Sunday, January 25, 2009

When cultural differences become apparent

Cultural differences are funny things. Everything goes along in a relatively normal fashion, and then they spring up out of nowhere. Things like pop costing more than wine in grocery stores are different, but not at the level they actually provoke any thought. Differences like that are easily accepted. Really, though Germany has been different, it hasn't felt terribly different than the US, at least culturally speaking.

Today, though, there was a moment that made me fully realize that I was in fact in a culture beside my own. We went to the Narrenumzug, a carnival/parade of sorts in the town of Umkirch ( It is a Fastnacht (, which is a pre-Lenten carnival of sorts. Not quite Mardi Gras, however, since it's purpose is to scare away winter. As a result, everyone is heavily costumed, etc.

However, the difference came in with the conduct at the Narrenumzug. It involved a lot of grabbing children and running away with them from their families and trying to make them cry, for one. One guy threw a staff in the air and hit a kid on the head. Another disconcerting aspect was the weird overtone of sexual harassment. There were girls that were grabbed and dragged into the street and thrown onto mattresses and had confetti shoved down their shirts and pants and had their lower backs stamps. Others were wrapped in saran wrap, spun in front of the entire crowd, and the like. Typically, these were girls in the age range of 14-20, and much older men taking part in the actions. This would NEVER go over in the United States. Vulcans can't even dot people on the face anymore at parades, and yet here, it was completely ordinary to be throwing girls on mattresses in the middle of the street and shoving things down their shirts. Essentially, the experience seemed to be like why people watch a horror film: the reactions and moments of terror were part of the experience, and none who grew up with it were bothered in the least. Nonetheless, it was radically different than what would be acceptable in the United States, so it was a very eye-opening experience.

Before I get onto the other fun pictures, as promised, I have solved my camera dilemma. So you can see a couple pictures of my room and nearby:

The view out my window when it is actually sunny (which is almost never):

The ridiculous version of blinds I have: It's a metal square with weird holes on it that is on a track outside the window. I need to reach outside and pull it loudly across to open and shut it. It looks like a nuclear blast shield:

My room; not the most exciting room in the world. But it functions, I suppose:

Yesterday, we took a German class field trip to Heidelberg ( Heidelberg is an older city that escaped damage in the World Wars, so it has plenty of old buildings intact. Notably, it was important in the Holy Roman Empire. Notably now, it has an illegal non-franchise Hard Rock Cafe. There was an impressive palace/castle above the town, which is now basically in ruins, but it remains imposing. That day also involved my first near-missed tram due to still developing concepts of inconsistent train schedules on the Verkehrs AG. You figure out the official acronym for our public transportation yourself, you twelve year old boys. Anyway, I got a phone call at 716 informing me that the last tram I could make and be on time was in two minutes, so various important things were forgotten. I made it on time. And we ended up waiting for the people from the 748 tram anyway. Oh well.

Other than that, survived the first week of intensive classes. I have my first test in both on Wednesday, right before leaving for Estonia in the morning, so the next couple days will be busy with that. On Tuesday, I'm going to my first soccer game with the local team, SC Freiburg ( It is undoubtedly the best way to prepare for my exams the next day. Finally, I booked my spring break - we will be vacationing in Nice ( over Easter Weekend. It promises to be warmer and sunnier than Germany.

I'll try to put up an update before I leave for the week on Thursday morning, but if not, I'll give you all an update when I'm back from my first field study.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The First Week

I had meant to give an earlier update than this, but a combination of busyness plus technological failings has pushed it back. My camera ceased to work. I'm working on replacing it and getting the old one returned under warranty, but in the meantime, I'm going to have to be stealing pictures from my friends here, that I've been along with for. It's the best I can do. I'll also not make this too overly long, but if there's anything else you want to know/are interested in, let me know and I can write another post on it or just e-mail you back if it's specific at all. I'll also include parenthetical Wiki links to things that are mentioned, should you happen to be self-motivated and intrigued enough to look at them.

So, I arrived last Wednesday morning after a flight mishap got my first route canceled. We've been kept very busy since then. In case I really haven't told you anything at all about my trip, I am studying in Freiburg, in southwestern Germany ( The town of Freiburg itself is pretty straightforward and centralized - everything that's open past 6 pm is located downtown as a general rule. So all of the tramlines lead downtown, which makes navigating the city relatively easy. For those who haven't looked it up at all, it's about 220,000 people. But it has a bigger light rail network than Minneapolis, with 4 lines. That's how you know you're in Europe. The juxtaposition of building constructions has been really interesting.

My apartment itself is rather odd. It's part of a converted French military barracks from the military occupation after World War II. Each unit is unique and they do not follow a set pattern. Mine actually happens to be two stories tall, centered around a staircase. I live with two German girls, one German guy, and one French guy, though one of the German girls is yet to appear in the apartment. All of my roommates have been nice, and they all speak English well enough for us to communicate without any problems. Pictures of this will be forthcoming, as right now they are trapped in my broken camera. This is a picture of the street that I live on though:

The 75 students have largely started to segregate by this time, and really did rather definitively by day 3. It was actually really interesting how quickly it happened. When first going to college, I remember there being some fluidity in figuring out who we wanted to spend time with, and people breaking in and out of groups and it not being a big deal, but here, everyone seems pretty set. There is of course mixing, but we have a group of about 12-14 people that I think will be mainly fraternizing, and then I have a smaller group of 4 that I've been generally spending time with.

This last weekend we went out and about twice. On Saturday, a group of us went hiking between two small German towns, Staufen ( and
Sulzberg ( It wasn't a strenuous hike, but it was up in the foothills of the Alps in the Black Forest, mainly hiking through vineyards. It's really relaxing, and I'd like to find a couple more routes through the area over the course of the semester. Preferably when my camera works. In Staufen, there is a small old castle overlooking the town, from which I'll include a couple pictures at the end of this post.

On Sunday, we took the train to Basel, Switzerland (, with an unscheduled detour in Schliengen ( From what we saw of Schliengen, it looked like Braham (,_Minnesota) - essentially a three bar, one post office town. However, from what the Wikipedia article says, it's actually interesting. This may or may not be true. If it was, they hide it well. Basel itself was pretty interesting - it's right along the Rhine river, and the row houses along it make it look more like Copenhagen than what you would expect Switzerland to be. After meandering for a couple of hours, we were forced to walk through a downpour for an extended period, making for a very wet trainride back to Freiburg. Switzerland also provided my first of many currency exchanges, where I learned that nothing is more expensive in Europe than eating in Switzerland. The exchange rate between Swiss Francs and Dollars is pretty much equal. In looking around, McDonald's cost about 14.00 for a value meal. Naively, we were led to a restaurant with misleading prices on the outside, where I was cornered into paying 17.50 for a personal pizza. Next time I go to Switzerland, I will pack a lunch.

Anyway, classes have started today. My German class is moving relatively quickly, but I feel good about it, and my professor for my seminar is rather entertaining, spending most of the hour and a half quoting Winston Churchill. This Saturday we are on a field trip to Heidelberg (, one of the more important German cultural cities. Then Thursday, I leave for Tallinn, Estonia ( But more to come on those when they happen. For now, here are a few more pictures of the trek so far:

The view from atop the castle in Staufen. For the record, this picture I actually took myself, as I was borrowing a friend's camera who didn't feel up to this last part of the hike.

Two pictures of the mountains on the hike

Staufen, the hike's end, with the castle on top.


Sunday, January 11, 2009


As I realize how little I have actually bothered to do to prepare (a mere 36 hours before I leave for Germany for five and a half months), I've decided to further my procrastination by setting up the blog promised to all before I leave.

So here it is. I'll be blogging here about my trip, at the request of many - and the outright demands of few. I don't have a ton of interest at the moment, other than I've gotten to spend a ton of time on phone holding and became very attached to the androgynous-yet-soothing Bank of America phone robot director. "The next available teller will answer my call," indeed.

I sincerely hope at least one reader figures this out on there own, but there is a reason for the somewhat absurd title of said blog. I feel like I need to go on record here as I really like preempting sure to be repetitive questions. The title comes from the only song, let alone 70s punk song, that I know of about Germany. There are probably more. But until then, enjoy Adam Ant's "Deutscher Girls."