Running In Germany

Running In Germany

Running In Germany

In the summer of 1990 I spent eight weeks studying German at a German Language Center ("Goethe Institut") in Goettingen, Germany. Goettingen is a beautiful old university town, reminiscent in many ways of Ann Arbor, located in the Lower Saxony ("Niedersachsen") region of Germany, not far from the former East German border and about two hours east by train from Frankfurt. It is a friendly, comfortable town surrounded by rolling fields and thick forests. I fell in love with the place at first sight and still miss it tremendously.

Goethe Institutes are probably the best-known German language learning centers in the world. There are a number of the Institutes located throughout Germany and they teach a wide range of specialized language courses, everything from two-week "German for Tourists" classes to the eight-week intensive course that I took. The Institutes draw students from literally all over the world, so each class is a delightful blend of cultures and ethnicities. My class, for example, included four recent emigres from Poland (ranging in age from 25 to 50), an older couple from Iceland; a professor of Psychology from Budapest; a young Swiss student hoping to work in the travel industry; a Japanese music student; two businessmen from Albania; and most interestingly, one refugee from Iran and two from Iraq, one of whom was a Kurd. This was the summer of 1990, just weeks before the Persian Gulf War broke out. We had some fascinating foreign policy discussions, and I learned a very sobering lesson about fleeing your homeland in terror and knowing that you could never go back.

Another student in my class was Laurent, a young French student studying Philosophy at the Sorbonne. During our first-day introductions (conducted in German, as was everything), I noticed Laurent's ears perk up when I mentioned that I liked to run. After class he cornered me.

"You're a runner? I am, too!" he said (again, this was all in German). "What do you run?"

"Long distance," I replied. "What about you?"

"1500 meters," he said. "Do you run every day?"

"Almost every day," I replied, "I haven't run much lately so I'm not in good shape." I had slacked off a bit before leaving Ann Arbor.

Laurent gestured outside. "I came to this institute last year, so I know some trails in the woods across the street. Do you want to run together?"

"Yes! That would be great!" This will get me back on track, I thought.

"How far? An hour?" He asked.

"No, I can't do an hour. How about 45 minutes?"

I said, hoping that I could indeed run for 45 minutes. "45 minutes. Good. Today? 3:00? Meet in front of the Institute?" he said eagerly.

"Good!" I responded.

So began our thrice-weekly routine. Laurent's dorm was located about half a mile from the Institute, while my room was in the Institute building itself. Laurent would jog to the Institute, pick me up, and off we would go for a marvelous run on trails that took us through the woods and also along pastures and gentle hills overlooking nearby villages. It was exquisitely beautiful and very peaceful. Laurent had a group of friends from his previous visit to the Institute so aside from our runs we rarely socialized. But every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 3:00, we headed off for our tour of the countryside.

During our runs, we talked. Laurent knew very little English and my French is limited to "soup du jour", so our discussions were conducted in German. Although we were in the same class, Laurent's command of German was somewhat better than mine (and his pronunciation was significantly better), so many times I struggled to express myself and he struggled to understand what I was saying. Our talks covered a vast range of topics, from the day's grammar lesson to international politics to the very American concept of athletic scholarships. The latter was one of my more challenging topics; not only was the concept itself completely foreign to Laurent, it required explaining the entire American post-secondary educational system, which in several respects is quite different from the European system (starting with tuition!). I'm not sure Laurent completely understood the process, but it certainly wasn't from a lack of effort on my part. I'm certain those runs did as much to improve my language skills as the actual course lessons.

During the last week of classes, the town of Goettingen put on a small road race, the "Goettingen Altstadlauf" ("Goettingen Old City Run"). The race was run literally through the city streets. The men ran 10K and the women ran 5.162K (I am not making this up). Of course Laurent and I decided to participate. I had expected a little local affair, with a few area runners. Silly me. The race offered prize money, and it drew a sizeable pool of talent. I ran about 18:30 and finished 14th. The winning time was under 16:00. I don't recall where Laurent finished; I think it was in the top 20. Not bad for a miler. It was tremendous fun and one of the highlights of my visit.

Our class ended a few days later, and we went our separate ways. I have often wondered whether Laurent continued train and compete. I never saw his name in any results from European track meets. He may have decided instead to concentrate on his studies and subsequent career.

I have many wonderful memories from Goettingen, and my runs with Laurent were certainly a highlight. I enjoyed the opportunity to see the countryside and particularly to get to know someone whose life was so different from my own, yet with whom I shared such a strong common bond.