I enjoy making lists. Nice, neat lists, long, lengthy lists, lists in pencil and lists in pens. Lists of things to do, things to achieve, things to see. And five weeks of nonstop adventuring leaves a lot of recollections, a surfeit that could fill several lists. In this final, retrospective reflection post, I have pared down Berlin to a single list—ten big things that have stuck with me long after the jetlag has worn off.
1) The U-Bahn
Quite simply, my favorite aspect of Berlin. My Type A personality tremendously appreciated the cleanliness and timeliness of Deutsch Bahn’s service. Unlike in Seattle, where a two minute delay becomes a ten minute delay, Berlin’s public transportation was always on time. Always. I might have simply been lucky, but I think it has more to do with the exceptional quality and connectivity of the system. The U-Bahn is a truly exemplary model that all public transportation systems should aspire to (*ahem, Seattle*).
2) The Architecture
Visually, Berlin is a strikingly eclectic mix of the old and the new: shiny, sleek buildings juxtaposed with churches from the 1700s. I appreciated the lack of standardization: every apartment building looked different from its neighbor, every street had a unique visual mark. Every structure reflected a part of German history or culture; their facades were not faceless, mass-produced, scrubbed clean of meaning, but rather imbued with a carefully crafted sense of purpose.
After testing how many döner sandwiches was too man döner sandwiches (after five consecutive döner dinners, I needed to go vegetarian for a while), I switched over to falafel, very reluctantly. Normally, I do not like falafel, as it is very easy to overcook it into crispy dryness. So you can imagine my surprise upon finding a falafel sandwich that I liked, or, I should shamefully confess, scarfed down in five massive bites. Gudé Falafel and Shawarma, behind the Schlesiches Strase U-Bahn, has mastered the ancient art of falafel frying. I doubt I will every find falafel has as decent as this.
4) National Consensus
Like all elections, this one is bound to be polarizing. People will be split on whom to vote for, and more importantly, why to vote for them. I've been following the election news, and reading peoples' comments on the articles. And I've come to realize that, as Americans, we aren't just polarized in terms of our political preferences, but also in our attitudes towards each other.
I'm talking about comments where people angrily accuse those who rely on governmental support (food stamps, Social Security, etc.) of being "entitled". And this isn't a new accusation. There is a national obsession with classifying disadvantaged individuals as selfish and lazy.
It never really bothered me that others thought like this, because I know that, statistically speaking, the number of individuals who abuse the system is far, far less than the number of individuals who desperately need assistance.
But that was before I went to Germany and realized that Germans cannot fathom what it must be like to be poor in America because of our disdainful attitudes towards the "have-nots." You see, in Germany, there is something called national consensus. People have agreed to take care of each other by paying taxes (progressive taxes, meaning that the rich get taxed the most) into a system that then disburses those funds to the neediest. I asked people if they were upset that they were funding somebody else's college education, somebody else's pension, somebody else's unemployment check. They stared at me, puzzled, and said "Uhhhhh no?"
Because, they reasoned--what if they got sick? What if they died and left underage children behind? What if they lost their job? Wouldn't they want the state to help them? And wouldn't they want others to understand that needing assistance didn't mean that they were weak or lazy?
National consensus. It means thinking about what it might be like to be a struggling college student. Or a struggling single mother. Or a struggling elderly widow. It means looking out for your fellow citizen, making sure they have enough to eat, a place to sleep, a way to better themselves. It means thinking as a nation, not as an individual.
We don't have national consensus. And we won't unless we truly try to empathize with those who are disadvantaged, instead of writing them off as "entitled." Think about how different your life would be without all the privileges that you currently have. Try to understand where others come from. That is the only way we build national consensus. The notion that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps is ridiculous. We all rely on each other; the question is whether we will be able to rely on each other in the future.
I never considered graffiti to be art. To me, graffiti was always something a gang member would sneak off in the middle of the night in a dark hoodie to crassly paint on the side of a train cart or brick wall. Berlin graffiti is spectacular and everywhere. Its power forced me to reconsider what I considered “art”. The graffiti contained poignant, universal messages, and the fact that it was displayed on a wall made it truly a conversation between the artist and society. The middleman of the museum was bypassed—the message passed straight through to the people.
Not a single topic we covered during this study abroad could be “resolved.” When you are contemplating issues surrounding immigration, identity, and cultural appropriation, there are no clear-cut answers or simple conclusions. In fact, the very nature of these topics is up for debate—who is an immigrant? What is identity? Even my research project did not have a definite conclusion, because there were too many factors to consider all at once. It really is true that the more you learn, the less you feel you know. AS you expand your thinking, and as your world becomes bigger, you realized that there is so much more out there to learn. It is both a terrifying and inspiring realization.
I have written a lot about language in my other blogs posts, as well as in my final paper, but I just want to reiterate how important language is. Language binds us; it creates surprising and complex relationships and guides modes of interaction. Arabic allowed me to communicate with a Turkish restaurant owner (the same place with the heavenly falafel) in Berlin. Spanish allowed me to communicate with a group of Chilean professional skateboarders on a Delta flight. Without language, these people would have been just people: people I happened to sit next to or order a meal from. Language allowed my interactions with these people to extend beyond the cursory.
History has always been my guilty pleasure. Guilty because history isn’t something that is considered important (at all). But history surrounded me in Berlin, and I appreciated being able to view the things I saw through a historic lens. I understood the Berlin Wall as more than a collection of murals. The WWII memorabilia in the bunker we toured wasn’t just old stuff: it belong to a terrible period in time. History may have been in the past, but it was constructed by people like us—and this world will eventually become history, constructed by us, left to the hands of another generation to change.
9) Kreuzberg Sunsets
Nine ‘o clock on the suburban street and the world is silent. Not a soul in sight—not even a cat. Nin ‘o clock on a Kreuzberg street, with the sun dripping into a purplish blue sky, and the night has just begun. Restaurants, cafes and ice cream parlors brimming with friends, couples and relatives. Immaculately dressed Berliners lounging outside in chairs, beer in hand. Lighthearted conversations. Chatter. Heated political debates. Bright lights, cars rushing past, glimmering graffiti, shiny cobblestone paths, trees swaying in the breeze, people swaying to the music, the street swaying to the rhythm of life.
Did I mention that this was all on a Tuesday? Berliners truly know how to live life.
10) Independence/Being Alone
Freedom is riding the U-Bahn with a crunched-up map in hand and a backpack weighing down your shoulders. Freedom is striding around city streets and taking in the view. Freedom is exploring a strange city filled with strangers who speak a language you don’t understand. Freedom is exploring the world alone as a woman. Because, as a woman, I have to worry about my personal safety when travelling alone. Horrific things can happen to women, and so we are instructed to carry pepper spray with us and not go out at night alone.
And while I didn’t go out adventuring alone at night, I did during the day, crisscrossing the city as if it were my own. Alone: just me and the map. I got lost, I asked for directions in broken German and many hand gestures. I wandered. Roamed. I felt safe, but I also pushed myself out of my comfort zone by choosing to see everything alone: in Seattle, I usually take a friend with me when I go out.
Exploring alone allowed me to prove that I could do such a thing as a woman. And as a person. Being alone is associated with so many negative terms—but it shouldn’t. My time alone allowed me to reflect upon who I am and what my goals are as I simultaneously appreciated the experience of being in Berlin. Being alone is independence. Exploring a city and yourself is independence.
So. What does Berlin mean to me? It means a lot of things: miniscule observations and grand impressions. It is a city that came alive from the pages of my history textbooks and became a living entity. Berlin, ion my mind, is still ambiguous. The experiences are all mixing together, still taking form and gaining purpose. But I’m ok with that. Maybe one day Berlin will make perfect sense. Maybe it won’t. What matter is that it happened.