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Sydney Koeplin

Five Things Studying Abroad in Germany Taught Me

I was lucky enough to spend my junior fall in the beautiful city of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. Just think of a modern day fairytale and you have Freiburg: cobblestone streets, ancient cathedral, colorful timber framed houses, small water streams along the roads called Bächle, all with the mountains of the Black Forest in the background. While I was there to learn more about the German language and culture, I ended up learning a lot about myself and the world I live in too. I’m not going to go on and on about “how abroad changed me,” but I did leave Freiburg with more than a few new impressions and perspectives. Here are just a couple. 


America Needs Better Public Transportation

This point is short and sweet: America’s public transport needs a major facelift. In Freiburg the streets were intersected with a series of streetcar lines that spanned the entire city. My half hour walk from my apartment to campus turned into seven minutes with the tram, and they came every six to ten minutes. With my monthly student transport pass, I had limitless rides on every streetcar, bus, and regional train (meaning I could get to Switzerland!) for only 42 euros a month. And considering I was riding the streetcar several times a day, it was a steal. I actually did not meet a single student who owned a car or drove it in Freiburg; everyone either used public transport or biked. Some of my roommates didn’t even have a driver’s license, whereas in the U.S. unless you live in the heart of a big city, access to a car is almost a necessity for getting around. The longer I was in Freiburg, the more I thought about how silly that is on so many levels. Viable public transportation is economically and environmentally important, and I believe it should be utilized and expanded effectively beyond just the borders of our large cities. 


It’s Easy Being Green

Freiburg was the most earth-friendly city I have ever lived in. As I mentioned above, transportation is super sustainable, people ride on more bikes than in cars and there is a killer streetcar system. But the green-ness didn’t stop there. Germany as a whole has an amazing waste management system. Trash is sorted into four categories: organics, papers and cardboards, plastic packaging, and Restmüll (the rest). Glass is sorted by color: green, brown, and clear. And any plastic pop or juice bottles can be returned to the store for money back. Admittedly, it did take me a few days to get all the sorting right (I was corrected a good amount by my roommates), but to them the sorting was second nature. If America implemented a waste sorting system as socially normalized and enforced as the one in Germany, I can only imagine how much more effective our recycling programs would actually be.

Plastics aren’t the only things recycled in Freiburg, but food too. Food “recycling” carts are posted all throughout the city, bikes with huge compartments on the back where cafe workers, restaurant servers, and citizens alike can leave fresh but unwanted food, and anyone can take from it. This concept was especially meaningful to me. I am very aware of the amount of food waste I create and I have been very focused on fixing it. At the university cafeteria on my second day in Freiburg, a student took my tray as I went to dispose of it and ate all of the leftovers off of it. Yes, he shoveled every uneaten, soggy, goulash covered noodle on my plate down his throat while staring me straight in the eye. I was, in a word, rattled. I later learned that a group of students (and some professors!) eat people’s leftovers as a sign of protest of just how much food we waste without a second thought. I got his message loud and clear, though, after our encounter, and I challenged myself to cook smaller portion sizes and not buy meals I knew I wouldn’t finish. I also donated to the food carts whenever I could. It might seem like such a small thing, but reducing food waste is both majorly earth and wallet friendly. 


Living With Strangers is Difficult but Rewarding

At Colby, I’ve gotten extremely lucky with housing. Freshman year I was placed, like all of us, with a random roommate, but here we are three years later as COOT siblings, teammates, and living together once again (what’s good, Julia Pfau). Needless to say, our random pairing worked out well, but I know that that is definitely not always the case. 

In Freiburg, I was placed in a Wohngemeinschaft (student community apartment) with four German students and another international student from India. It was my first time living with strangers, in a mixed-gender apartment no less, and it definitely brought some challenges. For starters, everyone’s definition of cleanliness is very different. With a shared kitchen, fridge space, and bathroom, things got very messy very fast. Let’s just say the girls put a poster up in the bathroom that said “Aim like a Jedi not like a Stormtrooper.” But they also taught me a lot. My German became infinitely better, because they only talked to me in German, wanting me to get better. They taught me how to make traditional German cookies and our talks gave me a deeper understanding of what living in Germany is truly like. So for however much the constant messiness got on my nerves, I am grateful to them too. 


Learning Another Language is a Labor of Love (and Hate)

This point is pretty straight forward: learning another language is tough. Really tough. Pull-your-hair-out tough. But it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. I took five classes all in German, and at times (especially when I had a forty-five minute presentation about substance abuse staring me in the face) I really questioned why I had chosen this study abroad experience. But in the end my German was immensely better, I had a deeper and more well rounded appreciation for a new culture, and for three months I lived a life far different than the one I live at home. Had I not been taking German courses and speaking the language every day, I do not believe I would have had as a rewarding or fulfilling experience. 


Vergangenheitsbewältigung is Not Just for Germans

The scary looking German word in the title of this section means “overcoming the past,” specifically the Nazi past. In Germany, this phenomenon started in the late 50s and continues to this day, with the citizens and government alike trying to navigate a way forward without forgetting the horrors of the Third Reich. This process is complicated and forever ongoing, and has manifested itself in many ways. Perhaps one of the most visual are Stolperstein, or stumbling stones, small gold bricks set into the pavement outside the homes of Jewish citizens murdered by the Nazi regime. The bricks display their names, birthdays, and where they were deported or murdered. Walk around any German city and you will find them. Of course there are laws, literature, philosophy, and many other ways that Vergangenheitsbewältigung has manifested in Germany, but as a student there for only a short time, the small bricks were the most striking to me. 

But, the longer I was in Germany and the more conversations I had with native Germans, the more I came to understand that Vergangenheitsbewältigung is not just a process that Germany has to and does undertake, but America needs to as well. There are plenty of atrocities in our past that we prefer not to take responsibility for; the Native American genocide and slavery are two examples. And these are both events that have reverberating consequences today; Native American rights are still squandered and their land disrespected (think Dakota Access Pipeline), and institutional racism in criminal proceedings and health care still imprison and kill Black citizens at much higher rates than white citizens. And yet Americans as a whole prefer to either turn a blind eye to these facts or leave them in the past.

I had an interesting conversation with my roommates over dinner one night about what it means, or who is allowed, to be proud of their country. My roommates had differing opinions: one thought that they are allowed to be proud of what their country is today, and another believed that Germans can never be proud to call themselves German. That made me think about America today, where it’s pretty much a sin to not be patriotic. Why do we think we’re allowed to celebrate our country with overzealous vigor when only some citizens enjoy all its liberties? Don’t we have to atone, or try to atone for our sins?  Moreover, can you love your country but not be proud of it? These are not questions I have an answer for, nor do I have an answer for how we begin Vergangenheitsbewältigung in America. But I know that we have to start thinking about it. 


Sydney is a senior at Colby originally from Wilmette, Illinois. She is a German Studies and English double major with a concentration in creative writing. On campus, Sydney is a COOT leader, member of Colby Dance Company, barista in the Mary Low Coffee House, a language assistant, and president of Colby's chapter of HC. When she isn't working, dancing, or writing, you can probably find her laughing at her own jokes or talking about the Midwest.
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