The European aesthetic has always captivated me; cobblestone streets, tiny hole-in-the-wall shops that have been family-owned for generations, and centuries-old castles and cathedrals literally across the street from super-modern monoliths of glass and steel. There is simply nothing like this in America. You almost get whiplash just by crossing the street, like you’re suddenly traveling in time.
The main shopping streets in the Altstadt are incredible to me. There aren’t many cars (and in some streets no cars), so people walk all over the street, but tram lines crisscross the entire thing. And unlike in Minneapolis, the trams aren’t cordoned-off, or given their dedicated part of the street. They’re just there and you’re expected to dodge them. They slow down in dense areas, naturally, but it makes thinking of all the oblivious people walking into the Light Rail back in Minneapolis downright comical.
Public transit is very reliable and affordable. It’s €2.30 for a hop on the tram from my apartment to the city, which is more than the Light Rail, but you can buy a RegioKarte that pays for itself within about 20 trips. I’ve probably already gotten my money’s worth out of that. My only complaint is that the big, laminated card they give you doesn’t fit in my wallet nicely. A big bonus: there are machines to buy your ticket aboard the train itself! I’m told some people just stand in front of them pressing buttons to make it look like they’re buying one, but I haven’t seen that myself yet.
Street food vendors are everywhere. I knew about them, and I knew how cheap they were, but I assumed the quality of the food would suffer for the price and convenience. Not always so. You could easily live off of this stuff, if you know what things to avoid. My observation thus far is that pre-assembled sandwiches (and similar) suffer for being left out in bins, but whole baked goods and things assembled in front of you are not fast-foody at all. Speaking of which, the only American restaurant that I’ve seen so far is a McDonald’s, in the most hilarious spot imaginable. I am vaguely curious what American fast food is like in other countries, but it’s gonna be a while before I’m desperate enough to try it out.
There are American brands of clothes and other products everywhere, though. It’s a bit surreal to see posters of Snoop Dogg endorsing shoes on cobbled streets. There are plenty of German (or European) brands and stores, alongside local craftsmen. Pretty much everything I would expect seems to be here, it’s just not necessarily where I would expect it. I forgot to pack a hairbrush so I looked in supermarkets by the toiletries trying to find one, but I couldn’t; someone eventually gifted me one.
One of my favorite things so far has been the omnipresence of ice cream shops, or Eis-Cafes. For €1 (or less!) you can get a remarkably tasty ice cream cone in a massive assortment of flavors. For me, the white whale of this whole trip was finding pistachio ice cream – a flavor that has haunted me ever since tasting it on my first trip to Germany in 2003. I was overjoyed to discover that it’s in almost every one of these cafes. American pistachio ice cream just isn’t the same – it has actual chunks of pistachio mixed into it which turn soggy and get freezer-burned. Not so with this stuff – happy day!
One weird thing I’ve noticed is a policy common to these cafes, where if you want to sit down you have to actually sit down first and order your stuff from a waiter, but if you go up to the counter and order there you must carry it away and can’t sit down and eat it. I do wish there were more places to just sit down and relax for a bit in the city; benches are basically only at tram stations, and all the chairs are for cafes and restaurants. Curbs as we Americans think of them are rare, and if you sat down at one you’d be very much in the way.
Freiburg is nestled near some mountains, one of which is called the Schlossberg. There used to be a castle there, but it was constructed poorly and fell to ruin over the centuries. There are a few observation towers there now, though, one of which I trekked up to with a group this afternoon. It has a truly spectacular view of the city and surrounding areas. When the weather is good – like it was today – you can see all the way to France.