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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 GoEuro.com 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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.