— Indiana University
Castles and beer are apparently the two most commons associations that the general population has with Germany. At least it would seem so, judging by the comments I received when I told others of my plans to study in Germany for one semester. I was either advised to visit certain castles or, if not, then I was graced with the individual's opinion of German beer. For my part however, living and studying for five months alongside German students, I had a unique opportunity to experience the culture in a way that the casual traveler or connoisseur of castles and beer could not possibly hope to experience.
Pre-departure was an exciting and stressful time. There was so much preparation to be done and so many questions that I had. Reading the description of Freiburg provided by the Office of Overseas Study, I learned that Freiburg was a "lively city with a small town feel." Baffling as this statement was, it sounded at once interesting and exciting, but also quaint and relaxing and I was excited to see this mixing of styles. Upon arrival however, my first impression was vastly overwhelming. The city seemed chaotic, and nothing was small about it. Yet, it didn't take long before I realized that the description was perfectly accurate. We soon knew all of the neighborhoods, and the small outskirt towns in which many of us lived. We knew where to go for € 1.80 spaghetti and where the student discounts were. We knew where to buy the best fresh fruit, and of course, we knew the public transportation system. I was truly grateful for the superb shape of the German, and indeed European in general, system of public transportation. Anywhere I couldn't get by bike, or on a rainy day, I could get via street car, bus, or train. I traveled widely throughout Germany, and to several other countries, using public transportation alone. Upon returning to the United States, I was harshly aware of the difficulty foreign students must have in getting around.
The living situation was all that I could have hoped for. We lived in "apartment communities." Mine consisted of six residents, each with his or her individual room, sharing two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a common area. The apartments varied vastly from one to the other. Mine had painted flowers on the walls in the kitchen, and a sea scene, complete with message in a bottle, in the common area. I asked my roommates about the paintings, but they had been there far before any of my roommates. The plates and cutlery as well as furniture were an odd arrangement of things collected over the years from various previous residents. Our apartment was eclectic in a comfortable sort of way, and it was a great experience to live in such close quarters with five German students. One of my roommates had two bicycles and lent me one for the duration of my stay. Another frequently invited me out to watch soccer games with his "mates." On one occasion, I came home expecting to get to sleep early and was surprised to discover around eighteen people in the kitchen celebrating one of my roommate's birthdays. So I stayed awake and partook in the cheese fondue, the singing of songs, and good times. Over the course of the night, I met the friend of one of my roommates who had an extra ticket to a Wise Guys concert (a humorous German a cappella group) the next day in Karlsruhe. After their amazement and satisfaction that I was not only familiar with their music, but was a fan, it was arranged for me to attend the next day. After I told them I had never been to Karlsruhe, they agreed to meet me at the train station early to show me around. So it was that I found myself the next morning in a new city, being shown around by two very nice people whom I barely knew, and attending the concert of my favorite German musical artist. We visited a castle, walked through botanic gardens, and saw the German Supreme Court building. They also introduced me to my first Döner-Kebab, a Turkish food, seen almost everywhere in Germany. It was the first day of my stay in which I spoke entirely German. It was a bit mentally draining, but in the end I was highly satisfied. It felt quite an achievement to look back at the day and realize I hadn't spoken a word of my native language, despite the fact that I could have. They knew English, in fact it was probably better than my German, but they were making such a generous effort to spend time with me and show me their city, that it was my unspoken part of be generous enough to speak their language. That is not to mention the great learning experience it was to have the opportunity to do so! Of the things we saw, the German Supreme Court building most intrigued me. I hadn't even known that is was in Karlsruhe. Apparently it hadn't been moved to Berlin after re-unification. What amazed me was how understated it was. The building gave almost no indication of the important decisions which take place inside of it. From the outside, it appeared to be a small apartment complex of mediocre quality. It made me wonder about why our, and indeed, most governments, are so flashy about showing off the grandeur of office. It seemed that oftentimes, Germans just didn't seem to see the need for it.
My thoughts on the German Supreme Court building can be viewed in another light when one considers the German approach to national identity and national pride. Of course, one cannot even begin to think on an experience in Germany over this past summer without discussing the World Cup. As thoroughly engrossing as the World Cup was, it also taught me a lot about this sense of nationality. The World Cup fervor was intense. Visitors from all over the world poured into Germany, and Germans themselves traveled all over the country to watch the games. Once, I was on a train when our journey was interrupted by an announcement that Mexico had just defeated Iran. On another occasion I stepped into a coach that seemed almost entirely filled with Swiss fans on their way to a match, all waving their flags, or stretching them out across the windows. It was truly amazing, watching all the games in public viewing areas and sharing in the festivities. Soccer seems to be the largest exception to the German view of national identity. A friend from Bavaria once explained to me, "We are Bavarians first, Europeans second, and Germans third." Now, perhaps that is simply the attitude in his corner of Bavaria, an indeed, notoriously proud region of the country, but it's a fascinating sentiment none-the-less. I learned that most Germans are cautious about displaying national pride, and the displaying of flags or other such national icons is rare. In fact, even pre-world cup, I could accurately gauge whether or not it was a game day based on whether or not I saw any flags about. If you saw any, then it was generally safe to assume it was a game day.
Of course, as amazing as my time in Germany was, it was also filled with challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the occasional feeling that I simply couldn't quite be myself in another language. I couldn't be as talkative or as friendly as I wanted, and would get self-conscious about sounding stupid. The frequency of such feelings decreased dramatically over the course of my time abroad. Probably the best cure was my trip to France and Italy. As enjoyable as it was, afterward it was such a relief to return to Germany. By contrast I felt utterly a master of the language. Here was a place where I could understand and be understood! It also possessed a truly odd feeling of home. Basking in the comfort of one's own home and bed after a trip away was how I felt upon returning to Freiburg. One particular fear I had, in regard to the language, was from two partner presentations in my psychology class. I was afraid my partner would be upset that she got paired with the foreign kid who couldn't speak proper German. However, I really had nothing to fear. She was as sweet and as helpful as could be and tried her best to alleviate my fears. After my return to the States, I even received a friendly e-mail from her wishing me the all the best in my future.
One incident that was at once both inspiring and a bit shaming also dealt with language ability. I attended a lecture on language at the university given by a visiting American professor. It took place in the largest lecture room of the university, the "Auditorium maximum", and not only was it packed, with not one empty seat, but there were students standing or sitting on all of the steps, aisles, and doorways; all to hear an academic speech in a language that wasn't their own. Considering how few Americans learn a foreign language, and seeing everyone there for the speech, it truly awed me.
Several years ago, I participated on a one month long exchange program in high school. Over the course of my semester abroad, I arranged to meet up again with my homestay family from that last trip. There were no university classes one Monday, due to May Day, and it was over this extended weekend that I choose to visit them. After a long, five hour train ride, I finally arrived in familiar Reichertshausen, and my homestay sister, Michi, picked me up from the station. I chose the weekend I did simply because of convenience; little did I know what an interesting cultural treat I would witness. Every town in Bavaria has a distinct May pole, or Maibaum, generally displayed in the town center or other prominent location, and decorated in a unique way that makes it special and personal for that particular town. In Reichertshausen, they put up a new May Pole every five years, which happened to be the same time I was there! The tree had already been selected, felled, and decorated, and on May Day the majority of the town showed up to partake in the festivities; the music, food, and conversation. Michi's boyfriend and father, along with many of the other men, were wearing Lederhosen and traditional hats. While they used a crane to assist in pulling up the May pole, for the later stages they used long poles of various lengths to help prop it up bit by bit. There was even a bit of a town scandal in that the mayor hadn't shown up, and the talk was filled with speculation. I was surprised that the raising took several hours, and by how dangerous it had the potential to be. What a rich tradition I was able to enjoy.
The experiences that I had in Germany were many, and even as I think about my travel, I am swamped with memories. I learned much about not only my host culture, but also myself. I'm still re-adjusting to life in the States, and missing things from Freiburg. I'm sure there are things I learned overseas that I'm not even aware in words that I learned, but they are a part of who I am none-the-less. Without a doubt, my experiences in Germany have made the country a part of me, and for five months, I believe I was successful in becoming a part of it.
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