It’s 10:30 p.m. on a clear Saturday night, and I’m sitting, alone in the dark, on a park bench perched above a cliff-face in the middle of a forest. Technically, I’m somewhere atop Schlossberg (translation: castle hill), a 456-meter hill to the east of Freiburg, Germany, though I have no idea which part. From here, I can see the Altstadt, which in daylight looks spectacular: a crowded panorama of brick-based buildings all centered around the famous Münster (cathedral). But the city looks even bigger at night, its sense of scale enlarged by the dense black that engulfs the city, punctuated only by the building’s lights, the dark spaces between streetlights and housing blocks pregnant with mystique.
Somewhere below, Die Toten Hosen (literally, “The Dead Trousers”1), one of Germany’s most popular and best-named punk rock groups, is playing a concert at the local arena, their music reverberating up the hills, so I feel as much as hear the rhythm section, but can barely make out the vocals. Nonetheless, I feel a weird kind of satisfaction in getting to experience them for free. I’m up here mainly because of poor trip-planning on my part: every hostel bed and hotel room in the city is fully booked, many likely taken by eager DTH fans, all AirBnB options are either 40 kilometers out of town or over €100 per night, and the only Couchsurfing replies I got were declines. Rather than annoyed, I feel nervously excited: it gives me an opportunity to to tap into my extensive outdoor survival knowledge (read: a few years in Cubs and Scouts between the ages of 7-13) and try to survive a night in the forest.
I’d first thought of the idea a few hours earlier, when, leaving the internet cafe to give potential couch saviors the time to reply to my hopefully-not-too-obviously-desperate pleas for a surface to sleep on, I decided to explore Schlossberg with the aim of climbing the viewing tower at the top. I didn’t actually know where the tower was within the park, so I spent a zig-zaggy first hour wandering up, down and around its craggy surface, aimlessly selecting paths, scrambling up banks in poorly chosen footwear, and meandering through fields that seemed to have recently housed livestock. All along the way I kept a mental notebook of sheltered, comfy-looking (in the most relative sense of the word) spots that would be both safe and suitably discreet. For one thing, sleeping outside is an arrestable offence in Germany, though I did not seriously think any local cops would be making their rounds in such a vertically challenging area. I mostly wanted to stay out of sight of drunken kids, homeless vagabonds, and other imagined villains.
Eventually I sighted a topless man, whose pallid skin revealed his lack of sunbathing expertise. Tired of going around in circles, I nervously approached him, inducing a visible sigh but also a curt nod indicating the tower’s direction. Once I’d made my way up to the top, it was clear the view’s reputation was well-deserved; the 360-degree perspective combined with the beautiful weather made for a spectacular overview of the region. It occurred to me that I could probably see three countries — France, Switzerland, and Germany — all at once. I come from New Zealand, an isolated island nation where it takes at least three hours to fly to the next closest landmass, so I was, needless to say, pretty impressed.
I wandered back down to the city, periodically checking my e-mail at a slot machine “casino” that also doubled as a coin-operated internet cafe. Needing change, I went up to the grille-protected cashier, and for the first (and probably last) time in my life, I was asked for ID in order to use the internet. “Ach, Neuseeland!” he proclaimed with a grin, as people often do (how privileged to come from a place with no international baggage!). I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t, instead smiling vaguely into the middle distance, as people often do, probably not knowing what to associate with “Godzone” except beautiful landscapes, hairy feet, and hairy fruit, which Germans adorably pronounce as keevee. Afterwards, I go to a pub nearby for dinner and have Flammku chen, a sort of German pizza with a more pastryesque base and Quark (a cousin of cottage cheese) instead of tomato puree. It is delicious. At this point, I’m almost hopeful that no one will get back to me, so psyched am I to exercise notions of manly vigor and self-reliance, and when a final check of my empty inbox confirms this, I head back to the hostel where I had somehow managed to book a room the night before (but which is so over capacity tonight they have people sleeping in the common room) to pack some essentials into a plastic bag.
When it’s dark, it’s much harder to remember where that little place sequestered under a couple of trees with big canopies and just around the corner from the three giant logs is. I get there eventually, but not before getting lost several times and receiving “intrigued” looks from locals, undoubtedly confused why a reasonably well-dressed tourist would be carrying a clinking shopping bag up a hill after dark. I sit on the aforementioned park bench for a while, drinking a beer and jotting important-seeming notes on my cellphone, wary of attracting the attention of the people stumbling around and calling out to each other somewhere not too far below me. Now that the concert has finished, there’s really nothing else to be heard, apart from the steady thrum of cicadas and the odd gentle whoosh of wind.
I drink my second beer, even though I don’t really want it, partly out of stubbornness at having hauled it all the way up here, but mostly to give myself the courage to hang around and watch the fluorescent green glow flies that move languidly through the air, like floating neon sentries patrolling the night. As diminutive as they are, their presence is reassuring, and stops me from jumping at every little sound, of which there are many, once your ear becomes calibrated to them. The local trees seem to be holding a twig-snapping conference, causing me to swing round wildly, cellphone in hand on full beam, which obviously is counter-intuitive when you’re trying to avoid drawing attention to yourself.
Sitting there, freaking myself out despite the clear absence of any identifiable threat, I am reminded of my early teens, when we lived in a huge farm house in the middle of an open field. Because the house had more rooms than our family had people, there was a lot of space, and being the oldest, I demanded that I get the big room at the other end of the house. There, I could do Big Boy stuff, like pin up posters of half-naked girls draped over motorcross bikes or secretly play Age of Empires II all afternoon instead of doing my homework. At night though, it was a different story: separated from all of the other bedrooms, I would worry about burglars, afraid that they would enter from my side of the house, which was nearer to the road, and would go around double-checking all the locks. Even now, I still get paranoid about accidentally leaving front doors unlocked.
We were never burgled. Nor was anyone in our area in the six years we lived there. Self-imagined threats, it seems, can be more frightening precisely because they are divorced from reality; stripped of reason, they can’t be quantified, partitioned into little rationalized packages and dealt with. At least, that’s an explanation that makes me feel better about being scared of rustling leaves and giggling teens.
Second beer finished, I reluctantly head back to my spot and attempt to work it into something resembling a sleepable surface. There are a lot more rocks and a lot fewer leaves than I remember, and the ground itself is quite lumpy. Basically, it is a terrible choice of location. Any and all leaves I can find go into the plastic bag (along with all my stuff) to act as a pillow, which works really well for about ten minutes, until all the leaves are crushed to dust. After putting on some trousers and a sweater, I lie down for the last time and try to get comfortable. The wind, now a consistent rush overhead, soothes me to sleep
At 1 a.m., I am jolted awake by the sharp pain you get in your shoulder when you lie on hard forest ground for 90 minutes without moving. It is suddenly much colder. The t-shirt I was using to protect my face from mosquitoes goes under my sweater, which is less capable of retaining heat than it appears. After a few solid hours of serious discomfort, I decide to try and find somewhere sheltered to lay on the hillocky grass field nearby. Bad idea: it is much colder out in the open, and as I stand, awkwardly, in the direct moonlight, I get the shivers. What would a person think, if they happened to walk by right now, only to find me chattering in the middle of an open field?
I head back to my original spot. On the way, I spot some ferns, and remember how our Scoutmaster taught us to use them as bedding and insulation when we made “bivvys,” makeshift tents created out of industrial plastic sheets and string. At my high school, there was a six-month component in your second year where you lived in old timber huts with five or six other boys and did your own cooking/cleaning/maintenance, as well as a full complement of outdoor activities. I used to semi-brag about how I already knew how to do all of the things they were teaching us, partly because this was the only time that being in the universally dorky Scouts had proven socially useful, but mostly because I used to get a lot of stick for being, basically, the least farmer-y farmer’s son of all time.
“Real” farmer’s sons, the kind whose family have four generations of names on the Morrinsville4 Rugby Club honours board, refused to believe that I lived on a farm, and I would often have to repeatedly state that yes, I did know how to help operate a 50-bale rotary cowshed; yes, I was tall enough to press the button that released the cups when they got stuck; and yes, I could probably do a two-herd milking cycle better than you, Patrick. So knowing a thing or two about the rural pastime of surviving in the wilderness was occasionally helpful, at least for my fourteen-year-old ego. 99% of it is gone now, of course, but I am glad of the retained tidbit now. I gather enough ferns to make a decent bed, grab a few extra to stuff down my sweater and crawl back under my tree, narrowly avoiding an eye-gouging from the sharply-pointed branches that make up its hem.
Two hours pass. It turns out you need a lot of ferns if you want them to retain their cushion-y properties for more than a few minutes, but they do a good job of keeping me warm. At this point the mosquitoes, who have been steadily colonizing any bare patch of skin left unoccupied by fabric, are now managing to bite me through my sweater, so I give up trying to sleep and pull my arms inside my t-shirt, nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process. The Sunday sun is beginning to stream through the dense foliage above, and I bask in the diffuse half-light, my body slowly warming up for its task of running on mere snatches of sleep. Surprisingly, I actually feel okay, and so I bundle everything into my trusty Lidl bag, carefully crawl out from under my tree, and wander back onto one of the forest’s myriad paths.
Evidently I don’t remember this part of the park very well, and soon find myself shadowing a narrow road that leads away from the cathedral’s compass-like bell tower, but there are no other options that don’t involve twenty-foot cliff dives, so I soldier on. Mercifully, it begins to swing back around, and eventually deposits me in what appears to be one of the wealthier suburbs. The houses are all bleached white concrete and steel-glass facades, in deep contrast to the old quarter’s cheerful brick and time-charmed stone. After a time, I find myself at the entrance of the Stadtgarten I visited when I first arrived. It is a tip, or has at least been treated as such by last night’s revellers, with smashed vodka bottles and discarded kebab husks decorating the pavement between the well-kept flowerbeds and manicured patches of grass.
In fact, the whole city is somewhat of a mess, with fast food wrappers and general alcohol-related waste drifting along the main streets, even clogging up a couple of the Bächle, the small streetside culverts through which water diverted from the Dreisam River flows, acting as natural air conditioning and soothing soundtrack all in one. Legend has it that if you step in one, you’re destined to marry a Freiburger, and knowing this, it was interesting, the day before, to see how parents encouraged their children to jump in and splash around, seemingly seeking some kind of familial certainty. This morning, however, I am completely alone; the city feels mine, a medieval playground in which to wander and feel momentarily European, accompanied only by the murmuring water and my high school fantasies. Rounding the corner to St Martin’s Tor, my reverie is rudely interrupted by the stuttered whinnying of a streetsweeper, busy clearing away any evidence of disorder. Witnessing this, the clean-up job that maintains the city’s image of pristine, peaceful beauty (in stark contrast to the warts-and-all vitality and crumbling grandeur of Berlin, where I live), I get the sense of having glimpsed behind Freiburg’s curtain, and it casts my appreciation of the city’s almost overbearing picturesqueness in a new light. Sometimes seeing the sketch lines can enhance our appreciation of the final composition.
In Germany, the notion of the Sabbath as a day of rest is taken seriously, meaning that almost everything is closed, which can be nice if you’ve done all your shopping on a Saturday but is less enjoyable if you’re starving and have just spent the night sleeping under a tree. Even the McDonald’s is closed until 10:30 a.m., so I trudge across the city to the Hauptbahnhof, grab some food, and then drag myself to the other side of the map, to the hostel where I stayed two nights before. Popping in twice a day to retrieve bits of luggage seems to have developed the impression that I am a regular guest, and the staff greet me cheerfully as I hurry through reception to the shower area.
Freshly bathed, and having made use of my leftover fridge food and free wifi (number of belated Couchsurfing replies: 0), I head back out again to enjoy my last couple of hours in the city. It has been a weird trip. Ostensibly, its purpose was to check out the university before potentially moving here for study, but it was also the chance to escape Berlin for a weekend, to see more of this other-Germany, so different from the Hauptstadt, which feels more like the capital of young Europe than anything else.
If you judge 1990, the year of reunification, to be “Year Zero,” as some are fond of calling it, Berlin and I are almost the same age. It feels young too, despite recently celebrating its 775-year anniversary, full of a lusty energy and hopefulness exuded by the people drawn by its historical promise of rebirth.
Freiburg, in contrast, is a city basking in its age, the buildings and streets exuding a kind of meticulously cultivated maturity5. It’s easy to get a bit uppity about the quaintness of it all, but having seen its capacity to look used, and the effort required to keep it so beautiful, you get the sense that it must mean a lot for Freiburgers to live here, in this refined way (and considering the city’s commitment to environmentalism, perhaps one more cities should follow), much like how Berliners are proud of their city’s stubborn endurance and historical salience. As I sit in the courtyard of the famous Hausbrauerei Feierling, sipping on a pint of its eco-friendly Inselhopf while I wait for my train home, I try to soak up as much of the good weather as I can, to take with me back to the mercurial climatic tendencies of Northern Germany. Despite the rough night, or perhaps because of it, a weekend here has done me the world of good, and I get ready to depart Freiburg feeling mentally recharged. It will be hard to leave. But the place I’m returning to, at the other extreme of Germany both figuratively and geographically, makes it easy. Berlin is home, and a university letter that arrives three weeks after I get back will allow me to say that for at least the next two years. It’s a good thing I didn’t step in a Bächle.