Jasper Hondelink in Freiburg, Germany
The fourth instalment of Heidegger's Black Notebooks had just been published when I arrived in Freiburg. In the first instance I was taken aback by how many people brought the subject up in conversation; and few were philosophy students. I was even more surprised when I noticed just about everyone in the city was talking about the topic. People talked about it on the streets, in bars and on trains, where I would repeatedly overhear fragments of heated discussions. Even in the supermarket checkout queue people were poking there finger at one another trying to make sense (and non-sense) of Heidegger's philosophy.
What I’m really getting at is that philosophy is something really alive and very now in Freiburg and that you come across evidence of it everywhere. Not just in dusty tomes straining library shelves. In Albert-Ludwigs Universität’s hall there is a monument to Husserl's time as rector and his later unfair dismissal. I took part in a seminar by one of Gadamer's pupils and two of my housemates were taught PE at secondary school by Heidegger's grandson. That you keep coming face to face with history here is really not so surprising: Freiburg's philosophy faculty has always been one of Germany’s greatest. Freiburg university is where among others Husserl, Heidegger, Rickert, Arendt, Gadamer, Weber, Carnap, Benjamin, Marcuse and - even longer ago - Desiderius Erasmus and Albertus Magnus all worked and studied. The Albert-Ludwigs Universität is one of the highest ranking universities, one reason being its research into hermeneutics and phenomenology, which are key subjects. The environs simply ooze this atmosphere and it gets into your bones.
Studying philosophy in Freiburg particularly suited me, and not only thanks to its rich history and the erudite professors. The way education is organised is also fascinating to experience directly; quite different from Nijmegen. As a rule, in the first year German students mostly follow lectures, while tutorials and seminars are more something for the later years of the course. The groups are much smaller than in Nijmegen, which enables students to discuss things in more depth with each other. Something they do much more often. It's not unusual for students to start discussing something during a seminar, without the lecturer intervening. Individual students will also regularly hold a monologue on their interpretation of certain passages in a text which can last many minutes long. In my experience, German students are much more articulate than Dutch students, and for me this was a great experience, as it was always during discussions that I had the feeling I was utterly immersed in philosophy!
Freiburg however is more than its university. The city itself is a delightful place to live. Freiburg is an idyllic, southern German town with quaint old houses, squares and pubs everywhere you turn; sometimes you have the feeling you’ve alighted on a fairytale setting. One great thing to see are the Bächle, small channels running through the old centre, where people sit in summer cooling their feet in the water while sipping an even cooler beer. The city is located on a river in a valley with the hills, forests and vineyards providing the backdrop. One of the hilltops supports some old castle ruins offering views out over the old town, with France and the Vosges off in the distance. This is also the location of one of the best Biergartens in the city and where I had a wee job during the spring and summer months.
Freiburg is a truly wonderful place, especially in summer. There is a rolling programme of festivals in the old town, with all manner of events happening including bands etc, all lubricated by plentiful enormous Maßkrüges (beer mugs). One of the coolest things to do in this period is to hang out in the area around Augustinerplatz, where up to two hundred people just meet, drink, chat or make music. Drinking on the street is legal and accepted in Germany, so everyone brings something along and chills it in a Bächle. And after the supermarkets close in the evening, there’s always some entrepreneur flogging cold beers from his bicycle panniers until the wee small hours. Local Freiburg beer is excellent. There are about five large commercial breweries in the vicinity producing some of Germany’s best refreshments.
The city is also an international hub, partly due to the university's wide appeal and outstanding network. I've met people from all over Europe, as well as Africans and Arabs, there are also an astonishing number of Chinese and Japanese people in Freiburg and, not to forget, a fair contingent of Americans. It's great to live among all these cultures, hear stories about all the different countries or get to taste foreign dishes that people cook for each other. Initially I lived close to the old centre, but after a couple of months I moved to a flat in student accommodation on the rim of Freiburg. Around four hundred students live there, of which around half are foreign. They organised all sorts of things for the foreign students, but I didn't take part in much of that.
Moving to the edge of the city might sound a bit strange, but it also has one great advantage. The outskirts of Freiburg are close to the foothills of the Black Forest; a gigantic forest covering around six thousand square kilometres (for comparison: the entire area of Gelderland doesn’t even top five thousand square kilometres). The Black Forest boasts low mountain ranges, deep canyons, all kinds of lakes and stunning walking routes. You come across old chapels built in the time that pilgrims navigated these woods. There are huts where you can shelter or spend the night if necessary and sometimes you will stumble into an old sleepy village. At least once a week I would set off on a hike through the woods; highly recommended if you choose Freiburg!