“Study” and “Abroad”

When I first started looking into studying abroad, I repeatedly heard stories about the workload while abroad and how the “abroad” played a much bigger role than the “study.” Well, they fooled me. Now, my program is a unique one, because it focuses on the European Union and has three week-long trips throughout the semester that are designed to align with our studies. We just returned from the last of our trip, where our program split us into three groups, of which mine went to London, Belfast, Dublin, and Stockholm. These trips leave the rest of our class schedule packed, to say the least.

So what have I been learning? To start, I know much more about the European Union than I ever expected to. How it started as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 as an economic organization that could help prevent further conflict between the major powers in Europe of France and Germany. How it is now made up of 28 countries, but is likely losing a member state for the first time during finals week next semester on March 29 when the UK exits. That’s right, I can tell you just about everything you could ever hope to know about Brexit as well. Insider scoop – Britain is probably in trouble.

In Brussels, we visited several of the EU institutions, including the Council of the European Union.

The great part about this program is that we get to travel to the places where the most important decisions are made in the EU and talk to key officials. We have been to the parliament buildings of the EU, the UK, and Sweden, and talked to members of the EU and Swedish parliaments. Apparently the parliament members in Britain have other things to worry about currently…

Speaking of, my Brexit class and I got to meet with negotiators who have been working in overdrive to hammer out the details of Brexit deals on both the UK and EU sides. Additionally, the final project for our class was to meet with a class of students doing the IES program in London to present and debate our own terms for a Brexit deal.

The UK Parliament, where we got to go on a tour and see the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

My favorite parts of studying abroad come when ‘study’ and ‘abroad’ stop being mutually exclusive. Though much of our mornings or afternoons were filled with meetings, we had the opportunity to go on city tours and go off on our own. Our first night in London, I went to a friendly of the US men’s soccer team against England at Wembley Stadium, the largest in the UK.

The US lost 3-0, but it also happened to be the last international game for legend England’s Wayne Rooney.

I also got to meet up with a friend I made during an international leadership conference in Liverpool that I went on with a group of students from Hope College. We met up and went to see incredible artifacts like the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.

This slab of rock had text from 3 languages inscribed on it, allowing scholars to decipher the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Thanks to my crazy network of friends and family spread out all over Europe, I also got to see many other people from different stages of my life:

    

My cousin who plays professional soccer in Einhoven (in the Netherlands) was able to come hang out with me for a day in Brussels. 
I randomly (almost literally) ran into Allie DeJongh, a class of 2018 Hope student who now is on a Fulbright scholarship and is teaching English in Brussels.
In London I also met up with one of my best childhood friends from Prague and his dad.

Yes, I have been very busy and I should probably get started on that 12 page paper due soon, but in the past month I truly have gotten to experience a great blend of both studying and being abroad. I am developing a much greater understanding of Europe as a collective whole – its problems and its functions. At the same time, seeing old friends during my travels is a good reminder of why we do it in the first place. To meet people from different places and share ideas and experiences with each other.

First Program Trip – Berlin and Warsaw

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you did not get to bed before 10 pm on your 21st birthday, and I am probably right. I, however, had a slightly different experience. For one, the only thing you get in Germany for turning 21 is the ability to legally rent a car, so it is not nearly as significant as in the U.S. In addition, I had to be ready to leave for the Freiburg train station by 5:45 am for our first week-long trip with our program.

Germany has a large Turkish minority, and one of their major contributions to German culture is the introduction of numerous döner kebab places, the best of which is Mustafa’s

The train ride to Berlin took about 6 hours, during which many of us got to get to know each other better, listen to music and read, or (the most popular choice) sleep. After arrival, we were confronted by the extensive public transportation network in Berlin and managed to locate two very important things. 1) Our hostel and 2) The best döner kebab place in town.

The contrast between the base structure and the glass dome on top of the famous parliament building is very representative of the combination of old and new throughout the city.

We then were taken on a two hour walking tour of Berlin which started at the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Our tour guide then took us to see many famous sights in the area including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As we made our way through the city, our tour guide stated that during WWII, roughly 80% of Berlin was destroyed. In fact, much of Berlin is filled with modern-looking buildings and looking back, I would argue that it was more similar to most big cities in the US than it was to Freiburg.

We had to go back to check out the Brandenburg Gate again to see it at night. Very impressive.

This line of cobblestones marks where the Berlin Wall once stood. Behind is the Brandenburg Gate.

Checkpoint Charlie. Featuring me.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews, a very powerful monument.

The next day we took a visit to the former Stasi prison, where the GDR (former East Germany) held many political prisoners and dissenters for interrogations. This ruthless prison was hidden from the public and many forms of psychological torture were used by the Stasi to get what they wanted from their prisoners.

The basement of the Stasi prison nicknamed The Submarine because it was all underground and prisoners never knew what time it was. Prisoners were crammed so tight into these cells that they had to stand to have enough space.

After eating another kebab for lunch, we heard from a political analyst on Germany’s role in the European Union and went to the East Side Gallery to check out the artwork displayed along a long stretch of a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The following are some of the highlights I saw

In English: “You have learned what freedom is, never again forget it”
The famous picture of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker a massive smooch.
This section in particular seemed to be very popular amongst the instagrammers…

After hearing from a German professor from Stanford University about the German perspective on the migration crisis, we had plenty of free time to spend around the city. Another aspect of Berlin’s rich history is the plethora of fantastic museums located right in the city.  Though it has been going through major renovations, the Pergamon Museum has incredible displays of historical architecture and artifacts from the times of ancient Babylon to the Roman Empire. The Neues Museum was another museum I visited, and it is the home of the famous bust of Nefertiti.

The Ishtar Gate was a gate to the inner city of Babylon built during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II.

 

You are not allowed to take pictures of the Nefertiti bust from any closer than I was, but this artist found a loophole by making a beautiful drawing instead. Unfortunately he didn’t leave the room while I was there, so I could not take a picture of his art either.

After our time in Berlin came to a close, we took another train out to Warsaw, where we would be for the next two days. Upon our arrival, we made a quick stop at our hotel and headed straight to the city center for a walking tour with our hilarious Polish tour guide who went by the name Jack. For some reason I had a hard time believing that this was his given name, but he was funny so we just went along with it.

If you walk to the front of this tower you will be in the main city center of Warsaw where you can find a statue of a significant figure in the city’s history above a fountain.

By the time we finished our city tour it was dark outside, and we made our way to another beautiful square for dinner. Most of the city was destroyed in WWII, so almost all of the buildings around us had been built (or rebuilt) in the last 70 or so years. Thanks to some precise artwork from an artist before the war, the buildings in this square were intricately repaired to appear almost identical to what they were before. In the center of this square, you will also find a statue of a mermaid who was said to have lived in the waters of the Vistula river that runs through the city. Some claim that this same mermaid is also the inspiration for the story of the Little Mermaid, though the mermaid statue in Copenhagen generally gets credit for being the true source of the tale. Unfortunately this is the extent of my mermaid knowledge, so I’ll leave you to re-watch the Little Mermaid and decide for yourself…

The old town market square – the mermaid statue is slightly visible in the bottom left of the photo.
A classic Polish dish of pierogies and a local beer was a delicious way to finish off our first day in Warsaw.

Much of the next day and a half in Poland was spent doing class-related activities, like meeting with experts on Poland and it’s relations with the European Union. One of the most common topics was the ‘immigration crisis,’ and we heard from both sides about why Poland should or should not be doing more to help refugees looking for help. We heard the Polish perspective from representatives from The Polish Institute of International Affairs, who supported a very strict immigration policy for their extremely homogeneous nation, and for the first time in our program were confronted with lots of ideas that went against the EU’s opinions and goals.

We also got to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum, which was about a resistance uprising led by the local citizens in Warsaw to try to oust the Nazi troops near the end of the war. The idea was for them to revolt in time to take the city just before the Russians arrived to ease the Russian push west, but the plan failed. Allies managed to send in bombers with care packages, but the Russians never got there in time and after a month or two of Polish resistance members controlling parts of the city, the rebellion was suppressed.

The center attraction of the Warsaw Rising Museum was this RAF Liberator – one of the types of bombers used during the dangerous missions the Allies sent out to supply Polish resistance members.

Just like in Berlin, there was not enough time to see everything I would have liked to, but both museums were fantastic. On our last day we made sure to eat even more pierogies, capping off a full week of incredible food. By the end, however, we were all looking forward to getting back to Freiburg and sleep in our beds again.

A group of IES students I got to explore the city with during our time in Warsaw.

Daily Life in Freiburg

Week two in Freiburg provided me with the opportunity to finally immerse myself in the daily life of this city. Though we did have two hours of German per day, our only other class was an “Integrative Seminar” course, which has mainly been giving us informative background on the EU and its current state. This has given us plenty of time to get lost exploring the city and helped us to get a sense of what the rest of our semester will be like while we are in Freiburg.

Franziska, my German teacher, gave our class an assignment to walk around and ask questions about the Münstermarkt, which is essentially a large open-air market held in the main town square of Freiburg. And these shop owners are dedicated. Münstermarkt runs every day of the year except for Sundays, including throughout the winter months. It also isn’t your typical farmer’s market – Münstermarkt has souvenirs, flowers, ‘Holzkunst’ (or wood art), wine, and various other items.

The market surrounds the church in the town center, pictured on the right. Here is one of the many stands selling various flowers and plants.
The famous “Lange Rote.” Many Euros will be spent at this stand in the coming months…

Both locals and tourists frequent the market, and many of the stands are quite well-known. From the cheesecake stand ‘Stephans Käsekuchen’ who are famous for their secret recipe to the hot dogs on steroids called ‘Lange Rote,’ the options provided at Münstermarkt are delicious and relatively affordable for a college student like myself.

Only locally produced fruits can be found here, so you won’t see any bananas or pineapples, but the quality and relatively cheap prices of what they do have certainly makes up for it.
Lunch from the Münstermarkt.

After completing our assignment, my classmate Medina and I managed to make it all the way through the market with only four purchases. We then walked through the city center and sat down at a little park to eat away at our delicious lunch pictured above. All of the food sold at Münstermarkt is produced locally, and the produce we bought there was some of the best I’ve had. When in Europe, one finds it incredibly easy to get past minor speed bumps like seeds in your grapes.

A slide some of us stumbled upon about 10 minutes from the city center. I’m not ashamed to say I went down it 3 times.
Need a place to socialize and get a good German beer? The Biergartens are the place for you.

Another great thing about Freiburg are the Biergartens, the best of which is located at the top of a hill right next to the city center. Though we got there slightly too late for it a couple of nights ago, you can catch an incredible view of the sun setting behind the city. Combine that with the delicious local beer and you’re in for a treat.

Speaking of hills, Freiburg is in the region of Germany which produces the best wine, and there are vineyards draped along many of the hills that surround Freiburg. The vineyard pictured above is one I see every day on my tram ride to class. As I discovered a few days ago on a run through a large vineyard by my apartment, they are also a common place to find students gathering for picnics in the evenings. One of my roommates says there are castle ruins somewhere around these vineyards, and on future runs I hope to find their whereabouts, so I will keep you posted…

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 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!).

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.