Letter from Ulm: ‘Einfach leb!’

“Einfach leb!”, two German words meaning roughly “Just live!” set me at ease after I delivered my elevator speech for the nth time while walking down a gravel road with a few men (and a rather large dog) who work for a ground water treatment facility nearby Ulm. I had just explained what I think I’ll do after returning to Minnesota in December — essentially a disorganized list of possibilities. Such a simple response relaxed me. Trying to speak a second language with seemingly stern men while they’re on the job isn’t necessarily easy, but that broke the ice.

During the first month in Ulm, I got pretty used to encounters like this. I interned at the city office that is responsible for groundwater and soil protection. Through their local government connections, I received the opportunity to tour several different facilities: a waste water treatment facility, a ground water treatment facility, an environmental testing laboratory, an abattoir, and a brewery. The abattoir was perhaps the most extreme, while Gold Ochsen brewery was easily the most pleasant (they make Ulm’s “liquid gold,” after all). I was also able to spot a hidden gem in the brewery lab manager’s office: some Schell’s memorabilia from when the Martis have visited.

My primary mode of transportation thus far has been bicycle. Thanks to a developed bike route network, I am able to navigate Ulm and the surrounding area with relative ease. I enjoy the independence it affords me as well as countryside scenery. For example, quaint fields of flowers available for self-harvest with just a cash box there, all based on the honor system.

Home life with my host family is very comfortable. Home-cooked meals are common and sometimes shared with the neighbors who rent the level above the main floor. In the back yard, a few apple trees surround a small greenhouse with tomatoes and herbs. I feel incredibly lucky.

The German’s suggestion to “just live” resonated with me. It was one of the reasons I wanted to go on this exchange — to sort of slow down and experience something else. But upon reflection, it also gave some cultural insight and broke a stereotype that exists here in southern Germany — that of the busy Swabian, ever-working on home improvement or what-have-you. For now, I will take this advice while staying as immersed as I can.


Peter Braegelmann the second New Ulm intern visiting Germany this year as part of the Hans Joohs Exchange Program.