Lost in Gray Space

In The Art of Travel, 2. Getting oriented, Berlin by Havana Liu1 Comment

Berlin is filled with suggestions. You cannot conjure up exactly what Berlin looks like in your mind because it is a city filled with references. You cannot look at the visual landscape of Berlin and have it resonate like Park Güell and the Gaudi architecture of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the soaked “street” view of Venice. However, when staring at Berlin, Berlin suggests that you remember history here, Berlin allows for projection there, Berlin suggests that you spend time in nature when you round every corner. Berlin stays interpretable so that there is space to see home, to see history, to see sustainability, and to see Berliners. You can think of it like a projection screen— a space to be filled with thought and creation and image and self. In so many ways, Berlin’s cityscape is not without character—however, history, narrative, and its people mark its character, rather than any particular engrained aesthetic.

The surface-level monotony of the visual cityscape is something that struck naïve little me immediately. After week one, I was scrolling through photos and clips captured on a friend’s phone of our shared moments in Berlin. In the background of a video from day two you can hear me saying,

“I am not sure how I could ever find my way around if I ever got lost without technology—and if there were no people around! Oh hell— all the buildings look the same”

I immediately scoffed at myself (Sometimes I find that you can only truly self-criticize in retrospect). Not only is this statement of mine impractical— as there are almost always people on the streets of Berlin and technology is always in sight—but this statement showed my fundamental lack of understanding of the way Berlin functions. To be lost in Berlin is to pause. If you are physically lost, pause and observe the individuals that populate your current environment. It is easy to orient one’s self based on the aesthetics of the humans that surround you. In Kreuzberg you will find grey concrete buildings, but also hip younger people headed to galleries, or bars, or to buy a “Milch Kaffee” (milk coffee). In Mitte you will find grey concrete, however you will also find University students and academics exploring the historically rich neighborhood. In my mind the people guide you instead of the physical structures of the city.

But there is another meaning to the word “lost” in Berlin, and this one is to pause, physically and mentally. In American English we speak of individuals who are less active in presence, action, or participation by using phrases like “space kadet”, “vegetables”, and people who have their “head in the clouds”. We address these individuals by saying, “earth to [insert name here]!” These descriptions of “zoning out” imply to some extent that people who are “lost in the clouds” are mentally lost— not focusing on or thinking about anything important, but are acting like “vegetables” or other inanimate objects. This idea of being completely inanimate when having one’s “head in the clouds” fails to recognize that one’s private thoughts can be as animated, active, and important as the throughts one chooses to socially share. From my short-term observation of this beautiful city and its cultural lifeblood, Berlin understands this contemplative time and allows for these lost moments to occur peacefully in public space. Thus I will state, with an air of envy and anticipation for this culture to rub off on me, that Berliners know the beauty in being lost.

(Image: Lost But Contained; Source: Havana Rose Liu)


  1. Havana – I thought that this was a beautiful and important reflection to have had (and to write!). History, as you wrote, is so immensely evident and critical to the city. It’s a difficult history at times, too. There’s an interesting similarity between the intrapersonal-ity of remembrance/memory in terms of said history and “zoning out,” as you aptly point out. Internal reflection is key – where do you think that focus on the intrapersonal that you’re pointing out comes from? Or does that “losing yourself in thoughts” inherently come with going to a new city? (You obviously don’t have to answer that but just something to think about!)

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