I found it.
Discretely nestled along the outermost edge of my neighborhood of Kreuzberg and hidden behind lofty walls of wiry fence and dense ivy lies an unsung jewel: Prinzessinnengarten. Remarkably green and teeming with life, the multi-functioning gardening space is an ecosystem of comradery, commitment, and creativity. Beekeeping and book clubs, ping pong and pizza; After my first lap in and around the enclosed garden, my arms goosebumped with excitement and ego. This must be how true Berliners spend their free time, I thought to myself. For the first time since my arrival in the city, I felt like a local, and I wanted to know more.
With great curiosity, I began researching the space, specifically in terms of its accessibility to newcomers in the neighborhood – a neighborhood whose Turkish immigrant population is steadily increasing. This urban agricultural experiment was created with the intentions of educating and engaging the local community through food production, as well as fostering an open space for sharing and connecting with others. On paper, this place should have been everything the dynamic community needed to fuse cultures old and new. But as I spent more time in the space, I felt there was something missing: the neighbors. I sat down with the Prinzessinnengarten’s founder to hear a bit more about his observations and goals, and perhaps get some clarification.
“Do you feel that your garden is accessible to the Turkish community?” I asked Marco over a slice of the garden restaurant’s homemade pizza.
“Turkish women don’t want to be a part of this community,” he replied.
“What makes you think that way?”
“They want their own space to garden. They don’t want to share, they don’t want to connect with us,” he stated with confidence.
“Do you feel this is a broad assumption, a generalization of the local Turkish women?”
“Do you host events in Turkish, or offer Turkish-speaking tours?”
Our conversation was over, and the ugly situation at hand was achingly evident. This wasn’t a community space at all – it was a clique.
What does it mean to be a local? It typically involves a bit of numbing. The longer you live somewhere, the more likely it is that the glimmer and glitter of newness have worn down; the fantastic becomes the familiar. And as the pace of everyday life picks up and surroundings begin to blur with speed, marginalized communities often become like white noise. As the initial shock factor and pity diminishes, their concealed existence becomes normalized. We as international students are thus not the only ones in bubbles here; bubbles existed – or may have even been constructed – before we arrived. Thick ones.
I think it is a mistake to assume that traversing out of your American bubble will immediately lead you to a boundless, honest representation of a foreign city’s culture. Regardless of nationality, we are all human beings. We draw circles around ourselves; we build comfort zones; we hold biases. And to visit a location as a fresh-eyed blank slate not only gives us the opportunity to witness forgotten beauty of a place, but also hands us the hefty responsibility of seeking out the forgotten faces.
One of my favorite concepts from the Harry Potter series is the presence (and inherent invisibility) of the Thestrals. These horse-like beings do not appear to everyone; in fact, only people who have seen, understood and accepted the concept of death can see Thestrals. Not to say traveling to a foreign place should be thought of as witnessing death, but it can work similarly to J.K. Rowling’s eerie literary creation. Being in a bubble can help you to recognize when other people are in stuck in bubbles as well, providing the vulnerability necessary for reaching a genuine and rather rewarding level of understanding.
The redeeming feature of bubbles is that they are clear. Look out of your bubble, even if you can’t get out. Talk to the taxi cab driver, or the guy behind the food stand. Talk to the people who don’t walk with confidence, or can’t tell you about the coolest underground dive bar – because they’ve never been. Talk to immigrants. Talk to newbies. And when you find a secret spot, think hard about who isn’t present. It is only then that you will wholly understand a place.