Street Festivals in Germany

America certainly has a culture of summer festivals: every summer at home, my town puts on a big 3-day summer festival with food stalls, cultural displays, carnivals rides, fireworks, and more. But in Germany, there’s an entirely different culture built up around it. Not all the festivals happen during the summer, either. Even in winter, Christmas festivals brighten up dark evenings and fill the air with the smell of spices and cakes.

The Christmas markets brighten up German town squares during the darkest weeks of the year. (Dresden)

Even when I first arrived in Freiburg in February, the weekly market that takes place in the main square of Freiburg every day except Sunday way selling bratwursts, spices, and even flowers! Freiburg has had a market in the square around the Munster for about 700 years, and this traditional is still thriving today- on sunny summer Saturdays, the market is thick with tourists and locals.

Now that it’s summer, though, there’s even more festivals and markets than ever! On any given evening, you can expect to stumble across a festival if you wander around long enough.

While trying to go for a quiet evening stroll along the river, I came across a festival with rollercoasters! (Trier)

These festivals pop up all over town — in squares, along streets, on the banks of the city river. I’ve even been to one festival along a street in Freiburg where every few minutes everyone had to clear a path through the crowd for the street cars to pass through!

The long summer evenings are best spent hanging out at festivals until the sun sets — you can see that the street car tracks run right through the middle of this festival. Every once in a while, a street car would have to cautiously crawl through the crowd. The famous Munster spire can be seen rising over the city. (Freiburg)

One thing that surprised me was just how centrally alcoholic beverages figure into some of the festivals. Freiburg has a wine fest that’s one of the largest festivals in town, because Freiburg sits in the wine region of Germany. In Trier, I stumbled across a festival where every other stall was serving the regional beer, and the stage was covered in ads for the beer company.

This beer cap celebrates that this producer — Andech’s Monastery — has been selling beer since 1455. (Munich)

The oldest continuously operating companies in Germany date back to the 11th century, and all of them are breweries. The oldest effective law is the Beer Purity Regulations, instated 500 years ago, and Germans are very excited to share this fun fact with foreigners. The culture and tradition of brewing and vinting are important to Germans, and each region has its own take on fermented drinks to celebrate.

This stage — on the banks of the Mosul River — is decorated with ads for the regional beer producer, including massive cardboard cutouts of beer bottles. The band was also very regional — their ensemble included an accordion, and their outfits were polka-dotted vests. Most of their songs were crooning about the beautiful locality and its history. (Trier)
These large, heart-shaped cookies are everywhere at German street fairs. I believe they’re the German version of Gingerbread (Lebkuchen), which has citrus in addition to spice.


Coming Full Circle

This isn’t actually my first “exchange” to Europe — in 2012, at the age of 15, I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a two week tour of Europe with a youth orchestra. We stayed with host families in the communities we visited and traveled through Germany and France. It was an amazing experience that I still look back on with great fondness. In fact, it made such an impact on me that I considered trying to study abroad in one of the German cities that I had visited as a freshman in high school.

As a 15 year old, I was very excited about the massive jars of Nutella one could get in Europe!

So naturally, I reached out to the organization — Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp — to see if any of the five or so youth ensembles would be coming to Freiburg this summer.

As it turned out, the Blue Lake International Youth Choir would be performing in Badenweiler, which is a village about 23 miles south of Freiburg. Unfortunately, there was no direct way for me to get there. I was determined, though, and so yesterday evening I embarked on a 2 hour journey to Badenweiler.

A poster for the concert!

It was really sweet because the conductor (actually the choir director from Albion College) was doing his concert “speech” in German for the first time and would occasionally ask the audience for grammar or vocab help, and the audience was happy to oblige him. In fact, I and everyone else seemed to be really enjoying the performance: they were getting really excited about the Gospel songs the choir was singing, and were clapping along during the song and whistling and whooping at the end. The music was all characteristically American, with selections from Gospel, folk hymns, and Broadway- including Hamilton! These are the songs and music styles that I grew up hearing and that remind me of our history, and they just don’t exist in the same way in Germany. I missed them a lot this semester!

Unfortunately, I ended up having to leave before the concert ended, because I had to walk another hour back to the train station to catch the evening train home! Had I missed it, I would’ve had to wait at least an hour for the next train, and I didn’t want to do that. It was really cool that I was able to cross paths with this little piece of my past in the countryside of Germany. I’m going home in about three weeks — what a perfect time for a little shot of nostalgia and home!

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad in Germany

Now that my semester in Freiburg has ended and I’m headed home soon, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my experience and consider what might have been nice to know before I got here!

1. You don’t need as many clothes as you think. When I was packing, I had to fit everything for the semester into 1 carry-on suitcase, 1 large suitcase weighing less than 50lbs, and my backpack. That really doesn’t seem like a lot when you’re packing, but it certainly feels like a lot when you’re carrying it across Germany after an overnight flight! Freiburg has some of the most clement weather in Germany, but there’s a very dramatic season change between mid-February and mid-July, and it can be hard to find a balance between winter clothes and summer clothes. Nevertheless, I feel like I brought some clothing items that I wore frequently and others that I almost never wore, especially my formal clothing. On the other hand, I know two guys who ended up needing a suit for exactly one occasion and didn’t have one.

(1.a. You can buy some stuff in Germany! Pack enough of your toiletry items like shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, etc. to last you at least a week or two, but past that, it’s probably a good idea to just plan on buying things in Germany. The laundry detergent that you probably want is the the “vollwaschmittel”, which is the most general type. Don’t accidentally buy bleach or fabric softener!)

2. To lower your roll-shutters, you pull the rope horizontally towards you out of the box. Before I figured this out, I got stuck with my shutters open and couldn’t lower them again- which is a problem when you have no curtains!

Pull the cord out of the retraction box to lower your blinds!

3. Your glass and metal waste goes in community recycling bins located somewhere in the community. Plastic and foil packaging goes in the gelbe Sack (“yellow bag”); paper and cardboard go in the paper/carton bag, and food leftovers go in the organic waste. But what about empty glass jars, tin cans, or bottles without a deposit? These are the questions that lead to stacks of trash building up in the corners of exchange students’ apartments! It can be extremely confusing to do something as simple as throw out a used tissue or an empty chips back; I know multiple people who suddenly found out they’d been doing something wrong for weeks!

These big community recycling bins are hidden around German neighborhoods, and you have to bring your glass and metal trash to these to dispose of it!

4. You can only buy medicine at an Apotheke (pharmacy). You might also want to consider bringing a stock of your own basic medicines (double check that they’re legal in Germany and carry them in their original packaging). Unlike in the U.S., super markets and convenience stores aren’t allowed to carry even basic over-the-counter type medicines like ibuprofen, medicated cough drops, or cough syrup. If you want something more than just herbal teas and lozenges, you need to go to a pharmacy.

This traditional symbol marks the pharmacies in Germany.

5. Lidl’s “bakery” section has good pastries and bread. Lidl is a “discounter”, which is a type of German grocery store that sells things on the cheap- most famous is probably Aldi, which is an abbreviation of “Albrecht Discounter”. Lidl’s bakery section offers bakery-quality items at about half the price you’d find at a traditional bakery.

6. If you’re patient and wait for a sale, you can find fantastic German chocolate bars for about 65 cents a piece. I stock up whenever a grocery store runs a sale, and the discount is almost 50% off regular price.

7.  German dorms are often co-ed; host families can be distant. Only three people in my program (including me!) lived with host familes. Two lived alone, and the rest (about 20) lived in Wohngemeinshaften (residence communities/dorms). None of these are without issues, so it just depends on what you’re comfortable with and what you’re looking to get out of your experience. The dorms let you get to know other college students, but they can be dirty if people don’t do their chores. They’re arranged as apartments of 4-6 students who each have their own bedroom, and there’s a shared living room and kitchen. The two bathrooms are often divided into men’s and women’s, but not always. Single-apartments are a single room with a bed, a desk, and a kitchenette. These can be a little bit isolating, since you’re not living with anyone. Host families can be a little awkward- you’re suddenly living in the middle of someone else’s family. Two students in my semester didn’t have much contact with their host family at all, but the residences tend to be nicer than the student apartments.

8. Flea markets and re-sale are great ways to buy unique souvenirs on the cheap. I spent a few weekends heading to flea markets and managed to pick up some really cool souvenirs that would’ve cost 10 times as much new (that’s not an exaggeration). I also managed to find a dirndl ensemble (traditional Bavarian folk dress) at a resale shop in Munich for about a third of what a new outfit would have cost me.

I picked up this handmade-in-Germany bierstein featuring the Freiburg skyline at a flea market for 4 Euros. New, these often cost about 40 Euros!
The artist who made the bierstein above did a pretty good job of capturing the Freiburg skyline!

9. The Deutsche Bahn app is worth downloading! The interface can help you plan trips that use regional transportation, “normal” train, and high-speed ICE trains. You can book tickets, check if a particular train is on time, and all sorts of useful things. Google maps and are also great for figuring out how to get around cities and Europe (respectively).

10. It’s hard to balance the world. In Europe, my day started when my friends back home were just going to sleep, and I was going to sleep just as they were getting out of classes and work. On the weekends, I was busy trying to experience Europe while I had the chance. It can be hard to find the time to keep in touch with people back home. On the flip side, it can be tempting to just sit inside and use the internet to talk to people who are already your friends rather than go out into a world populated by strangers who speak an unfamiliar language. Finding the balance between experiencing your study abroad and not neglecting your relationships with people back home is hard (but worth figuring out!).

Being “Foreign” for the First Time

I’ve lived in the U.S. my whole life. The culture, the language, the customs, the laws, etc. just come naturally to me, as it does to most of us. Being an American is as easy as breathing for me. Now, studying in Germany for a semester, I’m a foreigner for the first time. Suddenly, the culture, language, customs and laws are alien and unfamiliar, and it can be weird or confusing at times.

One example is the Midwestern friendliness. This isn’t even universal in the United States, but here in Germany it’s unheard of to greet complete strangers with a smile or make small talk at the check-out counter. I was riding a street car one day when I accidentally let my “Midwestern” shine through and smiled at the man sitting across from me when we made eye contact.

“Why are you smiling?” he asked me, to which I replied, “Because it’s a good day!”, which earned me a high-five and fist bump from him and his buddies.

Another time I had decided to go swimming here in Germany. First, I headed to a nearby lake. I had already heard of the German “Freikörperkultur”, so I wasn’t too shocked to see naked bathers. What really got me, though, was when I went to a swimming pool later and was asked to leave because it was “nude only”, and I had worn a swim suit! (There had been no signs to indicate that this was the case, so I’m not really sure how I was expected to know, either!) Nudity while swimming is entirely accepted here- it’s common to see nude children on the city streets playing in the baechle, as well!

One of the “baechle” that run through the streets of Freiburg. The name means “little brook”. These are considered one of Freiburg’s unique quirks, and have been part of the city since medieval times.

Sometimes the language is hard, too. Once, I was at a going-away party for a student from Sweden, and he was teaching us Swedish folk dancing. After a few wild whirls, I would get dizzy and stumble- but since neither of us were German, neither of us knew the word for “dizzy”! Another time, I was trying to explain the concept of French Toast to a German, but I couldn’t recall the word for “to dip”… so instead I said that you “baptize the slices of bread in a mixture of egg and milk”, since that was the only word I could think of that involved any sort of immersion into liquid.

Little interactions here feel like victories when I succeed, such as when I did my first phone call in German, when I bought a SIM-Card for my cell phone, or when I managed to negotiate a price adjustment on my transport ticket. Unfortunately, the more nervous I get, the worse my German gets. If I’m put on the spot in front of a group, I still struggle to come up with the German, whereas one-on-one or in low-pressure situations, I speak with fluency. I think I can understand a lot better what it must be like for non-native speakers in the U.S. to deal with me and other native speakers.

I also empathize a lot more with the hearing-impaired now, as well. Where in English, I can usually put together bits and pieces of sentences if I miss something, here I usually can’t. If someone has an accent, speaks too quickly or unclearly, or the room is noisy, it suddenly becomes much harder for me to participate in conversations, because I can’t understand people! This can be somewhat isolating- if I’m not sure what’s happening in a conversation, I don’t feel comfortable participating in it, because I might be saying something irrelevant. It’s also frustrating for Germans if they have to repeat themselves over and over to me, and subconsciously these minor negative impressions can lead to people not including me in a conversation.

Sometimes, though, Germans can be just as inexplicable and weird as Americans. Once while I was out shopping, a friendly old man came up to me and said in Dialekt (one of the many regional dialects in Germany, which can be so far from High German that it’s technically another language) that if I wasn’t careful, someone might drop a cigarette down my boot! I was so taken aback by this bizarre joke that I made him repeat himself to make sure I understood him, then just said “well, uh, that wouldn’t be very nice of someone!” When I later asked several Germans if this was some sort of expression, they were all just as confused by it. Sometimes it’s not me; it’s not German culture; it’s just folks being weird, like they are everywhere!

On the other hand, I’ve gotten used to living here in a lot of ways. Once when my parents visited, I was translating back-and-forth between them and a waitress. She said some things, and I just looked at my parents expecting them to reply, because I had understood her with no problem, so for a moment I forgot that my parents couldn’t understand her at all!

There’s still some parts of German life that I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand or appreciate, like nude beaches/pools, no window screens, having men sit while peeing, and housing college students of the opposite sex who don’t know each other together, but others I appreciate a lot, like the fantastic bread, the public transportation, and superior plumbing.

German culture is really rather similar to American culture. We eat similar foods, have similar educations, enjoy the same media, and wear the same clothes. It takes a while to discover all the little differences that aren’t so obvious on the surface, but it’s at least not hard for an American to feel at home here in Freiburg.

Freiburg’s main street at sunset. At the end of the day, we’re all just people!

Freiburg As a Springboard to Europe

Gondolas floating on the lagoon of Venice. IES organized a trip for us to Padua and Venice.

One of the crazy things about Europe is how easy it is to travel to another country. Because of the Schengen Area and the free movement of people among European Union member-states, you often don’t even need to stop at border control to get from one place to another. Freiburg sits at the intersection of Germany, France, and Switzerland, so it’s incredibly easy to just pop over for a day or a weekend. If this didn’t make it easy enough, there’s a fairly large airport in the nearby Swiss/French city of Basel, from which you can fly to many points in Europe. It’s also a simple, no-transfer train ride to the Frankfurt airport.

The Greek island of Monemvasia. I visited here over Easter break.

IES is also pretty generous with breaks. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about spring semesters is how many holidays and breaks there are- but here in Freiburg, that’s taken to another level! We get a week off for both Easter and Pentecost, and southern Germany has extra holidays on top of that that North Germany doesn’t get. We also never have class on Fridays, so every weekend is a 3-day weekend, and many get extended to 4 days due to holidays.

Whether it’s a day trip to Colmar or Strasbourg, a weekend trip to Paris, or a week trip to Spain, Croatia, Greece, or Italy, I and the other students here are constantly on the move.

I took this photo while hiking the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) over Pentecost break! The scallop shell and red cross/sword are traditional symbols used by pilgrims. Would it be a true study abroad in Europe if I didn’t backpack at least a little?

IES itself also organized two trips for us this semester: one to Berlin and one to Venice. Not everyone in the program went on the trips: some took advantage of the break to travel alone to other places in Europe. But everyone who went definitely had a great time. These were especially nice because we didn’t have to organize the hotels and travel ourselves, which is the most complicated part- especially in Italy, where we can’t speak the language!

Our hotel in Padua, Italy, was right on the square of St. Anthony of Padua’s Basilica.

Thanks to budget airlines and youth hostels, sometimes flying to a Mediterranean country like Greece, Italy, Croatia, or Spain can actually be a cheaper trip than staying in Germany, where prices are higher. Deutsche Bahn and it’s fleet of high-speed trains makes zipping around Germany comfortable, quick, and still relatively affordable, especially if you buy their “Savings Fare” tickets.

The university in Hannover, in northern Germany.

Everywhere you go in Germany, there’s things to explore and do. I’d recommend to anyone planning on studying abroad to buy last year’s travel guide for Germany- once the latest edition comes out, the earlier ones depreciate in value but have basically the same information in them. I have a 2015 travel guide, and it’s been incredibly useful and only cost me $5!

The only real problems I’ve experienced were unexpected holiday closures and strikes. Europeans take their holidays very seriously, even if many no longer practice the faith traditions that these holidays came from. On holidays and Sundays, cities are much less active. Public transportation is reduced, museums and sights might be closed, and the only businesses that are typically open are restaurants- and on the biggest holidays, even restaurants might be hard to find. Sometimes the massive closures around Easter, Pentecost, and other public holidays can be inconvenient for tourists, but it’s part of experiencing the culture.

I was also stranded once due to the (rather frequent) transportation strikes in France. It ended up costing me considerable time, money, and patience to get home, and I’m not confident that I’ll ever receive the reimbursement that European law is supposed to entitle me to. Because of the strikes in France, the Basel airport was shut down, because it lies partially in France. This experience largely turned me off from using that airport or traveling to France at all, because it’s impossible to predict the strikes months or weeks in advance. Luckily, the rest of Europe doesn’t have such a bad striking problem, so as long as you avoid the Basel airport and France, it should be no problem! (As a disclaimer, I’m sure that many thousands of people have traveled through France and the Basel airport, but I personally won’t be doing it again).

Europe’s network of hostels and AirBnB’s are also significantly more affordable for single travelers.  It can also be surprisingly affordable if you use the budget buses, airlines, or savings fares on trains. Studying abroad is a unique chance to experience the diversity of Europe, and Freiburg has a great location for this!

I woke up at 6am and went out in Venice to get photos like this. Later today, St. Mark’s Square will be full of tourists, vendors, and pigeons. Early in the morning, I was almost alone.

Exploring the Region

As I mentioned in my first blog post, Freiburg is situated in the lower corner of the Black Forest, very close to where France, Switzerland, and Germany intersect. From Freiburg, it’s easy to get to the quintessential Black Forest, to venture into the Badish wine region, or to head into Switzerland to hike in the alps. The Rhine River flows only a short distance to the west, dividing France and Germany.

In this post, I’ll talk about the notable villages around Freiburg that I can visit using only regional transportation, which means it doesn’t cost me anything to get there.

A field of spring wildflowers with the blue mountains of the Schwarzwald rising in the background- what could be more typical of the region?

Using my semester ticket for the public transportation, I can go anywhere in the regional transportation network. One charming place is the village of Staufen. To me, Staufen feels like a miniature version of Freiburg. Almost as old, Staufen has the same medieval colorful facades and baechle, just on a smaller scale. The main street is lined with shops and street cafes, and if you wander into residential areas, the houses are just as picturesque.

This metal sculpture of an ostrich is wearing a “Bollenhut”, or a “ball hat”. The red pom-pom covered hats are part of the traditional folk costume of the Black Forest region. This photo was taken in the village of Staufen. In the background, you can see a little bit of the main street.
This vineyard hill is topped with the ruins of the old castle that overlooked Staufen until it was destroyed in 1632. You can hike up to the top and poke around in the ruins, as well as get a great view of the countryside!

Staufen is also famous for one legendary citizen- Dr. Faustus. The real-life Faust was an alchemist who lived and worked in Staufen until he died in an accidental explosion while experimenting with ways to turn lead into gold. Because of this, his death very soon turned into a medieval moral legend about a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly goods, but got what was coming to him in the end. The legend inspired the so-called “German Shakespeare” to write a play in which Faust is the titular main character. The house where Faust once lived has a mural depicting the legend on it.

This photo shows the town hall (blue building with coats of arms) and main square of Staufen. It’s full of good restaurants and cafes!

Also in the region are the quintessential Black Forest towns of Triberg, St. Peter’s, and Furtwangen. Triberg is home to many kitschy cuckoo clock shops, the highest waterfall in Germany, and the Black Forest museum. Furtwangen is similarly kitschy and has the German Clock Museum. The cuckoo clock is originally from the Black Forest, and it’s always a fun time to visit one of the museums and see how the clocks work and listen to the different chimes. I can’t say that I exactly recommend trying Black Forest cake- I’ve been disappointed each time I’ve tried it- but there’s also a sense that you can’t not try at least one slice.

This especially fine clock is no cuckoo clock, but is one of the pieces on display in the German clock museum in Furtwangen.
The stunning baroque chapel in St. Peter’s is worth a visit. I got a tour of the chapel and former monastery with an IES day trip.

St. Peter’s in the Black Forest is also a charming town with one unique feature to distinguish it- the former Benedictine monastery and seminary that features beautiful baroque art and architecture.

Maultaschen is a traditional regional dish that you can try in the Black Forest. It’s basically meat-filled noodles with gravy on top. I often buy these from the store and heat them up at home for a meal!

Now that the weather’s warmed up, I’ve been exploring the countryside behind my neighborhood, which is the Western-most section of the city. Once I leave the city, there’s miles of farmland and forests, broken up by little villages. Yesterday I had a chance to explore the Opfinger Lake- I have no photos though, because in typical German style, the swimmers were all nude! While I don’t anticipate participating in the Freikörperkultur (“free-body culture”), I plan on going back to swim, especially after my classes are over.

Studying “auf Deutsch”

A big part of studying abroad for me is that it will allow me to get a major in German, because any class in which the language of instruction is German gets counted as a German class. That’s why I chose to come to Germany instead of anywhere else in the world, and that’s why all of my classes are taught in German!

IES Freiburg (and globally) offers programs for language students and people who only know English, and the staff is completely fluent in English. When they talk to us in the Language and Area Studies program, though, they only use German, and we’re encouraged to try to use German among ourselves as well, which is why the rest of this post will be entirely auf Deutsch. Just kidding!

Admittedly, it can be hard to remain “immersed” in the language- when I’m with the other American students, it’s so easy to just slip back into English, and when I’m texting or calling with people back home, I have to only use English. That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate having a German grammar class four hours per week, doing all of my homework in German, and hearing all of my lectures in German. My notes often end up being a mixture of Deutsch and English, which is known affectionately here as Denglisch. ‘Franken-sentences” of mismatched languages abound.

An example of my Denglisch “Frankensentences”. These are from when we learned about political parties in German. The text reads (translated): Voters [for the Alternative for Germany Party] come from people who were CDU/CSU members or previously non-voters. People who are concerned that things could turn bad in the future. 20% voted for AfD because of it’s platform, the other 80% had no idea what the platform was, but rather voted as a protest against all other parties. [The idea being that] maybe the other parties will get their act together if they lose voters.”
Luckily, the professors all speak relatively good English and can help us out if we don’t understand something.

German classes in general are structured differently from American classes. There’s less homework, and instead our grades are based primarily on 1 presentation, 1 research paper, a midterm exam, and a final exam. The concept of “multiple choice” tests hasn’t made it across the pond, and Germans seem skeptical and bemused by the idea. All exams are short-essay style. Thankfully, we’re allowed to use translation dictionaries to help us during exams, and the professors don’t dock points if we have to use the occasional English word.

My classes here are my language & culture class, German economics, German 21st century politics, and the history of the German state. It’s very interesting to get the European and German perspective on things that I’ve only ever heard from the American perspective. One would think that something like economics would be universal, but one would be wrong- the German have developed what they call “Ordo-Liberalism”, whereas Americans focus mostly on classical & neo-liberalism and Keynesian economics. I’ve also come to understand the roots of the first and second World Wars better than I ever have before, because Germans are much more concerned with questions like “why was Germany assigned all of the blame for WWI? Why did the Wiemar Republic fail so quickly?” The German perspective is helping me to see and understand the world more clearly, which is one of the biggest advantages of studying abroad.

This is the main building of the Freiburg University, which was founded in 1457!

While all of my classes are through IES, I could have chosen to participate in a course at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Uni-Freiburg for short) or at the Pädagogische Hochschule (PH). Many of the other students are doing one class at the university and the rest through IES. The university classes end a month later than the IES classes, which means that people taking university classes get to stay in Germany a month longer. Since I’m doing an internship, though, I get to stay late regardless, so I didn’t feel the need to take a university class (and it was a bit intimidating!)

This modern building is the University Library. You can see how many bikes are locked out front- a testament to Freiburg’s bike culture.

The library is also a different experience. Before going in to where the books are, you have to lock all of your bags and coats in lockers. Anything that you want to bring in has to be carried in a shopping bag, and you can only bring water in clear containers. It’s much stricter than Van Wylen! On the ground floor is also a cafe in case you get hungry while studying, and you can reserve your study space using a little placard that displays what time you left. If you’ve been gone for more than an hour, though, people are free to take over your spot.

Students in Germany also tend to be older than American students. Many of the German students whom I’ve met are in their late 20s or early 30s. There’s not so much the “traditional” student who goes to college for a neat and tidy four years right after high school. It seems to be fairly common to wait a few years before entering the university, and also the idea of a very rigid 4-year plan isn’t as common here.


Faith in Freiburg

Southern Germany, Freiburg included, has been a stronghold of German Catholic Christianity for over 1,700 years, and especially after Charlemagne (742-814 AD) united Germany and France into the Holy Roman Empire under the auspices of the Pope. Even after the Reformation, the south stayed true to the Roman pontiff. In Freiburg, this history has a physical presence: construction of the Freiburg Cathedral of Our Lady (known colloquially as the “Münster”) began as early as 1120 AD, though the original building was much smaller than today’s impressive red, Gothic masterpiece. Even after bombings during both World Wars, the Münster is 90% original- even the stained glass windows date back to the 1400s, when local trade guilds funded their construction.

The side of the Freiburger Munster. The stained glass is original from the 1400s, and the red shield with 3 white shields represents the guild that sponsored the window.

When you walk into the dim, cool interior of the Münster, it’s like you’ve been transported back in time. People light votive candles, pray in pews, and worship in much the same way that they have been for a thousand years. The continuity is striking. Compared to America, where everything is mostly 300 years old or younger, the Christian in Germany has a more tangible sense of timelessness.

The main altar of the Freiburger Munster. The large tapestry in the back dates from 1612 and is one of the oldest such tapestries remaining. This one shows the crucifixion, and is hung in the back of the church during the season of Lent.

Germany has nowhere near the religious diversity that the U.S. has.  About 55% of the German population identifies as Christian, and that number is pretty evenly split between Catholics and Lutherans: to an extent, it seems that groups besides these two main ones aren’t noticed by the public at large.

It can be difficult for me to try to explain to Germans what it’s like in America or at Hope with so many different denominations, because the language doesn’t avail itself to subtleties. I believe the large absence of other denominations is because of Europe’s tradition of national churches- after the Reformation got the ball rolling, kingdoms in Northern Europe created national churches under the authority of the monarchy. Examples of this would be the Church of England, the Church of Sweden, the Church of Scotland, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church in Germany. Because these were associated with a specific European nation, they didn’t spread into other European nations, whereas colonies on other continents were “fair game” for missionary work and pilgrims.

This former Benedictine Abbey is a famous feature of the Black Forest. The monastery was first founded in 1073 AD, and still serves the locals today.

Another unique feature of the religious landscape in Germany is their separation of Church and State- or lack thereof. The strongest political party (both historically since the founding of the Bundesrepublik after WWII and currently, though they’ve weakened significantly in the past couple decades) is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), of which Chancellor Angela Merkel is the chairwoman. While today the CDU has backed away from being overtly Christian in favor of plurality, its foundations and worldview are still Christian. Interestingly, the CDU (and economists from Freiburg University) are responsible for the current prevailing economic theory and the modern economics system: the “social market economy,” which they like to call “caring capitalism”. A great effort is made to insist that this system isn’t socialist or communist, because the government does not control the economy, but rather regulates the private sector to ensure that people are treated fairly. “Treating people fairly,” however, may often look somewhat socialist to Americans, but Germans are quick to correct you that these policies of wealth-redistribution, mandatory state-run health insurance, and regulations regarding the dismissal of employees are social, not socialist. This leads to further linguistic confusion: when Americans talk about “social issues,” we mean things like LGBT+ issues, race relations, religious liberty controversies, etc., whereas Germans consider “social issues” to mean unemployment assistance, welfare programs, Social Security pension programs, etc. The Christian element in German politics has translated into a government that concerns itself that the “downs” in life don’t destroy people, that no one has to live in inhumane conditions, and that creation is protected.

This mosaic of the Lamb of God (John 1:29) is just randomly embedded into the city streets.

The Christian heritage of Freiburg is also obvious in day-to-day life. The Munster has been the center of the city for centuries, and it’s Gothic spire is considered the symbol of Freiburg. The skyline would be incomplete without it!

The Freiburger Munster is the most iconic building in the city and still towers above all other buildings.
An Epiphany blessing chalked above the door of a house in Freiburg.

Many doors in Germany have the same little chalk inscriptions on them. There’s a German tradition where every year on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th (also called the Twelfth Day of Christmas or Three Kings Day), priests go around blessing homes for the New Year. The letters written have two meanings: one is the initials of the three kings who came to honor the Baby Jesus (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar), and the second is the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat”, which means “Christ bless this house.” The numbers are the years since the birth of Jesus (aka the current year), and the crosses are a symbol of Christ.

Every day of the week except Sunday, an outdoor market sets up around the Munster selling all kinds of things- flowers, produce, candles, bread, sausage, and toys are just some of what you can find. This market has been going on since 1120, and there’s still carvings in the doorway of the Munster that show the standard measurements used by the medievals. Having this market was a big deal for Freiburg in the early days and helped to develop the city as a center for trade- and all of it is centered around the Munster.

These carvings are found in the doorway of the Munster, and give the standard measurements for the most important product of the medieval world- bread! There were two different shapes- round or almond- and two sizes- large or small.

Public holidays in Germany are more frequently also Christian holidays. Christmas Eve, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday, the Ascension of Christ, Pentacost, Corpus Christi, and All Saint’s Day are all public holidays. On these holidays and on every Sunday, most businesses close and public transportation runs on reduced schedules. If you need to go grocery shopping on a Sunday, you’re basically out of luck, even in the city!

Personally, I find Sacred Heart Church to be charmingly “black forest”, and it’s one of my favorite churches in the city (aesthetically speaking). It overlooks a park next to the main train station.

A further entanglement between Church and State is the “Church Tax”. Every month, Christian citizens have a tithe automatically deducted  by the government from their paycheck to go to a federally recognized religious congregation. In Germany, the Church and the government have historically had a fairly close relationship, in which both mutually relied upon and benefited from each other’s administrative structures- the Church Tax is simply a continuation of this symbiosis.

Do you spy the two icons of the Virgin Mary in this photo? There’s actually a third just out of the frame on the right. These buildings are on the Munster square in the heart of Freiburg, but they’re just normal stores and apartments, despite having religious depictions on them.

Because of the Church Tax, churches in Germany are relatively well funded and rich compared to America. However, secularism is on the rise in Germany, especially in the former socialist German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where Christianity was discouraged by the government. Slightly over 50% of German youths aren’t religious, and it shows when I go to church here- most people are rather elderly, the pews aren’t full, and there’s not as many families with children as I see in America.

Nevertheless, I have been able to find ways to get involved with the local faith community here in Freiburg. I joined one of the 5 choirs at the Munster, which has helped me meet a lot of people. The age range is really broad (about 20 to 65), but everyone is very friendly and nice, so I don’t feel out of place. (I’m planning a post specifically about my involvement in the choir later.)

A photo I took during the young adult praise & worship service at a local church, St. Martin’s.

I also found a young adults prayer group that meets every other week at a church in the city center. Everyone has been really welcoming, even inviting me to other events to hang out with them. After an hour of praise & worship, we hang out with cookies and tea. It’s been a great opportunity to meet faithful young adults and practice my German, since all of them are native Germans! (And a few are now reading my blog, so shout-out to them!)

This is a flyer for the young adult prayer group I found- I was lucky that I happened to notice the flyers, or else I wouldn’t have found it!

I’ve found that Germans in general tend to not approach strangers, but are really quite friendly once you approach them. For my first few weeks in Freiburg, no one talked to me after church at all (except for one fellow, who vanished quite fast once I told him I had a boyfriend). Even the clergy don’t tend to shake hands or chat after the service, and I’ve never seen an offer of donuts and coffee. I had to put in very intentional effort to involve myself, but once I did, the Germans are just as chatty, curious, and kind as Americans.

The University Church also offers a service in English once per month, but so far I’ve happened to miss it every time. Luckily, I do alright with the German services. I can understand most of what’s said now, especially since I’m already familiar with the Bible readings. Oftentimes the sermons escape me, though, because of the echo. One German tradition that I think is an interesting and nice touch is ending sermons with “Amen,” as if the sermon was one long prayer.

This head”stone” in the main cemetery displays an example of traditional German woodcarving. This depiction in particular is known as the Bavarian Madonna.

German ecclesial language is a little bit different and more formal than the kind of “everyday” German we learn in school, so sometimes I don’t know specific biblical or theological terms. I always find it amusing when someone refers to “Jesus and His disciples,” because in German it’s “Jesus und seine Jüngern” which sounds an awful lot like “Jesus und seine Jungen,” which means “boys”. Every time I hear a German say that, I hear it as a story about”Jesus and his ‘boyz'” getting up to some new adventure in ancient Israel. As Church history teaches us, one letter makes a world of difference.

I’m also not entirely convinced that Germans haven’t tried to make one big pun out of communion- the priest says to each person “Der Leib Christi” (the Body of Christ) before giving them the sacramental bread. However, the German word for a loaf of bread is “Laib“, which is pronounced exactly the same as “Leib” (body), and they could have very easily stuck with the word from Latin, “Körper” (like “corpus“). This coupled with the Germans’ love for puns makes me mighty suspicious.

In keeping with their austere persona, German kneelers are usually just plain wood or stone, whereas American kneelers are always plushly padded.

Click on the circles below to see photo collages of some of the churches around Freiburg!

For various German Christian art, click on the circular thumbnails below:

The Sound of Music

While Freiburg isn’t quite the same as the Austrian alps, and though you’re not very likely to see dirndls here, the streets of Freiburg are frequently “alive” with music. Whether it’s the bells of the Munster, the burbling of the Bächle, or street performers, Downtown Freiburg is quite a musical place.

Children watch in rapt attention as this street musician controls an electronic band of stuffed animals on the main street of Freiburg.

I’ve been involved with music ensembles constantly since the 5th grade, so it made sense to try to continue this in Germany. I couldn’t bring my violin with me this semester, so I decided to find a choir in Freiburg.

During my first couple of weeks here, I identified a few possible choirs and eventually had found three that I might like to try out, but I didn’t know how to decide. That weekend, I went to church at the Munster and heard the Freiburg Cathedral Boy’s Choir singing, and they were fantastic! My only problem then was that I’m not a prepubescent boy. After some online investigation, though, I found out that there’s four choirs at the Munster, two of which are for adults, and I emailed the director- and he was very quick to reply with an invitation to join!

This building on the town square used to be where the bishops lived, but now it’s the Cathedral Vocal School. We rehearse on the second floor. The flags are there in honor of the bishop’s ordination- the Munster and many other buildings around the city were also flying banners for the occasion!

The choir I joined is one of the smaller choirs that sings at the Cathedral, but it still has about 25 members, who range from my age to retirees. The music we sing is fairly rigorous classical pieces, in Latin, German, or sometimes English! I always find it a little jarring when the Germans here suddenly start speaking perfectly competent English, because I’m so used to them speaking German.

The services at the Freiburger Munster can be pretty big deals, and I joined the choir just in time to sing for Maundy Thursday! This is one of the biggest holy days of the year, because it kicks off the Triduum (the three days leading up to Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead). A couple weeks after Easter, I got to sing for the ordination of a new bishop as well, Bishop Peter Birkhofer. These were both completely unique experiences than I’ve ever had back home, and I’m glad I got to participate in the choir instead of just watching from the pews. The bishop’s ordination was recorded and posted to YouTube, and the video can be found here. In the coming weeks, the choir is singing for the ordination of new priests, the Feast of the Ascension, vespers on Pentecost, and a concert.

This is the bulletin from the Ordination for the new bishop of Freiburg.

After we do anything as a group, be it rehearsal, singing for a service, or performing at a concert, we all hang out in the Vocal School’s kitchen for snacks, drinks, and socialization after. Through this, I’ve gotten to know the other members of the choir fairly well. Everyone’s really nice and friendly, and it’s nice to be able to get away from my little “IES bubble” of other American exchange students. It’s very easy to only spend time with the other IES students, but that’s not the way to get the most immersive study abroad experience.

After the Bishop’s ordination, there was a huge garden party in the courtyard of the seminary, and I attended it with other choir members. For the new bishop, this ordination is somewhat analogous to a wedding (as is any ordination), but it’s the church community who’s the “bride” in this case- so we were all invited to the reception! There were tons of drinks, finger foods, and schnitzel sandwiches, which I was very glad to see as I’d been busy with the choir for about four hours at that point and had developed an appetite!

At the reception after the Bishop’s ordination were song and dance exhibitions, in which these women participated.
The folks in the long white robes are members of the choir heading into the Munster to sing!

Click here to hear a short clip of the choir Agnus Dei Choral. I took this video during our rehearsal prior to the Bishop’s Ordination. The piece is “Mass in G-Minor Op. 76” by Carl Maria von Weber.

Through my involvement in the choir, I’ve gotten to really meet people in the community here, as well as practice my German. I was quite excited the other day when as I was walking to class in the morning, a woman from the choir happened to ride her bike past and greet me by name. It’s nice to feel like I’m starting to integrate a bit as a resident of Freiburg, and I get to do something that I love while I’m at it!

Interning Abroad

During my semester in Freiburg, I have the chance to do an internship. The IES staff helped me to write up a German resume and send it to local businesses and organizations that fit my interests. I’m not being paid, because I’m getting credit instead. However, with my student visa, I’m also allowed to work for a wage here, so I could also get a second job at any local business (Disclaimer: student visas work differently from country to country. In many cases, you cannot work while on a student visa). I know some students who wait tables at local restaurants, for example. Other IES students are interning at a local school (education major), an economics company (economics major), and a community farm (environmental studies major). For one hour each week, every student doing an internship meets together for a class at IES, during which we talk about our experiences at our internships, learn about the German workplace, and will eventually write a reflection paper about our internship.

I’ll admit, it sounds more impressive than it really is — because of the language issues, it’s actually rather limited what I can do. Some students from IES were raised speaking German at home by German parents, so they’re completely fluent, and they have more “professional” internships. Mine is more like being a regular volunteer, but that’s fine by me — it’s still a great way to practice German, meet people, and get involved in the local community.

My internship is with a woman’s shelter called “FreiRaum”, which means “freedom”. This shelter is a ministry of the Lutheran organization Diakonie. Right now I’m going once per week from 8:30am to noon, because I have classes every other day. At the end of July, however, IES courses end, and I’ll have another month with no class. At this point, I’ll start going to “work” 3-4 days during the week, and have free time to enjoy the German summer otherwise.

At FreiRaum, women can come and do laundry, shower, receive a meal, get public transportation passes, and collect mail. We also do arts and crafts, and just hang out with the ladies. The week before Easter we made painted Easter eggs, which I had never done before. We used thumb tacks to poke a hole in the top and bottom of the raw eggs, then put our mouths over one end and blew the insides into a bowl. Once we’d emptied a whole carton of eggs, I scrambled the insides and we served them. Once our Easter eggs were decorated and the paint was dry, they were hung all over the main room, off of plants and on the walls.

Click on the thumbnails below to see the full sized photos!

The center is only open from 9am to noon, so we serve a German breakfast. This means bread, cheese, salami, raw bacon, jam, honey, Nutella, butter, coffee, and tea. One of my duties is preparing the food and making sure it stays stocked throughout the morning.

Every morning, I and another intern walk down to the grocery store to buy supplies. We buy huge quantities of groceries to last the shelter for the week, then prepare some to be served when the women arrive. We also need to sort the mail that’s arrived for the women. Every letter needs to be recorded and safely filed for the recipient to come pick up, and then they have to sign that they got it. It’s a fairly serious business, but that makes sense given how important and private mail can be.

I also spend a lot of time talking with the other employees and the women who come to the center. I’ve gotten to know several of the “regulars” who are there when I am, and they’re all very friendly. These are the kinds of women who most people, including myself, usually ignore when they’re begging on the streets or riding on public transportation with all of their belongings and bedding, but at this internship I sit side-by-side at the same table as equals.