleep in our beds again.
Week two in Freiburg provided me with the opportunity to finally immerse myself in the daily life of this city. Though we did have two hours of German per day, our only other class was an “Integrative Seminar” course, which has mainly been giving us informative background on the EU and its current state. This has given us plenty of time to get lost exploring the city and helped us to get a sense of what the rest of our semester will be like while we are in Freiburg.
Franziska, my German teacher, gave our class an assignment to walk around and ask questions about the Münstermarkt, which is essentially a large open-air market held in the main town square of Freiburg. And these shop owners are dedicated. Münstermarkt runs every day of the year except for Sundays, including throughout the winter months. It also isn’t your typical farmer’s market – Münstermarkt has souvenirs, flowers, ‘Holzkunst’ (or wood art), wine, and various other items.
Both locals and tourists frequent the market, and many of the stands are quite well-known. From the cheesecake stand ‘Stephans Käsekuchen’ who are famous for their secret recipe to the hot dogs on steroids called ‘Lange Rote,’ the options provided at Münstermarkt are delicious and relatively affordable for a college student like myself.
After completing our assignment, my classmate Medina and I managed to make it all the way through the market with only four purchases. We then walked through the city center and sat down at a little park to eat away at our delicious lunch pictured above. All of the food sold at Münstermarkt is produced locally, and the produce we bought there was some of the best I’ve had. When in Europe, one finds it incredibly easy to get past minor speed bumps like seeds in your grapes.
Another great thing about Freiburg are the Biergartens, the best of which is located at the top of a hill right next to the city center. Though we got there slightly too late for it a couple of nights ago, you can catch an incredible view of the sun setting behind the city. Combine that with the delicious local beer and you’re in for a treat.
Speaking of hills, Freiburg is in the region of Germany which produces the best wine, and there are vineyards draped along many of the hills that surround Freiburg. The vineyard pictured above is one I see every day on my tram ride to class. As I discovered a few days ago on a run through a large vineyard by my apartment, they are also a common place to find students gathering for picnics in the evenings. One of my roommates says there are castle ruins somewhere around these vineyards, and on future runs I hope to find their whereabouts, so I will keep you posted…
To fully understand where you are going, I think you have to understand where you are coming from. Study abroad for many of my peers is a new and exciting experience unlike anything they have ever done before. For me? Not so much. See, I lived in Prague, Czech Republic, from when I was 8 until I was 16. Coming to Freiburg for the semester is not necessarily diving into the unknown for me. I went swimming a while ago and I’ve just been drying off for a while, anxiously preparing for the next jump and anticipating whether it will still feel the same.
The first few days were a blur. Between jet lag, meeting the 74 other students in the program, and finally moving into our apartments, it was a whirlwind. As part of the European Union Program here in Freiburg, we focus heavily on the European political scene. Our first class two days ago was our Integrative Seminar, which will primarily be a study of how the EU functions, how it is structured, and what purposes it serves. Actually, the only classes we take until the first of our three week long trips throughout Europe are this Seminar and two hours of German each day.
The city itself is wonderful. Though it has mostly rained on us so far, Freiburg is just big enough to be a lively city and just small enough to learn how to get around quickly. If you come to Freiburg expecting stereotypical German culture, you may be surprised. Though everything is still very pünktlich (punctual), this southern German town is very easy-going, eco-friendly, and quite welcoming.
Along the lines of experiencing this new culture, I had my first dinner with my new housemates. There is something about sitting around a table for an hour engaged (or at least trying to be engaged) in conversation that truly makes living abroad finally seem real. Because I am only living with German students who attend the local university here, I am looking forward to interacting with the people I will be living with not only to experience the lifestyle of Freiburg, but also to hear and speak as much German as possible. So far, I have been able to get recommendations on where to go for runs and which bakery is the best bakery in the area. Accomplishing simple things like these are essential to the experience from what I have seen, because they give you confidence and comfort moving forward.
After the craziness of the first week, we got our first chance to get out into the countryside today. A short train ride followed by a brief bus trip left us in the small town of Sankt Peter, where we had the opportunity to explore the Abbey of Saint Peter.
I could have probably spent another half hour in the Abbey, but naturally our German trip leader Karin ran a tight ship in order for us to get our hike started on time. The hike was about 3 hours long and provided us with a great opportunity to take in the rolling hills and beautiful woodlands, while also getting to get to know the other students in our program. Also on the trip was Jona (the German version of ‘Jonah’), a student studying at the University of Freiburg who basically functions as one of our RAs. He shared with us that he grew up in one of the small villages like Sankt Peter in Germany and explained how he got into american football on accident while trying to help his aunt find the right channel to watch the lottery. His goal is to teach German and coach football in America once he finishes his studies. One career path I am interested in pursuing is working for a European soccer club, so it was fascinating to see how we each have such a similar passion for each other’s culture. It is also a reminder of how connected we truly are despite growing up in completely different environments.
Our hike finally ended in another small town, where we stopped for some traditional German Kaffee und Kuchen, or “coffee and cake,” at a building that used to be a farm, and has now been renovated into a hotel/restaurant that helps employ adults with mental disorders. I myself am not a coffee drinker, but the hot chocolate and other items pictured above were the perfect treat to finish off our hike.
I still can’t decide if this week has seemed to take forever or if it has gone by in a flash, but I am finally starting to feel somewhat settled. The initial anxiety has mostly worn off and I am ready to finally get into a rhythm this first week of classes. There is a lot to look forward to, but for now I’m off to bed…