Taboo Topics

Often upon traveling to a foreign land, one is warned to avoid certain subjects of conversation in order to avoid strife, but this strategy supports the exact strategy that our increasingly radicalized world does not need. By being able to discuss our differences, really of all varieties, we will actually be able to better understand one another and form bonds that are more than at most trivial. This is not to say that over-involving yourself in someone’s personal life is really all that advisable or necessary, rather that asking questions and having non-attacking (thus not provoking-of-defensive-responses) interactions.

A prime example of how this manifests is in conversations (or the alarming lack thereof, given the sheer volume of extreme assumptions) about politics, in particular presently due to the somewhat charged situation in the USA. We are explicitly told to avoid such conversations, and as the vast majority of you know, social convention is often easier to follow than to subvert, especially when one is trying to generally absorb a new living situation. Doing as instructed (by an orientation leader or one’s impressions of the society) in this case, however, is not going to benefit the world political climate in the least, for by assuming a culture of silence you are imposing one, which will multiply like E-Coli to impose a blockade and push even somewhat similar opinions apart. This is a strategy of radicalization, and does not serve to ameliorate something that is already considered unpleasant, rather to emphasize it. In this case, especially as citizens of the party in question (the USA), one is better off initiating discourse – in as informed, multi-faceted, and both objective and subjective (opinions of the actual residents of the country are important) ways as possible. What I have found is that the vast majority of people I meet here, be they German citizens or other internationals, have (often somewhat extreme) opinions of what our country is like based off of the media-fodder and social conventions such as the aforementioned no-talk rule that the populace is fed, and it serves both them and us well to open the floor and talk about the political landscape. Another side of this is that it is flat-out dangerous for the rest of the world to take major issue with the USA (and by proxy, frequently, its citizens), for it is easier to cause harm to an objectified foe than to actually (at least) three-dimensional and empathic people – why can people go to war, after all..? Especially surrounding the phase-change we are currently living, we need to do everything that we possibly can in order to promote understanding and peace, rather than divisiveness and reactionary terror.

Another such topic is religion – this one plays out strongly in Germany due to the increasing population of Muslims in a traditionally Catholic country. For the people who are particularly involved in, and proud of, their faith, religious orientation is evident, and for the others, they are either categorized based on appearance, or simply not asked. In Germany, in particular, history looms large, and there is both effort to avoid any inklings of a repeat of the Holocaust and what led up to it, and a feeling of compulsion to stick one’s neck out for one’s beliefs to ensure that they do not get stuffed under the rug. It is hard to reconcile all of the various religions with the stipulation that they all stay out of each other’s way, as evangelizing is integral to several of them. Besides the people who are extremely set in one religion, however, there exists a majority of moderates who would rather interact based on commonalities generated by interests and society (the lattermost category naturally including the extremely religious folks), and see extremism as a limitation, not the true way of life. The existence of such individuals is the caulking that fits between the firmly-anchored religious devotees and allows everyone to engage with one another without constant stability-shattering clashes.

The LGBTQIA+ community is also not as open of a component of society [likely hinging on the more conservative idea about what sort of information is appropriate for daily conversation – to support that argument, one’s personal life is really not a hot topic (pleasantly) here – and that there is not separation between the Catholic church and the state], though same-sex marriage is since the recent past legal. In the cities there is more recognition of this crowd, though, and Freiburg (since 1989 – a fact I learned on the Strassenbahn quiz) has a Christopher Street Day (this Saturday). For some people, the “closetedness” of LGBTQIA+ life comes as a social restraint, as they feel that they are being constrained and, most aggravatingly, their individuality curtailed. The most “encouraged” and uselessly general advice is to just go with the flow. This results often either other people, or the rafting person extremely dissatisfied, which does not help much to alter the social convention or to feel at home away from home. A more reasonable alternative is to just go about without compromising one’s personal qualities, while not shoving it in others’ faces – if this sentence offends you, think about evangelists: are you more likely to listen to, let alone believe in the message of, someone who throws a bunch of material at you, gives you no time to consider and nothing to actually relate to (except for perhaps problems you did not know you had), and expects you to trot along willingly, or to someone that you can sympathize with for some reason or another but who is different than you in some other way? Also important to remember here – though cultural conventions can feel like pushes from society, society is comprised of a whole lot of individuals who are not all the same (if they were, we might likely be extinct as a species by this point).

Similar to religion, politics, different tastes in food, et cetera, the goal is not to blindly conform, rather to join and extend a society, which happens through poking at the aforementioned buffer zone through conversation and similarities – NOT through avoiding everything that could provoke – the world is on edge enough already.

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Freiburg Smells Good

Why?

It is presently a mix of spring and summer here: the foliage is beginning to darken, and the lilacs are almost past their time. It is, however, still chilly at night, and the insect population has not skyrocketed. The weather plays predictable tricks on us: the morning is usually either cloudy or sunny, and the late afternoon the opposite, with the evening frequently returning to the pattern suggested by the morning.

University classes are now in their fourth week, and are considerably different, albeit with remarkably significant similarities to/than those at UMASS. They are divided into several different categories: Vorlesung, Übung, Seminar, Labor, and Sprachkurs, for instance. Vorlesung is, thus far in my experience, as it is directly translated to be: “Reading in front”. In one of my classes, the professor has prepared a script, and he literally reads it verbatim to us. This has its ups and downs: on one hand, it means that one can take all of the notes beforehand, and then listen and absorb as much of the material as possible during the class (a similar method to that applied in the language course in March), on the other, if something is not understood from the script, it is unlikely to be much clarified in the lecture. The script and lecture are very theoretically based, and one is left to understand and work with applications on the homework problems, which can be extremely challenging. The positive side of this is that in order to understand the material to any extent, one has to apply one´s self outside of lecture hours, so one actually has lasting working ability with the content of the course. In the natural sciences and math, there is often an Übung associated with each Vorlesung. During this meeting, rather like a TA-recitation, we discuss previous homework and also some applications, or go over material beneficial to the course that is not covered in the Vorlesung. It is common for a Vorlesung to meet for four hours a week (three of those hours are lecture time, the other one is breaks and between-class-transit-time), and the Übung for two, 1.5 of which are applied learning time.

A labor class is an applied laboratory class, usually required at some point in the course of study for students of the natural sciences. I am not taking part in any of these while in Freiburg, but based on heresay, they frequently are longer, but mostly akin to those at a University in the USA.

Seminars are like Vorlesungen, but participation is required and often one also gives a presentation. They meet for varying amounts of time, depending on the department and course content. In math, they are often reading and discussion of modern literature or a theme of particular interest. In history, they often follow the scope of some movement, epoch, or period held together by some sort of connection.

The language course are on the Vorlesung time schedule, but are more interactive, and like a briefer version of the language course I attended in March.

What do I actually do?

I am enrolled in two math courses, Functional Analysis and Complex Differential Geometry, each of which is taught in German and consists of a Vorlesung and an Übung. Neither class is particularly large, with about 30 people enrolled in the former and 10 in the latter. It is important to make the distinction between enrolled and attending, as in the case of Functional Analysis, it is a rare day when there are more than 15 of us at the 10 am lecture. German math is very analysis-centered, and the students take at least three semesters of it as undergrads, with much of the material we learn in our at least three semesters of calculus absorbed into homework applications and/or covered during the extensive mathematical preparation required for the Abitur/Matura high school abschluss exam. I, contrarywise, have taken one semester of analysis and one other proof-based course, so Functional Analysis is a rather intense learning experience in proofs, earlier levels of analysis, and, of course, the new content. This is an uphill climb, but entertaining, and quite worth it. The population of the class is approximately a 50-50 mix of undergraduates and graduate students, mostly majoring in some sort of math, with a few exceptions: one, for instance, is running for office and has a degree in computer science already. Complex differential geometry is all graduate students, which has been nice, as since grad students are not assumed to all have the same background, we cover much of the material important to the class at some point during lecture or discussion and is styled a bit differently: the professor is very interested in various field theories/gauge theories and their applications to physics, so we are covering some fundamentals from Daniel Huybrechts’ book, and then will delve into the themes of her interest. I have not had the pre-requesite courses, but have learned much of the material independently, so actually learn from lecture, thankfully. The TA, a postdoc, goes over the things that we may not all have had, such as tensor products and external algebras, during the recitation. During the recitation, we also have to do problems on the board in front of the other students. My time for this comes in two weeks, and promises to be an interesting experience: presenting some math that is new to me in German. Luckily as of now, the language has not been a real barrier, but there will be some humorous repercussions once I come back and apply this new math knowledge in the USA, for I have learned some new concepts only auf Deutsch.

The TA structure is worth noting: in classes with regular written homework, the professor has almost nothing to do with it. There is usually a post-doc who comes up with the often trick-filled problems, and several graders who are usually masters students hoping to make a bit of money. This means that if you have homework-related questions, you are to ask the discussion leader, not the professor. Overall there is a lot less interaction between students and the professor, but that seems to be due to construction rather than actual stigma: I have had perfectly informative and pleasant discussions with the Functional Analysis instructor, without any “greater than thou” vibes. Overall, the math consumes most of my time here, but also promises the greatest gains, and is quite fun.

I am also in an Astrophysics Vorlesung/Übung titled Stellar Structures and Pulsations, which is heavily derivations-based, and through that builds solid foundational understanding. This class is small: six students and one auditor, and taught in English, which is unfortunate for me, but good for the Germans who aim to work in the heavily-English fields of Astrophysics.

To fulfill the SBS and DG gen-ed requirements at UMASS, I am also attending a seminar titled “The Jewish emigration from the late Soviet Union and its affects”, taught in German by a Russian professor for whom German is a third language. This creates an interesting translation triangle between the two other students (both Germans majoring in some way, shape, or form, in history), the professor, and myself, for sometimes he does not know the words in German, so explains in a mixture of Russian and English, and I piece it together and translate to the others. We have learned not only about the title topic, but also about general Eastern-European Jewish history, which is a story of several migrations and a considerable amount of resilience. To supplement the lectures, we give presentations on various topics (for instance, the Jewish life and history in Freiburg and the percentages of Jews in Germany historically and today) and visit significant locations, such as the synagogue and Jewish cemetery (we were there on Tag der Freiheit, or the 9th of May, recognized in the USSR/Russia as the end of the second world war, and there was a presentation honoring those who died as a result, involving a speech given in Russian and some music (including the famous melody from Schindler’s List. The subsequent Friday, we went to a Shabbat ceremony in the Synagogue in Freiburg, which was truly pleasant – a service conducted in Hebrew (the typical one for Shabbat) followed by a communal meal. The people were very welcoming and open, and my two Catholic classmates also felt they gained from the experience. This was good to hear, as often religious services feel somewhat alienating to those who are not of the faith being practiced. The Jewish community today is significantly divided between those who actively practice the faith, and those who are culturally embedded (with, of course, a significant population of crossover candidates, and that was well represented at this Shabbat gathering – many only take part in some major holidays, and to more of a secular extent than the converse. That comes with the territory, however, and in my opinion, is not negative, as it indicates that the religion to a minor extent does not drive the secular into the shadows (interestingly, the opposite occurs in several locales).

The only other course I am attending is a language course, which is informative and a nice contrast to the other language I spend most of my day engaged with (math).

As is often mentioned, the German courses require a rather large amount of preparation, and the grade is determined often almost entirely by a final exam, either oral or written, so one’s best chance of doing well comes with staying on top of the new material for the entirety of the semester. This takes the majority of my time, and combined with practicing and some recreational reading and exercise, as well as the basics of cooking, et cetera, provides rather full days. There are some students who pass the exchange opportunity gallivanting around engaging in inebriation and tomfoolery, but that is in no way productive. I will take the opportunity to make a small argument against the popular belief that that is a true and fundamental method of engaging in the culture here:

While one might become extremely familiar with others, this is often in a rather international environment (not just the people present – interestingly many of these heavy-duty partiers are the Erasmus and exchange students – but the sort of regularizing altered state they are in), and in the case that one becomes most comfortable there, an insulating and potentially all-consuming comfort zone that does not allow one to experience the multi-faceted reality of every culture. Also, by epitomizing the drinking culture as essential to Germany, one is already dangerously restricting their perceptions of the place based on a presupposed stereotype. Imagine doing this in other scenarios, and it becomes clear that this is no good way to live.

I have started playing a game with the new people I meet: if at all reasonable, I do not mention that I am an international student, and time how long it takes for them to figure it out – usually an adjective ending or incorrectly nominalized adjective is what gives me away – and the record is a 20-minute one-on-on conversation. Sometimes Austrian words lead them to think I am Austrian before the truth is unveiled. The goal is for my GSL status to opaque unless I make it otherwise.

A reader told me to write more about the people, because “people like to hear about people” , so here goes:

The public transportation is the primary mode of getting from point a to point q, so for small stretches we are all in it together. There are quite the population divides: the internationals, both short-term and long-term, the traditionals of varying traditions, the young, and the older, for example. Often one is confronted with the presentation of a very public display of affection on the Strassenbahn, and most people look away, hoping the offenders will pull it together, or gape a few times, with the words “Really now, do you think the whole world wants to experience your private love life”, or ” PDA!!”, in whichever relevant language not quite escaping their lips. From an observer’s perspective, this whole picture is amusing, because, of course, there is also the population who directly stares, as if challenging the rest of the world to question their reactions.

In a concert, it is common (as in Austria) to clap enough that three additional bows are taken. I imagine it would be offensive to the performers to respond less enthusiastically.

On the topic of relationships, et cetera, be sure to differentiate between “mein Freund”, und “ein Freund von mir”. The former means your (male) significant other, while the latter indicates regular friendship. Mistakes with these constructions have some hilarious and confusing results (many of which manifested in my very international March language course), which I will leave to you to imagine.

At the end of every class, to applaud the professor for a job well done (and all of the lectures I have attended thus far have merited this), the students knock on the desks with the knuckles of one hand.

Month 1 and 3/4: Language Course, Germany, Activities

The first month here in Freiburg has been solidly pleasant. For the first three weeks of it, I was enrolled in an intensive language course through SLI, an affiliate of the University of Freiburg, and this served its purpose quite nicely: having learned German in a Waldorf School setting and through a previous student exchange, I have a large stock of vocabulary, expressions, and grammatical constructions to draw from, and the course helped to organize and add to that. Besides all of that, it was fun! I had had trepidations, as it seemed peculiar to come to Germany a full seven weeks before the beginning of classes just to take this course, but the early arrival was/has not been for naught.

I have mentioned the structure of the language course a bit in the past, and will elaborate a bit, as this is the format of language immersion that many students studying abroad will experience.

The class met each morning for 3.5 hours, including a break, and our lessons were taught 100% auf Deutsch. When students did not understand something, the teacher would break it down into very basic pieces, but would not switch from Deutsch, which was hugely beneficial, because therein did we not only learn the new grammar or words, but also how to think about them in German. This is a large stride forward in language learning: the development of a, for example German but fill in whichever language you wish, mindset. The lessons were supplemented with exercises from a workbook and handouts, but the emphasis was on using all of the grammatical concepts and vocabulary in listening and speaking. The teacher, Susanna Eberle, was adamant that we first listened to what she presented, and would always leave time afterwards to take notes. Her belief is that multi-tasking in the classroom is not conducive to good and permanent learning, and we would often, even before taking any notes, use the new material to the extent that notes became dilatory. This system was similar to what I had encountered in grade school at a Waldorf School, and I find it to be both functional and lasting.

The afternoon courses were both seminar style, meaning that they were 90 minute lectures with a modicum of student participation. Both were interesting, and offered a straightforward (and curved, depending on the day or coordinate system) look at German history. There is a sort of translucent curtain that hangs around certain hot topics in Germany – a prime example thereof being the second world war – and both of these courses helped to poke at it, though drawing it back in conversation is something to be done with extreme care, even today.

I will address this likely several more times over the course of this blog, and would like to delve into it a bit more now: it being the aforementioned curtain.
After the second world war, Germany was divided up into four pieces to be governed by some of the “victors” – France, Great Britain, the USSR, and the USA. Goods were carted off to the homelands of the governors, and much industry was dismantled, making the German populace largely dependent on those who had “beaten” them in the war (what is noteworthy here is that though the National Socialist Germany lost the second war in a power battle, the victory, though liberating for many of those stuck within, or suffering as a result of, National Socialism, was not a clear ideological victory). At this time, lots of blame was put on the German people, and they were considered guilty for what had happened under the Nazis. Eventually, however (this is just a cursory overview), Germany was permitted to rebuild, as having a dependent state is not very sustainable in the long term. Some of Germany’s neighbors, including France, were much opposed to this, as with power, Germany had taken them over by force, but despite this, the redevelopment happened with help of initiatives such as the Marshall plan. Around this juncture, however, the Soviet section, run under communist governance, went their own way, forming the communist Deutsches Demokratik Republik (DDR), while the rest made the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD). The two German states existed adjacent until reunification in 1990, with the DDR running a very controlled Soviet satellite state with a rather impressive network of informants and direct and personal involvement of the government in the daily lives of the citizens. The film Das Leben der Anderen gives one view on that. The DDR did not take part in the Marshall plan and other such economic and social initiatives for the region, and the Soviets had, post WW2, taken many items from the area, so once industry did start off, it was not compatible with the other such programs in the region. During this divided-Deutschland era, the Germans were focused on rebuilding, and were placed under lasting blame for the humanitarian crises of WW2, a blame that would continue to oppress until the BRD and DDR stood on their own feet, and could have something national to be proud of. This is to say, the German state had a shattered self-esteem that was repaired in two distinct ways, neither of which had to do with what caused the initial problem to begin with. The national pride worked to the extent that once reunification occurred and the DDR was absorbed into the BRD, despite their preference for the merger, the citizens missed some of the quirks and uniquenesses of their land (the much-touted example is the DDR traffic-light street-crossing people with hats).

That Germany rebuilt after the second world war in a way that left the past as such and tried to move forward is not to say that the blame should evermore be held over the heads of the people who represent this mostly welcoming land – that said, this causes one to consider other translucent/transparent curtains – why are some things taboo, and is there a good reason for them to be?

In the case of Germany, as one person I discussed this with told me, these curtains make it so there is no “argument culture” in Germany (luckily this is not the case in the USA now – we have to be sure to preserve that)- because certain topics are not to be discussed, they loom huge over the populace and never really leave the room, whereas they would become less threatening in smaller pieces, and from several angles, when actively approached in discussion. Looking at the political landscape in Germany today, one sees that here, as in other parts of the world, the parties with the most growth are more extreme one way or another than the usually rather centralized government – the liberal Green party and the far-right AfD are primary examples here, and it leaves one to wonder if that is entirely due to their messages, or because they are drawing the curtains apart a bit and allowing the images of threats and realities to become real (and thus potentially manageable) rather than just shadow figures, made enormous by the play of restricted light and reflection.

At the end of the language course, we had an assembly where we heard a speech, received our grades, and some gave presentations. My class decided to sing a song, so we did a rendition of Die Prinzen’s Millionär,which is worth a listen for entertainment purposes. I also got to play the prelude and first minuet of Bach´s G major ´cello suite as part of this occasion, which was enjoyable. The night before, as one of our flatmates was leaving to go back to Japan, those of us living here had a dinner, and I played for them, as well, as a warm-up, and they enjoyed actually seeing someone play the ‘cello, versus just regularly hearing it through their walls.

At the end of the language course, we had an assembly where we heard a speech, received our grades, and some gave presentations. My class decided to sing a song, so we did a rendition of Die Prinzen’s Millionär,which is worth a listen for entertainment purposes. I also got to play the prelude and first minuet of Bach´s G major ´cello suite as part of this occasion, which was enjoyable. The night before, as one of our flatmates was leaving to go back to Japan, those of us living here had a dinner, and I played for them, as well, as a warm-up, and they enjoyed actually seeing someone play the ‘cello, versus just regularly hearing it through their walls.

Also on the topic of music, Freiburg is home to the Freiburg Barockorchester and the SWR Symphony Orchestra (part of the time), and there are student tickets available. Thus far, I have been to see each twice, and the level of play is very high – one can tell this from the recordings, but they hold this standard in live performance, as well. Especially delightful was Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, played by the SWR Symphony Orchestra: one could follow the idee fixe clearly, and Eschenbach’s conducting was to the point – not excessively flourishy, which was evidently enjoyed by the musicians, and produced a very precise result. By the time they got to the final movement, Witches Sabbath the musicians’ faces wore looks of absolute and absorbed glee.

At the end of March, we had a UMASS-students-in-Baden-Württemberg orientation in Schwarzenwald, which is only a short Bim ride from the center of Freiburg, but required several hours of bus and train travel for the students in other cities in the state – Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Konstanz, Mannheim, et cetera. The point was to go over the basics of living and studying here – for instance, one must not only register with the host city upon arrival, but also have a later meeting to apply for a German student visa. Most of the information we heard was review, but we were in a very pleasant location, and it was nice to connect with the other UMASS folks – interesting enough, we are from such a large university that many of us, despite being mostly juniors, had never interacted with each other before departure. One of the days, we climbed Schlossberg in Freiburg, and due to the clear weather, got a great view down onto the city and its environs:

This church, the Freiburger Münster, is famous not only for its Gothic architecture (up close, the detail work bares some similarities to the previously photographed gothic churches), but also for surviving the spring 1944 razing of the city intact. People claim it is because the allied forces were also taken by its beauty and cultural significance, but that may not be the reality. No matter, it has served as a symbol of Freiburg for centuries, and may do so for more.

We stayed in a Jugendherbage (youth hostal) largely populated with families of mountain bikers, on the edge of the edge of Schwarzenwald. The location and generous amount of free time lent themselves well to a bit of exploring, so I climbed up a ways into the woods. Here the wood is older growth, mostly pines, and when one is silent, bird and insect song abound.

New buds that will soon be leaves. This was taken at the end of March, and generally, the weather is a bit warmer here and spring comes earlier than in MA.
The entire woods ecosystem is important here, and one can see that here in this decomposing wood. Though in some parts of the Schwarzenwald there is logging, much of the ecomicromanagement is left to nature and works out pretty well.
Healthy bark on an older-growth pine.
The wildlife lives in symbiosis with the plant ecosystem. Again worth noting how well this all functions without human intervention…
Inviting

Elsace und Neukönigsberg

Two weekends ago, again through the SLI language institute that runs the German courses we take, to go to Elsace and Neukönigsberg, two well-known locales just across the border in France. Due to the sunny day and nifty views, this post promises to be photograph-filled. To get into France, we simply drove across the border, marked by a small sign. EU travel for you. Leaving Freiburg, the land began to flatten out, and as we got farther into France, we began to see more fields and mountains in the distance, for, after all, we are located in a rather gigantic valley.

Since the region of Elsace has switched between being French and German territory many times throughout history, the language spoken there, particularly among the older generations is a resourceful mix of French and German known as Elsasich. Unfortunately there is a waning amount of speakers of Elsasich, as the region has been a part of France since the end of the second world war. Most of the children are taught French at school, and many of their families use lots of French at home, as well. We went to the town of Colmar, and took a walking tour, and I asked the guide, who had small children, how she approached this dilemma. She agreed that it was a pity that the language was going extinct, but also made an effort to speak French at home so that her children would learn that language without dialect. This is rather akin to what takes place in many bilingual households in the USA – the parents make an effort to speak English so that the child becomes perfectly fluent and has many opportunities, but does not have all those opportunities in the second language. Often the child will understand the other language to some extent, but usually by the second generation, that, too, is gone. I find this to be a real loss and a shame – people have capacity for several fluencies. In Elsace, however, many of the signs are written in both Elsasich and French, providing for both populations.

In Colmar, we took the aforementioned tour of the inner city, and learned about its history. In 1226, the city was established as such, though it was mentioned in records as early as 823 CE. To this day, there are architectural and artistic relics from many of its years at LG on the streets. Like many of the towns in the region, including Freiburg, there are many former cloister-complexes that have had new inhabitants since the early 1800s, during the secularization. Now these churches and living quarters are everything from schools to museums, with one even serving its time as a prison!

This sort of detail work (both the figure with the lamp and the pigeons!) is common on these Gothic churches. Each part of the facade has relevance to the story of a saint, the city, or a patron.

The fenced-in enclosure in front of the back of the church is a small manifestation of the system of older canals permeating the streets of Colmar
Notice the little crosses in the shutters – we will get to these later, as well as the patterns in the roof of the building to the left – this is one of the oldest buildings in the city

The various populations of Colmar also influenced it in many ways – there is a “Little Venice”, as well as various streets and sub-towns named after their former occupants, for example Rue des Tanneurs. Many of the most known locales were commemorated by metal sign-installations in front, pieces of art, really, done by famous locals such as Hansi (Jean-Jacques Waltz).

Never mind any sort of Elf on the Shelf – this guy is keeping tabs on all the passersby
The two men at the bottom of the picture are carved into the wood. The outdoor-paintings above are also rather common on the older buildings. Sometimes, as there was a window tax in the city, people even painted windows, complete with plants and vines, onto their houses, to have the aesthetic without the extra cost!
Rue des Marchants/Schadelgass – many who lived here had some sort of wealth – Merchant class
The door looks like a being, thanks to the emblem above it

The past and present inhabitants of Colmar converge: French poodles and guild signs
Rue des Tanneurs – When one looks at the window shutters, one can see little cut-outs.Wealthy families would add these to their houses to symbolize some sort of affiliation or signal. The hearts you see in the bottom right corner of the photo are associated with the folklore that a young girl in love lives there. Crosses are on the homes of the very religious, et cetera.
Little Venice – there is even a gondola in the canal!

On our way out, we took a bit of a detour to New York Harbor. A bit of a dark photo, but the famous view, nonetheless.

After the visit to Colmar, we drove through small towns, winding our way up to Neukönigsberg.

As is common of Western European Rural Regions, the towns are clumped together, often around an old church
This region is known for its wine and vineyards

We drove up a steeply-winding road through a still-thinned-out woods – in medieval times, it was safest to keep the area around the castle mostly cleared to leave attackers with less cover, and now, though the reasons are different, the woods on the mountain upon which Neukönigsberg are not especially dense. When we reached the top, we had to climb the castle and get a grasp on its history.

Some of the reconstructed castle from the view from the top thereof

A military outpost during medieval times, the castle fell out of repair and sat as a ruin for centuries until, as part of an expected response to the people that bequeathed him the castle, Kaiser Wilhelm von Preussian fixed it up at the beginning of the 20th century as a place to stay, rather than a functional battlement. Due to this, there is a conglomeration of architecture styles evident in the walls: the medieval, the later renovations, and Wilhelm’s work. There is also graffiti dating from various epochs of tourists garnishing the walls. One can also see the different architecture periods through the stone sizes: in the distant past, massive stones that must have required quite the lever-system to move were used, but for Wilhelm’s work, cheaper, smaller rocks were used.

Because the people currently curating the castle would like to share its entire history with the tourists, the exhibits are from all over the temporal map, and thus poorly reflect any one era of the castle’s existence, except for, perhaps, the present one. Due to this, we will not dwell on that history, but rather on the permanent, and superb view at hand from Neukönigsberg.

Die Vogesen mountains are very important to the lifestyle in this region: they dictate the weather, and, and because of this, the crops grown, lifestyle choices, and borders


The Catholic Faith has historically had enormous clout in this region.
The towns are often built around the church.
The view is really optimal: one can see the Alps in the distance on a clear day.
Many of the pine trees growing here are part of old-growth forests.
One can see all the way to Austria in another direction.

At the end of the day, we drove back to Freiburg, with much scenery to reflect upon.

An American in Freiburg 1 – Experiences, Tips, usw.

The majority of the time I spend in Germany on this study abroad will be, as anticipated, in Freiburg. I have decided, therefore, to share some of the experiences I have here, as well as some tricks of the trade of living here as a student (these can mostly be applied in various locales). This post will also begin our discussion of the perceptions here of THE AMERICAN – a stereotype that stems from truths that precedes many of us student (and other) travelers.

Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg is located right near the city center, and most of the students live a Strassenbahn (streetcar/tram) commute away from that. I can take the tram in the morning, and be in my class within 15 minutes of stepping out of my door. The streetcars come every six or so minutes during working hours, and are inevitably packed. In Germany the sense of common decency and expectations for behavior in society manifest clearly: you are expected to offer an older person your seat – if the tram is not crowded, a young person may sit down, but still is supposed to offer their seat to anyone who looks to be more in need of it. Offering someone your seat is not considered offensive or judgemental (ageist or whatever), rather polite. It is easy to imagine the people one is offering one’s seat to being youngsters once doing the same on whatever form of public transportation. This also applies to buses and trains. The public transportation is relatively quiet, but people are not cold – lots of warm smiles are exchanged, albeit in a reserved fashion. The majority of the populace, including the younger people, are not on their smart phones the whole time. That said, the youngsters are more prone to technology-itis than the older people, as a generalization. Because this is a student- and first-generation-immigrant- heavy city, the public transport vehicles are mini salads in terms of diversity and language spoken. This has manifested nicely for me, as it makes the locals less apt to lapse into English if they gauge one’s German to be less than perfect.

All of the UMASS exchange students to the B-W university system come to Deutschland about seven weeks before courses start in order to take a pre-semester language course. We are each placed into a different level of German, from the very basics to C1, or relatively competent. There is language class each morning for three hours, and then a break in which we can eat lunch. In the afternoons, there are optional seminars, some in English, some auf Deutsch, some history classes, others conversation practice. I attend two – both taught in German – one about notable Germans throughout history and their historical contexts, and the other a history of Germany post 1945 through pictures (and, turns out, and thankfully, many words). These are seminar-style, and the teacher lectures, but there is a large amount of participation expected. Our morning language lessons are taught in a way reminiscent of high school, but with the personal responsibility and independently-driven effort of college-level courses expected. In the level I am in, every interaction is conducted auf Deutsch, and we learn new vocabulary through description, and through the acting of the teacher, a very engaging instructor by the name of Susanna Eberle. Each lesson we are taught new grammatical concepts and/or constructions, and we practice them through speaking and writing exercises, all of which thus far have been relevant and worthwhile. We have homework that follows the same patterns, and enhances our learning further. The population of the Sprach-Kurs is largely international students from all over the world. Many of them are just here for the month so that they can improve their German, but another subset (the UMASS contingent included) is here for the entire Sommersemester at Uni-Freiburg. Because the population is from all over the world (there are especially large numbers of students from Japan, the EU Erasmus program, and the USA), the language that the most of us, in my class, at least, have in common is the Deutsch that we are learning. Due to this, we speak in German, which also helps fluency. Many of the European and American students lapse into English sometimes, but as one of my Japanese friends told me, that is not super helpful, as in Japan, it is more likely that someone who knows a foreign language will speak a continental European language, not English. This is also interesting from a historical perspective, but we will leave that for the future.

My last seminar finishes at 17:40, and I spend the evenings studying German and also math, practicing ‘cello, and, of course, basics like getting exercise and cooking and eating food. Because one of my goals here is to get as close as possible to fluent in German, I insist on interacting in that language as exclusively as possible. With my suitemates, that is not always an option, as some of them are here studying English, and speak next to no German, and are not studying it. Nonetheless. Other ways of improving fluency I have found are reading books, particularly ones that one already knows a bit. This helps with grammatical literacy. Presently I am reading the second Hunger Games book by Suzanne Collins. In German it is called “Die Tribute von Panem, Gefährliche Liebe”, and having already read it in English, I can tell that the German education is working, as I am having similar reactions to the story as I did the first time through. People also suggest television and movies, but I find those less helpful, as the language is not literally spelled out for you, and if you do not know what to listen for as a beginner, some of the nuances may pass you by. Also, speaking as much as possible does no harm – especially if one is open to correction and willing to work a little bit to incorporate the improvements into one’s discourse.

I am a ‘cellist in training, so practice on a daily basis. In a public living space, with thin walls and lots of people, this has high potential to be an issue, but that has not come to fruition too much as of yet, partially as I have practiced after 11:00 am and before 10:00 pm each day. There has been some related humor,though:

  1. I am presently working on Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and Bach’s 6th ‘Cello Suite. The former most piece is very big and loud, and has some technically challenging sections, particularly those involving double stops (two strings played simultaneously). It is also on the edge of classical tonality (I strongly recommend having a listen to this piece – any Rostropovich recording is especially nice, as the piece was written for him). Anyway, I was practicing the 6ths and second half of the first movement when all of a sudden from outside my window, I hear “Was für ein Lärm ist das?” Translated, given the emphases, to “What is that racket?”. I continue, and the person starts rattling their window shade whenever it gets a bit questionable. Finally, I hear them closing their window and muttering “At least you could play something nice..”.
  2. Rococo variations is particularly catchy, as it is a theme and variations, and I have an especially musical suite-mate, so often when I leave my room after practicing for a while, I find him whistling the tunes I was just working on (even incorporating the errors I make…Goes to show you..). Funny thing is that he is not the only one. Sometimes there are several: the suite-mate in his room or the kitchen, a resident upstairs, and one across the way in the neighboring building. Turns out the walls have not only ears, but also lips and lungs.
  3. To learn the Allemand of Bach ‘Cello suite 6, I have been counting 64th notes, and the Prokofiev listener took the liberty to call out “Can’t you count?!?” People these days… I found it amusing, as I am a math major, and being able to count, at least to some extent, is required.. I had better work on that.

Overall, really, though, the feedback I get is positive. People are curious as to what that big instrument is, what I am playing, what studying ‘cello is like, et cetera, and have many encouraging things to say – usually even remotely-“classical music-y” repertoire gets people to open up about how they actually do like Beethoven, or danced/played the piano or something while younger, or in the case of my critic from outside, “It is Prokofiev, not Shostakovitch!!”

Living in a group setting of people all in the location for a similar reason, but from all over the world, can lead to some interesting interactions. For example:

The other night my Italian dorm mates had a pizza party. One of them loves to cook (we will refer to him as Chef in Training, or CIT), so he and his friends made 8 pizzas and invited several people over. The lot of them sat, ate, and talked well into the wee hours of the morning. Though I was trying to sleep as this took place, I must say I was delighted: first off, the place smelled wonderful, and secondly, the concept of time of these people was such that they were perfectly content to sit and enjoy each other’s company for hours, with nobody needing to rush off and do anything. Nothing like the USAmericans “On the go”. Anyway, a few days later, I decided I would like to make pizza, so looked up a recipe for dough online and proceeded as stated. Then CIT came in to prepare his own food and inquired as to what I was making. At that point, it resembled a mess of slightly-more-appetizing-than-paste dough in a punch bowl that I had cleaned and re-purposed to serve my baking needs. He then told me that I had to knead for 40 minutes so as to permeate the dough with air pockets and then let it rise for 30 minutes before I even divided it into single-pizza-sized chunks! I mentally filed this information, and then decided to act upon it, for there was really no real reason why that night was allotted for some other activity. The opening movement of Bruckner 7, first movement of Death and the Maiden, and third movement of Brahms ‘Cello sonata in F major later, the dough was springy to the touch and was popping with bubbles. I ate dinner while it rested for 30 minutes, thankful that I had practiced ‘cello beforehand, as my hands becoming rather worn. Then I cut it and left it to rise under a damp cloth (a white T-shirt soaked in warm water and squeezed out works wonders for this purpose). Sure enough, the dough rose for 5 more hours, and made nice-looking pizza-crust-potential, which, CIT informed me excitedly, could be frozen and used in the future. Thank goodness for that – and the process is now even more worth it.

Thus far, I have been useful to my suite-mates by translating between the ESL and GSL people, and providing entertainment (i.e. minimally, but I have hope: we have known each other for maximum 9 days, after all): THE AMERICAN is always worth getting some mileage out of, in particular since there are many stereotypes about us – I will argue that there are more on us than on people of many other cultures as many international people have ideas of what THE AMERICAN is like based on TV pop-culture. A running gag that actually serves quite well as an ice-breaker here in drinking-age-16 Germany is that the resident edition of THE AMERICAN is a teetotaler who detests soda and most of the characteristics of coffee, as well. THE AMERICAN is often anticipated to have come over here for partying and less-than-rigorous academics, and the present American is here for the converse. Though politics are charged in the USA now, people abroad are curious, as would I be, and ask about it, often expecting THE AMERICAN to either be extremely touchy or opinionated and unwilling to listen. Frankly, that is no way to be a citizen of this world, and the majority of us at least know that – at times it can be hard to act upon, as the questions, often having been minced through at least one translation can come on harshly. Regardless, it is key that we are sure to listen and offer non-volatile responses.. In any case, I am sure that more juxtapositions of THE AMERICAN and the American will arise to engage us. Disclaimer: THE AMERICAN must not be from the USA, but in this case, The American specimen is.

As a student, it is often most reasonable, financially, to cook the vast majority of your own food. I make easy items, such as Aloo Gobi, daal with something, or pasta with salad. There are reasonably-priced grocery stores in the area, many containing remarkably fresh produce: Aldi Süd has the right idea selling lettuce that is still rooted in a small packet – it stays fresh for quite a while! In the dorms here at StuSie, there is no need to purchase much in terms of cookware, as many previous residents will have left essentials behind. I bought a pot and one set of cutlery and a plate from Woolworths and that will be quite sufficient. We also have refrigerator space, which is handy. German food consists of lots of bread, meat, and cheese, and as a vegetarian, I find I can cook and eat what I like (vegetables are readily available – if you are a nut-butter lover, though, bring a stash with you, as it is rather expensive/not readily available at many locations here) and still experience the place nicely. There are also several good inexpensive street-food options, in particular the falafel that is a result of the Turkish community.

Tip: If you go to a bakery, particularly an individually-owned one (there are several chains here), at the end of the day (usually close to 18:00), you are more likely to find discounted items. Also, check the day-olds section in most bakeries. The items there will likely still be fresher than much of what we eat regularly in the USA.

One last note to leave you on: The other night the Freiburg Barockorchester had a home concert, and I was delighted to go. They played a program of Handel, Geminani, Vivaldi, and more, and were not only in good tune with each other, but also musically engaged across the stage during the performance. They are true pros – even the pauses were the same length, and not due to the fixation on a conductor, rather as a result of prime ensemble work. I will go back and see them as much as possible during my stay here. This city is very fortunate to have both the Freiburg Barockorchester and the SWR Symphony Orchestra, as well as many community and student groups, and the people know it: I could count the empty seats on my two hands! There were over 1,500 people there to see a concert of Baroque music, and the most of them seemed to really enjoy it. Fantastic.

I ate a Berliner for breakfast, and … [Adventures at LG in Schwarzenwald (as a vegetarian)]

Potentially looking stylish to a passerby, due to an alternative overcoat, but really practically dressed, suitable for any season with a sensible layer of no-nonsense shielding the flamboyant innards from over exposure, my Berliner was your typical individual – likely to have been on the way to work, but instead ended up with me. It came in a timely fashion, but in no rush, and had no qualms about being taken out into the open. Now, this Berliner and I shared some key values: first of all, neither of us actually care how we look, which was evident, as it had no objection to being wrinkled as a result of being packed too tightly with other Berliners, and secondly, we were both vegetarian, and I still am, despite having consumed it.


Just to clarify that I am not justifying consuming a human Berliner, note that the pastry above is called a Berliner. It contains strawberry jelly, and is a bread-like bun coated with powdered sugar. This one tasted like it had been fried, and that is the ordinary method of preparation for these things, though someone in my class had a baked one the other day.

Anyway, today, through the Summer Language Institute (SLI – called this because it takes place before the Sommersemester here in Freiburg), I went on a tour of part of Schwarzenwald, more commonly known to most of you, likely, as the Black Forest. This is a region directly next to Freiburg in Southern Germany that is quite mountainous, and contains several small villages that used to thrive on farming and handwork sales, as well as charcoal burning and mushroom-gathering. The forest has been heavily logged, especially before a section of it was put into Baden-Württemberg´s first national park, so many of the trees are newer growth, and are for the most part extremely straight pines. There is also an old growth section, however, dating back to ancient times. The weather was in the 40s, using the Fahrenheit temperature scale, but was windy and rainy, so we did not get much of a chance to wander around in the woods. Nonetheless, though, we saw some spectacular vistas and Catholicism- and winter- influenced villages.

Our first stop was Sankt Peter, where we saw a Baroque-style church of the same name. It had earlier been part of a Benedictine cloister, as had many of the churches in the region, but in 1806, it changed its course, due to the end of the Holy Roman Empire (attributed to Napoleon and company), as did most of the Catholic churches and monasteries in that region at that time. Presently, however, it functions as a Catholic church, and is quite the model of Baroque/Rococo ornamentation.


A view of St Peters Church and the attached former Benedictine cloister

The front of the St. Peters’ Church

One other church in this city was much plainer, a solid color on the outside, and seemingly less ornate inside. It did, however, have an extremely noteworthy quality:

A Bat-Friendly Church! And whyever not?

Next we drove to Titisee, a natural lake that is friendly to wildlife and tourists alike, so is extremely popular during the tourist season. If you go to this place, even during the off-season (before and after the weather is ideal for boating and dabbling about in the water), I suggest bringing something to eat, as the food is expensive. Also not really vegetarian-friendly (though there are some places that serve pizza, so if you are willing to wait a bit, those could serve you well). For example, friends and I stopped to eat, and while they ended up with kraut, kartoffeln, und Bratwurst

Bratwurst oder Saurkraut mit Kartoffeln und Speck

I ended up with a more ubiquitous German specialty as lunch:

Riesenbrezel

While in Titisee, we saw some of the cuckoo clocks, which are one of the many hand crafts the region is known for. During long winters with an abundance of wood in the forest and need of a way to make enough money to acquire enough victuals to survive the next winter, the residents of the Schwarzenwald turned to various handcrafts, from the manufacturing of roof shingles and bellows of all shapes and sizes to a derivative of the latter, the cuckoo clock (the cuckoo sound was originally produced by the air rushing through two different diameter and length pipes to create the familiar two-tone sound). A story of how clocks even came to Schwarzenwald is that a Bohemian person came with one and left it, and the residents of one of the villages took it upon themselves to figure out how it worked, and naturally, how to create such things themselves. The original Schwarzenwald Uhren were not cuckoo clocks, but ordinary clocks with painted backgrounds. Now, however, the region is well known for the production of cuckoo clocks.

While in the town of Titisee, we got to see the See and some of the wildlife of the area:

Looking out over Titisee from the townside beach

We were privy to many glorious vistas upon our travels over the winding mountain roads, and even though mist obscured the landscape as we got higher, we had a peep of the alps, looked down on Freiburg, and got nice views of the Oberrein region (upper Rhine) from above. Included are a few views.


The Alps are in the far pale-blue distance. One could see the snowy peaks.

We stopped at Dom Sankt Blasien, a classically-constructed cathedral in the town of the same name. In this building, silence is required, as it is “A house of God”, and though there were over 100 tourists inside while I was there, this rule was well-respected. Photos subsequently:

While in Sanct Blasien, many of us tried Schwarzenwald Kirchentorte, which is the Black Forest Cherry Cake named after (though not originating in) the region. This would be quite the delicacy except for that a few parts of it (namely the cake medium – usually chocolate, and the cherries) are completely entrenched in alcohol to the extent that they more resemble something one would use to clean a wound than a food delicacy. The whipped cream and chocolate mousse parts of the cake are quite delectable, though, so perhaps a more ideal way to enjoy this dessert is to make it without the alcohol. The expected moisture balance should be achievable, and this way, even children and anyone who does not like to ingest what tastes like lab ingredients can enjoy it.

Our last stop was to a farmstead that was from the 1700s in Bernau. Like the model farms and homesteads that one encounters in the USA, this preserved the lifestyle of the time as much as possible. The houses were large and several stories, and often housed two (usually related) families – about 18 people on average, and their livestock and livelihoods. Every member of the family took part in the iconic crafts of the region as well as the farm work to ensure their survival, and dying of starvation or cold in the winter was not unheard of. The children still did go to school, but akin to in farming communities in the earlier USA, they had time off for harvest. The rooms are dark with doubled windows, and the house on average would be relatively cold, though in the example we saw, the family who had inhabited it earlier had found enough warmth above the stove to raise canaries and other warm-weather birds during the cold and long winter. What is also notable is that people lived like this until the 1960s. Our guide told me that she had this lifestyle as a child, and only with the slow and steady onset of industrialization did these ways of life start to dramatically change.

One last concept to remark upon (this will be addressed to more of an extent later) is the role of Catholicism in this region of Deutschland: As we see, by the main features of each of the places our bus of students visited today, the church was essential to the life of the population. People’s hometowns and lifestyles were literally centered on the church and their faith, through thick and thin, and this manifested in strong communities that adopted a set of values that worked well for them and ensured some essential common ground between residents. This would later often become problematic when minority groups, including immigrants and Jews, tried to find footing as communities alongside these Volks in Deutschland.

The Beginning

All of the UMASS exchange students, as well as many other students from all over the world, are housed in StuSie, or Studentensiedlung am Seepark, which is a dorm complex less than a 10-minute Strassenbahn ride from the University. We each have a private room in a suite, with communal kitchen and shared bathrooms. I will go into some detail about these living arrangements, as it is likely that in the foreseeable future, UMASS exchange students (and many other international students) will have ones akin to these. My room is equipped with ample closet and shelf space, a window that opens properly, a bed, desk with nice lamp, pleasant side-lighting (my light pulsingly emits a G 392Hz and then flickers itself on once the switch is pressed) and a radiator with an adjustable thermostat. I got lucky, and the previous resident left a wifi router, so that I can connect directly in my room. There are LAN connection ports in all the rooms here, but not all modern computers have the appropriate ports for those. Many other students purchased routers. At the University, there are a couple types of wifi, including eduroam, and we have library access, so the investment in a router is not really necessary. Each room is equipped with a bed with a firm but not rock-like foam mattress, but no bedding. There is an option to order a starter package of that (items from IKEA) upon one’s arrival, and many people do that. The kitchen usually will have many leftover items from previous residents, so it is not necessary to purchase the kitchen starter package, but you may need to go out and acquire specific items.

We are sort of structured as a suite, due to the shared spaces (the kitchen also has a large table for dining or playing boardgames or whatever), and the other folks are from all over the world. Some of them are here to write masters’ theses, others as undergraduates – really all sorts of students in all sorts of fields. It is important to establish a good rapport with the suitemates, just so all of the cleaning goes well and you can make good connections to practice language about and through which to learn about the environs and also about a host of different cultures, but unless you all make an effort, there will not be tons of incidental socialization, since we are each busy with our own itinerary.

Some of StuSie. There is lots of construction going on all over the city.

This morning, we all registered with the city, which is required so as to avoid social security fraud among recipients thereof, and for the census, among other reasons. It was a straightforward process, and the whole experience was akin to a trip to the DMV, albeit quieter, cleaner, and generally with a more positive level of interaction. The trip there, as was move-in, in fact, was facilitated by the UMASS – Baden-
Württemberg exchange coordinator, presently a woman named Silke Uebelherr. We UMASS students waited until our appointment, and then were each asked a few questions, including whether we were students, married, and/or baptized.

This morning, we began the pre-semester German language course at the University of Freiburg. We are split up into 12 different levels, based on an online placement test. My class was taught entirely in German, and the teacher made a habit of both explaining new vocabulary by describing it using other German words, and inserting her wry sense of humor whenever possible. There are 15 or so of us in this group, and she was sure to give sufficient individual and group attention to keep anyone interested engaged.

After the class, most students there (i.e. quite a lot!) had lunch at one of the MENSAs – these are the equivalent of American dining halls. For a moderate price ( 2.80 euros for the main meal today), one can healthily fill their stomach. There was quite the line, and unfortunately for now it is primarily English-speaking, for the common language of us international students, particularly those in the lower levels of German, is English.

To end, I have two anecdotes to relate:

  1. After school I got off of the Strassenbahn to pick up some bread for dinner. It was the end of the day, about an hour before closing, and I was the only customer. I examined the merchandise, as though most of it is excessively sweet, it makes quite the picture, and some items are quite tasty. Finally I ordered two “Semmeln”, which is how Austrians refer to those ubiquitous German white rolls that serve as snacks and complements to meals. In the USA, Kaiser rolls (Kaiser-Semmeln) are a knockoff, but do not come close to the ideal crusty-outside, soft-inside little breads that are often baked by a human and consist of pronounceable ingredients. To the people of this area, however, these rolls are often known as “Weck”. The proprietor, an Austrian herself, was taken by this, and my use of another dialect word, and carried on a lively conversation. As I left, she slipped another bag into my hand – “Nimmst du das damit.” – containing two croissants. It was the end of the day, and they were sure to be enjoyed in this case, but regardless, the gesture was much appreciated.
  2. Yesterday was Rosenmontag, a Carnival variation, and people took to the streets, rip-roaring around dressed as all sorts of witches, characters, and faerie folk. Many had woodland-themed clothes, and some even had wooden masks with dramatic, sometimes bridging on grotesque, features. Much of the population had been drinking, and this was made evident by unusually high level of noise on the public transportation and confetti flying through the air. Far into the night, Schlager-musik emanated from the door of each pub and several restaurants and other gathering spots, and people yelled across the streets to each other the traditional Rosenmontag greetings of “ALi”, responded to by “Aalaf”.
  3. The flowers are beginning to bloom here!
The University Library – Ich freue mich darauf viele Zeit hier zu lernen!