I had the opportunity to stay in Freiburg over winter break after my first semester ended. This was both exciting and terrifying. I would get to stay in Freiburg for 2 more months! But pretty much none of the friends I made at IES Abroad would still be here. Originally, I didn't even plan on staying over winter break. I'm a full year student, so I thought that I would go back home over winter break to spend the holidays with my family. But plans change, and I pretty much fell in love with Freiburg the second I got here. Instead, I ended up doing a research assistantship for 6 weeks. Which meant that I was spending my winter break somewhere much colder than my hometown. Luckily, this ended up being a great experience. So, since I can't exactly talk about predeparture since I've been here all along, I wanted to reflect and share some advice (and photos!) about what I did and maybe even what you should do if you're on your own in Freiburg during some of the coldest and darkest months of the year. Spoiler Alert! They can actually be pretty fun.
1. Do an Internship
Through IES Abroad Freiburg, I got to do a 6-week long research assistantship, where I used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to do climate change and population growth research for a professor at the University of Freiburg. As an Environmental Science major with a Geology Emphasis, I know that having GIS experience, as well as doing an internship where I exclusively worked on GIS looks extremely good on a resume. So, getting to do something like this helped greatly improve my GIS and research reading skills, plus it will help me with finding a job in the future.
I didn't have many photos of me doing work, so don't let the photo below be any indication of how I felt during the internship (it was taken a bit early in the morning). I mostly worked from home during this internship. It was not like this for everyone who did an internship, but GIS is purely computer-based so it's pretty easy to do from home, while also using Zoom to meet with the professor I assisted, or we just met in person for anything very important. This worked well for me, partially because I'm a bit of a couch potato and I love avoiding the cold winter weather, but also because I got to know my neighborhood and Freiburg better. I got a lot out of this and I definitely recommend doing an internship here if you can!
2. Enjoy a Hobby or Even Take a Class
Even though I was doing an internship, I still had quite a bit of free time. With this time, I was finally able to read most of The Two Towers (a book that I put off reading during the semester). I even started to read a book in German that my German friend gave me. I also just used this time to paint and catch up on some movies I hadn’t seen yet. In order to improve my German, I even took a German language course with the University of Freiburg for their winter semester, and I made a lot of friends from that class, plus I improved my German a lot.
What I especially loved doing was improving my cooking skills. I love cooking, and I’ve been doing it (and making multiple mistakes) for many years. All this free time meant that I got to try out recipes I had the time to actually make, and I ended up making lots of delicious meals that I usually wouldn’t make during the semester because I was too tired after class. I even got to cook with a lot of plants that were in season that are pretty much only found in Europe. This included the Hokkaido pumpkin (yes it’s from Japan, but it’s super popular here), Feldsalat (“Field Salad” or “Mache,” it’s like eating buttery lettuce and it is my favorite leafy green vegetable now), and elderberries (the berries, and the flowers are used to make a delicious, and healthy juice perfect for fighting a winter cold). One of my favorite winter meals you could find everywhere in Freiburg was a Hokkaido pumpkin flammkuchen with goat cheese and honey, and a Feldsalat salad on the side! However, my favorite thing I learned to make was tiramisu. I know it’s not a German specialty at all, but it’s my favorite cake and the ingredients for it are very easy to find in Germany, you can even get them at your favorite German discount store: Penny!
3. Get to Know Your Own Neighborhood
This can definitely apply to Freiburg as a whole, depending on how you define neighborhood. I spent a few days in Freiburg just going to a cafe, reading, then walking around and exploring and I feel like I always find something new. A new cafe, a favorite restaurant, an adorable bird, or a new thrift shop or hiking trail to explore. I even went to Basel, Switzerland (just 40 minutes away) for their annual “Museumnacht” that happens in January. Where all 39 of their art museums are open until 4am. There’s multiple stalls where you can get food and drinks, and each museum has a different activity for people to do. It was cool being able to just walk into a museum and see a Van Gogh painting at 11pm on a Friday, plus it’s free if you’re under 26 years old.
However, I do want to recommend exploring your own actual neighborhood in Freiburg. I wouldn’t say I live in the best area in Freiburg, but I live right by a massive park with a lake called Seepark. It’s a great place to walk around. There’s a 3km trail that loops right around the lake, and a bridge that crosses over part of the lake too. There’s even a Japanese Garden! I honestly just love this place. It's perfect to get away from the sounds of the city. That, plus walking around and watching the ducks can help slow me down for a while. It can definitely be chilly in the winter, but it was a good way to get me out of the house, exercise, and get some vitamin D while I was working from home. There’s also a free library in the area you can visit, where you can get books in German for free, and plenty of bakeries with fresh German bread every morning. But my favorite place in the area is this tunnel I have to walk through on my way to Seepark. It’s covered in pretty graffiti and there’s always something new when I walk through it. But my favorite graffiti that has managed to survive in there says “Bitte sei nett zu dir,” or “Please be kind to yourself.” I feel like I traveled a lot during the semester, so where I lived didn’t really feel like home. But once I took the time to just appreciate where I was, and just live my life how I usually would during break, it finally felt like home.
4. Celebrate the Holidays the German Way
So, I may have cheated a bit on this one. My family visited me for “Weihnachten” or “Christmas”, so I didn’t really get to celebrate it the proper German way. But I did have a very German Christmas feast of Badisch-style Semmelknödel (bread dumplings) and Zimtsterne (cinnamon star cookies). Also, before Christmas, I visited plenty of beautiful “Weihnachtsmarkt” (Christmas markets) where you could get “Glühwein” (mulled wine), snowball cookies, bratwurst, and more. One of my favorite things you can buy at every Christmas market are gnomes. And I am happy to say that I am now the proud owner of a small, felt gnome on skis.
There were also two other holidays I celebrated: New Year’s Eve and Fastnacht. For New Year’s Eve, I was invited by my German friend to a little get together where we ate a very traditional New Year’s Eve dish: raclette. Basically it’s melted cheese on everything, but usually boiled potatoes and meat, with some random veggies added to the mix. We also played a popular card game in Germany called “Wizard,” which I only understood how it worked about 7 rounds into playing it. Germans also like to watch an old TV broadcast called “Dinner for One” on New Year’s Eve, but I did not end up doing this. In Freiburg, some people like to go swimming in the lake in Seepark when it’s midnight, but most people will just step outside and watch the fireworks that surround the city.
Fastnacht (aka Carnival/Mardi Gras) is a religious tradition that goes on during February. It’s celebrated throughout the world, but Fastnacht is specifically celebrated in southwestern Germany. There are multiple parades where people dress up in crazy outfits and throw candy at you. And the city is always packed around this time. You can also always hear the sound of bells jingling in the distance, since they’re found all over people’s costumes. People will dress up a bit more traditionally and wear masks with witch faces on them, but think of it a bit like German Halloween. All sorts of people are dressed up as pineapples, minions, and all kinds of crazy costumes. People also eat a kind of pastry called a Berliner during this time (although it’s called something different throughout Germany), which is basically a jelly-filled powdered donut. Luckily, you can find this pastry at your local Rewe or Edeka throughout the year, so you don’t need to wait until February to enjoy it!
This one may be a bit of a no-brainer but traveling is always a good option! If you have the time and can afford it, you can visit so many amazing places all over Europe during a time of the year when there aren’t a lot of tourists, depending on where you go. I also sort of cheated on this section. I ended up going on two main trips over the winter. One was when my family visited me for Christmas and we got to travel all over Switzerland, and another was to Innsbruck, Austria with a friend from IES Abroad who was still living in Freiburg. However, this is still something you can definitely do on your own. Solo travel can definitely be intimidating, but I ended up taking some day trips outside of Freiburg that were pretty fun. I have done proper solo travel before, and it’s a bit scary, but I will say that I have felt much safer here than I have in the US. Travelling is a great way to take advantage of where you live (I’m looking at you good public transportation). Flights within Europe are fairly cheap (sometimes it even costs less than $100 to fly to another country), and you can get there with trains pretty easily, even with the somewhat-unreliable Deutsche Bahn. All the places I visited over winter-break only took at most under 5 hours to get to by train. Both places are amazing, and seeing the Alps capped with snow was a breath-taking experience. If you want to see the Alps in all their might and eat lots of cheese, I would recommend Switzerland, but if you want to visit one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen nestled in the Alps and eat lots of candy, I’d recommend Innsbruck.
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Hi there! I'm from Taos, New Mexico and I go to school at Westminster College, Missouri where I major in both Environmental Science and Spanish Translation. I love studying languages, thrifting, playing videogames, and reading in my free time. A fun fact about me is that I speak three languages fluently: English, French, and Spanish. But I'm working on German right now so hopefully it'll be four!