Walking home from the university in Frankfurt (Oder) was always a unique experience. When I left the university, the view of the ancient library and modern university buildings gave way to the mall that housed discount stores. The bustle and chatter of students from all over the world gave way to the harsh dialect and resigned faces of the permanent residents. Past the McDonalds, the buildings became more drab and even obviously abandoned. One time, I used the path along the river instead of the main road and found a few well-maintained architectural gems. This is when I realized that Frankfurt (Oder) must be more than it seemed. It must have been prosperous at one time for the library, concert hall and churches to have been built as beautifully as they were. The empty buildings must once have been inhabited.
I connected the end of WWII and the partition of Germany to the decline in prosperity here. Just as in Lebehn, most people left after the fall of the Berlin wall because there were no jobs. Many who did stay, had no choice. The sense of being stuck permeates the air of the city. The only place that is free of it is the university. It is easy to forget that the Berlin wall fell in 1989 which was only 28 years ago. And it is easy to assume that 28 years is enough time to change the whole framework of a place but it isn’t. Many students from western countries seemed disappointed because this wasn’t the Germany they had imagined. I understood this but also disagreed. I do not know of any other place that tells the story of its history in such a clear and raw way. I learned that sometimes truth is not beautiful in the way that we expect. Truth can be uncomfortable. And that is a good thing. It challenges us to step outside ourselves and examine our prejudices and priorities. Then change happens.
When going to a place, it is easy to only see the surface and to gloss over its deeper currents. Many of my fellow exchange students remained in the study abroad bubble that revolved around the university, its events, and traveling. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage you to be involved with your fellow exchange students, university events, and to travel. But don’t stop there. Seek to understand the culture around you, even if that culture is initially unexpected and un-glamorous. I promise that the experience will be more rewarding than you think possible. Read about how I learned this here.