I experienced culture shock, or the closest thing to it. It was bizarre because it was so close to where I am right now, geographically. Southern Germany is not too far from Italy. But arriving in Basel, en route to Freiburg, I was already rattling in my cushy microfiber VW bench seat. Even the car, in its pristine factory form equipped with rare bottles of still water and deluxe carpets, was alienating a bit. We sped off on the autobahn, and before I arrived at the row house perched in the valley separating the black forest, I had already been in three countries.
I was stationed in the city of Freiburg. It’s really surprising to see that the residents here all know the facts about their town (e.g. there are 200,000 residents, the local crops and their respective seasons, the complete building history of their town church) Little streams strung together the city and provided a path through which I could learn more. More about its rigorous structure, its exposed lumber beams, its meticulousness.
Everyone in Freiburg rides a bike. You can’t live in Freiburg and not have one, or dare I say not know how to ride one. I took the commuter route through the countryside into the city center, and I probably saw at least 200 people with their children, spouses, and dogs whisk by on bicycles. Freiburg’s openness and wide city streets lends itself well to the bike traffic, but if you pay close attention, you realize that cars are not allowed within the city. Seen often in Italian cities to reduce the cramped and polluted feel of medieval towns, the relocation of cars to outside the city center seems to be motivated more by pride, and less by disdain of the age of the motor vehicle. The automobile has its place on the elegantly crafted straight shots through the rest of the country.
The culture is sumptuously rich—with a knack for nature. I definitely saw more fresh, homegrown produce in Germany than anywhere else in Italy. This is probably the greenest place I’ve been, a kind of attainable utopia without the foibles of big brother (not that there are fewer or looser laws regulating the pristine land here!). The dinner table may be ridden with dense bread rolls, potatoes, and creamy Spaetzle with veal, but the cooking’s so good it’s all guilt free. And you can’t forget the unveiling of the nacreous, white asparagus glistening behind its steamy veils, whose complete shadowy immersion under white Tyvek ends with this ripe, show-stealing appearance on your platter. Popping in and out of the steamy town of Ronchamp, spending time in the chapel of light on a foggy day, and the fissured city known as Staufen, I realized how interconnected Europe can be both physically and culturally, while being totally different. And I got to see how a green city, a sustainable city, could actually work. How to retrofit or adapt this model to existing cities would be the real issue. But it was truly inspiring to see this kind of health, beauty, and efficiency.