Beeswax

In The Art of Travel, 12. Strangers, Berlin by Ashley JankowskiLeave a Comment

I’ve been staring at a blank page for quite some time.

Of course, I’ve made new and brilliant friends here. The NYU Berlin staff could not be more accommodating. Given the language barrier, local Berliners have turned out to be polite enough. But even after thinking on this prompt for several days, I could not name one person from Berlin that I have come to wholly trust.

Is this my own fault? Have I shut myself in, or others out? Have I never learned to trust?

In New York, a place where everyone has got limited time and resources, helping someone only seems to occur when you are assured that the individual won’t pull the rug from beneath your feet, that they won’t make a fool out of you in your stride. Acts of kindness do beautifully transpire from time to time, but they are momentary at best. You are encouraged to rely on fellow New Yorkers, yet simultaneously reminded not to trust any of them. ‘See Something, Say Something’: your guard must be up. We are taught to be suspicious of the person next to us on the subway, of bags, of cars. It is a mindset so deeply engrained in me that it doesn’t simply evaporate within three months’ time.

I love Berlin. I feel safe in Berlin. If I asked someone for help, I would surely get it. But I find that in this city, too, a thick cultural line is drawn between friendliness and trustworthiness.

This is no better exemplified than my recent trip to the grocery store. While in the checkout line, a 10 Euro bill fell out of my wallet and onto the ground. A minute or two later, my eyes landed on the bill lying silently the ground, and I realized that it was mine. I looked quizzically at the gentleman behind me, who had clearly seen what had happened; he had not taken the bill for himself, but he didn’t tell me that it had fallen, either. There is no other way to describe it: it is a mind-your-own-beeswax kind of lifestyle.

Germans are silent on the subway. They do not make eye contact with you on the street, or small talk in the grocery store. There is a certain sense of efficiency that arises with each social interaction I have with a Berliner – a purposeful beginning, middle, and end – which is certainly appreciable. Nonetheless, in these cases trust is rarely given the opportunity to manifest.

Perhaps their silence is only so profound in comparison with the gregariousness of the typical American’s public life, where the blinding showiness of one’s wealth and knowledge is equally met with the obnoxious sharing of personal details. However, it is more likely that this comes from not-so-distant times of living amongst Stasi spies and the inevitable paranoia that came with the omnipresence of East German surveillance. This realization made me feel a wee bit less guilty about my lack of trust for the locals I’ve met here, although I very well may be a brainwashed, overly cautious New Yorker at heart.

As I journaled about the subject more on my subway ride home from class, I realized that there is in fact something, rather than someone, I trust here in Berlin: the faceless voice on the U-Bahn loudspeaker. Using the same tone as yesterday and tomorrow, the voice warmly reminds riders of the upcoming stop. She always speaks at the same time, with the same speed, the same volume. She is consistent, she is reliable, and she provides me with the guiding comfort I need to make my way around the city.

I don’t know if the woman behind the voice is from Berlin, but she seems to know her way around quite well. She’ll have to do.

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