26.10.09– The First Two Months
So, for anyone that doesn’t yet know, I am spending the year studying at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freibug (better known as Uni Freiburg) which is located in the city of Freiburg, province (Bundesland) Baden-Wuerttemburg which is the pretty much the south-west corner of Germany less than an hours’ drive from both Basel (Switzerland) and Alsace (France). It is the largest city the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) which is known for things like Black Forest Ham and Black Forest Cake and the CooCoo Clocks. It is a city of approx. 220 000 people of which about 40 000 are students at the university. The university itself was founded in 1457 and Freiburg has a really old-town-Germany feel to it despite its size. It was bombed pretty badly during the war, but they made a specific effort to restore it in its former fashion. As such, the city is gorgeous and anyone that wants an authentic German experience should really come and visit it.
I flew into Stuttgart after a lovely 10 hours of flying and a 3 hour layover at Heathrow and stayed there in a hostel for the first two nights. I can’t say too much about Stuttgart, but it does have a much more modern German feel that Freiburg does… which is a diplomatic way of saying that it is not nearly as pretty! The first, and really only, thing that I did in Stuttgart was to buy a German Handy (aka cell phone). I wanted to see the Baden-Wuerttemburgs Geschichte Museum (State History Museum), but unfortunately it was closed on the Monday, schade (too bad!). I took the train to Freiburg which took only 3 hours and 3 different trains (in my effort to try and save money) which was a lot of fun with my give-or-take 100pounds of luggage – well maybe not. I got to Freiburg and stayed in a hostel for another two nights which was fun. It was one of the really hippie-like hostels but it was cheap. I met some cool people there including one of the other girls from Canada who is studying with the same program as me. Being mostly on my own gave me a good chance to wander around the city and (for the most part) orientate myself, which has come in rather useful. I also met up with one another guy who I had also met on Facebook (what a wonderful invention!) also here on the DAAD Undergraduate scholarship and I managed to follow along one of his group’s tours. The tour included an excursion into my first Biergarten (Beer garden) in Freiburg. It is really cool and halfway up a hill so you get a really fantastic look out over the city.
On September 3rd I was allowed to move into my temporary place. I was placed in a one-room apartment until September 28th when I moved into my WG (Wohngemeinschaft or shared living). It was a very cute little place with a balcony, but not really what I am looking for right now because I would prefer to live with German students so that I have a better opportunity for networking outside of the international students—although they are all cool too! Until the 28th of September I was taking a German language. It was not too difficult, although I did have to get up early every morning as the class started at 915 and ran until 1245. We usually ate lunch in the Mensa (subsidized student cafeteria) which is cheap and usually not too bad. After lunch we had the option to take an additional seminar which is more topic focussed than the morning language classes.I am currently taking one on intercultural communication. The program that I am taking this language course etc through is called the Sprachlerninstitut (Language Learning Institute//SLI) and there are students in it from all over the world, most of whom are studying at the Uni for at least one semester but some that were here just for this. It is really cool to meet people from so many different places, for instance I met two guys from Kyrgyzstan the other day! There are a lot of French, Swedes, American, Italians, Chinese, Japanese and others as well.
As for free time and excursions, I have actually managed to do a fair bit. On top of the normal’s, new bars, biergartens, clubs, and café’s, I spent a Sunday in a small town in the Black Forest seeing an old Church called St Peters and wandering up to a café at the highest point to have Kaffee und Kuchen (Coffee and Cake.. a traditional German Sunday meal.. kind of like tea time in England). It was so pretty! They also had a big chess board.. and Sabrina beat me at a very even game of chess. Another Sunday we went for a “walk” in a different part of the Black Forest, an area called Kaiserstuhl. It turned out to be an 11km hike and I was wearing sandals – note for next time: when it says bring “feste Schuhe” (good shoes) they mean it! We went to a cheese museum, now that was interesting. Well, sort of – they had 20 year old cheese and it stank something fierce, it is an experience I rather not ever repeat. We took a day trip to Alsace which was actually fascinating! We visited a castle that has – in parts – existed since the 1200s. It was reconstructed in 1901 or so under the direction of Kaiser Wilhelm II (of Germany) and was quite the engineering feat to do so. It has a very rich history and was gorgeous, apparently it is also famous? Hochkoenigsburg is the name of it if it means anything. We also visited two smaller, although touristy, towns called Kaysersberg and Riquewihr. They were both really cute and it is really interesting to see the mix of Franco-German culture that has resulted from the region being passed back and forth between Germany and France. The whole region is a history buff’s paradise!
I would also like to make special mention to the German administrative/beaurocratic system which has been quite the experience to discover in all of its complexities! The cities in Germany require people to register that they are living there and that was certainly an experience to go through, albeit easier than I expected. I also managed to open up a chequing account at the bank (also all in German) which was pretty sweet and definitely ideal as Germans seem to prefer payment through direct deposit, and so far aren’t the hugest fans of credit cards. More to be said on that note later…
Well I must say, between the start of the semester here on October 19th and (not including the language course) the end of my last semester at Queen’s has been the longest I have ever been out of school. Fret not though, I certainly found ways to amuse myself.
I will start off with talking about my visit to quite possibly the most well-known festival in Germany: Oktoberfest in Munich. It was, as many of you can imagine, quite the adventure and very worth the nine hours spent on the train getting there and back. Walking off the train the Lederhosen (traditional Bavarian menswear) and Dirndls (traditional Bavarian woman’s dress) were everywhere! Everyone seemed to have bought a new one or dusted off the old one for the occasion as I showed up (unfortunately) a few hours after the opening parade. Munich is a very typical German city and was absolutely packed with people. We hit up the Oktoberfest on Sunday morning. Much to my surprise, one of the world’s largest beerfests is also home to fair rides! Rollarcoasters, spinny rides, all of it… all I could think was about how badly that could go and made a mental note to not stand under them! We had a spot in the Paulaner tent (and by tent I mean massive building that unless you were told, you would not believe that they only put up for the two weeks of Oktoberfest!) and it was huge! People everywhere, BEER everywhere! You have to understand something about Oktoberfest though: when you order beer, it comes in a 1lt Mass! This means, when you say that you only had 4 beers at Oktoberfest, you really drank 4lts of beer! After four hours of beer drinking and food eating, we headed back to the hotel, had a catnap and I hopped on a train back the Freiburg, needless to say class the next morning was a little tiring.
I spent the weekend following the end of the language class in Konstanz, which is another city about two hours by train from here. I went with the other OBW people studying here in Freiburg and met up with some of the OBW people from all of the other schools. Konstanz is a pretty city right on the lake (Bodensee/ Lake Konstanz/ Lake Constance depending on which language you feel like speaking) and immediately borders both Switzerland and Austria which is pretty cool. We took a daytrip from there to a town on the other side of the lake called Meersburg. It was a very cute little town with one of the oldest castles in Germany- built in c.630 AD.
After returning to Freiburg, my uncle came to visit me as he was still in Germany after travelling around for a week after Oktoberfest. It was really nice and I got to show him all around MY town. I also managed to complete my registration with the school which was a small burden off my shoulders. Other than that, that week was a lot of relaxing and enjoying the last of the good weather.
October 5 I flew with a friend to Barcelona. Spain was never very high on my list of places to go but I was really happy that I got to spend a week there. Barcelona is a gorgeous city with loads of history and – most importantly- is warm and has beaches! The whole week it was between 25-30 degrees and super nice. A friend of my friend here is studying there for a semester and we were able to stay with her for most of the time and she showed us around. We tagged along on one of her school tours of the Roman beginnings of the city which was really informational. After that we went to the museum of the Roman ruins underground. THAT was cool. The city was built in like 11 AD and was a 10 hectare walled city. We made sure to wander through La Ramblas, a pedestrian area where you can buy everything from postcards to chipmunks and turtles. It is lined with new-age mimes dressed in every costume you can imagine. There was one dressed and painted all in white sitting trousers around the ankles with a newspaper and others dressed as monsters that scare you when you aren’t paying attention. Just off La Ramblas is a huge outdoor food market with fresh fruit, veggies, cheese, meat, fish and more. We were a big fan of the 1euro fresh juice in all sorts of flavours. One day we spent wandering around and ended up on top of one of the hills which houses a hundred year old amusement park as well as a gorgeous church. It gave a birds-eye view of all of Barcelona which seems to go on forever- or at least until you hit water. Speaking of water- the beaches were so nice! The water was really blue and had gold specks in it – one thing that I found very odd was that although it tasted like salt (yuck), it didn’t smell like it. We made sure to spend a good few days lounging and relaxing on the beach fighting off beach vendors trying to sell drinks, drugs, and massages- no joke- and napping and tanning on top of anything valuable otherwise it will get stolen. In the water theme, we also made a trip to L’Aquarium which proved to satisfy my love of water. They had an 80m shark tunnel!! You stand on a moving sidewalk and it takes you through a tunnel of sharks, stingrays, a sunfish (half-fish!!), and other Mediterranean fish. Of course we made sure to visit our fair few drinking and eating establishments! Drank a lot of wine and tried out the Spanish seafood, which proved a little scary at times. I am not too sure how I feel about having to pick the legs and shells off my food- I guess it makes it more authentic?? All in all it was a really fun trip and I am proud to say that I have a tan in October!!!
As this trip was my first trip flying within Europe it really opened my eyes to the wonderful world of international customs. Anyone who has every flown from Canada to another country knows the hassle and the lines that tend to be involved on both ends of the flight. I would like to announce that in Europe (so far) it is just not like that. We showed up at the airport with boarding passes already printed (Ryanair charges you extra if you want to get them at the airport), assumed we had to check in with someone… wrong. My friend had to show her boarding pass and passport just to make sure the numbers matched up and I didn’t have to show anything because I am an EU citizen (thank you daddy for being born in England)! Security was very similar, however if (dare you!) have liquids, you have to BUY the little plastic baggie to put them in and its 1 euro (~$1.60cdn)! When we landed in Gerona there was no crazy long line to show your passport and declare anything. There was one little booth for people with non-EU passports and it took my friend all of 30 seconds to clear that. On the way back, same thing except back in Germany I don’t even think there was a little booth for non-EU passports! How is it that in North America people are so crazy about the borders despite having the same language, similar cultures, and bilateral agreements for the transport of criminals; while in Europe there are no people at the border when you cross with a car and there is no one to check your passport when you fly? There is something to think about for later.
Anyways, next topic. School! Oh dear… I would like to announce that for being such a technically advanced country, German schools have certainly not caught on in their registration systems. I was able to sign up for a whole TWO classes online, and that is only because it isn’t technically through the University, but though SLI. For the rest of my classes, I get to just show up on the first day and sign a paper when I get there. Well, first week of classes down and I think I have a schedule that should stick. I worked extra hard to make sure that I got long weekends so that I can continue traipsing through Europe. I spent this past weekend in Bonn at the DAAD Conference, meeting the other North American scholarship holders and then continued on to see a friend in Siegen, where I am proud to say I spent a whole two days speaking not a single full sentence in English!
Well, onward I go with my second week in school all in German!