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.

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