My name is Megan Hahn, and I am a senior Honors student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, majoring in Music with a minor in German. For the fall semester of 2008, I went as an exchange student to Germany. I found Europe to be one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had. I studied German at UAF for two years prior to leaving. The language itself was one of the hardest parts of my studies abroad. It was helpful, but textbook studies can never be enough to prepare one for real conversation. While in Germany, I studied at the Eberhard Karl University in Tübingen. I had the option of taking classes in English, but for the sake of improving my German, I took six classes and all in German. The German college-level schooling system is slightly different than that in the United States. Classes only meet once a week and because of that, I had a lot of free time. My solution to occupying myself was to travel as much as possible.
Each weekend I would travel somewhere, either within Germany or to a bordering country. I visited seven of Germany’s nine bordering countries: France, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.
One of the things that amazed me the most is how small and how closely compacted European countries are. With an Inner City Express (ICE) train, it is possible to travel from Amsterdam to Italy in a single day. What amazed me is despite tight living quarters with neighboring countries, each region kept distinct cultures unique to their country. Although the countries are influenced by each other, they still maintain individuality with languages, traditions, and personal values.
Europe is about 3.8 million square miles in size and has a population of about 730 million. Its land mass is just slightly bigger than the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii,) but the United States has less than half the population of Europe. Knowing how well developed the land in the lower 48 is, it is difficult to imagine the efficiency of land use in Europe. A very small percentage of natural forest still exists in Western Europe. Most of Europe’s land has been developed for agriculture and living space. The ratio of population to land in Europe shows that there are approximately 192 people per square mile. This contrasts to the United States with 82 people per square mile. It was certainly a different experience from Alaska, which has a population of only one person per square mile. Now that I've lived in a densely populated area, I appreciate Alaska’s originality and isolation more than ever.
I arrived in Tübingen (Toō-bing-en) on the 29th of August 2008, and the first thing to happen was that I met my first person in Europe who didn’t speak English. I stuttered my German, but we were able to communicate. That was only the first of many times to come that I would need to rely on a knowledge in which I was not fully confident.
Over the next five months I encountered a few situations that were surprising to me. One of which being the openness of discussion on topics that are mostly “taboo” in the United States. I once spoke with a stranger on the street who had visited Russia. In a ten-minute conversation with him, we talked about religion, politics, race, and gender roles in our countries. I didn’t notice until later at how the conversation lacked conviction. That is to say, even though we were speaking about opinions that most Americans hold very personal, it felt more like a discussion on straight facts instead of stepping lightly to avoid offense.
I met students from Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Canada. It was fun to meet people from all around the world who had a similar background in German studies. It was also interesting to hear our many versions of bad German pronunciation. By the end of the semester we all left with a better understanding of the language, plus a touch of each other’s accents.