April 22, 2007

Arkansans Abroad: Freiburg Edition

During my Easter break from classes, Kevin and I decided to get some traveling under our belts, and so we set out for Freiburg, the warmest, sunniest, southwestern-most city in Germany. Its climate is perfect for producing light, sweet wines, and it’s a popular launching point for trips into the nearby Schwarzwald (Black Forest). But Freiburg had no real attraction for us, save one: It’s the home of my brother’s high school best friend, Jack.

This may seem a tenuous connection at first, but we’re Southerners – Arkansans at that – and all Arkansans away from home can claim one another as friends, even if they don’t actually know each other that well. And as it turns out, we’re even related: My great uncle married his aunt, etc. Although that may seem even more tenuous connection than the first, there’s something to be said for being able to talk to someone who know where you’re from and knows where you’re coming from, and there are scant few of those in Germany. Although maybe more than could be expected.

It had been a few years since I’d seen Jack, but I remembered his being one of the more ambitious of my brother’s buddies, and in his life after college it’s clear that he has lost none of that “get up and go.” After graduating two years ago from Centenary College in Louisiana, he decided to move to Europe and see if he couldn’t play soccer for a European league. Now, Jack is a great soccer player – I believe he might even have been ranked first in the state when we were in high school – but he was under no illusions that he was a big fish in a small pond. Arkansas is hardly prime soccer territory – and Europe is clearly the Mecca of the soccer world. “I knew I wasn’t a Pélé or a Mirabella,” Jack told me, “but I wanted to see if I was any good.”

Well, it turns out the Jack was pretty good and got picked up by a small semi-pro soccer club in the village of Durbach (pop. 4,000), about 40 minutes north of Freiburg. This, in and of itself, is an amazing accomplishment. Germans are crazy about their Fußball and have no shortage of their own highly skilled boys to chose from. Even their small, semi-pro leagues are highly competitive. Furthermore, Jack didn’t speak a word of German, and in this corner of Germany there are few Germans who speak English. “In order to understand the terms of my contract, I had to have a member of the team translate it into Spanish,” he said. “It was the only language I had in common with anyone.”

But what impresses me even more than his signing with a German team, is how he’s made a whole life for himself in a foreign country in less than two years. His first year here, he boarded with a family in Durbach and worked in a local winery (more on both of these later). Between the two, he became completely fluent in German, with only the slightest hint of a Southern accent. Now, he’s got his own apartment (and a German girlfriend) in Freiburg, where he’s studying for a master’s degree in exercise science at the prestigious Albert-Ludwig University. He also works at a wine research institute and occasionally schleps tables and plays guitar at a local Irish pub. And of course, he’s still playing soccer for Durbach.

I’ve lived in Germany for four months now and have come to feel myself quite at home. But I can never imagine creating a life for myself the way Jack has, even if I were to live here a dozen years. So more than anything else in Freiburg, Jack was the main attraction, and in touring around with him for several days, I saw more of “the real Germany” than I’ve seen all year. Funny that it was with an Arkansan as my guide.
[Jack with the lovely and talented Anja, who is studying to be a journalist for public television. Needless to say, we hit it right off.]

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