Freiburg Smells Good


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.

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