Putting Down The Thesaurus

In The Art of Travel, 2. Communicating, Berlin by Ashley Jankowski

I have always believed in the power of words. In fact, before coming to Berlin, I believed that harnessing this power could allow you to feel and be felt in ways that were unlike any other form of communication.

However, despite my time spent as a student journalist and personal journaler, I have found myself struggling to capture my foreign experience using just words. How do I define the smell of home that I miss so dearly? How do I recount the heaviness of the Holocaust Memorial in its entirety? How do I describe the force that stole my breath and filled my heart as I walked into a cathedral for the first time in weeks? My words, as much as I think, type, and thesaurus, are falling short.

After much thought, I’ve realized that this isn’t just a case of writer’s block. Words – those written, spoken, and heard – are becoming increasingly secondary to my time here.

I have never felt more contradicted. I have never felt more alive.

When one sense is disabled, the other four are heightened. We know this to be true in the cases of children who are born blind or deaf. I find this to be true with language. I walk the streets of Berlin each day during rush hour. Like any city, there are conversations on the street, announcements made on the train, advertisements, music, news.  Yet I am never overwhelmed – I am in a euphoric state.

Maybe falling in love with a location itself has a lot to do with not being able to communicate with the local people at all.

Unlike Faubert’s seemingly ceaseless desire to know the intricate stories of the ‘exotic’ women he finds in Egypt, I find refuge in not knowing what anyone is talking about. We forget how exhausting it can be to understand a language fluently. Besides facing an unbearable nosiness towards everyone’s business but your own, understanding every word also comes with inherent vulnerability to everything and everyone in your environment. You are required hear every dirty mouth, put up with every needless complaint, and respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to every commercial pressure. In a location that hosts your native language, there are only a handful of times when you are completely alone with your own pristine thoughts and words. In New York, I’m forced to walk blocks to get any sense of silence with myself. Without speaking German, most settings where I find myself in Berlin are pre-quieted. Traveling seems to be the only way to discover this awesome, never-before-seen freedom.

This may very well be a selfish indulgence of my overstimulated New York City mind. Of course, there is always the feeling of mild stupidity mixed with assumed superiority that comes with being unable to understand a cashier at the grocery store. And for this reason, I approach my studies of the German language with genuine effort and excitement. But truthfully, I enjoy being unable to eavesdrop. I relish the experience of walking to and from my apartment without being bombarded by media and marketing. Even the inability to read the content of food labels has allowed me to take a break from the rigid, obsessive structure I had designed for myself back home.

As we continue to explore what it means to be present at our sites, we should consider the types and degrees of awareness that we actually need to survive and be happy, along with the way that words can eat away at a modestly beautiful moment. It is only through this swift escape to surrounded solitude that I continue to see foreign space, handrails and doorframes as they appear, without external noise and opinion. It is a type of quiet perspective that is valuable for anyone to hold, not just for an aspiring journalist.

Perhaps words are not the ultimate power, for this recent lack of words has certainly made a deafening statement.

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  • Bookshelf In Berlin: Ashley Jankowski