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German interterm a mix of culture, history, food and friendship

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by Julia Miller

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – There were three life lessons I experienced during interterm in Germany, where we visited more than 10 cities in two-and-a-half weeks.

First, not all ice cream tastes as good as it looks. Second, when three deadbolts are involved in locking a German dorm room door, it is impossible for an American student to open it, even with a key and multiple 20-minute practice sessions. And third, if milk is lumpy when poured, that means it is spoiled, so don’t keep eating it on your cereal, thinking “German milk just tastes this way.”

In Munich, it was impossible not to visit the infamous Glockenspiel in the town square. The city was still decorated for Christmas, which was a delight.

The bakeries were heavenly. Since this was a German tour, we did speak a little bit of German, starting with ordering at bakeries.

Some other highlights from Munich were swimming in the 1972 Olympics pool; attending a beautiful Catholic mass; trying lychee, a new Thai fruit to all of us; visiting the BMW museum (some of us could stare for hours at the floating orb that morphs into cars, while others wanted to ride off on some of the museum exhibits); and visiting Herrenchiemsee Palace – it normally has English-speaking tour groups of 40 or more in summer, but if you go in the winter, you can have your own personal tour guide all to yourself.

After seeing such grandeur, the boys decided they were going to buy a castle. That was short-lived after Bo saw a Bugatti in Berlin (it had four turbos, by the way).

More importantly, while in Munich, we visited the Dachau concentration camp, where contemplation, history and reality collide. What occurred at Dachau – the first concentration camp and model for all others in Nazi Germany – goes beyond words. It was an incomprehensible, hollow place that left us shocked and numb.

We then visited Salzburg, Austria. Pardon the cliché but the hills are definitely alive with the sound of music.

And speaking of music, we heard some really phenomenal ensemble pieces in the Semper Oper in Dresden. The city still shows evidence of East Germany during the Russian occupation after the Second World War.

One of the most prominent buildings in Dresden that we didn’t even enter was the Frauenkirke. The dark stones visible on the exterior are all that remain of the original building after World War II bombings. Through efforts of eastern and western Germans, the church was rebuilt, with the rubble stones put back into their original places in 1985 (even before the end of East Germany in 1990).

Dresden was the first German city in which we saw sunlight. Merle commented, “Wenn Angel reisen laechen die Sonne“ (When angels travel, the sun smiles”) He then said, “Well, then, which one of us has been acting devilish for the past four days?”

We all laughed but gave each other suspicious looks. Then Riley made the more likely suggestion: Bethel’s Eastern Europe interterm group had just left Germany.

In Leipzig, we heard the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, which brought tears to the eyes and energy to the heart. We climbed the Monument of Nations – 590 stairs later, we got a magnificent view from the top. Words could not describe it because we were so out of breath by the time we got there.

Berlin was one of the most reflective places on our trip, between an amazing opera and striking memorials. With the East Side Gallery and the Holocaust Memorial, we started getting a true picture of what Germany was like. All buildings, whether rebuilt churches or Parliament buildings, incorporate the new while maintaining the old.

If there is one thing Berlin taught us, it is that the past is not to be forgotten, but learned from and remembered, and that even when broken (like the stained-glass picture at the rebuilt memorial for a bombed church) anything, east or west, beautiful or ugly, can be put back together.

As one of the panels on the East Side Gallery states, “Wer will dass die Welt so bliebt, wie sie ist der will nicht dass sie bliebt” (He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want the world to remain at all).

After visiting Olympic Stadium in Munich, we knew we had to visit the Berlin 1936 Olympics stadium. However, it was night and the stadium wasn’t very well lit. There was so much amazing history that happened here, with Jesse Owens and Luz Long – I wanted to stand and take it in but everyone one else was like, “Yeah, cool, okay, let’s go.”

And go we did, to the most inviting, welcoming place of all, Wuppertal. We met Andre, a student at Bergische-Universität-Gesamthochschule-Wuppertal, who will be at Bethel in the fall.

We rode the Wuppertal Schwebebahn (a suspension railway, or “floating tram”), played Trivial Pursuit in German and, more importantly, made friends that completed our German experience.

The end of the trip included a snowball fight behind  the awe-inspiring Köln Cathedral (which took more than 700 years to build); Nutella crepes that were to die for, on the Düsseldorf main strip; and a late-night card/mind game in Frankfurt.

On the last night, playing these card and mind games made me realize: “Getting to know a new culture is like figuring out a mind game – it’s frustrating but intriguing, making you never want to give up. What you can learn is in the simple day-to-day things, not the grand. When you finally figure it out, it blows your mind. And it is no fun unless you are interacting with people who are open to the idea of learning something new and aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves in the process.”

This is the kind of group experience I got the opportunity to have this past January. Danke.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Julia Miller is a senior from Hesston. Other members of the 2013 Bethel interterm class Seminar in Cross-Cultural Learning: Germany, with Merle Schlabaugh, adjunct professor of German, were Riley King, Lawrence, Mika Patron, North Newton, Bo Pratt, San Antonio, Texas, and Leah Towle, Lawrence.

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