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Stories from Abroad: Germany



Spring 2007 - Lucy

March 31, 2007
Schönes Deutschland
Or An Instance of the Fingerpost
Or Two Musicians and a Sausage


It is hard to believe that I have already spent a month living in a single room on top of a hill, with a view the castle next door. I buy my groceries in canvas bags, use lights on timers, and get bread, eggs, and vegetables from the weekly market. I diligently read the German newspaper over Müsli in the morning; it’s getting easier every day! Juggling online “paperwork” for Messiah with getting my semester here sorted out has been a challenge, and I’m glad to be more or less set. Since the semester here doesn’t start till mid-April, I’m still waiting to see how my class schedule will work out—but on paper it looks good!


For three weeks I’ve been enrolled in the mandatory intensive language course which the University runs for international students. I passed the placement test well, and am enjoying the advanced—and challenging!—material along with students from all over Europe, and one of the other Messiah girls. Over here hostility towards America (mostly the government) is so widespread that it’s taken for granted, and I am even more acutely conscious than in England of my de facto status as a Representative of the American People. Yikes.


Getting integrated into student life is taking a while, especially as the vast majority of the students are still on vacation! However, I’m enjoying the contacts I am making with the students sharing my dorm, the other international students in the language class, and with a fellow history student named Esther as a Sprachtandem partner. In Sprachtandem, two people interested in learning each other’s languages get together and… do so! During our first meeting, spent chatting in German, (next week English), we discovered that we shared not only a passion for history, but also one for learning languages, even dead ones, and for opera. We’re already making plans to see Rossini in nearby Gießen.


My “fingerpost” incident was today. All around the edges of town are signs saying “Church—x kilometers” “Historic center—x kilometers” “cafeteria—x kilometers.” And today I took a sign that said “Cölbe—6 kilometers,” and followed it. It turns out there isn’t much of anything in Cölbe, but I saw many cyclists, heard children and birds and church bells, and watched an old man and his son planting a magnolia tree. And I walked back… quite tired by the time I reached the top of my mountain!


Last weekend was a turning point in the level of fun I’ve been having: with much excitement, the months-long program of events commemorating the 800 th birthday of the local saint was begun. On Friday, I marched in a procession behind two musicians who were wearing thirteenth century garb, and on Saturday, after visiting a museum exhibition at the castle, I spent the entire day wandering the streets of the town, enjoying street musicians, sunny weather, and many delicious varieties of unhealthy food (notably Bratwurst). Tonight it’s off to a birthday party! And tomorrow is Palm Sunday. I’ve found two church communities that I’m planning on joining… and I can hardly wait for Easter! Most of the churches here are relatively “ High Church” and aren’t celebrating the Eucharist during Lent. I didn’t know I would miss it so much.


This concludes one extremely long digest of an amazingly brief-seeming month in Germany. More moderate installments will be forthcoming.


April 23, 2007
Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald
Or, A Night at the Opera
Or, how I went on vacation and decided that I would like to live in a European hotel and visit museums and write diary entries in century-old coffeehouses forever


I’m still not sure where Spring is. We seem to have skipped from the nasty February-March chilly changeable season (the Germans have a word for it: Vorfrühling) straight into 80° June bliss. Um… I like April and May, too! But as the BCA program spent the last week in Vienna, I wasn’t complaining: for days packed to the gills with educational tourism, sunshine is a must. Taking the motto of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I, who ruled the Donaurepublik during its gorgeous zenith in the mid-nineteenth century—“You must work until you fall over from exhaustion!”—I filled my Viennese interlude with as much of the gorgeous capital as possible.


On the very first evening, exhausted after nine hours in the train, two fellow students and I bravely dived right into the public transportation system, and, with the help of a map loaned out by the Marburg public library, found our way to the Staatsoper—the national opera of Austria! For 2 € each, we got standing room only places (squished in behind the shoulders of other impoverished opera lovers) in the balcony. To say that we saw the opera, therefore, is slightly euphemistic… but we were ravished by a dream cast of La Fille du Régiment. It was in French, so after my (I thought) cautious whisperings were angrily shushed by a moustachioed man who threatened to get me thrown out (!) I wrote the most important bits of dialogue down in translated form for my companions. It was gorgeous. For two days afterwards I was singing “Pour mon âme, quel déstin! J’ai sa flamme, et j’ai sa main!” (Ah! What a destiny for my soul! I have her hand, I have her heart!) The tenor, Juan Diego Florez, was applauded for ten minutes… and at last gave an encore, to everyone’s delight. And at the very end of the performance, when the heavy velvet curtains fell… have you ever heard an opera house roar? I myself had always thought of them as relatively staid places, the audience’s gelassenheit providing a counterweight to the passions on stage. Not so in Vienna. For more than half an hour we stood, clapping and shouting our bravos and bravas, bellowing the names of Florez, Dessay, Caballé… for yes! Montserrat Caballé was there, unforgettable as a violet-clad duchess. I have seen an opera legend!


Our other days… were filled with too much beauty to describe. The Stephansdom, with its baroque splendor, and its monuments thanking the Holy Virgin for her deliverance of the city out of the hand of the Turks in the 1500s… the house where Mozart composed Le Nozze di Figaro… the house where the Order of the Golden Fleece still has its headquarters! At last, however, after a morning spent wandering through the woods that inspired Johann Strauss to write one of his most famous waltzes… after an afternoon spent sitting in one of Vienna’s oldest coffeehouses, reading the local paper und a double portrait of Emperor Franz Josef I and his wife Sisi… after an evening spent eating fantastic local food, solicitously looked after by the chef responsible for same, in a Heuriger in the outskirts of the city… we came home to Marburg. I walked up to my dorm through the midnight streets, under the stars.


May 11, 2007
“Gott schenke Euch Gesundheit!”: Sprung in den Mai
Or, As my great-grandfather always used to say…
Or, A feast, a bonfire, and a sheep named Holger


The first of May is a national holiday in Germany. As a medievalist, I relish this. Traditionally, it involves singing songs at midnight on the 30 th April (known as “Maieinsingen,” or “Bringing in May with Song”) and then going hiking the next day. BCA’s director, the enterprising Herr Riggs, decided to take tradition one step further. So on the 30 th, we hopped on a train and traveled to Thüringen, the “Land of a thousand villages.” Here, in Bornhagen, we were nestled in the curve of a hill, overlooked by a ruined castle and surrounded by red-roofed farmhouses and fields of barley (beyond which were, in actual fact, fields of gold: the rapeseed is ripening.) We stayed in a Gasthaus (bed and breakfast) cum restaurant which has been family-run for almost 200 years, and recently restored. The inside has the smoky smell of wood, and the animal hides which cover walls and floor in the sleeping rooms. We were greeted by the owner of the establishment: “Gott schenke Euch Gesundheit!” (God give you health,) explaining that it was “a tradition we have.” He then educated us, with obvious pride, on the history of his house, and told us about the danger of fire necessitating an absolute edict against the kindling of open flame in the rooms where we would sleep. With a twinkle in his eye he continued, “Maintaining that has always been a bit of a problem… in my great-grandfather’s day this lay on a trade route, and you know what carters are… well, when they signed the guest book, my great-grandfather would always just tell them to write legibly… in case we needed their names for the man who engraves the tombstones!” His laugh was heartier than ours. But I still thought it was amazing… I had to keep myself from grinning out of sheer delight that the man existed.


After our afternoon walk, on which we met the mayor of Bornhagen (we didn’t know he was the mayor at the time), his 13-year-old sheep named Holger, and his very proud and gorgeous black rooster named Kikeriki Schwanze, we returned to the inn for a sumptuous feast a la fifteenth century. We even got entertained by a man with a lute. It was pretty sweet. Then we all went out and jumped over a bonfire to make us fertile and prosperous in the coming year (hint: originally Celtic ritual). I didn’t jump until the flames were relatively non-threatening, but the first to jump was Johannes, slender and dark, who had served bread and exchanged smiles with me in the corridor. He jumped with a shout and a laugh, triumphant. In that moment, I saw in his eyes every young man who first dared the flames from the Bronze Age to the fifteenth century till today. When I at last retired to bed under the sloping roof, the only sound was the wind in the barley.



“Du sprichst aber so gut Deutsch!”
Or , , , Wait... you’re an American?“


Given the general opinion of Americans (strange, violent, possibly well-meaning but relatively uncivilized beings), I’m accustomed to taking the latter question as a compliment… and proceeding to stand up as a “Gegenbeispiel”: a one-woman stand against national stereotyping everywhere! Yes, I’m an American! I’m not really a Republican or a Democrat (yes, you can exist in the middle.) Yes, I can speak German (and French, and Latin, if they ask.) Yes, I do realize that there’s a big old world out there, with histories and cultures and goofy television shows that are different from the ones I grew up with. I really like eating Rotkohl—for real. And brown bread. And getting to know people. From Friday’s house party to being invited over for coffee and cake after church by girls my age who were strangers at the time, to tonight’s meeting of the community salsa course, it has been a good week for making friends—and breaking stereotypes.


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