Saturday, I arrived in Germany. After I got off of my plane in the Berlin airport, and after I completed my passport and baggage check, I was greeted by the Studienforum coordinator, Dr. Jacobsen. A long-lived German man, Jacobsen told me in a definite German accent to take a seat in his car. He drove me towards my new apartment, and on the way pointed out notable buildings and monuments to tell me about the history and significance of each.
Soon enough, we arrived at the place that I will be living in for the next six weeks. It is an apartment near Alexanderplatz, located in Berlin-Mitte on the side of formerly East Berlin. The woman who would be hosting me, Heidemarie Braun (or Heide), met us at the door and let us in.
Heide is an older woman who has two daughters that have moved out. One of her daughters lives near to her and operates a local winery and wine store. She is very lively and expressive, and gives me the impression that she still hasn’t lost her youth.
I unpacked everything and settled in. The room I am staying in is very nice. I am living on the ninth floor of the apartment, and I have a view of the Berlin Cathedral — often called the Dom — the Fernsehturm, and the busy streets below. Inside of my room, I have a small dining table, a microwave, a toaster, a refrigerator, a water boiler for making tea, and a television. It is a very comfortable setup.
The first meal we had together was at the dining table in Heide’s living room. She had prepared schnitzel with chunked potatoes and mineral water. She asked me about Mississippi — how the food, people, and weather are — and I asked her about her occupation and how long she had been living in Berlin. She told me that she helps her daughter out with her wine business and works in the store that her daughter operates. She has been living in her apartment for nearly all of her life, and resided there during the Soviet occupation of East Berlin.
I looked at Heide’s bookshelf behind me and noticed a large assortment of books including poetry, fiction, philosophy, religion, and economics. A few books on economics written by Karl Marx caught my eye, and I asked her what she thought about them. She told me that she studied economics, and mentioned that Marx was a very important figure in history and in shaping modern Germany. The only book that I had read by Marx was “The Communist Manifesto”, and I only knew that Marx was against the economic system of capitalism and for a socialist system which would ultimately result in a communist system. Heide gave a disapproving shake towards a communist system, but told me that the socialist system of the GDR was livable for her and her children. I thought that was interesting to hear, considering the generally negative stance that many Americans and West Germans hold towards the GDR, but I would ask more about it later.
Sunday, I had a day of free time to explore the area around my apartment. In Germany, Sunday is a day of rest, so every business outside of restaurants and government-run services — such as public transportation and train stations — is closed for the day. Since I was not able to shop around, I just walked around and took in the sights. I walked through Hackescher Markt, a large shopping section with many individual stores side-by-side along the street, and as well within a system of alleyways.
On the opposite side of my apartment is Alexanderplatz, which is home to the Fernsehturm, the tallest structure in Berlin. Alexanderplatz also has a large shopping center, with two malls in close proximity to one-another. On Sundays, while all of the stores are closed, there is an outdoor market with live performances, street food, and vendors that sell souvenirs and other trinkets.
Language classes started on Monday. I was placed in a level B1.1 class with an instructor named Marcus. He was an active, expressive teacher who sparked interesting conversation that involved the entire class. We began with discussion over the post-WWII history of Germany, and then moved on to a conversation about the cold war. For my first day, while I was able to understand the gist of most of what was being said, there were too many words that I did not know, and I was still hardly able to confidently form a sentence with correct grammar. Later that day, I took my verbal placement test (the one before had been a written test) and found that I would be better off moving down to a level A2.1 class.
The next day, I walked into my new class, taught by a woman who seemed to be much more easy-going. The class was a much slower pace, and seemed nearly too easy in comparison to the previous class, but I decided to stay with it anyways.
Friday, the group departed for a weekend trip to Weimar, Buchenwald, and Erfurt.
Weimar is an old and fairly well-known city of Germany, which is most famous for being the home of the German Enlightenment movement, the Bauhaus movement, and prominent writers Goethe and Schiller, and being the place where the constitution for the Weimar Republic — the first attempted democracy of Germany — was signed into effect. On our on-foot tour, we saw Hotel Elephant, in which both Martin Luther and Adolf Hitler stood on the same balcony to give speeches to people in the streets below, looked at a statue featuring both Goethe and Schiller, and walked through Goethepark and ate gooseberries from the bushes.
Buchenwald is a now-decommissioned concentration camp that was utilized at first by the NSDAP and was later reconstructed and utilized by the GDR after the Soviets had occupied eastern Germany. It lies in the mountains outside of Weimar, about a 30 minute drive from the city. After watching a movie about the Shoah, we were given a tour of the different facilities of the camp, including the lodging spaces for the camp workers and SS, the large working area, an interrogation room, the medical treatment facility, and the latrine. There was also a Soviet-constructed monument to the Polish workers who were placed in the camp during its use by the NSDAP.
Erfurt is an old city that is more reminiscent of medieval times. On our tour, we learned about the woad plant, which was one of the reasons for Erfurt’s economic success in the old times due to its use in creating a blue dye, saw the first known synagogue of Germany, sat in the church where Martin Luther served as a monk, saw the University of Erfurt, which is the first-known university to have been established in Germany, and learned about Bernd das Brot, a popular children’s show character that was created in Erfurt.