I recently returned from 40 days in Germany. The first two weeks NosyNeighbour and I traveled around Bavaria by bike, living as tourists. The last four weeks, I lived as a student in Freiburg while learning German at the Goethe Institut.
I lived in the Institut’s Gästhaus in the student ghetto, on the other side of the tracks from the main railway station. When I first arrived in my accommodation, I was shocked at the amount of litter, broken glass and graffiti that seemed to be everywhere between my student housing and the Wiwili Bridge. This bridge accommodates cyclists in the middle and pedestrians on the outer sides. Once you cross the bridge, city workers regularly clean up the broken glass and remove graffiti. I guess that’s where the tourists are. Eventually I found a walking route that either felt safer or I just got used to the mess.
Living as a student is different than staying in a posh hotel. You don’t get a free transit pass. As a result, I walked everywhere or signed up for the group trips through the Institut’s Kultur und Freizeit Program. They took care of arranging buses for larger groups, or buying group tickets for the train. Figuring out the train system is a bit of a mystery. If you go to the train station and speak to a DB employee, you pay more for your ticket than if you buy it at the machine beside the office. Tickets bought at least a week in advance are also cheaper. But if you can find four friends, you can get a good deal on a weekend pass. But it’s not good on all trains. And the conductor came by on every trip I took. So don’t even think about trying to ride the rails for free.
As a student in the Gästhaus, you must provide 100 euros cash as a deposit for your accommodation. All rights lie with the landlord and all responsibility with the tenant. Early checkout is frowned upon, especially if you are a woman. I heard the Hausmeister repeatedly say to women that it was not possible to check out early. Women were supposed to find a “friend” who would give them 100 euros cash in exchange for their key. This person would then receive the 100 euros from the Hausmeister. Eventually I was able to make arrangements, but it seemed that the Hausmeister had more authority than the women who supposedly ran the accommodation section. I also learned that renters must pay three percent of their rent to the Makler (basically a real estate agent that focuses on the rental market). The landlord pays nothing. After this experience, I decided that visiting Germany was better than living in Germany.
There a lot of bikes in Freiburg. There are a lot of students. There are a lot of bike thefts. For this reason most people have at least two bikes: one for riding into town and the other for longer bike rides. All city bikes have a rear bike rack, with a basket on top. I saw a young nun riding a bike in her habit, a young man carrying a boxed cake in one hand, a young woman cycling with her umbrella over her head. But the best were the number of people that rode a bike while bringing a second bike along side of them.
Because people own more than one bike, maintenance is regularly overlooked. You really don’t know if the person has brakes until you accidentally walk in front of them. Sometimes the brakes lock up and throw the rider off the bike. One of my fellow students had this happen in front of all of us. He looked at me and said that he might like to have a helmet from then on.
With that many bikes you really need to be aware of where you walk. Not all bike lanes are signposted. And sometimes the bike lane turns into the pedestrian crosswalk. For the most part, cyclists were polite and patient. Drivers were forced to wait behind cyclists in the city’s core, with a signposted speed of only 30 km/h. Cyclists were slowed down by the many cobblestone streets. Freiburg is relatively flat and small so commuting by bike makes sense. There is rarely snow in the city so you can commute year round with the right clothing. Ikea has even capitalized on the large student population by offering rental bikes with trailers.
Many people visit Europe and question why Ottawa can’t be more like the cycle-friendly cities they’ve visited. But trying turn Ottawa into Freiburg just wouldn’t work. Most people in Ottawa don’t live within an easy commute of where they work (approximately 10km), whereas in Freiburg they do. Ottawa has lots of snow to deal with, which makes winter cycling more challenging. The freeze / thaw cycle of our winters doesn’t help with the amount of potholes (I’m still seeing them today in September!) Freiburg also has a lot of students and they are in school year round, not like here where they leave for the summer months (for the most part).
So here’s my list of what I liked about Freiburg:
- meeting students from around the world and learning to say hello and goodbye in their languages
- meandering around the Altstadt, following Bächle (small water-filled runnels)
- roaming around Schloßberg, including its Turm and biergarten
- crossing the Wiwili Brücke every day, and eventually climbing on top like all the other students
- taking day trips to Schauinsland, Triberg, and Colmar (France)
- drinking beer whenever and wherever you want
- finding cheap and tasty icecream on every corner
- making and tasting Flammkuchen
- eating Champagne Apfelstrudel
- And things I won’t miss about Freiburg
- dealing with the rude Hausmeister
- enduring the cliques that formed in class
- smoking on patios and in clubs
- finding broken glass everywhere
- rain appearing every day in what was supposed to be the sunniest part of Germany
- walking into the filthy communal kitchen
- sleeping on the small uncomfortable bed
- the chauvinism in some cultures (but we tried to change that in four weeks!)
- dealing with the rude Hausmeister
While I was living in Freiburg, this is what I missed about home (apart from NosyNeighbour and Wellington):
- our Essentia bed
- our kitchen, with all the tools I need to make anything I want to eat
- smoking bans on patios and all city property
- hiking poles
- Sunday shopping
- having a real computer
- a comfy chair
- any of my bikes
- our garden with all of its produce
And now that I’ve been home for a week, here’s what I miss about Freiburg:
- the friends I made
- having a routine every day
- the sound of the cargo trains passing in the night muffled by the sound of the fan (much more soothing than the Harleys going down Island Park!)
- having a roll down external blind to keep the room cool and dark
- being able to walk everywhere
- having small grocery stores with small sizes
- being able to buy beer at the Penny
- walking through the Altstadt on weekends and heading to Schloßberg for a hike, without having to drive there.