How I spent my Summer Vacation

Sioux City Journal, Sunday, September 24, 1995
By Marcia Poole, Journal Staff Writer

Anybody who thinks learning happens primarily in classrooms hasn't talked to Andrew Nieland about his summer job.

After spending two months in Germany as a travel writer, the Harvard University junior is convinced that there's nothing like rich field experience to flesh out a liberal arts education.

Photo caption: Sioux Cityan Andrew Nieland, a Harvard University junior, considers his future as a journalist. The Heelan graduate got a taste of the profession when he wrote for Harvard's "Let's Go Europe." (Staff photo by Gary Anderson)   Click to enlarge

"I want to learn how to write, how to think and express myself. This summer has definitely helped me in those areas," says Nieland, a Heelan High School graduate who's majoring in modern European history.

As a writer for Harvard's travel series "Let's Go Europe"(St. Martin's Press), Nieland wended his way through assigned cities and towns of Germany, supped on native schnitzel and beer, sleeping in bargain-priced hostels, and taking in the sights, from the magnificent to the mundane.

In 53 days, I went through 50 places. I spent about four days in the bigger cities, and did maybe three small towns in a day. It was pretty intense," says Nieland who averaged four hours of walking a day.

Along the way he tested his German language skills and map-reading savvy. He got a feel for the surprisingly diverse culture and developed a knack for painting word pictures for budget-minded travelers.

"Our readers are mostly college students who obviously don't have a lot of money to spend when they're traveling. But we also make a big deal about writing for senior citizens," says Nieland who wrapped up his summer job with a newly discovered appetite for journalism.

The challenge was not only to physically cover a good-sized chunk of northern and southern Germany but to craft digestible travel tidbits on subjects that didn't always rate superlatives.

"A sense of humor definitely helped when I was covering the same thing in town after town. Like the hostels. How many different ways can you write about German hostels? Six beds to a room, clean, very safe, breakfast — it was always the same thing. I had to write something mildly amusing about every one."

Details were the key. Nieland put his powers of observation and conversation to work to wrest every ounce of human interest from the less colorful aspects of the German experience. Visiting with the locals often yielded something offbeat for the weekly installments he mailed to "Let's Go" headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

When it came to nightlife and major tourist attractions, the words flowed more easily. Larger cities, particularly, had much to offer entertainment-wise, even for travelers on sugar-bowl expense accounts. Along with live shows, there was a seemingly endless offering of museums and architectural wonders to include in "Let's Go to Germany.

"For the Sioux Cityan, the most moving experience, however, was Bergen-Belsen, the first German concentration camp freed by the Allies in Western Germany in World War II. "It's hard to put into words what that was like."

Nieland noted the seamy side of the country, giving his readers information about personal safety, "Generally, Germany is a very safe country. Ninety percent of the places I stayed didn't even have locks on the doors. If you asked about whether there was a key for the door, they just looked at you."

Despite his ease at meeting new people, (among them other student travels from Wales), Nieland had occasional pangs of loneliness. Letters from family and friends helped. German cuisine also supplied a touch of Siouxland soul, with its decidedly meat-and-potatoes emphasis. For gustatory excitement, he turned to Turkish cuisine which has considerable presence in German culture.

German treats also were something to write about. Fresh and fulsome, the baked goods departed from predictable sticky-bun fare. "It was great and I still lost weight with all the walking I did."

Likewise, beer treated the travel writer's palate to adventure.

"I wasn't a beer drinker before I got to Germany. But the beer is very good and there isn't the stigma about minors drinking. You don't see a lot of public drunkenness. Beer is just part of the culture. You drink it with your meal."

But for all its pleasures, the trip was, after all, a job. Nieland had a weekly deadline for specific assignments. Sundays were his only days off, yet he spent most of them finishing up work and preparing for the journey's next leg.

"I've always liked writing — it's a challenge for me. It's hard to punch it out day after day," says Nieland.

His editors through the effort was worth it. The Sioux Cityan's work will appear in the 1996 edition of "Let's go to Germany," which is expected to be in book stores in November.

The professional writing debut didn't yield huge earnings; Nieland figures he broke about even, considering all his travel, lodging, food and miscellaneous expenses. But the experience of writing travel pieces and having them published by a major press is payment he'd not imagined a year ago. And as a European history major, Nieland also sees the summer as "amazing" enrichment for his grasp of German culture.

"Spending time in a country helps you understand its history. You get a feel for the geography — a sense of the people and what they've been through. It gives you an incentive to learn another language. Being able to communicate with people in another language is amazing."

Nieland's academic major was a plus when he applied for the writing job last winter. The editors also liked the fact that he had taken German and had been to Europe before, albeit not to Germany. Along with meeting the basic qualification of being a full-time Harvard student, he was expected to demonstrate skill at turning out tidy, snappy writing.

"I had to submit writing samples and do a bunch of writing exercises. They wanted entertaining writers. Then you had to put down your top six choices of countries to work in and you reasons for choosing them. Germany was my top choice. It felt comfortable because of my heritage and the fact that I knew some of the language.

As good as the two-month gig was, it didn't allow a comprehensive taste of Germany. Nieland would like to return to the country next summer to see Berlin and other areas not included in this summer's itinerary. England and Wales also appeal to the writer.

"This whole thing has me thinking more about journalism, especially travel writing," says the Sioux Cityan." ....

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