Week two in Freiburg provided me with the opportunity to finally immerse myself in the daily life of this city. Though we did have two hours of German per day, our only other class was an “Integrative Seminar” course, which has mainly been giving us informative background on the EU and its current state. This has given us plenty of time to get lost exploring the city and helped us to get a sense of what the rest of our semester will be like while we are in Freiburg.
Franziska, my German teacher, gave our class an assignment to walk around and ask questions about the Münstermarkt, which is essentially a large open-air market held in the main town square of Freiburg. And these shop owners are dedicated. Münstermarkt runs every day of the year except for Sundays, including throughout the winter months. It also isn’t your typical farmer’s market – Münstermarkt has souvenirs, flowers, ‘Holzkunst’ (or wood art), wine, and various other items.
Both locals and tourists frequent the market, and many of the stands are quite well-known. From the cheesecake stand ‘Stephans Käsekuchen’ who are famous for their secret recipe to the hot dogs on steroids called ‘Lange Rote,’ the options provided at Münstermarkt are delicious and relatively affordable for a college student like myself.
After completing our assignment, my classmate Medina and I managed to make it all the way through the market with only four purchases. We then walked through the city center and sat down at a little park to eat away at our delicious lunch pictured above. All of the food sold at Münstermarkt is produced locally, and the produce we bought there was some of the best I’ve had. When in Europe, one finds it incredibly easy to get past minor speed bumps like seeds in your grapes.
Another great thing about Freiburg are the Biergartens, the best of which is located at the top of a hill right next to the city center. Though we got there slightly too late for it a couple of nights ago, you can catch an incredible view of the sun setting behind the city. Combine that with the delicious local beer and you’re in for a treat.
Speaking of hills, Freiburg is in the region of Germany which produces the best wine, and there are vineyards draped along many of the hills that surround Freiburg. The vineyard pictured above is one I see every day on my tram ride to class. As I discovered a few days ago on a run through a large vineyard by my apartment, they are also a common place to find students gathering for picnics in the evenings. One of my roommates says there are castle ruins somewhere around these vineyards, and on future runs I hope to find their whereabouts, so I will keep you posted…
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!