The Fox Experience

Christine Brouwer to the Free University, Berlin

brouwerI wake up at 9 a.m., to the sounds of the Berliner radio station to which my alarm clock is set. It is blaring some new German rap song; too cheery and loud for this time of day. I feel groggy, turn over and switch it off.

Today is Monday. This means that I have only one class to attend to; German-as-a-Foreign-Language, at noon. I have some time before I have to leave. Yesterday, Sunday, all of the stores in the city were closed in accordance with German national law, and when I open my refrigerator, I find that I’ve finished the last of my supplies. I put on some clothes and walk out the door to buy groceries.

It is cold outside, about -6 degrees Celsius or 21 degrees Fahrenheit, and not quite light yet. It always surprises me how late the sun comes up in Berlin in the winter, and how early it sets. It is easy to forget how far north on the continent the city is located. In December, it is only light from around 9 a.m. to 3.45 p.m, and the sun never rises very high in the sky. Some people find this depressing, but I find it cozy, or, as the Germans would say, gemütlich. During the winter, the city’s many summertime terraces are brought inside, and Berliners spend much of their free time socializing with friends in the warm restaurants, cafes, and bars. The streets are lit by early and abundant Christmas lights, and winter ornaments decorate many buildings. All together, these customs create a very friendly atmosphere.

To avoid the cold, I decide to make the bakery my first stop, since it is located right next to my building. The area that I live in is called Prenzlauer Berg, a working class district of the old East Berlin, and my building is a classic East German Mietskaserne. Mietskasernen are wide, five-story high apartment complexes with a separate front and back portion that are divided by a central courtyard. The Mietskasernen were built during the turn of the century and served as laborers’ housing throughout the communist era. Formerly gray and unadorned, virtually all of the buildings in Prenzlauer Berg have been renovated since the Wall came down, and in those 13 years, the district has been transformed into a young and bustling area with hundreds of restaurants, cafes, galleries and so forth. The façades of the Mietskasernen have been painted in different colors and decorated with balconies and gables. Only once in a while does a single gray, dilapidated construct still awaiting restoration remind one of the bleakness of the former East. Berlin, more than any place I have ever encountered, is a city shaped by its very recent history. The great majority of Berliners lived through the era of the Wall, and saw it fall with their own eyes. Living in a Mietskaserne, and watching the daily development of my neighborhood, I feel a part of that history too.

After picking up some bread and other groceries, it is time to head to the Freie Universität for my German class. The University is located on the outskirts of the Western part of the city, and was founded about 50 years ago in response to Communist dominance of the Humboldt Universität in the East. Since I live in the East, it is a fair distance to the campus. Like most Berliner students, I take public transportation to school. (Every student receives a "semester pass" to public transportation system upon registration, a great benefit!) First, I get on the U-Bahn, the Berlin underground, and then I take the S-Bahn, which is similar to a subway except that it runs on elevated tracks above ground. I always enjoy my rides on the S-Bahn, since they offer an unparalleled view of the city. On the ride from East to West, you can really see that Berlin is a city in transformation; there are construction sites everywhere (one writer even labeled the Berlin skyline "a ballet of cranes"), and despite many historical landmarks, much of the city has a very futuristic feel to it.

After about 50 minutes, I reach Dahlem, the green and residential area where the F.U. is located. My German class consists of about 15 foreign students, all of whose skills in the German language are comparable to mine. The University offers German-as-a-Foreign-Language classes to all exchange students attending the school, and although my ability in German has improved greatly just by living in Berlin, it is still very helpful to have a few regular hours of instruction, in which grammatical principles are repeated and the expansion of vocabulary is emphasized. For social reasons as well, it is nice to have a class with only foreign students, whose social and academic place at the F.U. is similar to mine. At an institution as large as the Freie Universität, it can sometimes be difficult to meet people, but in a class like this one, it is very easy. There are many fascinating people in the class, coming from all over the world and with a variety of interests. Everybody is looking to meet new friends.

After my class ends, at 2 p.m., I walk over to the University cafeteria, the Mensa, for lunch. Then I decide to head over to the German national library on Potsdamer Platz, to see if a book that I have recalled in connection with my research project for the Fox Fellowship has arrived. This library, referred to in German as the Staatsbibliothek, is only one of the great research facilities that the city has to offer. In connection with my project, which deals with a topic in modern European history, there are various archives and libraries that are easily accessible and that house extensive collections. German history is at my fingertips. Nevertheless, conducting research independently as a Fox Fellow is not always easy, and the experience is unlike any I have had before. For the first time, the project that I am working on is truly my own, and I do not have to report to an advisor or instructor. There are no deadlines to tell me when something should be finished or how to construct my research. However, although this freedom can be a little overwhelming, it is also very liberating, for it allows you to discover information at your own pace, and to follow the direction in which it leads you. This leads to a higher level of research and thinking, and the experience is invaluable.

After the lady at the desk tells me that my book has not yet been returned and that I will be notified when it comes in, I decide to head home. I want to get some reading and writing done before my friend Jenny, an exchange student from England whom I met in my language class, is coming over. We’re planning to cook dinner together and watch a movie. After that we’re going to meet some other friends in a Kneipe (café) around the corner to have a couple of beers. It’s four o’clock and dark outside, and the evening’s just beginning. It’s been a good day.



Free University

"Berlin, more than any place I have ever encountered, is a city shaped by its very recent history. The great majority of Berliners lived through the era of the Wall, and saw it fall with their own eyes. Living in a Mietskaserne, and watching the daily development of my neighborhood, I feel a part of that history too."

Christine Brouwer
to the Free University of Berlin