Germany: A Winter Crash Course

Every January, I get nostalgic about a transformative ten-day study abroad trip across northern Germany.

It took place at the start of my part-time MBA program at UMass Boston over the first winter session in 2013.

It’s been five years now and as I look over all of the pictures, the memories, faces, and fun adventures all seem so fresh.

I had just started my studies that fall semester and knew very little about Germany or the study abroad opportunities offered at UMass. The course was titled ‘German Business and Management Practices‘ and would include a few on-site company visits, a weekend excursion to Berlin, and a general overview of Germany’s role in the European Union.

After some deliberation and procrastination, I signed up last-minute in early October, just barely making the application deadline. I sent in all my information and recommendation letters.

A couple of weeks passed and I received the confirmation email that I was accepted! I was excited but unsure of what to expect. During my undergraduate studies, I had never studied abroad or done any extensive traveling.

Professor Romar, our fearless leader and guide, organized a brief orientation in mid-December.

We were a group of twelve strangers, like something out of the Real World, all part-time MBA students from a range of demographics. Some were international students, a couple of folks were married with children, and the majority of us were starry-eyed twenty- or thirty-somethings.

We sat in a conference room as the professor went through our syllabus and briefed us on the logistics of the trip. We were to fly out of Logan Airport in Boston on a Saturday evening and arrive the following morning in Frankfurt. By that afternoon, we would rendezvous with our counterparts at the Universität Kassel.

After our short meeting, flights were booked via Lufthansa and all we had to do was wait. There were still few details surrounding where we would be staying, what type of food we would be eating, etc., but I felt confident that everything would be just fine. The holidays came and went, and before we knew it, we were off!

Frankfurt

Our plane touched down in Frankfurt during the wee hours before daybreak on a cold January morning. Most of us were on the same flight, so we regrouped after landing and met up at an airport restaurant for breakfast.

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We waited for a couple of hours until our Universität Kassel representative Mario came to meet us. Because we arrived at an ungodly hour, we gladly allowed him time to hop on the early morning train and make the long journey to the airport from Kassel; we were about to embark on the reverse trip ourselves.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Frankfurt but did stop at a local McDonald’s for lunch. The menu was certainly quite different and more wholesome than what we were accustomed to back home. Bratwurst sandwiches anybody?

The next few hours were spent getting to the train station (Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof) and riding across the countryside to the small central city of Kassel. Some of us, myself not included, got some sleep on the way.

Kassel

We unloaded from our train and met a slightly larger crowd of students at the station in Kassel. It was there that we learned that we would be split into small groups and live among the Uni Kassel students in their private apartments and homes. I had initially imagined that we’d be living in dorms, so this was a pleasant surprise.

I met my new Uni Kassel buddies, Dorothy and Frederike, along with my new UMass flatmate Hai. All four of us boarded a tram, similar to our own MBTA Green Line trolleys, and made our way through the city to the Weserspitze stop.

Dorothy and Frederike were roommates that shared an apartment not far from the tram stop. We walked down the snowy streets to their building, climbed a few flights of stairs, and made our way in.

They had a roomy apartment with plenty of space for all of us. In the kitchen, I noticed that they had assembled for us a spread of “American” foods, including white bread, cereal, and peanut butter for snacks and breakfast. I later became more accustomed to the German-style breakfast and made the switch early in the week.

They had prepared a room for Hai and me to stay in and it was then determined that both of us would be sharing a pull-out couch together. To all of our amusement, we explained that we were virtual strangers and just met on the day of the flight, but it worked out just fine.

I took a shower, changed, and we hurriedly made our way to dinner with the rest of the group (I soon noted that punctuality was very important to Frederike). We headed to an old tavern and enjoyed traditional German fare, including spätzle, schnitzel, and lovely golden wheat beers.

Professor Hellstern, the Uni Kassel liaison for our trip, greeted all of us and made a brief speech and a toast to our newly formed cohort.

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It was there that I learned that many of the Uni Kassel students were also studying abroad. Some had traveled from Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, and beyond to take part in the short winter course with us.

Many languages and nations were represented, including a number of students from our own group who were from India, Thailand, Egypt, and Lebanon. We bonded over beers and stories about our travels.

Over the next week, we would spend almost every waking hour with this group of students and we quickly became a close-knit community. To this day, I value the friendships and connections I made with some of the students in this program.

We spent most of our mornings throughout the week in lectures at Uni Kassel while the afternoons were mostly reserved for day trips. We observed and participated in presentations given by the Uni Kassel students, all in English.

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Eisenach

Our first full day in Kassel included a visit to Eisenach, a small historical town about an hour outside of Kassel. It was the birthplace of composer Johann Sebastian Bach and the place where Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Ancient Greek into German.

Some of our highlights included a visit to the famous Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther resided during his excommunication by Pope Leo X.

The views were spectacular, especially with the fresh snow, and we managed to get a few good shots from the outside.

On the inside, we toured the castle and museum, which was completed in a series of phases beginning in the Middle Ages. We peered through meticulously preserved and historically accurate rooms and saw suits of armor from the knights that once inhabited the hilltop castle.

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The castle grounds were quite a sight, especially given the age of the fortress and the historical significance of Martin Luther’s stay.

For the remainder of the day, we toured the town on foot and visited the Bachhaus, a museum dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as the Lutherhaus. We also stopped and had lunch at a medieval-themed farmhouse, where we dined on great wooden tables with holes drilled in them to hold beer horns.

Volkswagen and B. Braun

In the following days after our Eisenach visit, we toured a couple nearby company sites for Volkswagen, a well-known automobile manufacturer, and B. Braun, a German medical and pharmaceutical device company.

B. Braun is headquartered in Melsungen, not far from Kassel. While we weren’t allowed to photograph much within the facility, we were able to take a look at the product offerings, manufacturing process, and automation robots involved in production.

As I expected, the plant was sparkling clean and efficiently laid out. We met an employee there who was originally from Dorchester, MA and spoke fluent German and French. He moved to Melsungen to work at B. Braun not long after finishing up college.

At the Volkswagen factory in Kassel, we took a guided tour of the factory’s mostly automated assembly line. Once again, photographs were not allowed inside, but we watched in awe as massive robotic arms gracefully and methodically cut, pressed, welded, and assembled automobile parts in rapid succession.

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Berlin

The week went by quickly and by Thursday, we were preparing for our three-day trek to Germany’s capital city, Berlin.

We packed our bags, both Uni Kassel and UMass students, and headed for the train station. The trip took roughly three hours via high-speed train, and we made it into Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof by the early afternoon.

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Upon arrival, we began our tour of the city on foot and headed over to the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy).

We were briefed with a few presentations covering small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) and would later visit a couple local startups during our trip. We would eventually learn that Berlin is a hotbed for startups, not unlike San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, or my home city of Boston.

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After our introduction, we headed on over to the Reichstag building, which houses the German parliament, or Bundestag.

The building opened in 1894, was nearly destroyed during World War II, and was later reconstructed with a large glass dome after the reunification of Germany in 1990. We were able to take a tour inside to view the parliamentary chamber and capture some birds-eye views from the top of the dome.

Berlin Youth Hostel

Once our daytime visit was finished, we were able to check into our accommodations for the weekend.

For the first time in my life, I was able to experience hostel living. We all packed into the Berlin Youth Hostel, which was arranged much like a college dorm: bunk beds, shared bathrooms, and a common room were part of the package deal. It was in no way a setting for a horror movie.

I shared a room with three other UMass students and the lot of us more or less occupied the same hallway in the hostel. In addition to our group, we met a wide array of international students and travelers, enjoyed breakfast and lunch in our own cafeteria, and threw a couple of parties in our common room at night.

The hostel was a clean, safe, and fun environment for all of us to mingle and unwind after our lectures and day trips around the city.

Berlin Sights and Sounds

Throughout the weekend, we visited a number of major landmarks and museums, including the Pergamon Museum, the Jewish Museum, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Thuringian Gate.

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Several of the sites we visited gave pause to much of the city’s tempestuous past, between the brink of World War II and the end of the Cold War. I noticed subtle differences between the East and West sides of the city, even decades after the reunification of the nation. Buildings left in partial ruins and bullet holes could be seen in certain places, reminders of harsher times.

We caught sight of remnants of the Berlin Wall, now adorned with artwork and graffiti. We also made a stop at the Bendlerblock, the site where German Resistance leader Claus von Stauffenberg and others were executed and one of the locations where the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie was filmed.

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Despite some of these older relics, the city of Berlin is a thriving and diverse metropolis full of life and new energy. We saw signs of new construction and development throughout the city with cranes littering the skyline.

Berlin Entertainment

Speaking of new energy, Berlin offers extensive around-the-clock nightlife and an assortment of restaurants with international fare. We discovered a new-found fondness for Turkish döner kebab, a type of thinly sliced meat cooked on a rotisserie, similar to gyros or shawarma.

On one evening, our group split up, with one horde visiting the local nightclubs and the rest of us partaking in our own miniature bar crawl. Drinking is allowed in public in Berlin and even permitted on subway trains, a far cry from Boston. Bars are open late or all night in some parts.

Some of our Uni Kassel friends were familiar with the city and took us through some of their favorite haunts.

The Return to Kassel

After an eventful weekend, we hopped on an ICE train back to Kassel. This time, we rode in style on a high-speed luxury version with our own private booths. The train was nothing short of smooth, quiet, and efficient. It made our own Amtrak Acela look like the Edaville Railroad.

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Back “home” in Kassel, we were greeted with a farewell dinner at an upscale restaurant near the city center.

It was all too bittersweet to be winding down our extraordinary winter expedition and to be saying goodbye (for now) to our newly formed friendships and companions. This was a trip like no other I had experienced before and quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not to sound cliché.

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Universität Kassel Engineering

On our final day in Kassel, after our farewell dinner, we had a chance to tour the engineering school at Uni Kassel and see some of the works that the students produce for major companies.

It was really neat to see some of the same robots and injection molding machines that we saw at B. Braun and Volkswagen and the students were eager to show us all of their latest designs and projects, ranging from car parts to audio/visual experiments.

Return to Frankfurt and Boston

Our UMass group decided to head back to Frankfurt the night before our planned flights, to avoid forcing poor Mario and our Uni Kassel hosts to wake up early and bring us to the train station. Sadly, we exchanged information, said our final goodbyes, and began the journey back.

We booked a hotel not far from the airport and went out for dinner one last time. It was the first occasion for just us UMass students to gather privately; even Professor Romar had split off at the Frankfurt train station to meet a friend for his last leg of the trip.

We enjoyed dinner and drinks and took a short walk around the city, one last time. I remember writing and mailing out my postcards to family and friends just before settling in for the night.

The next morning, we crammed into a couple of taxis and careened off to the Frankfurt Flughafen (Airport). By late afternoon, we were safely back in Boston!

Summary

The trip to Germany provided me a thorough sampling of history, business and commerce, and modern culture. I knew very little of the central European nation, other than what I had read in books or saw on movies and television, and the adventure provided me glimpses into actual lives of students in Germany and throughout the rest of the European Union.

We learned about the German education system, the “Dual System” that tracks students both through a traditional university path and also a path towards careers in technical trades. The value of higher education in Germany is easily illustrated by the low-cost of university tuition and the availability of free or low-cost tuition for major European Union participant schools.

The trip forged new friendships and ties, both domestic and abroad, and inspired me to begin learning the German language soon thereafter (more to come on that). Out of all of my MBA courses, I felt that this class and trip encouraged a different style of learning as an immersive experience and left a lasting impression on me, even years later.

While I’m not sure that I will ever be able to reproduce the experiences and memories of this trip, I would encourage anyone attending graduate school to take part in a study abroad program or two if time and budget allow: I wish I had taken more trips like this one!

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