University of Iowa

The stories I didn't tell

May 16th, 2019

I had grand plans for my study abroad blog. I was going to write an entry every other week. Of course, that didn’t pan out- study, as it turns out, is an essential part of studying abroad and ended up using much of the time I had planned for writing. That plus lots and lots of experiences…

When I arrived in January, everyone was apologizing for the weather. “It’s normally the best weather in Germany. We’re so sorry about the rain!” These apologies were at the same time I was getting emails warning that Iowa was so cold the National Weather Service was advising people not to breathe outside for extended periods. Alas, I don’t think any of the locals believed me when I told them that.

My housing arrangement is a room to my self in a flat shared with five local students. I get along well with four of them. The fifth, I had been warned ahead of time could be a bit difficult but wasn’t around much. About two weeks after settling in for the first time I met him for the first time. Immediately after going through the usual introductions, he began interrogating me about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as if I held some responsibility for what took place. The feeling that I had walked into a reverse episode of Fawlty Towers passed somewhat shortly after; I didn’t defend the bombings, and he started to defend nuclear weapons more generally. As it turned out he was just on the argumentative side.

There is a restaurant in Warsaw that serves meals that were favorites of various communist leaders. I was unsure about whether I was comfortable visiting a place that would be turning an, at times, profoundly unpleasant history into something of a joke. One of the other students persuaded me to go, noting, given Poland’s history with communism, if they were okay with the restaurant it was probably fine. And it was! It helps that they skipped Stalin entirely on the menu. I don’t have much more to add on the restaurant beyond Brezhnev had excellent taste in pork chops.

I went to Auschwitz. I had planned on writing about it at the time, but I didn’t. What could I possibly say in response to a place like Auschwitz? I would write an opening paragraph, feel it wasn’t appropriate given all that took place, and delete it to try again. I’m still not sure what to say, other than the landscape around Auschwitz reminded me so much of the land around Iowa City.

"Studying in Freiburg, and across Europe, has been an extraordinary, life-changing experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything."

On the evening of the first full day of the program field trip to Brussels, I did not go out to sample the variety of waffles or beer the city had to offer. Instead, I, and two other students staked out the European Council (Essentially the EU version of the Capital building) in the hopes of meeting and asking questions of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who was also in Brussels for emergency negotiations. Alas, we did not meet PM May, though we might have seen her car depart. The windows were tinted, so it was impossible to tell. Afterward, we did go out and had very nice waffles so I’d say the evening ended well. 

In Brussels, I met the worst person I have ever come across. He was a Member of the EU Parliament who had campaigned for Brexit. This was not why he was the worst person I have come across; there are lots of people who supported Brexit for reasons good and bad. Instead, it was what he said before he started talking about Brexit. He spoke about how his interests in politics began when he was a farmer in ‘Rhodesia’ (Now Zimbabwe. Even when referring to it in the present tense he called it Rhodesia) He spoke of how ‘Rhodesia’ was a meritocracy rather than a democracy and how he liked it that way. And he spoke of his experience going out on raids in the ‘Bush War.’ He did not go into details about what took place on these raids, but I will note that the war- which ended with Zimbabwe being granted independence- was notorious for war crimes committed, including lynchings and the use of anthrax by the Rhodesian government. Given his lack of detail, I can’t say if he took part in any of this, but I will say it was clear he was wholly unbothered by what took place. He is set to retire this year and is planning to become a Cricket scorekeeper.


Reverend Good's Church, Belfast 

In Belfast, I met one of the best people I have ever come across, Reverend Harold Good. He had been assigned to a Belfast parish right at the start of the troubles. He spoke about how shortly after beginning he found children he taught in Sunday school manufacturing pipe bombs for one of the paramilitaries. He explained how he got the children out of there, got rid of the bombs, and then so it wouldn’t occur again, went on the radio and announced what he had done so that the paramilitaries would drop using children as a tactic. While this resulted in threats to him from paramilitaries on both sides it did result in those who weren’t fighting- the vast majority of the population- to view him as a sufficiently trustworthy that he was able to help set up secret talks that would eventually lay the groundwork for the peace process. What struck me about this was, he did not mention any of it in his initial speech (which was about the peace process overall) He only brought it up in response to questioning about how he got involved in the peace process. He had done such extraordinary things, but he was fully willing to put the spotlight on others. Though he’s in his eighties now, he isn’t retired and instead splits his time between Belfast and Colombia where he aids the ongoing peace and reconciliation process.

My laptop fell off a table and stopped connecting to the internet. While this would be annoying at the best of times, it was closer to panic-inducing given that it took place during midterms and I was in a strange country where I didn’t speak the language. Happily, this was probably the worst thing to happen to me in my time abroad, which, given I was able to find a cord to fix the problem within two days, means I have no real complaints. But at the time it was terrifying.

For spring break, I went to Berlin. While in Berlin, I did not go to any clubs because I am not that sort of cool. Instead, I went to lots and lots of museums and historic sites. My favorite was an exhibition on democracy in the Weimar Republic at the German Historical Museum. For how terribly it ended, I was struck by the sheer dedication shown by proponents of Weimar democracy in the face of an impossible situation.


Olympic Stadium, Berlin 

In Berlin, I went to a soccer game. The game itself was an unmemorable 0-0 tie. Instead, it was the stadium itself that I’ll remember. It was the stadium that hosted the 1936 Olympics. It’s one of the few prominent structures from Nazi Germany left standing. Unbombed in the war because it was unimportant and out of the way, kept standing afterward because undestroyed structures were in short supply. It is still used today because no one wants to pay for a new stadium. Aside from historical markers, the only things that point to the history of the stadium are the weird statues on the grounds intended to represent some sort of idealized Aryan form. When anything clearly linked to the Nazi period was being removed after the war, they were kept in place as there are no swastikas or any other markers explicitly relating them to the period. To this day there is still debate on whether the statues should be removed.

The most beautiful place I saw in Berlin was a cemetery. It is both in use and being left to nature creating an incredible sense of a forest in the middle of the city. So often cemeteries are nice, but clearly places designed for the living. This cemetery gave a feeling of a place for the dead, to return to the dust from which they came. I’ve not seen anything like it before, but now I can scarcely imagine a cemetery in any other way.

At the end of the program, there is a model EU in which all the students are assigned different roles. In my case, I was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Initially, I was enthusiastic about the prospect, I would mainly be playing a villain, but I grew weary as I prepped for my role. Orban is an antisemitic authoritarian- far more unpleasant than anything I was willing to do. After speaking with one of the teachers about my concerns, I changed tack. I would play up Orban’s corruption, and I would spread surrealist fake news. This plan worked perfectly, with the fake news being quite popular with the other students. My last phony news story was that I had been overthrown due to the revelation that I was not Viktor Orban, but a student who was impersonating him. A happy ending, all in all.

The last night of the program was the goodbye dinner. All the students and teachers were there, and it was far more emotional than I had expected. Saying goodbye to everyone at the end of the night… I was grateful for the opportunity to thank so many people for this fantastic shared experience and what it meant to me. At the same time, I was surprised and moved at how many people in the program who I had made an impression on. Honestly, it was best the night ended when it did, lest I end up crying in front of the entire program.

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And now I’m going home, and I’m happy and sad at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing my family- I’m counting the hours until I can give our pug a great big hug. I’m going to miss everyone I’ve gotten to know in Freiburg- including the free-range wiener dogs from the nearby hippy commune. I can't wait to share everything I’ve seen and done in Europe. There is so much more I want to see and do.  I’ll be glad to be done with walking on cobbled streets every day that wear through shoes like you wouldn’t believe. I won’t be excited about returning to a life where it’s almost impossible to get around without cars. I want to go home. I don’t want to leave. I’m sad it’s over, I’m happy I’ve had the chance to do it. Studying in Freiburg, and across Europe, has been an extraordinary, life-changing experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 

A native of Rolfe, Iowa, Lee Sailor is a political science major and pursing a minor in history at the University of Iowa. Lee is spending the semester in Germany on the IEW Freiburg European Union program. 

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