Friday, November 16, 2012

I'm Alive!

"You know, maybe I am free in a very small world and you are a prisoner in a very big cage."
"Yes, yes, I feel exactly what you're describing..."
Sorry, friends and family, that I haven't used this thing in a while. The longer I went without doing it, the more daunting the task seemed. It won't happen again.

So! Since September I've had lots of time to settle in here and have a wonderful time. Our University classes started 4 weeks ago, so I've been reasonably busy since. My program, Academic Year in Freiburg, offers several classes specifically for the Americans here. I'm taking three of these -- a language course, taught by the same woman who taught our September class; a general German literature class, which sporadically chooses texts to read based on the current interest of the class; and a German history course, covering the years between 1870-1990. Of these, I would say the history class is my favorite. It's all very interesting, but being an engineer, I'm not used to reading so much. It's a little overwhelming. Besides these classes, I'm taking one course at the Pädagogische Hochschule [=teachers college] called Migration Literature. We read books written by first and second generation migrants to Germany. My shining moment thus far in the class was contributing to the analysis of the most recent novel we read: "The text is written with simple language. The american girl said she could read it without a dictionary." Don't worry, I laughed. My last class is the one I'm most excited about: Betriebssysteme [=operating systems]! Not only is it enjoyable to be learning something technical again, back in my comfort zone of 100 people lecture halls with power point presentations and no expectation of speaking to more than one person at a time, but it's also two days a week I get to go to the technical campus, and have absolutely no chance of meeting another american! There are several other engineers in my program, but none of them decided to take any technical courses. It's wonderful because I meet and speak to almost exclusively Germans. Also, their computer lab has a resident Lab Cat, and you really can't beat that.

Germany has a national holiday on All Saints Day, and since it was on a Thursday and I don't have Friday classes, I went to Prague with my friend Marisa for a long weekend! From Freiburg Prague is about a 9 hour train ride. We left at 5am on November 1 (which meant no Halloween celebrations for me the night before. Not that the Germans do much for Halloween anyway) and arrived late afternoon. The hostel we chose had an awesome location. We were right down the road from Charles Bridge and right around the corner from Old Town Square, which was my favorite place. Every time we walked through the square there was a new band performing in the middle, in Czech. And there were constantly old antique cars driving through (taking people on tours, naturally) and horse and carriage rides passing. Old Town Square is also where the Astronomical Clock is, which was apparently voted the most disappointing tourist attraction in 2011. It was beautiful but the hourly performance wasn't much to see. Legend has it that the Old Town Councilors captured the clockmaker after it was completed in the early 1400s and burnt out his eyes, so he could never make another clock like this one again. After taking a walking tour of Prague, you notice they have a bit of a bloody history. The other most interesting place we saw was the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is incredibly small and houses over 100,000 bodies. Only the rich were able to afford stone headstones, and roughly 12,000 stones are visible today. If you look inside, all you see are piles and piles of headstones. In the deepest areas, bodies are piled 12 high. Our tour guide also said that the cemetery contributed to the spread of the plague by poisoning the groundwater in the area, but since coming home I have found no evidence of this online.
I did not take this picture. But I did see these things!

Along with seeing all the necessary sights in Prague, we enjoyed a ton of delicious food and delicious, cheap beer. On Thursday night, after we found our hostel, Marisa and I were walking around and stumbled upon a blacklight theater, which apparently is a Czech tradition (for the last 25 years). We decided to take a gamble and saw blacklight Faust. The music was really good, but it was really weird. Imagine lots of flying props. It wasn't a spoken show, so everyone could understand, but I would say "understand" is a strong word to use. Maybe reading real Faust would make me understand why it was so weird. We also visited the Kafka museum, which gave us lots of German to read. Kafka grew up and lived in Prague, but he was educated in German and primarily wrote in the language. Hopefully we'll be reading some of his work in my AYF Literature class. On Friday night we also went to Central Europes's largest night club! We hardly drank anything and spent the whole night on the "oldies" floor dancing to 80s music. It was great.

Don't be deceived. This is actually Pragian cake. Good
thing you read the caption.
I can tell my German is getting better, but some interactions still go awry. Today I was in a Café and wanted a piece of cake. The word for cake is Kuchen. So I asked the waitress what kind of Kuchen they had. She answered "German", which I thought was weird. But then I realized she thought I was saying Küchen, which means kitchens. We're in Germany, of course they have a German kitchen. We laughed when we realized what the problem was (and I got my apple cake). But I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to say it correctly (cake is an important word, after all), and I still can't manage to differentiate "u" from "ü". Hopefully this will come with time. Man, life is hard here :)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If I'm already running out of blog post titles, this is going to be a long year...

What a günstig meal!
This Saturday AYF went to Basel, Switzerland! It's only a 45 minute train ride south of Freiburg. We did a bit of pell-mell sight-seeing and tour-taking, lead by Ulli, our program director, who has just been to the city so many times that he knows bits of random stories and facts. Then we were let loose on the city. Cherice, Tucker, and I went on a search for lunch, but Switzerland so SO EXPENSIVE. To give you a comparison, lets do some math. The Swiss Franc is worth about $1.08 USD right now. Out of curiosity, we stopped in a McDonalds to look at the prices. One burger/fries combo meal was 11,80. That's about $12.75. If you're going to pay that much, you might as well get real food, right? The average meal in a regular restaurant was between $20-30, and street food averaged around $15. So instead, we found an Aldi's and bought some bread, salami, cheese (Swiss, of course), wine, grapes, and pudding for dessert, and each paid about 5 Euros. Then we took it to the Münster and ate it overlooking the river and the mountains.

Cherice and I getting cozy at the Münster

Then on Sunday we all went to an SC Freiburg Fußball game! It was wonderful. Hundreds of people all dressed in red and drinking beer and eating currywurst, shouting and hugging and cursing together. Fortunately, we won, so there was much more hugging than cursing. 5-3 win! I'm thinking I'll have to go back for more very soon. First I have to buy some paraphernalia though, because I don't own a stitch of red.

Sonya and I at the game

Otherwise, I had my first German test today, and I've got another one tomorrow. And some laundry to do. So I should probably do that. But before I go, I will leave you with another German observation: dogs can go into shops and onto the trains here. Almost everywhere people can go. And when you're walking in the park, most dogs don't have leashes. That's because they're so well trained they won't bark or run off or attack other dogs. They just wag their tails and trot along next to their owners. Also, there is at least one guy, possibly two, who walks around with a cat on his shoulders. The cat just hangs out and looks around like he's sitting at a window or something, but he doesn't jump down or hiss or panic when he sees a dog. Animals here are weird.

And so, off to memorize some verbs and their corresponding prepositions. To give you an idea, pretend like you don't know very much English. Now you know what the word "think" means, and kind of how to use it. But do you think about? Or think it over? Think it through? Think of? Which preposition is it?! Well, I'm going to find out for about 40 German words. What fun.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

10 Days!

Well it's been a busy week. To keep this a managable lenght, I will just share some highlights.

wurst wurst wurst wurst wurstOn Wednesday all the AYF kids had a barbeque at Vauban, which is another apartment complex. We had a fire and everyone cooked, of course, wurst. But the best part of the night was when I got to have my first conversation with a real live German! Up to this point I'd spoken to the cashiers and waiters and other Americans in German but no practical conversation practice had occured. This guy was a roommate of one of the other program kids and he had tagged along to our cookout. Here's how the conversation went:

1. Explain something in German.
2. Wait for him to stop laughing. I'm not kidding.
3. Correct my sentence with his help.
4. Finally receive answer.

I think he was mostly teasing me by making me do corrections, but it was helpful nonetheless. After the Barbeque some of us continued on to an Irish pub where we were served by an Australian, and I was scolded for ordering in German. So not so much German practice there.

On Saturday all the AYF kids went to IKEA! I got a few things like a rug and some new bedding, so now my room is getting more comfortable. See the pretty pictures? The rest of the apartment is still more or less empty. I run into the other girl living here maybe once every 2 or 3 days. But I'm not around much, so that probably is something to do with it. Once October hits the rest of the rooms will fill up, so we'll see how things are then. Anyway, after IKEA my Bekannten Sonya, Catherine, Tucker, Ian, and I all played Siedlers von Catan --> Settlers of Catan. It's a German game, after all, and Sonya has the German version! After I came close to winning (in other words, lost), we stumbled upon a Hookah bar, which apparently Sonya is super big on. We got an apple flavored variety. It was definitely a cool experience, but I sort of like my lungs, so I'm not going to make a habit out of it.

Sunday was our trip into Shauinsland! I'll admit to
you that I forgot my camera, but Cherice took some pictures for me, and there were enough people with cameras that I don't think I'll be lacking in photos. We took a train and a bus out to this tiny, tiny town and followed a path up the side. It was mostly land devoted to cows and a few goats. Halfway up we stopped at this farmhouse from the 1400s (?) which had been turned into a Museum. We stopped and had lunch there, and got a tour. It was super interesting, but I only caught maybe 20% of what the tour guide said. The people didn't think to make their beds large enough for them to lay down fully, so they got back problems from sleeping all bent up. Boys were out of the house around age 12. There wasn't any corn or potatoes, so they lived mostly off of wheat, milk, eggs, and meat. There was something really interesting to do with the skull of a bull and the forest and spirits or something, but I unfortunately didn't catch anything else. But the rest of the hike up was gorgeous, and actually pretty tiring. At the top there was a 6 or so storey lookout tower, and from there we could see Freiburg at about 7 km away, and I believe someone said on a clear day you could see the Rhine, but we couldn't Sunday. In the direction of Freiburg, the land gets rapidly flatter the further away you look, and in the other direction it's fully mountainous, so we really are on the edge of the Alps. On the way down we took hanging cable cars and I had a successful short conversation with a German couple. There are just three windmills on one of the smaller mountains, and I told them about the area up by my Grandma's house, where you can look and see 30 in any given direction. They said one reason they don't have more is because they're trying to perserve the beauty of the area. But what you do see in this area is rooftops covered in solar panels. Freiburg is known as one of (if not *the*) greenest cities in the world, so many people come here to study renewable energy. I'll probably be greener than Emily by the time I come back :)

In less interesting news, this week we started our intensive language course. It's intense. We spend an hour and a half every morning working on grammar and another hour and a half with speaking practice. I obviously know I still have lots to learn about German, but it's still deflating when you realize there's a whole subject you've never even heard of before (intrinsically genetive verbs). I like to pretend that I really only need vocabulary, but there are whole bits of this language I've never even been exposed to before. And we also have lots and lots of homework. It feels good to be actually studying German again though.

Before I go, a few more interesting things about living in Germany:

  • The coffee is so good I drink it black. And if you get a proper breakfast, it's amazing. It might take an hour to get to you, but the other day I had a breakfast of warm pretzels, hard boiled egg, salami, and sliced tomatoes.
  • I had a really hard time finding facewash. Apparently they use something here called Gesichtwasser, or Face Water. I have no idea.
  • Everything is closed after 5 or 6 except restaurants and bars. And those are about the only things open on Sunday.
  • In Freiburg, they have these things called Baechler, which are basically long streams on the side of the road in the old part of town. They used to be for sewage, but now they run clean water through them, and kids will tie little boats to strings and sail them along the streets. It's really cool.

But alas, I'm off to do learn some vocabulary. Bis bald :)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Starbucks evening..

So right now I'm sitting in Starbucks, because so far this is the only place I've found with free wifi during times when I'm actually available. And as this is my first chance to really talk to anyone, I'm not going to spend it writing a blog post. But I just wanted to share my mailing address, because I realized it's not an address but more of a PO box and so there should be no harm in putting it here.

Allison McDonald

Academic Year in Freiburg
D-79085 Freiburg

So write me, if you please!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I survived!

Hallo! Germany is not very abundant with internet, so I apologize (mostly to my parents) that I haven't been around to tell you what's been going on.

The biggest things is: I'm in Germany!

Sunday morning in Detroit, I met up with my friend Cherice, and we traveled the rest of the way together, for which I am extremely grateful. We caught our first flight from DTW to JFK on Delta. From there, we flew Singapore Airlines to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt we took a train to Freiburg. The travel went very smoothly. We got lost in both JFK (we got bad directions) and Frankfurt (we are bad at following directions), but eventually made it though each bit of the process. I was only able to sleep on the plane thanks to a few glasses of complementary wine (Singapore Air is wonderful), and only for about 3 hours. By the time we got to Frankfurt, it had been about 21 hours since I had properly slept, so my tolerence for getting lost was definitely lowered. But the Deutsche Bahn people were very friendly, and the train we took to Frieburg was awesome! Totally silent and smooth, and I didn't even get to enjoy it because I was fast asleep the whole time. So I felt worlds better by the time we actually arrived.

At the main train station in Freiburg, a table full of AYF program people were waiting for us. We got our room keys, signed some papers (Germans love their paperwork), and got an armful of pamphlets and maps to read about the city. Then it was onwards alone to my apartment via street tram, which I've grown to love very much. It's super simple and useful. The way it works is that you buy a train card, and then have it on you at all times, even though no one checks for it. And apparently for the most part, people do pay, even when you won't get caught. Anyway, the complex I'm living in, StuSie, consists of maybe 40 buildings in which about 20-30% of the student population lives. I'm in building 14, and I had to wander for a few minutes to find it. I'm on the 6th floor, which really means 7th floor. When I walked in, there was a skinny little staircase that winds all the way to the top floor, and an elevator with the words "Im Brandfall Aufzug nicht benutzen". The only words I immediately recognized were "nicht benutzen", which means "don't use". For fear of breaking rules even before I move in, I start climbing the stairs with all 80 lbs of my luggage. By the time I got to the 1st floor, I was tired enough to break some rules. But as I reach the landing, it finally dawns on me. Brand is a form of brennen, or burn. Fire. Fall means event. Zug is train, and auf can mean up. In burn event up train don't use. Don't use elevator in case of fire. What a relief! So I happily jump on the elevator and cruise up the next 6 floors without trouble. My apartment was dark and empty when I get there, but my room is extremely bright. Everything in my room is white, and there is a lot of window. I hung out for a bit and took a shower, but with still no sign of any of my 3 roommates, I headed out and explored the StuSie complex a bit. There's a big lake right nearby with running and bike paths, and an observation tower, and a cafe and a bridge and some boats. I have yet to explore much more than that, but it looks pretty great. I was disappointed about meeitng no roommates though. Many of my friends seemed to go home and be bombarded by Germans. Later this night I did meet one girl, from Latvia, and we spoke English. But she's leaving in a month. Apparenlty a German guy lives in the room next to mine, but he's on vacation til the end of Septembter (as the Semester doesn't begin until the middle of October).

At 7pm all of the AYF program kids met for pizza dinner in one of the houses in StuSie. I met loads of new, promising people, and I felt a lot better about the lack of roommates. Everyone seems to be really friendly. After dinner a group of us went out for our first German Bier in Fierling Biergarten. It was an excellent way to spend an evening, but we kept it short because we had all been traveling for so long.

Tuesday we opened bank accounts and got a short walking tour of Freiburg, which is an absolutely gorgeous city. I will one day soon take many pictures and share them with you. But in the afternoon we mostly shopped. The only two problems I've had since I've gotten here: on the plane, my watch stopped, which has been driving my crazy, because I don't have a phone to tell me the time either, and my nice expensive power converter doesn't fit any of my plugs. I purchased the correct shape, but my converter is a big box, and all the plugs here are round and inset into the wall by about an inch, which means my converter can't actually reach them. Finding a new watch was easy, but I couldn't find a converter. I settled for an adapter and banking on my laptop voltage adapter actually working. Then Cherice and I went grocery shopping. Everything here is soooo cheap! I got a tube of toothpaste for less than a euro, a bottle of wine for 1.30, spaghetti and sauce and a roll for less than 3, and 6 peaches for maybe 1.20. I don't intend to enumerate everything I buy all year, but right now I'm still super excited about it. This combined with such cheap rent makes living here extremely economical. Cherice and I made spaghetti for dinner, and it didn't turn out half bad. My kitchen is a bit, um, sticky, but that can be fixed.

Other than that, there are three things about Germany I thought I knew but have already been proven wrong:
* Trains are not always on time. My train to Freiburg was 25 minutes late.
* Germans cross the street on red lights. Not always, but it happens.
* There's litter here! Sure, there are also abundant, sorted trash recepticals, but I wasn't expecting this one.

I hate to admit it, but I haven't spoken much German yet. I hear and understand a lot, but the AYF kids mostly speak English (shame on us) and other opportunities haven't frequently come up. I can't wait to get a Tandem partner, which is a local German that wants to speak English with me in exchange for helping me with my German. And next week we start our intensive courses, so I'm sure I'll be speaking plenty soon.

I'm searching for a more reliable way to get internet. Starting in January I'll have it in my room automatically, but I don't really want to wait until then. Believe it or not, mail would be a much more reliable (albeit slower) way to communicate for now, so if you want my mailing address, please ask :)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Well hello there

I assume you're here because you know I'm leaving the country for the year. I'm finally starting my blog because I only have 10 more days (ahhh!) before I leave! I decided a few months ago to apply for the Academic Year in Freiburg program, which allows me to study for two semesters in Freiburg, Germany. (This is super cool, if you're really interested in what this gorgeous city looks like.) The program works with University of Michigan, Michigan State, University of Iowa, and University of Wisconsin Madison to send American students to Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg. In total, I think there are around 35 kids going this upcoming year, 7 of which are from Michigan. I'm lucky enough to have two close friends joining me in the program, and I'm already getting to know a few of the others, so I'm not jumping into this all alone :) As long as everything goes according to plan, this year will earn me a German degree in addition to my Computer Science degree. Which will be neat. But that means all of my classes at Universität Freiburg must be in German, and likely all non-technical. So for a year I'm saying goodbye to engineering and brushing up on my history, literature, and of course my German!

Anyway, here's the breakdown of my impending travels: On Sunday, September 2 I'm flying from Detroit to JFK, and then JFK to Frankfurt. From there, I've got to catch a train to Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg, where I'll be spending the next 12 months. The month of September will be well-spent in a language institute, where we'll all get a chance to learn as much German as possible before we're thrown in the regular university. (I'm entering the program with the minimum required German -- 4 semesters. Some of the kids, I assume, will be close to fluent already, so there will be quite a disparity.) After that, we'll get a few weeks off before the semester begins in October. Winter semester runs from the middle of October to March, with a break for the Christmas season. We'll then get about 8 weeks off to travel and work, before the Summer semester begins, and runs from April to July. I'll be heading back to the States sometime in August 2013, date to be determined. It's so far away, they're not even selling plane tickets yet :P

The last few weeks and the next 10 days will be a frenzy of packing and list-making and a bit of Michigan traveling. Little sister Emily is moving down to University of Michigan on Friday. With all the chaos, you may or may not hear from me again before I'm in Deutschland. But you probably will, as I predict a panic attack 2-3 days before my departure.

Bis später!