I have no idea where the time has gone. I can remember watching the conveyer belt moving along my luggage when I first arrived at the Berlin Schönefeld Airport, spotting familiar faces from the Facebook Berlin group. I remember seeing a girl with short black hair, one side shaved, red Dr. Martens, and a septum piercing thinking I wonder if she is on the program, little did I know she would grow to be one of my closest friends in such a short period of time. It doesn’t seem right to say goodbye, it feels as if the semester is only a month in. And yet I remember two weeks into my time in Berlin remembering how it felt like I had been here for months. Going abroad is abandoning the linear notion of time. Instead time becomes recognized in first feelings, encounters, epiphanies, laughs. I remember being lost and bumbling around Dubrovnik, Croatia with Jackie during my spring break in the same capsule of memory I also recall our first night out together, holding hands through the massive underground dungeon club. It’s as if time has recorded my life in categories of feelings. Moments of uncontrollable laughter sit on a shelf in my memory bank, and atop that shelf sits the first dinner with Tabby next to the time I almost biked straight into the Spree (Berlin’s river). I have tried to write the moments, feelings, passions, and desires in my journal in an attempt to savor this time abroad forever. But the one thing I will never forget from my time here is all the lessons I learned.
The epiphanies during long conversations with Katie and the moments I sat alone in Tier Garden, finally feeling whole. I now can find stillness in the Earth, I can dig beyond the layers of responsibilities, stress, and fears to the wakeless scene of Lake Michigan, and that I owe to Berlin. This city, and the reality that flows within it, has taught me invaluable lessons that will stay with me forever, those lessons have shape the person I have become here immensely. I am greatly indebted to this place of history-coated streets and unhurried pace. It gave me the opportunity for the needed time to reflect.
I can only wonder how the lessons and meanings that have seeped beyond my skin will change how I see my home. I am excited as well as nervous to return home. Nervous of the faults I may find in places that I never found before, and how the change I have underwent here will bring a new change when I return home. But it is a good nervousness, a needed one. I feel I have become immensely heavier and at the same time forever lite. It is a very good feeling, one that I will chase for as long as I live.
The most valuable part of my experience in Berlin this semester has been the pace of life. After New York City I craved for serenity, for just the shortest of moments to just be. Berlin gave me that. In fact, Berlin taught me that. The pace of life here is one that teaches you to be OK with just being, with sitting and drinking a coffee with the only obligation to do is reflect. Berlin is a place of reflection. It is apparent in the monuments it dedicates to its ugly history, never forgetting the responsibility that Germany has had in the history of Europe. This preservation of the past breathes into the life here a specific type of authenticity. An authenticity that acts as a homage to its own tragedies, as a people who bare the burden of past generations and are also victims in their own right. The history of the city is apparent everywhere. There are times when it is so evident that I am living in a place historically-fresh off of a world war. The unique traumas that the German people have gone through-the life experience of the country- makes Berliners especially considerate and empathetic to current life.
This is a city where speed does not exist, there is no reason for it here. You will wait 10 minutes for a beautifully rich cup of coffee, and while in those 10 minutes I ponder how the city can be functional when it goes at such a leisure pace, I am reminded of how that pace of life has allowed me to nurture and care for my own wounds. There is a consideration for life, not for the achievements that are reached within it, but for life itself. For the laughter of children, for the auburn aura that surrounds the nature in the parks during sunset, for the breath of the elderly. This is a place where you can feel whole just in the act of being alive. There are no levels of accomplishment marks that you must hit, nor pressure to always be forward looking. There is only the ripple of the Spree and the glistening rumble of the leaves on a sunny day.
I would highly recommend spending time here, especially if you feel consumed by the anxiety of life and if you feel that there is no sight of wholeness for yourself. This place taught me so much about cultures and about history, about life and about people. It allowed me to weed through the superficiality of the external world and brought me to the core of who I am, and an acceptance of the changes I will undergo as I become who I will be. I have learned the importance of a moment, how to truly digest and savor it in the midst of this temporal life. Come to Berlin if you want to find serenity, a bench to sit on and take in the magnificence of it all in this vastly expanding world.
While there have been specific moments that an epiphany occurs, it seems that the entire time spent on this adventure in Germany has been one long epiphany playing out in slow motion. I find myself strolling in the park thinking about an event two months ago, and I realize how that event has slowly unfolded, weaving itself into my psyche and being encoded into my personality, into myself. I suddenly can pin point the exact experience that led me to the exact thought process that led me to the specific personality trait that has married itself to me.
“Discomfort is when we are pushed to do our greatest thinking”, a friend once said to me, and my entire time abroad has proved that statement true. Of course my time here is coupled with extraordinary newness that takes time to understand, but it is in the moments of discomfort from that newness- new social norms, foreign streets, unknown dinner dishes, unrecognizable language, and so on- that I begin to see the floor plan of the world. And with the vision of seeing the world in its entirety I can find my place in it, I am a small dot- like a star in the night sky- that belong to nothing and everything. My place in the universe is fluid, it changes depending on the context, the only constant is the person I carry with me in every kind of surroundings. And now, thanks to Berlin, I have formed a self that will remain constant throughout the future places to dwell in and people and cultures to learn from. Now that this self has been formed it makes room for new lessons and meanings to incorporate, instead of shying away from all that once scared it. So I guess that is my moment of bliss. But it is not quite a moment, but a lifetime. This is not to say that every hour to come will be filled with un-messiness and tranquility, no, but it is the confidence that when earthquakes come the mountain will still remain. Only now, it will have marks on its edges that hold reminders of past moments that seep into the core of the being. I am the mountain, and I welcome future earthquakes and the flowers and trees that will one day grow over the fractured and muddied parts.
Just yesterday I found a new friend. And it was during my discussions and getting to know her that I began to get to know parts of myself. In this exploration I could see myself from an exterior angle, and that view was bliss. That view showed a person wide open to any kind of opportunity, experience, and conversation. A person that wouldn’t fear if she approached something in life that would make her question all that she was, instead I saw a person who yearned for every moment to pose ten questions to think about, and the hope of answering. I feel that I have been left with so many of life’s answers and to every answer at least twenty questions. But those questions are no longer a threat, instead they are the trail to lead me to the rest of my life. They excite me regardless of the emotion they invoke. They are the questions that simmer within me and serve as my guidebook as how to go about life. That view of that girl, who has been morphing into a woman, brought pride and contentment- a hinting of self-actualization and eternal peace. I used to always identify with the wake of Lake Michigan in the middle of a storm, but now I think the calm, serene, stillness of the water on a perfect day suites me better.
Sometimes I catch myself missing home. I wouldn’t call this being homesick, no, for homesick implies a desire to leave. This missing appears when I find myself smiling when I think about my best friend’s laugh, the longing for the smell of Lake Michigan, waking up to the sound of my mother deep in conversation with our cleaning women. It’s a desire to have the present moment somehow intermixed with everything else that matters to me. It’s greedy really. I sit in Tier Garden under the beating sun wishing that my cat could be along side me, that when I leave the glorious afternoon I will be returning to my house, but that I will still be hearing the sound of German chatter on my way back. It’s this strange hunger for the impossible- a desire to merge all the worlds of my past and present into the same before I lose all that came before the right now.
I was walking back from class the other day, and realized that I had forgotten what home felt like. I can easily retrieve the memory of driving down Chicago Avenue, making a right onto LaSalle, and then a left onto Goethe to my best friend’s house- a route I could drive blindfolded- but the feeling that I would have when in my car seems to have vanished. I get the suspicion that when I return home I will see it in a much different way, with the new sight that distance gives. It will be so strange recognizing all the corners of the place that housed my entire upbringing, but at the same time seeing it as a foreign stranger. It sheds light on how much I have changed, on how different the world seems to me, how much bigger it has become. It makes me think of how weird time is. The way it floats along the top of the water, riding every wake and enduring every shipwreck, yet only in the moments of calm do we really begin to feel it. Able to see how frighteningly unique it is. It’s only then do I understand that time is not linear, that I can look through old photos from high school or read through ancient journal entries and feel as if no time has passed, remembering who I was and the way I saw the world in that distinct moment. I can relive time, but only for the capsuled fragments I may have kept, then within an instant I am transported back into the present only left with the mind blowing, core rattling, baffling sigh of how much has changed in what we understand to be a measurement.
It is only in those moments where change is felt, where it is digested, do I understand the peculiar nature of time. How it has no boundaries, no order, only that it continues and we cannot stop it, until the day it is stopped by controls beyond us. Time is just like a birthmark, you can never run away from it, you often forget how long it has been with you and how it has seen all that you have seen, but you aren’t always aware it’s there. It’s silent and steady, constant only in that it moves forward, but what happens in the in-between of that forward motion is left up to the forces of the universe, the consequences of choices, the randomness of life. We can only try to set aside small moments to reflect upon all that has happened, before all that will happen begins.
As I bumble around Berlin it has become clear that I am the stranger to this city. Germany has a very unique culture. I believe the unique history and very specialized traumas that the German people have endured, coupled with the homogony of the country- even in Berlin although it is the most cosmopolitan and mixed-raced area in Germany- provides an underlying current of brotherhood and sisterhood between the people. The German people are quite reserved, stoic, regal; but their strengths do not fall in the encounter of new comers. Living in Berlin has forced a distance between me and myself. Unable to interact with others in the public sphere the way I “normally” would in the U.S. due to the nature of the German people has forced me to evaluate the ways in which I go about life in the American context. Berlin has forced me to act as a stranger to myself, enabling a removed and objective sight that has allowed me to decipher myself, almost as if I am patient in therapy, my stranger-self has taken on the identity of a somewhat Freudian personality. It has allowed me to understand the complex inter-workings of my own self, the creation of my own identity, and the way in which my personality is carried out in the public sphere. This stranger within me has highlighted the importance of places, and the role destinations play in my personal construction. I have realized that I understand myself through interactions with the raw, physical world, through relationships I create with the cities that I live in, and the lessons that a place can teach.
I feel a perpetual pull from my stranger-self, drawing away from me yet always occupying a place in my mind. This new sight contributes to my interactions with people in Germany. It is almost as if my stranger-self works as an interpreter between myself and the German stranger. It is a mediator, always providing time to think about how I want to interact in a social situation, unlike in America where my unconscious, unfiltered self would just respond. My stranger-self is the act, not to be confused as insincere or fake, it is my conscious sight, aware of the complexity of the German culture and the newness of their social norms and the way I, as traveler and guest of this culture, fits in. It helps me cloak myself in the German Meredith suit, which allows a closer integration into the community. This suit greatly enhances my interactions with strangers in Berlin.
Whether it is chatting a guy up at a Neuköln dive bar at 5 am or discussing the identity of American citizenship with the local café barista, my stranger-self cloaking me with this German suit, gives me a sense of German sight that bridges the conversation. It allows me to better understand these strangers and how they comment on life, what it is about their culture, their personal experience in the identity of a German that gives them the opinion and outlook that they have. My stranger-self has expanded the concept of the world I live in. I feel as if there are no longer barriers or walls put around the size of the universe I dwell in, I now comprehend that the world I reside in is ever expanding, as my personal experience brings me not only answers but ten questions to every answer. This new sight that I have acquired while living abroad has not only bridged the connection between Germany and me, it has also connected my many selves to one another. Allowing an aerial view and understanding of the small place I occupy in the background of the world.
For this week I read Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. The book details Twains experiences and observations while traveling around central and southern Europe. I focused mostly on the sections of the book written about Germany, and was surprised to find myself practically yelling in agreement to Twain’s observations of the German people. Chapter four titled “Student Life” Twain spends a great deal of time commenting on the German student Corps and the relationship with dogs. In my first read through I found it funny how much attention he paid to dogs, but felt compelled to read deeper in order to understand why he had such a fascination with Germans and their dogs. “It seemed to be a part of the corps etiquette to keep a dog or so, too. I mean a corps dog- the common property of the organization,” it was in this line that I truly understood the point behind the mentioning of the corps dogs. The juice of the statement is in the final line “the common property of the organization” the dogs speaks to the shared responsibility for the greater community. The dog represents the greater theme that I too have observed while living in Berlin among the German culture- there is always an awareness of the community first and foremost.
Twain offers another observation that serves as an example of this communal mentality in chapter nine when he visits the Mannheim to see the play King Lear, “The behavior of the audience was perfect. There were no rustlings, or whisperings, or other little disturbances; each act was listened to in silence, and the applauding was done after the curtain was down”. The scene that Twain describes in the theatre is completely translatable to my own daily experiences riding the Ubon (the train). This was actually my first noted difference that I observed when I first got to Berlin, it amazed me how everyone on the trains was always silent, never talking to their neighbor nor eating food, the only sounds I would hear were from my own mouth and that of my friends. We were, and are, always stared at for disturbing this silence.
I have learned to partake in this awareness of the common space, this respect for the community shown by silence on the trains and lowered voices- to the American almost a whisper- in bars and restaurants. It has made me reflect on the American who is almost at shouting levels to have their point heard. My own understanding is the difference between the mentality of an individual and the desire for the individual’s voice to be heard vs. the German mentality of the community, always allowing the greater body of people the opportunity for shared space and voice. Twain continues to describe his time during the play, he does not enjoy it for it is filled with violent and loud sounds that bring him to misery, he states, “At those times, as the howlings and wailings and shrieking of the singers, and the ragings and roarings and explosions of the vast orchestra rose higher and higher, and wilder and wilder, and fiercer and fiercer, I could have cried if I had been alone. Those strangers would not have been surprise to see a man do such a thing who was being gradually skinned, but they would have marveled at it here, and made remarks about it no doubt,” I related my own experiences in this passage in the lack of expression shown on the German people’s faces.
It is so interesting to come from the American culture and distance away from my native land has given me greater insight. I have come to understand that a great part of communication in America is the way things are delivered, how you can read one’s face and often see the emotion they feel, the way Americans deliver a sentence gives you small pieces of information to decode to understand how the person feels about what it is they are saying. That is not the case here. Many describe the German people as cold, and I would not exactly disagree but more describe them as reserved and stoic. They are not friendly, so I guess they are cold. But if you were to ask them a question they would go above and beyond to help you, I was once walked 20 minutes to my location by a stranger when I had asked for directions. It is not that the German people are unfriendly, it is just they are not outward. It is not a culture where one is taught nor encouraged to talk aimlessly with their neighbor to fill the time.
I think this cultural difference is rooted in the fact that America is made up of immigrants- we have to talk to one another in order to understand each other, in order to connect to one another because everyone comes from different customs, traditions, and norms, so the only way to bring everyone together is through dialog. In comparison to Germany, the homogony of the people combined with the specific and unique traumas and history that the people have endured makes them intrinsically connected based on the fact that they are born German in Germany. Again, this is only my own theory based on my observations abroad.
I quite enjoyed Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad because many parts of the book mimicked my own attempt to make sense of that which I can hardly get my head around. Looking back on my first week here, I remember how much I found to be so puzzling, and now I understand the people more, learning about their history absolutely helps me to understand this community. The past two months has truly expanded the size of the world I live in.
For the duration of my time in Berlin I have been searching for the genius loci of the city. I feel that I am living in the middle of a transitioning period. There is so much left over from the past, the streets are covered with wounds tracing back to WW1, and there is the ever so present ominous acknowledgement- never explicitly spoken about because the force of history disables one to forget we walk amongst former Nazi Germany. Yesterday, my history class and I visited a desolate public housing parking lot, our teach brought us to a random patch in the lot, and told us we were standing on top of Hitler’s bunker. The bunker was unable to be destroyed, and instead it was filled with sand and forgotten about, paved over and now only to know life of automobile tires. It makes you realize that every single part of this city, even the modern Americanized shopping malls, is stained with heavy moments from the past. You can never truly lose yourself in the present in this city, because if you do even for a moment, you will turn a corner and see a bullet-holed covered church, or a block wide Holocaust memorial, sometimes you will even run into the remnants of the Berlin wall. I guess I see the spirit of this city as transition.
Berlin seems caught between the weight and responsibility of its past, and the desire to move forward, to create a new future that represents all that the former city did not. This city is so unique because it is motion, literally in the moments of change. There is so much that is left unspoken about because so many inhabitant’s grandparents are still too traumatized to bring the dialogue about what the city has endured into the public discourse. And yet there are the grandchildren of the past, understanding their own identity through histories made which they played no part in. Berlin’s spirit is survival. The land that I walk on has been referred to as so many things- the Prussia Empire, the Weimar Republic, East and West Berlin- only now must it shape what it is going to be for future years. It has survived so much tragedy, it has represented the source of evil at times, and you can see through its use of art that it is trying to reconcile its past, to have peace in its future. I do not know if this time I am living in Berlin will make it into future history books. It is the time in between. In fact, this time reminds me of my own history. I feel that I will look back at these years, and my times spent here, also as my time in between.
My favorite building in all of Berlin is the Cathedral (Dome). The Berlin Cathedral is not only strikingly beautiful, so seducing you find yourself unable to look away at its demanding presence. But it is also one of the only buildings that has survived the messy complexities of this cities history, its is the city’s symbol of survival in my eyes.
Art does not just work with my perception of Berlin- it is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about this city. It is impossible to walk down one of the endlessly long blocks without seeing at least one graffiti-covered building or giant mural watching you go by. Every step you take is coated in someone else’s creative expression. At times it almost feels as if you are in some picture book story, just aimlessly making your way through to the next chapter, other times it feels as if you have been transported back in time and are one of the few people left in a forgotten city. The size of Berlin is massive, I often find myself walking for a while without seeing anyone in sight, almost as if I have teleported myself to a city far in the past or millions of years in the future. It often feels as if my only companion in this city is the street art; the vibrant yellow and pink pastels slain across a church greeting me as I walk home. It is hard to go anywhere without feeling like you are strolling on a page of an art magazine.
I guess my favorite collection of art is the East Side Gallery. I favor it not because it holds the most beautiful works of art in Berlin, but more because of its purpose. The East Side Gallery is a remaining section of the Berlin wall that has been left up, artists from all over Germany and the world have covered this wall in murals that range of all styles and themes. I believe the East Side Gallery is one of the most accurate representations of Berlin. This city is littered with memories of its dark and oppressive past, but has not simply torn down the old in embarrassment or fear of what it once was, instead it tries to birth a new meaning to one that hold such dark histories. The remembering of its history, and the use of art to try and understand or offer some peace to what once laid in all the cracks of the city directs one towards a state of reflection. It is impossible to simply walk around and just look at Berlin, there is a forced inner thought process, an awareness of all that the surfaces of this city has seen. I see the East Side Gallery as a sort of peace offering to history, a resolution of the wall. Instead of demolishing it and hiding what has happened, it has been embraced as one of the most defining symbols of this city. The embracement of its history, in my opinion, enables Berliners to exist always in connection to the past, creating a heightened understanding of life. The tragedy that stains the city also pushes it towards a rebirth. I feel I am living in this city in the middle of its rebirth, of it trying to create a new identity, one that does not abandon its past but tries to understand it, learn from it, in order to move on. Berlin is like a person, still recovering from the traumas of its early life and trying to learn from them to create the person it will be with a set of values to believe and guide it. I see Berlin as a partner, paralleling my own journey through life, trying to make sense of all the questions that you will never get an answer too.
Every time I travel there is always the motive to blend in, to not be seen as a tourist but mistaken for a native of the territory. This desire of fitting in is driven from the desire not to be an outsider. To not be recognized as a passing American tourist who seems incapable of understanding culture due to our society of excess. When going to clubs, I always speak the little German I know, knowing that my chances of getting into the club are much lower if my true American identity is revealed. This “spiritual pilgrimage” that MacCannel discusses is a comprehension of the inner-workings of a foreign society. To not just live amongst the German culture, but to live within it. It seems that only through true understanding of the differences in the way of life here in Berlin in comparison to at home in America, can I begin to engulf into my psyche the true vastness of the world. The recognition that there is no “right” nor “wrong” way of life but that there is only life: we are birthed and then we live amongst all the outside, but the innermost core and truth is that we are within ourselves and everything else is the external. Since coming to Berlin I have felt I have begun to understand this concept through my own personal experience. My own identification with myself, and realization that it is disconnected from the fluidity of the outside world- that is the essence of MacCannel’s “spiritual pilgrimage”.
My personal experience with MacCannel’s back and front doors since being in Berlin is the differences in the service industry here compared to America. Since I have worked in restaurants since I was 16, I am well acquainted with the front door, the performance that is expected in the service industry. Humbly smiling to customers as they yelled and complain to me about their table or their waiter is an expected part of the job, the front door. Once situating such a demanding customer in some form of comfort with the dying hope that they will not return to continue making my life hell, the back door is opened. My colleagues and I roll our eyes in the knowing agony of trying to put up with such people who seem to have forgotten, or just simply do not care, that we service people exist in the same humanity as them. But here in Berlin, I have encountered a much different world of service. I remember the first week I was here, some friends and I were at a coffee shop still basking in the exciting newness of our pilgrimage to this foreign land. One friend was unaware that the barista was talking to her, that was, until the barista snapped, “If you are not going to pay attention to me when I ask for your order than you won’t be getting anything”. All of my friends and I were taken back, we were obviously embarressed and felt bad that we had disrespected the women, but the true shock was to receive such rude service.
That simply does not happen in America, and if it does it is clear that the person will be out of a job soon. But because waiters and baristas are paid a full wage and do not survive on tips, they do not have any incentive to perform for their customers. Their jobs are simply the process of providing us with what we asked for and nothing else. Since this encounter I have been intrigued by the differences in the service industries between America and Berlin. Thinking how if I had ever truly shown how I felt during the many times I was being ignored, yelled at, or even inappropriately hassled by customers I would be immediately fired. It seems that in Berlin there is no separation of front and back door in service, there is only the front that the customer too is invited into.
I read Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and focused on the dynamics of the different relationships Christopher observes and comments on throughout the book. Isherwood has a frighteningly truthful understanding of individuals, of reading them by observation, and of conveying life and emotion in a unique and simplistic way through his very detailed observations. Isherwood does not just observe his surroundings, he sees everything, sees all that lies beyond the surface so effortlessly. I personally related to his relationship with Sally Bowles and the new light with which he sees her in after time and distance- after he travels away form Berlin-has been put in between them. I understood all too well the closeness of their relationship, possibly fueled by the migration to the foreign city of Berlin vastly enhancing the conceptual size of their worlds. When transported out of that with which you always are familiar, and exposed to so much of the new, foreign, and unknown, the desire to feel connected to something, to someone, is intoxicatingly powerful. I saw parallels between how quickly Christopher and Sally’s lives became inseparably intertwined as if to be living one life, and my own personal experiences with being thrust into unknown newness and desiring to lose myself in someone else. The longing to not feel perpetually vulnerable and alone is the overwhelmingly natural human desire for safety. I felt as if I was reading an autobiography of chapters of my own life when Christopher and Sally reunite. This occurs after the traumatizing experience of Sally’s abortion and the time and distance that comes between them when Christopher moves out of Berlin.
My interpretation of their relationship, pulling from my own direct experience, was the jolting shock of the traumatic event and how it affected Christopher so much despite that it wasn’t happening directly to him, left him in dire need of separation, of distance from the mess of emotions and unanswered questions. With time allowing each of them to develop their own lives, enabling breathing room and dissociation from the hot and consuming emotions ridden within their relationship, they both had the ability to put one another and their relationship in the perspective of the new context- the context of the world and not just the world they created together. On pages 64- 65 they are seeing one another after their time apart, they both seem irritated with one another. We are only given insight into Christopher’s perception of the event, but it is clear that both are seeing one another in a changed perspective. Sally responds to Christopher after he observes how she has changed, “…Perhaps we’ve neither of us changed. Perhaps we’re just seeing each other as we really are. We’re awfully different in lots of ways, you know”. For me this passage was the most mind-blowingly truthful and painful. Sally later says, “I think, that we may have sort of outgrown each other, a bit,” this dialogue between these two friends was chillingly familiar. Travel; away from home- home being your hometown, country etc.- illuminates all that is or was in the darkness, that rested in your blindside because of your own involvement in the situation. This passage and this transitional stage of Sally and Christopher’s relationship is what I found most profoundly truthful to my own experiences abroad.
While this connection I felt to the text does not directly relate to Berlin specifically, it relates to travel. It comments on how travel expands one’s notion of the world and how the distance between all that you once knew seems to answer many questions left hanging, it also opens the door for tons of new ambiguities. Travel brings into question what life means, how life is a construct and how hindsight seems to be the only way to makes sense of it all, if that is even possible.