Monday, August 31, 2009


Monday, August 31, 2009 1
Hello friends - I apologize for the delay in entries. The last few days in Freiburg were full of goodbyes, final celebrations, and preparations for the next leg of my trip. At the moment I'm in Paris with Heidi, and we're having a grand time seeing some of the sights. We arrive in Nantes on Wednesday, and at the moment I'm not sure when I'll have a chance to update again because we'll be traveling for a few days after our initial arrival, as a sort of orientation. But don't worry, I'll try to make up for it when I finally have the chance!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sunday on a Mountaintop

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 2
For the residents of Freiburg, the Black Forest
(Schwarzwald in German) is merely a short hike from their doorstep, yet each year thousands of tourists flock from all over Europe to hike through these gently rising mountains. While the conifer-crowned peaks dominate the view out my window, I doubted that I'd have the opportunity to properly explore them, having never really gone on a full-out hike up the side of a mountain before.

But when Lutz suggested that we go hiking on Sunday, I was more than ready for the challenge. After donning an old pair of purple hiking boots from Theresa's mom, I followed Lutz through suburban side-streets until we suddenly came to the foot of a mountain, with trails winding uphill in all directions. At first the climb was incredibly steep - it wasn't long before I was profusely sweating in the afternoon sun! Since Lutz goes hiking and biking all the time and plays on the university soccer team, I was pretty self-conscious that I would tire too quickly in comparison!

But I managed fine, perhaps in part because of all the biking I've been doing this month! As my occasional Freiburg tour guide, Lutz told me about how the Black Forest got its name. The trees are surprisingly dense, so that hardly any plants grow on the ground. This becomes increasingly apparent as one hikes deeper into the forest. (I couldn't help thinking of all those Grimm fairy tales of children getting lost in the woods!)

We reached the first high point in about an hour, at which point my sense of accomplishment made the view seem that much more spectacular (the picture above doesn't do it justice). As we rested there, we downed a good portion of our water bottles and watched a few bikers crawl uphill or whiz down. Interestingly enough, the mountain bikers fall into one of two groups: 1) wearing a special type of full body armor, with a full helmet like the ones they wear in motorcross, and riding an incredibly expensive bike, or 2) wearing skimpy bike gear and riding a cheap bike, which is insane given the steepness and incredibly rocky terrain that they have to ride over. Most of the bikers that zipped by us were the stupid ones. I really don't know how they do it without seriously injuring themselves.

Our next stop was a bit higher up, at a point where the trees thin out with the elevation. Right at the summit is this enormous protruding rock, probably the side of a small house, with plenty of ledges for hikers to sit and look out over the city. We had the natural lookout to ourselves as we munched on cookies and spied on the rooftops with binoculars. Then right as we were about to go, a pair of friendly bikers (group 2) snapped this picture for us.

Hiking is such a popular pastime in the Black Forest that there are in fact several restaurants tucked considerably back in the woods (though many can still be reached by car). We took a different route back to reach one such restaurant, at which we sat back and rested our weary feet, refreshed by the sweetness of local weißbier and the sense of contentment with conquering a mountain.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ein Sommer Gedicht

Monday, August 24, 2009 3
Yesterday I hiked up a mountain in the Black Forest, and it was glorious.

But more on that later, as I currently lack the time to properly craft the details of such a fulfilling experience. For now, here's a working draft of that poem I wrote last week - sitting on another hill watching a sunset over Freiburg with some local white wine in hand.

(Impressions, ideas, comments, criticism, etc. of any sort are always appreciated!)

Freiburg Sommerhymn

If these raindrops become bombs again,

this umbrella will be all we’ll need, with you

the weatherman nudging clouds aside

as your palm skims the curve of my shoulder

and drops like those uncertain syllables at the end

of our sentences.

For now we’ll just sit on the drooping horizon,

drinking wine made by soiled hands

while the bent elbows of rooftops relax

into hills arched no more than your eyebrows.

We eat up the hours like olives,

popping them all in at once

to make each salty word stick to our tongues

long after we’ve swallowed them whole.

The staring contest with

this field of scattered square galaxies below us

finally ends when their wooden eyes blink down

into languid dreams.

And even the stars can’t stay awake

as we watch them fall from their watchtowers

into cradling mountain folds

rocking them into the morning.

Now tamed, the darkness stretches out in front of us

like a weary old foxhound, warmed by the colors

that fireflies make only when they’re sure

that no one’s watching.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lounging in Paradise

Sunday, August 23, 2009 0
My friends, I have seen Paradise! It's a long grueling climb upwards, but once you finally plop down at the top and wipe the sweat off your forehead, the view is simply incredible.

And that's just the secret little place we found in Baden-Baden yesterday.

The real purpose of the day trip was to see an exhibition of a group of artists known as "The Blue Rider" who stirred up the art scene around 1910 with their depictions of natural settings in vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes. However, I was also eager to visit the town from which my German ancestors came (and fulfill many family members' requests to make such a visit).

After some time at the museum and a quick bite to eat, I explored the town a bit with Jonathon, a friend who recently moved up into my class and hails from Guernsey, a little island in the English Channel. Because he teaches Latin and ancient Greek, his inherent interest in ancient cultures brought us to the centuries-old ruins of the city's Roman baths. ("Baden" means "baths"in German, and even today many tourists visit solely for the unique and refreshing cleansing experience.) Johnathon was even able to helpfully clarify the verbose explanations on the audioguides that we received with our museum tickets, and as a result, I actually learned quite a bit about the technical and social sides of how the baths worked so long ago - even today, the ancient Romans never fail to impress with their forward thinking.

After much wandering through all these portals of history and culture, we took a mental break in a Biergarten, complete with waiters in full lederhosen! Jean-François (Quebec) and Laia (Spain), two other friendly faces from our class, happened to come looking for a refreshing drink not long after we had sat down, and naturally we took the opportunity to talk about our town adventures in our rudimentary German. We even snatched a town map off another table, with which Jean-François pointed out a path called "der Paradies" and encouraged us to see where it led.

In doing so, Jonathon and I found ourselves maneuvering up steep narrow streets surrounded by these grand white Bauhaus-style homes and lots of greenery. The higher we climbed, the more we could begin to discern a series of fountains dividing another set of steps to climb. With so many steps and the occasional leveling off for some landscaping, the throbbing heat made it easy to question what lay at the top of this pseudo-Elysium.

And even though the initial sight of a boring gravel plane with a little playground and a few dingy benches wasn't exactly what I had envisioned for the summit, a sense of fulfillment still rushed in with the mountain-framed view and the invigorating warmth of the sun on our faces.Without the obligation of a meeting time and a train ride back, I quite possibly could have lolled in that Paradise sun forever.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Day in the (Freiburg) Life

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 1
While going through the motions this morning that I've so easily adjusted to, it hit me that I haven't even talked about what most of my days are like. So here's a play-by-play:

9:30 - Wake up to the sound of children's voices, church bells, or birds, as my window's been open all night to keep the room cool.

9:40 - Down two flights of stairs for breakfast. Usually Theresa's parents have left for work by now, but sometimes I catch one of them on the way out with a quick Denglish conversation about my previous evening. I sit in the kitchen drinking the bottom of the coffee pot, munching on a few slices of soft, grainy bread with cheese and jam, and attempt to read the newspaper. I get the main idea halfway through the article and scan all the pictures like a kid. Too bad there's no comics!

10:00 - Shower with removable showerhead, which requires its user to be a little awake so that water doesn't get everywhere. Gone are the days of standing under the shower listlessly and occasionally falling asleep for a minute or two!

10:30-12:00 - Finish up homework, check my e-mail, perhaps update my blog (like now). This is my window to get things done.

12:00 - Wander back down to the kitchen to figure out some lunch. This usually ends up being an omlette with a combo of random chopped vegetables, cheese, and/or lunchmeat. Though I quickly take advantage of leftovers in the fridge.

1:10 - Leave for class by bike. I ride 10-15 minutes through suburban streets, then a walk/bike path right along the river, and finally navigate through a busy 5-way intersection to Wilhelmstraße, lined with charming bookshops and cafes to the Goethe Institute at the end.

1:20 - I walk my bike through the grand pair of gates in front of the institute and sandwich my bike between several others on a rack under an enormous tree. Most students sit outside before class begins, and I can always hear conversations in several languages as well as German with many accents.

1:30-3 - First session of German, always beginning with interesting conversations about the previous night's activities and weekend plans. We learn a little history, grammer, and vocabulary with lots of engaging activities.

3:00-3:30 - First "Pause" in which several of us head to one of three cafes for a much needed coffee. Only costs 1 Euro and it's strong enough to be espresso. By this time we're already exhausted by the afternoon heat at the flurry of German words we're still sorting out in our brains, so the Pause is much needed for caffinated rejuvination.

3:30-6 - Class goes on with another short Pause near the end. It amazes me how the 4 1/2 hours of class go by quicker than the previous day. (It's also hard to believe that I'm over halfway done already!)

6:00-6:15 - I head back home with the sun on my back and much more traffic (cars, joggers, and lots of bikes) on all sides.

6:15-7:00 - Quick dinner of a few slices of bread and cheese, then change out of my clothes which by now are full with the day's sweat from biking and the hot classroom.

7:00-? - Various "German" activities with friends from the Institute, perhaps going to a Biergarten or the student bar, meeting at a restaurant, or going to a club. Or I meet up with Lutz and he shows me his Freiburg - my own local tour guide.

...A few times I've ridden my bike home pretty late at night, but not once have I felt unsafe anywhere. Freiburg is a university town, so about 10% of its population is students. More places to eat and drink stay open, and there are always many people walking around town or along the river. It's such a different "late-night atmosphere" from what I've experienced in the States, and I think a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that everything's so close together. No one needs to drive anywhere; instead of designated drivers, all one needs is a linked arm and a shoulder for a droopy head, or even just a steady hand to help navigate the cobblestone streets.

As for me, the mental reminder that I must ride a bike back from wherever I'm at keeps me in check and keeps my wallet from emptying too quickly!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

History on a Hilltop

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 0
Last night Lutz and I made a short hike to another grand hill right at the edge of the Black Forest, with local white wine and two wine glasses in hand. Unlike the purposeful man-made view from the Schlossberg tower (photo featured in my previous entry), this felt like a local secret. Past a lonely train station, up a hill criss-crossed with tree roots and bike trails, a few benches sit haphazardly in a spot where the ground suddenly goes level and the tree branches part. Though we weren't nearly as high up, the view of the town was still lovely in the sunset, the golden sunlight playing with the tiny squares of light illuminating scattered house windows. A German couple on another bench and a young man practicing his juggling kept us company for a bit, but they left with the sun. We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed the whole bottle well into the evening.

This view was also accompanied by ghosts of the past - Lutz told me about how in the forest, people occasionally stumble upon huge craters left from WWII bombs that didn't quite reach the city. Even today there are bombs that hit the city but didn't explode, so now they lie dormant a few meters underground until someone starts digging out a new basement. Over 60 years later, the chemicals have considerably decayed, thus creating some removing the buried historical treasure! But I guess it happens enough that the city knows how to take care of these bombs.

I'm in the middle of writing a poem about last night, but as I just started today it's far from being ready to read. Hopefully I can post it soon, along with a general update about how everything's going (such as the main reason I'm here - my German course!).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Visual Update

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Since a picture's supposedly worth 1000 words, here's a few from the last two weeks to play a bit of visual catch-up! First, a few from around Freiburg...

These two are from one night when I climbed the tallest hill in town called the Schlossberg, with Lutz, one of Theresa's friends who's been showing me around Freiburg. As you can see, the view from the very top of that tower is incredible, but it's quite a steep and treacherous climb, especially in this humid mountain air!

Last weekend I went on a group trip to Basel, Switzerland, to see an exhibit of over 70 of Van Gogh's landscape paintings. It was enlightening and wonderfully curated - one had the chance to see Van Gogh's gradual transition from brown, shadowy, realistic Dutch landscapes to the illuminated swirls of color that we know him for today.

Naturally, pictures weren't allowed in the museum, but later on in a window display I was lucky to see the Swiss take on Van Gogh... made of chocolate!

By the way, class is also going beautifully. Every day provides more vocabulary, intriguing stories, enjoying activities around Freiburg, and many smiles. I'll try to even out the ratio of landscape/sightseeing pictures with ones of people - unlike countless untold histories of this beautiful European town I'm in, for me each face already holds far more words . . . in a handful of languages.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bread, anyone?

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As far as I'm concerned, bread seems to be the biggest staple of the German diet.

Breakfast is no little bowl of sugary cereal, but rather an open buffet filling the table surface with several loaves of fresh bread, homemade jam, butter, honey, fresh cheese (like cream cheese), hard cheese, fruit, coffee, cream, and sugar.

When Theresa's parents were home last week to help her prepare for her trip, lunch was an equally scrumptious pagaent, but with a few different vegetable dishes, perhaps some sausages, cheese, fruit, and salad at the end. But now that Theresa's gone to India and her parents are back to work, most days I'm on my own for food. Lunchtime has become this daily creative venture in which I figure out what to do with a refrigerator filled with vegetables, cheese, and cream products. Not to mention my creative yet limited cooking skills. A piece of bread or two usually manages to find its way onto my sparsely filled plate of veggies thanks to a half full stomach.

Dinner has always been more of an unofficial meal, as Theresa's parents come home at separate times and later than I do. When in doubt, bread and cheese do the job, though I'm beginning to wonder what all this gluten will do to my system.

And then of course there's the abundance of "liquid bread" - from corner stores to biergartens - but we'll save that for another time.

Don't get me wrong - I'm definitely enjoying the home-grown, normal-sized produce and bread that's not pre-sliced or in a polka-dot bag. It's much simpler and more natural, but it's still taking some adjustment. Nowhere around here can one find a single mega-store to buy everything they could possibly need - that's definitely an American thing. And while this has its local charm and welcoming feel, I have yet to figure out where I can buy a hairdryer.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Der Spaß beginnt! (The fun begins!)

Saturday, August 8, 2009 2
I suppose it's a good sign that I haven't written since Wednesday - since class has started I've been much busier, in the best ways possible. And after a week, I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of things.

Wednesday afternoon marked the first day of class at the Institute. It was odd to feel that anxious excitement again from schooldays,the feeling that comes with meeting new classmates and desperately hoping to make a good impression. I was one of the first in the classroom, and as I pulled out my dictionary and notebook - already with several pages of scribbled vocab - I watched each person enter cautiously, nervously mumble "Allo", and scan those already seated to decide who would be the friendliest neighbor.

Before class even began, I could already tell that our class had a wonderful spectrum of nationalities and ages - though as a few pairs started trying out their conversation skills, I could discern American accents from two guys about my age. Both are studying abroad like me but will spend a year in Freiburg with separate programs after this month. And the coincidences don't stop there - one is from Michigan and attends U of M, while the other is studying abroad with IES, the same program in which I'll be participating in Nantes. I love getting those small reminders that our world is much more connected than we assume!

Our Lehererin (teacher) is young and wonderfully cheerful - when someone says a correct word or phrase, she has this delightful mannerism where her tiny lips dip into a smile and she lightly nods and giggles. Naturally, all of our instruction is in German, but she speaks slowly enough and explains everything to us with words and improvised drawings on the board. I think all of us feel a bit more childlike because of this, but it actually creates such an encouraging environment in which we're less afraid to ask questions and interact.

It's also been so reassuring to be surrounded with fellow German learners. We try to speak in German as much as possible, but at a comprehensible pace and with similar limited vocabularies. Most everyone here knows English as well, so we end up speaking an idiosyncratic "Denglish" with so many different accents and an even greater number of experiences and ideas. There are German learners from 68 countries at the Institute. Thus, I'm not only learning about Germany and its language, but also Brazil, Italy, Spain, Ghana, Quebec, Greece, Syria - and that's just my class! Who knows the stories I'll hear in the weeks to come?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Small Steps

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 1
With small accomplishments, my confidence is improving . . . a slow process. A fair amount of WD-40 helped us push that rusty bike seat as far down as we could get it, though embarrassingly I'm still a bit of a clumsy rider! But with all the biking I'll likely do this month, I should be a natural soon enough.

Speaking of which, I biked to the Goethe Institute yesterday (just a 10-minute ride!) for my first orientation and a placement test. It felt strangely comforting to enter the building to the sounds of broken English and slow German - for once I wasn't the only outsider! When I mentioned that I was staying "bei meiner Freundin" Theresa, the patient woman filling out a form for me smiled - "sehr praktisch!" Although this practical means of living for a month had me waiting in line for quite a while just to receive a student card, instead of the stacks of paper everyone else received regarding the student guesthouse, transportation, and cafeteria! Still, it felt good to stroll out of the Institute sans luggage and hop on a bike like a local Freiburger.

My first class is this afternoon, and from then on they'll run weekdays from 1:30-6, along with a plethora of cultural activities in the mornings, evenings, and weekends. Thankfully I managed to get into the class level I needed, as I have to take an exam at then end of the course for my German minor.

Theresa had some friends over last night for a little farewell party. It was a bit overwhelming at first, both to meet all these new people and attempt to comprehend even a little of their fast conversation(especially the girls). I'm really beginning to understand how exchange students feel - I can usually follow the general drift of a conversation, but then when I try to say something the pace nearly comes to a halt. But a few of Theresa's friends who did talk to me individually were immensely patient and helpful. As I grew more comfortable later on in the night, my German - though still simple and imperfect - came a little easier. Small steps and small victories along the way.

Last year when I did Model UN at Alma, I remember being so amazed at the New York conference with foreign students' ability to compete so well in a language other than their own. A few experienced members of our own team had told us in advance about the value of working with them, even if it may take a little longer to get a point across. Unlike certain infamous American UN teams, these students were always so cooperative and helpful, and even had some of the best ideas if you took the time to listen. Now I'm truly understanding the gratitude they must have felt, even in our smallest gestures of patience and encouragement.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Learning to ride a bike (again)

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Es ist Sonntag - the day of rest - but I'm feeling restless stuck inside on this gloomy, rainy day. As I may have mentioned before, Theresa is leaving on Thursday for a year in India, so naturally she has lots of last-minute preparations to do. To be honest I'm a little frustrated, because I'm left with little to do until my class starts on Tuesday. I've spent most of today studying in attempts to improve my feeble vocabulary.

Of course, these past few days I've spent lots of time listening to German, especially at meals, but I'm still quite intimidated to speak German other than simple phrases. I know that continually trying to speak is the only way I'll improve, yet when I try I feel like I've regressed so much! How do you tackle something when you know that you will inevitably make so many embarrassing mistakes? And yet this is the only way to get better... practice, practice, practice. Not as easy as riding a bike!

Ironically, I've just found out that I don't even know how to do that accurately.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous. Riding a bike is one of those things that practically everyone knows how to do, like using a telephone or making macaroni and cheese. But yesterday I discovered that I've been doing it all wrong, apparently. Quite often when using someone else's bikes, it seemed to me that seat was too high - I assumed that this was because I'm 5'3. I guess I've grown accustomed to riding one low enough that my feet touch the ground when I'm sitting on the bike, and pushing off from that position to start. Is this too low? I'd never given it thought before.

So when Theresa and I went to ride into town yesterday, I was suddenly confronted with this embarrassing obstacle - all five or so of their family bikes (old and new) had high seats, which for them seems to be the norm. I explained this to Theresa, but after a few tries in her driveway I managed alright, and so we were on our way.

When riding, the ease of balance made me forget the precariousness of my new height until we had to stop at a crosswalk - no longer could I simply touch a foot to the ground automatically, but instead jolt the breaks while clumsily falling forward off the seat (and simultaneously trying to figure out the proper way to do it).

Basically, I'm feeling pretty inadequate at the moment. Learning German now seems much more daunting than I thought it would be, like learning to speak - or ride a bike - all over again.

I'm really hoping that my first class at the Institute gives me some confidence, and helps me get rid of these training wheels.