I’m not leaving. It’s an odd thing watching everyone else go. Packing, planning to share cabs, rushing to fit in all the fun they can in the final days. I feel like my time in Berlin can just now begin. I’m out of the restraints of NYU’s grasp, the dorm requirements, the heavy course load. To be clear I chose all of that because I’m interested in it, but as of finishing this article I will officially be out of school for a long time. I can actually settle in and explore beyond the shallow end of the pool that I have grasped so far, which is exciting.
I’m supposed to give some reflection of the rewarding aspects of my experience and how it will change my view of the world, but I don’t think I have the authority make a statement on that yet.
I’d say the most memorable parts of this semester were small conversations. There’s so many fascinating people here and it’s nice getting a peak into their worlds. In the end you don’t treasure the places but rather the moments with people you had there. My classes were all quite interesting and I can feel my knowledge and ability to grasp foreign ideas growing, and more importantly the nature of how I think, which is an odd thing to feel organically happening. That said I’m not going to miss the nights staying up to finish research papers.
It’s sad watching these people leave. At this point in our lives so many others will wander in an out that we can only hold a few close. I will probably never see many of this group again, even those who I was friends with in this time and place; but that is because we will both meet so many new and exciting people. A few of us will cross paths again: you never know when the world will feel enormous and separated and when you will stumble across an old friend and it will feel small again. So farewell for now, may your path lead you somewhere exhilarating, and maybe our twisting paths will converge again.
I would absolutely recommend moving to Berlin, not just for the four month study abroad program but also just to live. I’d rather just advise you on general Berlin stuff since being a foreign exchange student a lot of the things you will do will revolve around school, especially since you are required to live at the NYU dorms. To be clear the NYU abroad experience here is amazing and I would suggest it above anywhere else, but the reason I’m staying for an extra semester is because I found that I didn’t really have enough time around my coursework, especially since I took 18 credits (if you’re abroad I would probably not advise this, I only did it because I’m trying to graduate in 6 semesters and because they were all really interesting classes) and four months living in college dorms and going to school every day is not enough to get out of the bubble, regardless of what students will claim.
If you do go in the program, the Marx Nietzsche Freud course is hard but very interesting, same for the German film course. Don’t take 6 credit German unless you have the time. If you take photography take Matthew’s course. I loved what I studies but I felt like I spent too much time in my room and coffee shops (lots of great ones here with hipsters who will press the shit out of some yummy artsy coffee). If you’re not going to spend time here after the semester limit your credits.
If you were to move here outside of the NYU program on a gap semester or the summer here’s what I would advise.
Don’t live near Mitte where the NYU programs are, live instead in South Kreuzberg or on the Kreuzberg/Neuköln border. You can find much larger rooms than the NYU facilities for 250 euro a month with a couple flatmates and no roommates. It’s a way cooler part of town, you will be near a lot of more fun nightlife but also coffee shops/grocery stores/culture and less tourists.
Get a bike. If its not the winter I would even say go without the U-Bahn monthly pass, especially since you won’t have the student discount (why doesn’t NYC have this yet??). Just bike everywhere, occasionally getting a one way ticket if you’re going far. It’s a pretty flat city, everyone bikes, and most of the cool stuff is fairly close to each other. http://kleinanzeigen.ebay.de/anzeigen/stadt/berlin/. Fahrrad is bike. If you can, try and find one that’s fairly nice since you can resell it before you leave and you’ll be using it a lot. That being said everyone has shit bikes anyway. Get a bell and light since cops will fine you for not having it, get a basket for groceries and stuff. you can also just hang it off the handlebars. ok you know you bikes work, this is getting redundant.
If you’re going to go to Berghain go with one friend. No more than two. You can always split up a party into pairs separated throughout the line. Wear all black, look a bit dirty, do not dress up like you would for a club in NYC. Ladies do not wear any heels or a dress. Guys I would suggest going with another guy and throwing your arm around his shoulder. Wait until you can speak enough German to be able to immediately respond to the door guy in a decent accent. He will ask how many people, (in Germany three is indicated with the thumb and two middle fingers btw), and possibly some stuff about age or other simple questions. Go on a night when you know the artist playing or not, but atleast know the style of music. That being said panorama is always house and Berghain proper is four on the floor techno from a function one system. Saturday night will be harder to get in, but if you think you can, go around 1-2am. At sunrise they throw open the blinds at panorama. If you’re doing drugs get some beforehand, and be aware anything you get there will have a lot of speed in it. Be safe.
There’s a lot of ways to live very cheaply in Berlin, with low rent and cheap nightlife. Get your food at markets instead of major grocery stores. That being said Kaiser is really useful.
Be social. It’s not hard to make friends at bars, especially if you speak German. Don’t worry almost everyone 18-25 speaks decent English and is happy to speak in English. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” is not going to make you look bad. I knew very little going in and a huge part of this advice and my interesting moments here are from making friends with people who know the city.
Once you’ve made some friends, use them to meet other people. Don’t stay at home.
Buy some decent speakers if you can just because those things will make your life way better. Then sell them when you leave, they’re pretty easy to sell here if they make big sound.
Go to abandoned spaces. Yes its a bit obvious but it truly is a very special Berlin opportunity. There’s an abandoned hospital, abandoned rail lines, and my favorite is an old abandoned warehouse that has a small forest growing inside.
It looks like this: http://www.jessewheaton.com/abandoned_greenhouse.html
Go to the theatres here you can find subtitles and there are awesome places.
Go out to the forest. Waldeinsamkeit: the feeling of being alone in the forest.
As far as preparing its pretty much the same as everything else in traveling. Pack light, choose appropriate clothing and only other essentials you can’t get there. Find a place to stay and drop in, see what happens. Going with a friend will be nice for support, but going alone is a great experience as well (in general). In high school I asked a lot of people what they liked most about college and what they regretted the most. Nearly all of them talked about going abroad or taking a semester off to think about what they wanted to do and what to study to get there. Berlin’s going to be awesome, you’re going to love it.
I need to get away from wifi. But as idyllic as it seems, it’s also problematic. I have responsibilities, projects, things that would suffer upon my return. The personal ones I can tear myself away from, but the ones where I’m part of a team, where I’m overseeing others: that presents a problem, and could force me to leave behind something I love. I have friends back home I’d like to remain in touch with as well.
One of my German friends here doesn’t have internet, which seemed far more unusual to me than it should have. I’ve lived in plenty of cultures where internet was not available, but these were places where it don’t seem useful, much less necessary. Within a self-contained community you can’t talk across the globe but you don’t need to, and it feels much more socially close. The more friends you have on Facebook, the fewer you maintain real relationships with.
Some of these impediments from disconnecting just require a change of perspective. To stay in contact with people I can always write letters. It’s more personal, a nicer thing to receive, and it limits you to those who you really care about taking the time to stay in contact with. And as difficult as it is to take a break from pieces of my life, maybe a separation from the constant connection will give me some perspective on what is truly important to me.
Anyway I’m going down to Barcelona for the heart of Winter where I plan to focus on exploring the city and making music. For more of a disconnect I’m staying with a friend in the mountains in the South of France for a couple months in Summer and I’ll focus on painting then. So I’ve set into motion a break from the digital world.
The romantic idea of getting away from it all has existed for a long time, especially in Western metropolises. People tend to put this notion context with Thoreau’s Walden. It is ironic then that Thoreau lived just a mile from a town he often visited to have dinner with his friend, and so near his mother she would often would do his laundry. To his credit he declares in the novel: “I am naturally no hermit.” So perhaps this common misconception is rather a reflection of the ill-informed romanticism of an idea whose holders will not follow through on.
My plan is by no means a ‘getting back to nature’ hermit-like plan, quite the opposite. I might be cut off from a city and the rest of the world in the mountains, but I’ll be with friends. And I think that is what I’m looking for. I don’t want to escape everyone, just take a break from that constant connection, not only the distractions but the constant buzzing of being absolutely available.
Paul Theroux recounts a series of seemingly insignificant moments in his life in his essay “Fresh Air Fiend” that nonetheless have a lasting impact on him. Though these moments are far removed, both in location and meaning, from seeing a baby born at see to catching the sun in Western Kenya, they all hold a common theme of disconnect from the triviality of our shallow connections to the many in favor of living in the moment. And there are only so many of those moments left.
The first week I was in Berlin I met some kids on the subway. By kids I mean other people in their young 20s. “Adults” seems a bit overstated for our generation and the term “young adults” is so forced. God knows we’re not teenagers. Kids for life I guess. Anyway, they sat down next to me and pointed out my paint splattered shoes. We attempted a jilted conversation in German before they broke into English. Everyone here 18-25 speaks English and loves to use it. It exceedingly useful and makes it very hard to practice conversational German. These kids are a couple of artists from Berlin. If Cesare Pavese writes that “Traveling is a brutality, it forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance,” then perhaps the reason why we move to new cites and explore them is not for the initial shock and sites, but more for the second stage of getting to know people and settling into a new way of life. Not of seeing something new but becoming something new. Which is a bit cheesy, but you know. It can be hard to adjust to a foreign environment, and without a support system of your old friends an alien culture can seem all the more daunting. Keeping that in mind, its important to find a crew who will allow to peek into a new place and from there explore an unfolding matrix of interesting people and slip behind the curtain of outsiders.
The kids in the program are a good group too. Some of them are into the same music as me so we go to check out shows. Some know great places to go dancing. And there’s a couple that are great study partners. I biked to Tiergarten the other day with a friend. It was getting brisk and the leaves were past yellow and on to red. When the wind blew they fell like crunchy, colorful snowflakes. We sat on the golden lions overlooking the river and played around with a kaleidoscope. It was very childlike. I found this cool old stereoscopic camera from the 80s the other day. It takes four pictures at once from different angles to make a 3d image. The ad about it is so fucking 80s. Anyway I took some shots of her jumping across the lions, not to make a 3d image, but to turn it into a scratched-up gif. Four pictures in a loop, that unlike a movie which shows a progression over time to create the illusion of motion, instead frozen in time, a photograph that rotates around the person in mid-air. We climbed to then head of Siegessäule, the golden angel, to look out over the city. We got lost on the way back and took an impromptu tour of Berlin’s cathedrals and famous architecture.
Atmosphere, environment, food, smell, the buzz of lives passing around you: the aspects that make up a city’s genius loci or the “spirit of a place” are found in bookstores and coffee shops. When I first got here I had to pick up some school books at St George’s, and I’ve been going back ever since. It’s actually a bit of a problem because I keep buying all their cheap used books and I really have no place to put them in my room. I’ve got a collection of pocket-sized Douglas Adams fictions, Hemingway shorts, and some other odds and ends stacked on my night stand. The most surprising one was a book of graffiti from my hometown, Oakland, with a bunch of my friends pieces in it. They have leather armchairs hidden behind the towering bookshelves and a couch in the center. The two shopkeepers both speak english and are really fun to talk with, one has great advice regarding restaurants, especially sushi, and the other one’s from California and talks more about politics and obscure novels. I met this American girl the other day in there and we talked for a while about the transition from the States to Berlin and a million non-sequiturs. You tend to find the most interesting people in bookstores.
Across Prenzlaur Allee is this great little sushi spot. In the Fall the tables outside were quite nice but lately I’ve ventured inside where they have zashiki seating in the back which is a nice reminder of Japan, and it always helps to clear your head to take off your shoes and jacket and sit cross legged. I tend to do some reading there while I wait for my meal. They have quite nice sushi while still being affordable. It’s still a bit of a luxury to eat out so I tend to only go when my craving for sushi becomes insuppressible. If you go when they open, just after noon on weekdays, you get two rolls for the price of one, so you can really fill up quite nicely, and then try not to fall asleep in the armchairs of St. Georges. Even when its bordering on Winter there’s something about that bookstore that reminds me of warm sunlight filtering through slowly drifting dust particles.
The Pink Umbrella has a really cute barista. And if you’re short on change she’ll let you get by with whatever you have for a small black house coffee. In the back there’s this little nook with armchairs and tiny tables that for some reason is always empty despite a constant buzz in the shop. It’s a nice place to people watch and work on your laptop. Down the block is café November which has nice breakfast, this very Williamsburg-esque whiskey shop with a crooked black and white wooden sign, and Anne Blum cafe which has a very pretty flower shop out front. Right around the corner from Kochstrasse is WestBerlin Coffee which is one of the most well known spots in Berlin and happens to be one block from where I live.
When I first arrived I hit up the only person I knew in Berlin, this woman I had met on a yacht in Miami (which is not something that I find myself saying often) filled with a slew of musicians during Miami Music Week in Spring. I caught one of her sets a few weeks ago at Bar Thousand and it was quite nice. We kept in contact and she’s been showing me her side of Berlin. Anyway when I first arrived we met at Anklerhouse, one of the best people watching spots I’ve found yet. The quaint little rickety wooden coffee house sits over the canal with a balcony in the back, a bar in the middle, and tables out front facing a cross-section of Berlin’s locals and gentrification. They have killer chicken wings and tall, cold pints.
“The German Way” seems a bit foolishly concise, an over-simplification in 130 pages. To cover ‘culture’ in one chapter is ambitious to say the least. But it seemed like a nice overview of Germany to use as a launching board. I looked over it with two of the Germans at the university and they both saw it as quizzical but not entirely inaccurate. It’s always odd to see someone try to define you culture.
There’s a section on dining I found interesting. It focuses on the stereotypes of cuisine Americans and Germans have of eachother. American food is usually characterized as burgers and coke. And one of my friend always jokes about that because she always wants to eat hamburger at my place. Of course American cuisine, especially the food in NYC, is really just world cuisine. Americans tend to think Germans eat sausages and drink lots of beer. And yes the wurst spots stand in for the 99cent pizza, and yes the beer is really good, but most Germans I’ve met tend to eat decidedly non-German food. It might have to do with our generation as well, people in their early 20’s tend to have a more varied palette in everything, not just food in my experience. The custom of strangers sitting at the same table in restaurants is very alien though for an American.
There’s a few points which made me question the relevancy of the book, so I looked in the publishing section – it came out in 1997, a decade and a half ago. Berlin has been changing rapidly, ask any German and they’ll tell you 3 years ago it was vastly different, so to take this book without a grain of salt wold be fruitless. When it says that Germans do not smile like Americans, that you must introduce yourself by your last name, or that “tschüss is slang that is ‘gaining in popularity,’ the book now refers to the older generation of Germans. In my experience our generation is very international and the customs have similarly adapted and relaxed.
The fashion and design section covers the Bauhaus school, a part of German history that had already entered my studies and has been a recurring them of my art classes in Berlin. Similarly the section on German Film strictly overlaps with my Post-War German Film class. As I’ve seen over the duration of the course as we get into the ’90’s American cinema’s influence becomes more and more apparent.
The book mentions the holiday of November Karneval, which just passed, which explains the bizarrely dressed Germans on my street the other day. Of course perhaps the most important holiday in Berlin is the anniversary of unification when East Germans were first allowed to cross into West Berlin. This was the 25th anniversary just last week and along where the wall used to stand was a long line of lamp posts with lit round balloon lights atop them. I live two blocks into the former West, so I passed it every day. I climbed up to a hill that overlooks the city with some German friends on the night of the anniversary to watch them let the balloons rise up into the sky.
My apartment is fairly solitary. It’s built around my mind rather than sociality. The little room is packed with colors, tapestries hanging from the ceiling like a blanket fort. A small window by the foot of my bed looks up into a little square section of sky. I’ve got my speakers and my desk and its my spot of seclusion when I need to put in work. My easel sits in the living room where there’s nice light to get a break from single-minded focus and create something more artistic rather than analytical.
My friends’ apartment is the place where we come together to make dinner, paint, dance, and sit on the balcony. There’s an odd collection of characters that stop in. Some nights we drink tequila, shut off all the lights, and dance to electro swing until the cops come to complain about the noise. Some nights we sit outside on the balcony in the sagging chairs under the hanging lights, and smoke and parse our English and German into conversation. Sometimes we cook together.
More often than not its hot oil in the pan, mustard seeds and cumin until they pop and splatter around the room because we used canola oil instead of olive oil on accident. Garlic and sautéed onions. Pepper and peas. Two chopped tomatoes, fresh sprigs of mint, Haroon puts in too much chili. Salt, cracked pepper, coriander. Poured over white rice in a big bowl. The wooden table. Red wine and square chocolate bars. It’s a pretty killer dinner and adjusting the seasonings to what’s available makes it taste different every time.
The apartment stands at the center of Kreuzkölln, between Hermanplatz and Südstern, surrounded by coffee shops and restaurants, on the border of gentrification but still quite cheap, a short walk from the canal. Its a nice 10 minute bike ride from my place: south over the bridge and then left along the canal until the liquor store. It’s weird to think of how my perception of the place has changed over time. I remember taking the U-Bahn there my first week in Berlin, completely lost. Lying down in the park nearby while it was still warm out. Just following along the first couple of bike rides back. Now the smell of indian spices comforts me when I arrive.
The New National Museum from street level is a huge glass box filled with trees planted in a symmetrical grid. A descending staircase leads you downward into the rest of the art. I’d stayed up all night working, then gone through my classes and taken a long ride across Berlin to this art class for the refugees, and when I got back out in the drizzly rain we trudged across town to the museum and got a bit lost on the way. But it was worth it.
The first step inside had a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, dedicated to her long time lover Diego Rivera. Next to her was a desert Dali-scape. I like to see art up close, inspect the intimacy of the brushstrokes, the sporadicalness of the film grain. Security guards shift uneasily when you do this.
Gerhard Richter is one of my favorite artists and perhaps Germany’s most beloved and successful artist in a visual medium. Early in my painting I was using palette knives and sponges and a friend showed me his work. Which was unfortunate because it rendered my ideas banal. I’ve been trying to bridge the gap between photography and painting for a while now, but I go about a different route than squeegying on photos now. I like developing medium format film with some destructively painterly and certainly incorrect procedures in the light and chemical stage, and I like melting these photos onto canvases. The Richter hanging in The New National Museum was one of his painted pieces, a blurry image of a cold tumultuous ocean underneath gray swirling clouds. From afar it feels photographic, but up close there’s heavy expression in the details. I like that it borders on abstraction with its focus on contrast rather than photorealism in the cloud.
I love Larry Clark’s work. Obviously “Kids” is a masterpiece, but Tulsa is possibly my favorite photo series, and I still can’t really explain why. I had the pleasure of seeing one of the original print books in Bobst back in NYC. Seriously that library has everything. But seeing them displayed on a white wall gave them a different feel. I think I prefer them in a book rather than framed, it feels more intimate. There’s something about the slightly overexposed, near-glamour shots of a dark reality that resonates with me. When you look further into the frame the clues lead you further into a story. First the woman’s belly shows her pregnancy, then the needle shows her habit. The morning light filtering in makes it feel more glamorous than gritty. Her arrangement is clearly arranged, so her choice to shoot heroin while pregnant isn’t a shameful secret but something she actively considers and is willing to memorialize.
I’m working on a low poly black and white portrait where the subject simplifies into triangles. I want to include some simple black and white statues in the frame so it was wonderful finding exactly what I had been searching for at the end of the exhibit. We’ll see how that turns out. On the way home we passed a series of huge graffiti murals.
In Dean MacCannell’s “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings” she talks of ‘back regions,’ secular versions of the sacred: the authenticity behind a stage. It’s something that interests me very much in traveling as I tend to come across both the curtain and the wings while belonging to neither. Any city will have a presentation that can be understood by any visitor who only has the time to dip shallowly into the culture. Different cultures have different versions of this, places like NYC have Times Square and the Empire State Building, places no local ever goes, offering the postcard image of the city and exhausting waits and hectic crowds of other tourists.
In poorer countries I’ve noticed a second form of staged authenticity: rather than the postcard proof, instead a facade, a cheery fantasy for the doughy Americans that cracks if you look too closely. I feel a bit on the sidelines, with neither an authentic perspective nor a rose-tinted one. Maybe that’s why I don’t like traveling on short trips. The two-day trips to Paris and then two days in Rome just seem hectic and inauthentic – I don’t really give a shit about the Eiffel tower, I want to spend a Summer painting on the outskirts of Cannes with old friends away from Facebook photo albums.
It’s disingenuous to ever say you say the ‘true’ side of any city. That’s exactly what’s so exacting about complex cultures, that in front there’s this one reproducible image but behind there’s millions of unique lives, each with their own authentic relation to the city. I’m still adjusting to Berlin, only two months in to a year or so in the city. I feel comfortable in my neighborhood, have explored a bit, and have some good friends both from uni and outside. It’s exciting knowing that I’ll be able delve further and further I have no idea what’s next.
I read Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad,” a comical account of his travels across Europe. Germany in 1878 was far different than today, if the book is any indication. He opens up with an interesting fact that lined up perfectly with my German classes. As I was learning the word buchstaben, (alphabet, to spell) as in “Buchstaben Sie bitte,” he mentions that the word comes from Frankfurt where they made the first movable types with birch sticks, or buchstabe. Oddly enough my decision to come to Germany began in Frankfurt as well. When I first moved to New York I moved in with a kid from Frankfurt who taught me bits of German and got me very interested in the country. Since then we’ve become close friends and when I was considering where to move after some time in New York, amidst a myriad of exciting options I chose here. Partially because of the art scene, partially because of the music scene, and partially because of stories from Frankfurt.
And that’s where his journey began 150 years ago.
In between tales of brothels and profane jaybirds, Twain passes through a German university, where he finds many British and American students “for instruction is cheap in Heidelberg.” Germany just announced this week that they will be opening up all State-run universities for free for all students, domestic and international, in all provinces. Of course this does not apply to the astronomical cost of NYU. Which begs the question, once I improve my German, why not study for free? I’ll be finishing out the semester’s German classes in December, and then taking time off from school to live and work in Germany for the next 9 months until the coming Fall semester. At which point I will have the option of continuing my studies for exactly nichts. I will probably finish my studies at NYU, for both the purple crested piece of paper and the ability to create an entirely new major for myself from the bizarre selection scattered across our ten campuses. But it’s an interesting thought. I digress.
According to Twain, German university life was “a very free life; it seems to have no restraints… He goes to bed when it suits him… He is not entered at the university for any particular length of time, so he is likely to change about…” So in some respects my experience is quite the same. That is true until he arrives at the fencing club. We don’t cut off eachother’s ears anymore between classes anymore. “The stir and turmoil, and the music of the steel… one’s nerves were wrung by this grisly spectacle, whilst the duel’s compensating pleasurable thrill was lacking.” I suppose I prefer modern Germany to the romanticism of severed appendages. The future’s much more exciting anyway