Letters From Abroad
Read some of the letters from Janie Feldmann '15 who recounts the details of her adventures studying abroad in Germany.
Southern Flair in Freiburg
When I was deciding which German city to spend a month in before heading to Bremen, I watched a short video about Freiburg. In it, the narrator said that Freiburg was well known for its “southern flair.” Naturally, I spent a decent amount of time attempting to decipher what that could possible mean. I am from western Pennsylvania, and grew up around tree-lined Appalachia, so for me, southern flair means hospitality, chivalry, and politeness. I was having a hard time deciding what other meanings that phrase could possibly have. Well, I ultimately decided to study in Freiburg for a month, and even though I’ve only been here a week, I’m beginning to see what the narrator meant. Southern flair existed in the form of a kind, older woman who went with me off the tram, and not only pointed me in the right direction, but took me there herself. I’ve seen it in Germans whom I have asked for advice, whether on which beer I should try, or where I can find a SIM card. It seems that the whole town is out and about for all hours of the day – the streets are more crowded than most cities I have seen, with bikes and trams threatening to flatten you at every step. But, they’re outside because it’s warm and sunny, and because they want to enjoy life. Most easily said, southern flair in Freiburg is the definition of Gemütlichkeit. This is not an easy word to translate, but it basically means the general feeling of happiness and content one feels when surrounded by friends, family, or even kind strangers. Perhaps it is so hard to translate, however, precisely because it is a feeling, just as southern flair is. The other international students are easy to get along with, because we all have two things, if nothing else, in common: we all came to meet others from around the world, and we are all brought together by our wish to learn German. Even if that means making a fool of ourselves in front of strangers. I think one thing I can say for sure so far is that being abroad is an incredibly humbling experience. You can leave home feeling so secure in your decision and language abilities, but sooner or later you’ll be that American to a German. It definitely takes patience, and trust in both yourself and in those around you who are willing to help you along the way. All you can do is accept their help, say “vielen Dank” and “ein schönes Tag,” and if you catch them at a biergarten, buy them a Maβ and “Prost!” away. That’s just about as gemütlich as you can get.
The Trust Factor
As much as I have willed it not to, my time in Freiburg is slowly coming to an end. Though I would gladly stay here for another month (or two or three), it has been nice to reflect over the past few weeks about what I have learned so far in Germany. The other day, I had the privilege to hear a live speech by Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was an incredible experience in general, but I came away with a few unexpected thoughts. When you take any German classes, it is a matter of necessity that you also learn about Germany’s difficult history. So, when Merkel spoke of her pride in Germany’s continued forwardness, and when everyone sang the national anthem, I was brought directly into this collective past. I do understand that, as an American, I will never have the same understanding of what it means to live in post-world war II, post-cold war Germany. I have learned about it in classes, but I have another perspective, and my own history to cope with. Though Germans do not by any means shout nationalism from the rooftops, Merkel noted the willingness of Germans to move forward together. And I think Germans can be proud, if nothing else, because of one incredibly important value that they maintain every single day: trust. Plain and simple, the Germans (at least in Freiburg) trust each other. When I get on the bus, I do not have to pay because the driver trusts that I have my regional card with me (I always do). This is the capital of the Black Forest, and people (not just students) leave their bikes around with no locks because they trust others not to steal them. This cultural difference has astounded me, but I have also come to value it extremely. It is one of the most wonderful and understated feelings to be trusted, and to know that you can trust others. To put it simply, trust is the best way for Germans to move forward from such an incomprehensible past. Most of the elderly people at Merkel’s speech were around if not during World War II, then close to it. Almost all of the people in the room lived through the divide between East and West Germany. And yet, you get the sense that everyone genuinely trusts each other – both to remember this collective past, and to continue striving for a brighter future.
Accents, Adventures, and Ancient Traditions
It has been a very hectic, fun weekend, to say the least. There was an excursion from Freiburg to nearby Basel, Switzerland. It still sort of blows my mind that I can get to an entirely different country in about an hour – it’s a rare novelty which has not yet been ruined by my classic dark sense of humor. Basel was a city bigger than Freiburg, but still much smaller than most U.S. cities. It was very warm, so naturally everyone was out and about celebrating summer’s last hurrah. We even heard a marching band playing the much beloved German folk song “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. Probably my favorite part of the day was learning some Rhine River traditions. While walking along a bridge, I notice some locks attached to a grate. I asked a friend, and he said that when German (or Swiss) couples marry, they buy a lock and throw the key in the river together. (Insert an obligatory awwww). The other tradition I learned about also happened to be one that I took part in: sticking your feet in the Rhine upon visiting it. The water was cold, the day was hot – best combination, ever, basically. We listened to Jimmy Buffet and picnicked, and all was right with the world. Towards the end of the trip, we heard some Schweitzer Deutsch (Swiss German). For those of you who have never heard it, it sort of sounds like Swedish Chef from the Muppets. But, it was cool to hear nonetheless.
The next day, I went on a small hike through German wine country, and it was one of my favorite days by far. A nice local woman gave us a tour, and even though she spoke the southern dialect of German, she was relatively easy to understand. After a few miles walking along the sunny vineyards, picking apples, grapes, and plums, we went back to her place, where she and her husband had prepared a delicious meal for us, as well as homemade wine. It was very nice to see strangers going out of their way for us, and it was by far the best meal I have had so far in Germany. This only goes to prove that nothing is better than a homemade meal eaten with friends who have become like family.
Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit
This weekend at the legendary Oktoberfest in Munich can only be described as (insane). My first observation upon arrival at the bus station was that literally every other person was decked out in traditional Tracht. Seriously – Lederhosen and Dirndls were everywhere you looked.
On Saturday, we woke up bright and early (5 a.m.), and around 6 headed over to attempt to get a spot in one of the tents. If you want one of these sough-after tables, you’re only chance is to wake up that early, or earlier (especially on the weekends) – otherwise, it is best to forget it. Even though this search was a struggle, we met some pretty awesome Germans along the way! Eventually, we decided to explore the carnival outside. My one impression: people everywhere. Mostly drunken people, but still – the crowds were a bit claustrophobia-inducing. Gladly, not all the people at Oktoberfest were Americans. There were plenty, to be sure, but there were also tons of Germans. I was kind of relieved – I thought it was going to be mostly tourists (ugh).
Most of Sunday, we wandered around the beautiful city center. Less tourists, less kitsch – more my kind of thing. After watching the famous Glockenspiel bell performance at Marienplatz, we stumbled into Englischer Garten. This was very different than parks I am used to because it felt very museum-like: meant more for an occasional stroll than for everyday use. Since it was Sunday, mostly everything was closed. It also meant that we may or may not have accidentally entered a church while mass was happening…whoops. Probably the best thing was randomly finding Asam Church, which is wedged tightly between two other buildings. The only word which comes to mind as an appropriate descriptor for this church is German: Schmuck. This word loosely means abundance and excess. There were so many decorations that you did not know what to look at first. It was beautiful beyond belief, but just…so much to take in. After we decided that if we stayed any longer our eyes would probably begin to bleed, we headed back to the crazy carnival of Oktoberfest, where some friends had managed to grab a table. The more the night progressed, the more people stood on tables and chairs, singing along to the live band’s version of both English and German songs. A Maß of beer and several hundred “Ein Prosit” sing-along’s later, everyone was having a great time. Oktoberfest is not for the faint of heart, but it was definitely worth the trip. And wandering aimlessly around Munich is also an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a lazy Sunday.
New Beginnings in Bremen
My long-awaited arrival in Bremen has finally happened, and to be honest I am very grateful to be here. I always feel that the anticipation of a future plan is much worse than the actual occurrence itself. It is stressful leaving one beloved place (a.k.a. Freiburg) and going to another, because all the ‘what if’ questions swarm endlessly around in your head, and you just want to get it over with. It was such a great feeling to walk into a fully-stocked apartment after the long journey up to Northern Germany. I realize more and more each day how lucky I am for this opportunity – there will probably never be another time in my life when I have the chance to live in another country without having to worry about finding a place to live or basic amenities to live with. Our dorm is located about ten minutes from the University, which has an endearingly strange mix of 70’s style architecture, and buildings made almost entirely out of glass.
More and more each day, we are all adjusting to life here. We have gone grocery shopping, cooked edible meals (big sigh of relief there), and all the other day-to-day necessities. The most important change I have noticed, however, is that life here is slowly becoming more than just something to adjust to – it is becoming something to enjoy. The city itself is one of the most beautiful places I can imagine; it almost seems unreal. I could wander along the cramped, store-lined European streets for hours upon end, and then head to the river and spend days there as well. Pittsburgh has a very enjoyable walk along the Monongahela – the path down the Weser reminds me of that small part of home. It is a city that is at once large and small – large enough to be conducive to lots of wandering, and small enough to be readily familiar.
Our temporary, year-long housing is also becoming more and more personal and home-like. I moved everything in my room around (have to love a good feng shui). My roommate and I bought a little pumpkin for our dorm to celebrate autumn. And our once-in-a-while “family dinners,” where everyone brings a dish, have made us all bond. I think that, when abroad, there has to be a balance between places – between an old home and the new. Slowly but surely the two merge together in memories and experiences, each becoming a home in its own right, one no better than the other.
Autumn has finally arrived in Northern Germany, and with it has come the expected rain and grayness. Surprisingly, though, this has not put a damper on anyone’s spirits, perhaps because we have taken some pretty spectacular weekend trips. Last weekend, we paid a visit to nearby Bremerhaven. It was very small, very pretty, and mostly made for tourists wanting to see the various museums and harbors. Luckily, our group fell into that category! We visited the German Emigration Museum, which was actually really cool because the museum’s purpose is to give visitors a similar experience to that of the emigrants. There was a large, indoor ‘boat’ on which to ascend and inside was a massive exhibit explaining class distinctions onboard. Afterwards, we even had the chance to research our ancestors. I had some trouble figuring out when my great-great grandfather was born, so I have not yet discovered very much about him, but I plan to do more research at the museum in Hamburg. Once we had finished visiting the museum, we wandered around the harbor, and enjoyed the sea breeze. We even picked up some delicious ice cream at a cool, Mediterranean-style Café. Outside, there was also a small beach –naturally, the five-year-old in me immediately went over and built a sand castle while enjoying the view. I have not been to a beach in years, so this was necessary in my mind.
The next weekend, Dickinson treated us to an excursion in Hamburg (thank you, Ben Rush, as one of coordinators, Jens, would say!). Maybe I am biased because my ancestors come from Hamburg, but I truly loved this city. There was something so simultaneously lively and relaxed about it, and it was absolutely beautiful, if nothing else. First, we saw St. Michael’s Church, the largest church in Hamburg. As a rule, no other buildings are allowed to be larger than this church. Inside was the most massive organ I have ever seen – we have already started searching to see if there will be any organ concerts during the year! After wandering through some of the smaller streets, we quickly stepped into an apartment which had been the home to widowed women during the 1600’s. It was interesting to see how so many people made their lives in such cramped spaces.
My favorite part of the day by far, though, was the harbor tour we took. Hamburg is called ‘the Venice of the North,’ so there was plenty to see by boat. It was a bit rocky on the water, and very wet from the rain – to me, this only added to the experience. It was incredible to travel by boat and learn about the history of Hamburg. Since it is one of the largest port cities, we saw boats from all over the world. And I learned that beaches look the most beautiful in the fall, with foliage covering the trees, when the sky is a perfect grey.
To end our pleasant day, we quickly saw the infamous ‘Red Light District.’ Despite the name, this area is not solely known for sex (though there was plenty of that, to be sure). It is, surprisingly, where The Beatles became famous by playing gigs in the district’s clubs. Paul McCartney even visited a few years ago to pay off a receipt which he neglected in the 70’s; the bar framed the receipt on the wall, where it remains to this day.