Posts Tagged ‘Study Abroad in Germany’

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Max: Transportation Systems

January 5, 2012

Transportation is something most of us use every day, but notice only when it bothers us or stops working correctly. Every week I take the subway to campus and back and take a local train to visit nearby relatives, but I rarely stop to think about how this wouldn’t be possible at all in Minneapolis because of the lack of reliable rail service and infrastructure. On the occasions that I do stop to think about the transportation I use every day I realize how different the transportation systems in the US and Germany (and in Minneapolis and Munich) are. Even if I had a car and could use the road system I would be noticing some big differences:

The first thing most Americans will notice when first driving on German highways is the stretches where there is absolutely no speed limit. While it seems a little odd at first that this is the same country where you can get ticketed for passing a car on the right, or even driving in a left lane when the one to the right of you is free, it makes sense when you realize that it can be more dangerous to disrupt the normal flow of traffic than to drive very fast. Also, German drivers generally don’t drive faster than they feel is safe. 

The other major difference in road travel, besides the fact that German drivers seem to be, in general, much better (more attentive) drivers than the ones in Minnesota, is in the structure of road networks. Most large German cities, including Munich, existed long before cars or even horses and carriages were in common use. They grew slowly, starting with a wall around the inner city, then eventually broke out of that wall and absorbed smaller cities nearby. The roads developed slowly along with the city, eventually forming a radial pattern with the oldest part of the city in the center. This historic city center is often a pedestrian zone; car travel is limited in this area.

Large American cities, by contrast, usually have a pronounced grid pattern in their street layouts and the entire city is usually directly accessible by car. This is probably the result of deliberate planning due to the fast growth of these cities. Even outside of cities this pattern is apparent: Most of the farmland in the large, flat parts of the US is divided by roads into neatly tessellating squares and rectangles, giving the land the appearance of a patchwork quilt when viewed from the sky. This isn’t the case in Germany, where farms generally have a more irregular shape.

Where the American and German transportation systems differ the most, of course, is in passenger rail infrastructure. American regional and inter-city rail service is either slow, unreliable, or rarely available in most parts of the country. For the majority of Americans it isn’t an attractive option for any kind of travel. The only options these Americans have for inter-city travel are car or airplane travel, neither of which is particularly comfortable or enjoyable. 

Germany, on the other hand, has an extensive rail network that reaches every major city, just about every small city, and even some large villages across the entire country. Train travel is a viable option for those who do not own cars, along with car sharing or comparably-priced flights. The service is usually punctual and has a frequency of at least one train every one or two hours at most stations. The trains are usually fast and comfortable, with the extreme being the high-speed InterCity-Express service that can travel up to 300 km/h and is the most comfortable vehicle in which I have ever traveled (except the one time I flew on business class, but that was orders of magnitude more expensive than a typical ICE rail ticket). Compared to car travel, train travel is comparable in cost (depending on the level of train speed and comfort) and often is about as fast, occasionally even faster (also depending on the location of your start point and destination). 

Perhaps most Americans simply prefer the flexibility and independence offered by cars over the comfort, low cost, and safety offered by trains. Perhaps the US’s geographic size and relatively low population density make trains an impractical option compared to cars and airplanes. Whatever the reason, America’s passenger rail network has a long way to go to match the efficiency, popularity, and ubiquity of Germany’s network.

Until now I’ve covered road and rail networks on a regional and national scale. This leaves out an important component of transportation networks, namely public transportation within cities. It’s hard to make national generalizations in this area, mostly because each city seems to take a unique approach to public transportation. Since I have used the transportation systems of both Munich and Minneapolis/St. Paul extensively, I’ll profile them as examples. I should note that the city of Munich is considerably larger than Minneapolis/St. Paul. Munich’s population is about one million, while Minneapolis/St. Paul have a combined population of close to one-half million, although many more people live in the sprawling suburbs that surround the cities proper.

Munich has a dense, extensive, and robust public transportation system. Its high-capacity backbone consists of the U-Bahn, a subway system of six lines, and the S-Bahn, a collection of suburban trains consisting of twelve spokes that join in the city center to form a single trunk line. These trains are usually fast and punctual (the U-Bahn more so than the S-Bahn). The stations and trains are clean and safe. Although the system sees heavy use and trains can get crowded during peak hours and football games, overcrowding on a scale comparable to the Tokyo subways is very rare. With an extensive streetcar and bus network supplementing the U- and S-Bahn, almost any place in the city and most of the surrounding towns can be reached from the public transportation network. In addition, bicycle paths are available along most streets as another alternative to car travel.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have no real subway system. The transit system for this metropolitan area consists chiefly of a bus system which provides good coverage within the city limits and connects busy areas like the downtowns and the U of M campuses. The city had a streetcar network but this was dismantled in the 1950s because a bus system was thought to be more economical. Rail seems to be making a comeback, however, with the recent construction of a light rail line (a sort of compromise between streetcar and subway) with another line currently under construction and a third in planning. Bicycling is especially prominent in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Bike paths are common and all buses and trains are outfitted with bike racks. Biking is especially popular among university students, who (unlike in Munich) usually live within short biking distance of campus. In the suburbs, however, transit coverage is usually spotty and limited to commercial centers. Because of this and the sheer geographic sprawl of the suburbs, residents there are often left with car travel as the only practical option.

It’s been interesting to look at how two different countries, or two different cities, solved the fundamental problem of getting people from one place to another. It’s a sign of how far modern society has come with this task when I can step into a train in one place, step out fifteen minutes and ten kilometers later, repeat this daily with hundreds or thousands of other people and not even give it a second thought most of the time.

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Whitney: Christmas in France

December 31, 2011

Oh dear. My life has rocked for the past week and a half, and I think it would take me a few hours to write about everything, so I’ll do my best to highlight the most exciting parts.

First, FRANCE! My first time flying with Easyjet went surprisingly well. My bag was the appropriate size and I found a seat quickly and easily (they don’t assign seats), and when I arrived at the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport I found Emilie, her mom, and her dog Velcro waiting for me! I was welcomed into their home with open arms and I cannot thank them enough for everything they did for me. Emilie showed me around Strasbourg and Obernai, taught me a few French words and phrases, and we spent some time with some of her friends. We also took a trip to the convent of St. Odile to get a beautiful view of the city – you could see all the way to Germany in the very far distance! Christmas Eve and Day were wonderful – I tried a bunch of new foods, the strangest being Foie Gras, which is duck liver that’s been fattened. I was skeptical, but it was actually really good! I was given some wonderful presents including earmuffs, chocolate, and a beautiful necklace from Emilie and her mother, all of which were completely unexpected and way too generous! It was really a fantastic experience to celebrate with a such a fun and loving family and see another culture’s take on the holiday season.

Yesterday was also a great day. James and I went to one last Christmas market in search of some discounted ornaments (which we successfully found), and it was really nice to get one last mug of delicious Glühwein. Tonight we’re celebrating Silvester (New Year’s Eve) together and I’m really excited to ring in the new year with fireworks and champagne!

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Whitney: Amazing weekend

December 12, 2011

WOW. It has been an amazing weekend. Seriously, I have so many good things to say, so I’ll start from the beginning. On Friday my friend Victoire invited me to see a band called Paper Planes at a club called “Chester’s Live Music” in Kreuzberg. The show was great and so was the audience. We were all dancing and cheering and drinking, which made for a great combination! And it was the first time I’d hung out with Victoire outside of class which was also really great. I got home pretty late, got about three hours of sleep, and woke up exhausted to get ready for my day-trip to Dresden with the International Club! 

Thankfully I was able to sleep a bit on the 3-hour train-ride to Dresden, but before I fell asleep the most wonderful thing happened. My friend Emilie asked me if I had come up with a plan for Christmas yet since I had previously told her I wasn’t flying home, and I sadly admitted that all my plans had fallen through. She then asked if I would want to spend Christmas with her and her family in France! I was so shocked that at first I didn’t know what to say (I mean, what if she was kidding?!), but I eventually thanked her and said that YES, I would absolutely love to spend Christmas in France! I am so so excited to see her hometown and to be around family during Christmas, even if it’s not my own. I just feel like this was the thing I was waiting for. Just for someone to reach out and let me know that something good is always right around the bend. In the words of the band Bishop Allen, “If it’s ever gonna get any better, it’s gotta get worse for a day”. It got worse, but now it’s definitely better.

The picture above is from the Christmas Markets in Dresden. It was an absolutely charming little city, but it is so strange to think that almost all of it was destroyed during the Second World War, so most of the buildings that appear old are actually fairly new and are just built to look like the old ones. It’s very odd. The Christmas Markets were fantastic – there was Glühwein and music and hundreds of stands selling ornaments, winter gloves and hats, and tons of tasty food. The only downside was how completely overcrowded it was. I actually lost my group for the last few hours of the day when I stopped to take a picture and it was impossible to find them again so I just ended up doing my own thing. Overall though, I’m so glad I took the trip.

Sunday was a delightfully lazy day, and it ended with something wonderful: my boyfriend Gus booked his flight to come visit me in March! He’s really coming! It’s really going to happen and I seriously can’t stop smiling about it. It will be so unbelievably amazing to see him again – to give him a gigantic hug and savor every moment I have with him during the 11 days he’ll be here. Basically, this weekend majorly rocked my socks off.

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Max: …and drink

December 10, 2011

First, I’d like to make a correction, or rather an addition, to last week’s post: I mentioned that in Germany three meals are generally eaten in a day. I forgot to mention that it’s often customary to have coffee and cake anywhere between three and five in the afternoon (like tea-time in the UK, except with coffee). It’s not a universal custom; this meal is understandably absent in the normal budget-conscious student’s day.

Now for the central subject matter, namely, the role of alcoholic beverages in German and American societies: The public consumption of alcoholic beverages in Germany is markedly more common than in the US. I’ll take restaurants as an example: It’s probably safe to say that a significant fraction of Americans don’t regularly drink alcohol at restaurants. In German restaurants, however, it’s rare to see someone who isn’t drinking beer or wine. This is most pronounced in Germany’s famous beer gardens, where everyone except children orders a beer with their food. In the higher-end restaurants it’s the same thing with wine in the place of beer. In fact, it’s rare to have anything but beer, wine, or water with a meal other than breakfast or coffee-and-cake.

In other public places the situation is similar. In many American cities it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets and other public spaces (I’m guessing restaurants don’t technically count as public spaces); this is the reason you may see people taking drinks out of suspicious-looking paper bags on city streets. In Munich, there either doesn’t seem to be a law against it or it’s never enforced, because people with half-liter beer bottles are a common sight on the streets and sometimes on the trains and subways (which is, unfortunately, where they like to sing loud, slurred, out-of-tune songs).

All these differences lead back to cultural traditions. It’s said that in Bavaria (the German state of which Munich is the capital) beer is not alcohol; it’s food. Drinking good beer is one of the main Bavarian traditions besides wearing a Lederhosen or a Dirndl, the dress you’d see most often at Oktoberfest. Speaking of Oktoberfest, how did I get this far in the post without mentioning it? It’s one of the most spectacular displays in the world of old traditions mixed with gaudy fairground rides and rampant alcoholism! It shows that drinking alcohol and even getting incredibly drunk don’t have nearly the social stigma that they do in the US.

I’m guessing this stigma exists in the US in the first place because the country was founded predominantly by Puritans, whose conservative social rules have survived in some form to the present day. This would also explain, for example, the relative intolerance of nudity in the US as compared to other European countries.

Excessive and Underage Drinking

Finally, I wanted to bring up the topic of the drinking age and the related topic of excessive drinking (here meaning drinking specifically for the purpose of getting drunk). This is a tough topic to cover neutrally, so I’ll do the best I can. If you notice a significant bias in this section that you’d like to point out, please do so in the comments without starting a flame war. First, the basic facts: In the US the general drinking age is 21 for any type of alcohol, with state-to-state exceptions for drinking in the company of responsible adults. In Germany it is allowed to drink beer or wine at 16 and all other alcoholic beverages at 18. Now, if I were to tell you that everyone, or even most people, follow the drinking-age laws in the US you would probably ask me how many pairs of rose-colored glasses I was wearing. Underage drinking happens commonly on American college campuses (including the U of M), occasionally with tragic consequences.

Before living as a student in Germany, I was of the opinion that this excessive drinking was happening because the drinking age was so high and students were drinking out of defiance. It’s possible, however, that the drinking happens just as much in German universities as in American ones. Every week I see a new party advertised in the student residences where the sole theme is to get as drunk as possible. One example of this is a party advertisement that used a poster for a drinking awareness campaign, retitling “Alcohol: Know your limit” to “Alcohol: Blow your limit.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that excessive drinking at the student age is a constant across many cultures. Because of this I don’t think lowering the drinking age in America will help the problem of underage drinking much. I view drinking as a freedom that’s nice and symbolic, but shouldn’t be abused and can be abstained from for a few years. Other Americans who view drinking in this way should be fine with keeping the drinking age the way it is, while those who really want to drink will always find a way to do so.

The most effective thing that really can be done against excessive drinking is to limit the damage that it does. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) laws are one example of this, although in my personal opinion most aren’t tough enough. Operating a fast-moving two-ton piece of machinery should never be done under the influence of significant amounts of alcohol, and if you have done this before that’s almost always enough evidence that you’re not qualified to drive a car at all.

For more information on DWI laws in various countries you can visit this informative website. More specific information on DWI laws in various US states is only one Web search away; here’s a summary of Minnesota’s laws on the subject as a representative example.

 

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Max: Food…

December 4, 2011

One aspect of culture that affects all of us each day is the topic of food and drink. For this reason, it’s possible to get many insights into the way a culture works just by looking at the way eating and drinking are treated. Here are some of my observations:

In Germany (and probably elsewhere in Europe, although I can’t confidently make that generalization) breakfast, lunch, and dinner exist just as in the US. The difference is in meal size: The largest meal of the day is traditionally supposed to be breakfast, followed by a reasonably large lunch, then a small dinner. In practice, however, lunch seems to be the largest meal, while dinner is still just a few slices of bread with cold cuts, cheese, or other toppings. The prevalence of the small evening meal is evident in the language itself, where the word for dinner, “Abendbrot,” literally translates to “Evening Bread.” There are, of course, exceptions: On special occasions or holidays the celebratory meal is held in the evening, much like in the United States. 

This is probably one of the reasons the university cafeterias only serve lunch, as opposed to the ones in the residence halls at the U of M, which serve all three meals.

Eating out here has a similar role as in the US, as long as you don’t count fast food as “eating out”. All I can say in the way of differences is that there seem to be a lot more outdoor restaurants in German cities than in American ones, although this is probably more because German cities have more pedestrian zones, being based around pedestrians instead of cars (more on that in a future article on transportation). 

Fast food is another matter. In America, it takes the form of cheap, often greasy and unhealthy, food-in-a-box that’s meant to stuff your stomach for a low price. While McDonald’s does exist in Germany, most “fast food” is more like real food that is packaged to be eaten on the go. Bratwurst on a roll, buttered pretzels, and gyros are all more readily available in Munich than greasy, suspect burgers.

Students are usually a segment of the population whose eating habits differ significantly from the rest. In America, I lived in a residence hall and did not cook for myself (a logical consequence of not having a kitchen), but I don’t think this is the case for most students living in off-campus apartments at the U of M. Their situation seems to be the same as for students here, where the students are on their own for morning and evening meals and most student residences have kitchens. The universities here just don’t provide full meal service of the type that exists in American college dorms. 

So what does all this say about our cultures? My interpretation of these differences is that food and eating maintains a more traditional role in Germany, whereas in America some of this tradition has been compromised by practicality (a trend which seems to exist in Germany to a lesser extent). I think this conclusion applies not only to food, but to each culture in general.

The only thing left now is to clear up why I put an ellipsis in the title. Since I have so much to say about food and drink, I decided to push the “drink” part to the next post, which you can expect sometime next week.

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Max: Accents

November 28, 2011

In a conversation with two German students today, the topic of regional accents came up. Like many German students, they spoke enough English to hold a conversation. However, they don’t notice much of a difference between an American English and a British English accent, even though, as an American, I can tell the difference between the two in a second. 

I found this strange at first, but then realized I’m not really that good at telling some regional German accents (with the exception of Bavarian and Swabian, which are more like dialects than accents) apart which are distinct to most German speakers. I have even more trouble with French, a language of which I know a small amount. I’ve been told that French spoken in the Provence has a strong accent compared to, say, French spoken in Paris, but I can’t hear a difference. My hypothesis is that a person has to learn to tell accents apart by hearing people speak in other accents than their own; this ability doesn’t come naturally. However, this still doesn’t exactly explain why I’m readily able to tell a native speaker apart from someone who learned the language another way, in both English and German.

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Whitney: Continued homesickness

November 27, 2011

Tomorrow is the 28th of November and it marks the two-month anniversary of my departure from the U.S. I wish I could say that in that amount of time I’ve traveled to seven different countries, tasted crazy foods, tried dozens of new activities, and made friends that will last a lifetime, but I really can’t. These first two months have been an immense struggle for me, and I fear that the water up ahead may be just as rocky. I have had good days and bad, but the good ones are always just good and the bad ones are usually really bad. I’ve found myself seriously considering just giving up and flying home to where I’m loved and people are there to hold me when I just need to cry. I sometimes get tears in my eyes when I see a plane leaving Berlin because I know that some of the people on that plane are about to be back in their loved one’s arms, and I don’t get to be one of them. It’s so hard to convince myself that I’ll eventually find close friends and true happiness here while simultaneously holding on to my life back home. But even harder, I think, is the fact that I am ashamed of how homesick and sad I am, because I thought I was strong enough to fight through it with a deep breathe and a smile. I hope I can write another post in a few weeks about some new friends who help me pull through this major slump, but even if that’s not in the cards for me fight now, I’m going to try my best to be content on my own.

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