Freiburg prides itself on being a “green” city, and one of these points is that more people travel with bikes or public transportation than use cars. My host family doesn’t even own a car!
I live in the western-most section of Freiburg, Rieselfeld. Freiburg is relatively compact, though, so my apartment is only three miles from the city center. One thing I’ve learned about living in a city, however, is that distances are longer than they seem! I’m from the “Motor City”, where everyone has a car and three miles isn’t far at all, but here it takes me 35 minutes to commute to class every day. Luckily, because I live at the end of the line, I always get a seat during the morning rush hour!
To use the trains, I had to buy a semester ticket. This ticket allows me to ride around the city unlimited from April to August, but was relatively expensive. Usually you just hop on and off the trams without anyone checking your ticket. However, occasionally officials walk through the tram and check tickets, and if you’re caught riding the public transportation without a ticket, you incur a 60 Euro fine!
No one checked for my ticket at all for the first month I was in Freiburg, but then the transit system did its massive, city-wide crackdown on Good Friday. Luckily, I had my ticket with me! A friend of mine was caught without hers, though, and was fined. She was able to go to the transportation center and present her valid semester ticket the next day, and the fine was reduced to only 8 Euros. The crackdown caused mass panic throughout the city, though, as regular Schwarzfahrer (fair dodges, lit. “black riders”) were caught with fines. While I was sitting in the packed Munster before the Good Friday service, a woman stood up from the congregation and shouted to everyone “Hey! Listen here! Today is the crackdown on the public transit! Everyone, buy a ticket!”
Bikes are also a very important mode of transportation in Freiburg. International students are able to buy a bike at full price, but then sell it back to the same shop for as much as 70% of the price at the end of the semester! Biking can also be faster than using the trams, especially on weekends where the trams only run every 15 minutes or less.
Bike paths are an integral part of the city’s infrastructure, and they’re well used.
Finally, you always have the option to walk! In fact, sometimes that may be your only option. Last Tuesday, the public transportation workers went on strike, which meant that no trams or buses were running in the entire city. Instead, I had to walk to class and back, which took me a little over an hour each way. Luckily, the strike only lasted 1 day, and I managed to avoid walking during the hail storm.
Chocolate, sauerkraut, schnitzel, pretzels, potatoes and beer all come to mind when people think about German food- and they’re definitely not wrong!
Unlike America, German stores are much more specialized than American ones. There’s no Meijer equivalent where you can get everything (medicine, cleaning supplies, furniture, pets, food, sports equipment- EVERYTHING) you need in one go. Rather, you need to visit specific stores for all of those things. Every block has one or two bakeries, where you can pick up bread, pretzels, confections, and pre-made cold sandwiches.
These small bakeries are great places for a quick cup of coffee with a croissant or a small lunch. And German bread is amazing. In an interesting quirk of the German language, sliced sandwich bread isn’t called “brot” (bread) here- the German word is “toast”, whether it’s toasted or not! I’ve also seen “toast” with American flags on the packaging, because it’s considered an American food!
There’s certain foods in German that are so distinctly American, the packaging reflects it. Even though I’ve never even seen this brand of peanut butter back home, its label sports symbols of America- a 10-gallon hat and sheriff star, the Statue of Liberty, the ole stars and stripes… and the designation “XXL”, even though this jar isn’t significantly bigger than a standard jar of peanut butter in America. “Supersized” food means “America” to Germans.
German grocery stores (Lebensmittelgeschaeften, literally “sustenance shops”) are a different experience, too. They’re much more cramped than American stores, and the selection is a lot smaller. The presentation is also usually a little less neat, too. Beverage bottles are stacked on top of each other in the packaging that they were shipped in, so you have to wrestle them out, and produce tends to be a little more banged up.
Instead of chewing gum and chocolate bars in the checkout line, there’s miniature bottles of hard liquor and cigarettes for sale- you’ll also find the discarded remains of these vices littering the streets of Germany.
Germans seem to buy food in smaller quantities than Americans. You can only get milk in 1 liter cartons (for as much or more than a gallon of milk in America), and there’s no 2-Liters of soda pop. The milk and eggs are also stored without refrigeration, simply on shelves in the store. When I bring my milk home, I just put it in the pantry until I open it. In the photo above, if you look closely you can read the date on the milk carton to the left (remember, Germans write the date Day-Month-Year). This carton was purchased in mid-March, but is dated out to the 22nd of June! People keep milk long-term in pantries and cellars here. It’s also much more common for people to buy whole milk for drinking or using in coffee. The lowest fat percentage available is 1.5%- any American who prefers the taste of skim milk will just have to settle for water!
After experiencing grocery shopping in Germany, I think that perhaps when the Germans imported assembly line/conveyor belt technology from Henry Ford, they didn’t understand that it was for factories. Famous German efficiency extends to the checkout. As per E.U. law, bags aren’t free in Germany, so most people bring their own reusable bags, and cashiers don’t bag for you. Instead, the cashier scans your stuff as fast as possible while you wildly shove groceries into your one or two bags, trying not to crush the more delicate items in your haste. As soon as the cashier is done scanning, you’re expected to pay- which means that there’s always some items left over that you haven’t been able to stuff into your bag yet when the cashier begins scanning for the next transaction. No worries, though, because the Germans have thought of this! At every grocery store there’s a bank of counters along the wall beyond the registers for the sole purpose of scooping up all of your remaining groceries in your arms, waddling over, and bagging the rest. It’s quite invigorating.
At home, the staples of the German diet seem to be cucumbers, butter, jam, salami, cheese, and bread. That’s the most typical thing my host family and I eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Germans also enjoy eating what, to me, appears to be raw bacon. The excuse that they give for this sin against bacon is that it’s actually prosciutto ham… though I’m beginning to wonder if “prosciutto” isn’t just the Italian name for “raw bacon”.
Another favorite breakfast food is Müsli. The closest American equivalent would be granola, but that’s not a perfect pair. The main ingredient of Müsli is raw, rolled oats- what we would associate with oatmeal. Here, however, you just add cold milk and chew a lot. Other ingredients can include chocolate shavings, dried fruits (especially raisins), and corn flakes.
Another, less traditional German staple is the Döner. The national infatuation is such that there’s even songs about this Turkish sandwich, and there’s a phrase that says, Döner macht schöner (Döners make you prettier).
The final product is quite similar to the Greek gyro sandwich, which makes sense given the proximity between Turkey and Greece. Germany has a relatively high population of people of Turkish decent, because there was a worker deficit after the end of the Second World War. Many Turkish men moved to Germany to work, then settled down permanently. Luckily, they brought their cuisine with them!
Embedded into the streets outside of buildings and homes all cross Germany are Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks”. These small brass squares don’t literally trip people, but are there to cause a little “stumble” as you go about your day-to-day life; to jolt you a little along your way. The stones serve as miniature memorials and mark the houses where Jewish Holocaust victims once lived.
Life in Germany is haunted by the past; these Stolpersteine are just one way in which one is reminded of the Holocaust on a daily basis. There’s many memorials throughout the country, and even the cities themselves still bear the scars of the war- scorch marks and bullet holes mar historic buildings.
In America, the Second World War is definitely a source of horror, but we get to enjoy a sense of moral rectitude and triumph, and a removal from the events that Germans can’t. The war was fought on other continents, so we don’t spend our lives in cities that were once firebombed or occasionally hear about someone finding an un-exploded bomb in their garden while digging. When we do think about the atrocities committed, we get to remember ourselves as liberators rather than murderers, and when we remember the outcome, we remember victory rather than defeat. For Germans, the Second World War is a bitter memory full of shame and regret; a grievous sin for which they are still atoning.
Click through the two albums below to see two memorials in Berlin and learn more about them.
This art exhibit in the Jewish Museum is eery. The towering bare cement walls remind one of a prison cell… or a grave vault. The mouths of the iron faces are open, as if crying out, and they clank like chains as visitors step on them.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. A cement labyrinth in the heart of the city.
German culture has rejected the racism and intolerance put forth by the Nazis, but there’s still trouble today. Synagogues in Germany still have barricades and police guards outside of them to prevent Neo-Nazi terrorist attacks. For example, to enter the New Synagogue in Berlin, you have to go through metal detectors and allow your bags to be inspected. The very fact that this is necessary is a source of shame to Germans.
The specter of Nazism isn’t just noticeable in what one can see; it’s also noticeable in what’s omitted. Any form of patriotism is too similar to the fanatical nationalism that Hitler whipped up, so no one hangs German flags from their houses or has flag decals on cars or items. You’d be more likely to find the American flag printed on a shirt! Since Germany hosted the soccer World Cup in 2006, people feel comfortable sporting their nation’s colors in relation to soccer, but it’s still rare to see the flag being displayed year round except on government buildings.
Germany is still struggling to move past the Holocaust, both psychologically and physically. The people and the land still bear the scars that the war and the following division created. The future is bright, though. Germany is reunited and has become a prominent and influential nation. The heightened consciousness of the Holocaust is a burden, but also a guarantee that fascism will never again find fertile ground in Germany.
IES has been doing a good job keeping us busy. In the past 17 days, we’ve only had 1 day with nothing scheduled! Last weekend and the weekend before that, we’ve gone on day trips to Switzerland and the local Black Forest region.
These trips have been great for seeing the area and getting to know the other students, especially because we spent over two hours on a bus getting to Lucerne, Switzerland! Freiburg is in the “Dreiländereck“, which means “three country corner”, because it’s very close to France, Switzerland, and (of course) Germany.
Even though it was below freezing in Freiburg, there wasn’t any snow. As we drove higher into the Swiss alps, though, it got snowier and snowier, until we were in a quaint village surrounded by busy ski slopes.
We took a gondola (cable car) up the side of the mountain, then a chair lift the rest of the way. The ground was simply smooth white snow, so it blended into the thick fog, making it look like we were completely enveloped by a cloud.
From the top of the mountain, we hiked back down. The first part of the path was very steep and icy, with only a small rope to help us, but we all made it. After that, the path flattened out and was more navigable.
After we got to the bottom, we drove to the beautiful city of Lucerne, Switzerland! Now that we were in town, we got to hear the locals speaking Swiss German. Germany has always had many different dialects and regional variations, but since becoming a unified country, High German predominates. Today, most people middle aged or younger speak High German, and television shows, radio broadcasts, and schools almost universally use High German. Dialects are weaker today in Germany than they ever have been in the past. In Switzerland, however, the official German dialect is Swiss German, so this dialect is widely spoken today. To me, Swiss German sounds like someone speaking German with a thick Scottish accent!
One of the other major sites in Lucerne is the Lion Monument. This beautiful, tragic sculpture of a dying lion commemorates Swiss soldiers who died in the French Revolution.
On the way back from the Lion Monument, we happened to spy the top of a church and decided to head in. It was absolutely gorgeous. Flip through the album below by clicking on one of the pictures!
Europe is absolutely bursting with charming villages and towns, beautiful churches, and breathtaking natural views! These trips with IES have been a great way to meet other students and become acquainted with the region, as well as keep busy in a town where we don’t really know anyone yet. This is the first weekend that I’ve had totally free, and on Tuesday I’m headed to Berlin with other IES students.
Our classes are only Monday through Thursday every week, so we can travel for 3-day weekends every week if we want. I’m planning on doing day trips on Friday or Saturday to towns in the region, but I don’t want to be gone all weekend, every weekend- I can be a tourist any time, but this is my one chance to experience living in Freiburg, Germany, and there’s nowhere else that I can experience that other than right here!
Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, I’m getting used to my day-to-day life in Germany. The culture doesn’t seem so foreign, but the differences are stark when it comes to the details.
I’m living in a newer section of the city with a family of a mother and two young children. The younger one is only 3 years old and doesn’t speak very clearly, so I can’t actually understand him most of the time. On the other hand, sometimes even his mother can’t understand him, so I don’t feel as bad.
I have my own bedroom, but I share the rest of the house (the bathrooms, kitchen, washing machine, and living room) with the family. Sometimes it can be hard to fit in among the activity in the morning, with all four of us getting ready at the same time!
To get into the apartment, I have to walk up four flights of exterior stairs- the front door is on the top floor! There’s a small antechamber where we leave our shoes and coats, because no one in Germany wears street shoes in the house. Instead, they favor Hausschuhe (slippers).
When you come further into the house, there’s the kitchen and living room. The kitchen is fairly small, but luckily the family has a dish washer! They do not, however, have a microwave. All leftovers have to be heated using the stove or oven. On the counter, there’s a coffee machine, an electric kettle, and a soda machine. Germans love coffee and tea, and they almost always drink carbonated water instead of plain tap water. My host family keeps a constant supply of home-made Tafelwasser on hand using their soda machine. Personally, I still prefer plain old tap water, and German tap water is perfectly clean and safe to drink.
The kitchen is the only place with trash cans in the house, so I have to bring all of my trash upstairs. Germans have a serious recycling program, and every building and house has three different trash cans in it. At first, I’d have to stop and carefully consider before I could throw anything away! It’s much different from America, were we more or less just absentmindedly toss things in the single trash can.
In the living room, there’s a “trapeze bar” swing suspended from a beam in the ceiling. The children love to play on it, especially the 7 year old girl. German children have gymnastics classes in kindergarten, so she’s really quite aerobatic sometimes! This is the second indoor swing I’ve seen in Germany, so I’m beginning to suspect that it’s more common here, perhaps because German architectural tastes leave thick wooden accent beams exposed.
Down the spiral staircase (common in Germany) are the bedrooms. The children share a room, and I have my own fairly spacious room.
The bed is a typical German bed. By that, I mean that the queen-sized bed is achieved by pushing two twin mattresses together and covering them with one fitted sheet. There’s no top sheet, but rather only the square duvet that you can see in the photo. My pillow is also actually a large square, that I have to fold in half to get something approximately the size and thickness of an American pillow.
Both of the floors of the house have a balcony, and I can access the lower one from my room.
One odd thing about Germans is that they don’t like curtains (except for the lacy little half-window curtains, and those are only in older homes). If I want privacy, I have to shut the roll-down, exterior shutter, but unfortunately that blocks my view and most natural light.
Speaking of my door (which is also my window), every day we open the windows for about 5 minutes to “air out” the house. German houses are quite airtight and have no vents, so they can get quite stuffy. Worse yet, they get damp. In the photo below, you can see the condensation that builds on the windows every morning- if we don’t air out the house, black mold can start growing (and does grow a little on the windows, where the water collects). I’ll admit that I’m a bit puzzled why they don’t invest in dehumidifiers, since the damp is such a problem.
I mentioned that German houses have no vents or central heating/cooling systems. Instead of air conditioning, Germans open windows. Anyone who’s living in the dorms at Hope can relate to this kind of life, except that Germans don’t use window screens! Usually this is ok, but occasionally moths, flies, and other insects invade the house. And instead of a furnace, every room has an adjustable radiator.
Just about every German building, no matter how new, uses radiators instead of furnaces. I believe it’s this system that allows for another German peculiarity: heated bathroom floors! While not ubiquitous by any means, I’ve experienced enough heated bathroom floors here to believe that it’s fairly common. The bathroom is always quite warm, but is fantastic if you’re bathing, but can be a bit oppressive if you’re simply brushing your teeth or doing your makeup.
While on the topic of the German bathroom, there’s a lot of little differences. The toilets here have no toilet tank and sport two flush buttons instead of a lever. The buttons save water by allow you to choose a larger or a smaller flush, depending on what you’re flushing. I’m still a little hazy about which buttons do which, but I have a 50/50 chance of guessing the correct one, so so far I haven’t asked anyone to explain.
The bath and shower also both have a hand-held nozzle, instead of just a fixed faucet. This is quite common in Germany, and personally I like the ability to hold the shower nozzle. I believe the nozzle for the tub is so that you can rinse yourself off after bathing.
Doing laundry is also a little different from back home- there’s no dryers in Germany! Instead, there’s drying racks for clothes. Without a dryer, clothes turn out wrinkly and stiff, so ironing is more necessary than in America. It does save energy, though, and Germans are quite environmentally conscious.
After 2 months of waiting at home, I finally got to Freiburg this week. Since then, I’ve been exploring the city every chance I get. In this post, I’ll do my best to give some context for my later posts.
Freiburg is down in the southwest corner of Germany, in the Black Forest. From here, it’s fast and easy to take a train or bus to Switzerland (Basel or Lucerne) or France (Strasbourg). If you look out at the horizon around the city, there’s short, tree covered mountains in every direction: the Black Forest.
The altstadt (historic district) is dominated by the Freiburger Münster. When I got lost on my first day, I re-oriented myself by looking for its tall spire and heading towards it.
Across from the Munster is the old Kaufhaus, which is something like a commerce building.
On the main street, Kaiser Strasse, there’s many stores and restaurants. It’s a pedestrian zone, which means that cars and bikes aren’t allowed to drive in that area of the city. The S-Bahn (street cars/trams) still run through, so you have to still be careful crossing the street.
All of the streets in the altstadt are cobblestone and have bächle in them, which makes this part of the city even more perilous to walk- you have to watch your step as well as the traffic. Bächle comes from the German word for “small brook”, and refers to the unique little channels of water that run through the streets of Freiburg. These were once used for fire fighting, irrigation, and drinking water.
Two large gates mark two of the entrances to the altstadt. There used to be more, but the centuries and the Second World War have destroyed the others. The two that remain, Martinstor (St. Martin’s Gate) and Schwabentor (Swabian Gate), have been adapted to the modern world. They were raised so that the S-Bahn could run under them, and Martinstor has a McDonald’s under it.
On the back of the Swabian Gate, there’s a mural depicting a local legend. The story goes that a rich, arrogant Swabian came to Freiburg with barrels of gold, because he has decided that he fancied to buy the city. However, when he opened his barrels, there was nothing in them except rocks, because his wife, who didn’t support his plan, had replaced all the gold with stones behind his back. Freiburg is in Baden, which is the next kingdom over from Swabia- hence the unflattering story, which shows the Swabians as arrogant and foolish.
Another integral part of the city is the Freiburg University. It was founded in 1457, and today has over 25,000 students. On the front of it’s main building, in gold letters, is the motto “Die Wahrheit wird euch frei machen” (The truth will set you free), from the Gospel of John. The historic buildings of the university are all in red stone, as are the old churches. The library, however, is quite modern and mostly glass.
I don’t live in the altstadt, but the IES Freiburg offices and classrooms are here, so I’ve spent most of my time in this area. It’s a great area, with lots of stores, cafes, restaurants, and historic sites. The buildings are much more colorful than in America, which you can see in the photos. There’s lots of yellows, blues, reds, greens, and whites.