‘Toto, we’re not in Claremont anymore’

Graphic by Nina Potischman

Don’t judge a book by its cover. It sounds like an old, tired cliché, but when it comes to study abroad, it is certainly true, because first impressions can be deceiving.

This semester, I am abroad in Freiburg, Germany — a small, historic city in the southwest corner of the country. I am studying European Union politics and culture, with a focus on travel and exploration throughout the EU. Coming in, I did not speak a word of German and had little familiarity with German culture and practices.

Consequently, I faced a significant shock when I arrived in Freiburg early on a Sunday morning, a few days before my program started, to find the entire city eerily silent and mostly deserted. Nearly every shop and restaurant was closed. The streets were empty. I could walk blocks without seeing a soul. At night, the city was dark, quiet, and frankly creepy with no one else visible in the streets, anywhere.

I went to bed Sunday night with a significant sense of foreboding, worrying about the city I had picked to study abroad in, and feeling as though I had done insufficient research about Freiburg, which I had read was a busy college town.

Beyond my concern that the city would be sleepy and inactive, with few people around and little to see and do, I had not felt safe walking around in the streets at night, and I worried I would not be able to go out into the city alone all semester.

All of that changed the next morning, however, when I awoke to find the city fully alive, each of the shuttered restaurants and shops open, and the old, narrow cobblestone streets bustling with people, even late into the night.

My impression of Freiburg totally changed, literally overnight. I quickly learned that Freiburg, like other parts of Germany, essentially shuts down on Sundays, as most of the city attends church, and for cultural reasons, most businesses remain closed in observance.

I would come to find that, while supermarkets remain closed on Sundays, this Freiburg tradition would be a fairly easy obstacle to work around, and I would quickly grow accustomed to it.

This — my very first impression of Freiburg, which turned out to be completely wrong — taught me an important lesson. Despite my experience studying, living, and traveling abroad, which prepared me for differing circumstances and customs, I encountered unexpected obstacles, re-emphasizing to me that initial snap judgements about the culture may not be accurate and are often not useful.

Since this first experience, I have worked to reserve judgement and avoid excessive worry about aspects of life that I observe, committing instead to learning about Freiburg until I better understand more about their cultural underpinnings and the reasons behind them.

None of the countries and cities from Pomona’s study abroad program are in Claremont, and therefore none will have the same traditions, practices, or culture.

I have learned that study abroad will be much more enjoyable and less stressful if students take new discoveries as they come and learn about them. This applies not only to local culture but nearly every aspect of study abroad.

More importantly, I have found that keeping an open mind is the best and most enjoyable way to handle the changes that come. Snap judgements do not help anyone.

Marc Rod is an international relations major at Pomona College, studying the European Union in Freiburg, Germany. Fittingly, he enjoys travel and journalism.

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