I recently passed through Bayreuth to visit our partner university and to check in with the Washington and Lee Spring Term Abroad program that is centered there. Bayreuth is an historic town of the northern Bavaria region of Franconia, best known as the place where the fantasies of Richard Wagner found both their expression and final rest. The train from Munich is a joy on a May morning with the fields glistening with new spring greens and bright mustard yellows. The 18th century center of Bayreuth is pretty well-restored as old palaces from the court of the Margrave of Bayreuth are only occasionally interrupted by the squared-off functionality of 20th century commercial sites. Some 18th century German towns suffer from an over-the-top Baroque exuberance but at least the exteriors of Bayreuth’s palaces and gates are nicely proportioned and not at all flashy. Most of the flash has been reserved for the opulent curls and swirls of the Opera House and the New Palace, the most spectacular of the additions to the city insisted upon by Wilhelmina, sister of Frederick the Great and wife of Frederick, Margrave of Bayreuth.
Strolling along the Maximilianstrasse I was stopped by three young men, one of whom addressed me in a German somewhat less halting than my own, but halting nonetheless. “Excuse me. Do you know who is buried behind Wagner’s house? Hey, wait a minute. We know you. You’re Teddy Grover’s dad!” Actually I am not Teddy Grover’s Dad but, under the circumstances that was close enough to identify the trio as W&L students, just arrived in Bayreuth the day before and carrying out an introductory class treasure hunt in the streets of the city. They were charged with finding the answers to a series of questions about Bayreuth by asking passers-by in order to practice their German and find out something of their new surroundings. And there we were, 4000 miles from where we had been and suddenly bonded by a slightly mistaken identity but a clear recognition.
What a joy to see these students at work! Being a student in a foreign country has nothing to do with being a tourist. It is not easy to roam beyond one’s comfort zone, to do the exhausting work of learning a foreign language, of trying to make the most out of what are really precious few moments abroad, of having the mind of a 20-year-old and the vocabulary of a 3-year-old. Yet the incalculable rewards of doing it right, of working at it night and day to make the slow progress toward fluency on the one hand and maturity on the other, provide among the greatest learning satisfactions to student and professor alike. Bravo to the Bayreuth trio! What they are missing in Lexington they have already done before and will do again. What they are gaining in Germany is a unique opportunity to expand their horizons beyond their wildest expectations.
Who is buried behind Wagner’s beloved Wahnfried? Richard and Cosima, of course, but that is only two of three. Did anyone remember to tell you about Russ the Dog?