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

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