In my last post, I discussed the joys of getting lost and the rewards one can reap from this experience; today, I want to talk about the joys of not getting lost. In my only experience of moving to another city, when I started school in New York City, I realized that my tendencies toward exploration had a pattern. In my first year I rarely escaped the confines of the Lower East Side, an area with the approximate area of my hometown of Cambridge. Once I had “learned” the streets and become acquainted with its idiosyncrasies, I started pushing onwards and outwards into other neighborhoods. It was important for me to have a home base that I knew and was comfortable in, which seems like a perfectly natural tendency, and I have begun the same home-building process here in Berlin.
Our residence hall is located in the area of Berlin known as Kreuzberg, and happens to be a few streets away from Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point through the Berlin Wall. So naturally, most of my exploration has been throughout this neighborhood, and already I feel like I am starting to get the hang of all the twists and turns of the streets, and the Zen of the place, and the feel of the buildings. One frequent escape route from Kreuzberg is my matutinal bike ride to the Academic Center for class. I take the same exact route every day, to maybe gain some sort of ownership over the city in a minor way.
The bike ride is a great tour through the history of Berlin, perfectly accompanied by the waltzes of Strauss softly streaming through my headphones. I first head north on Charlottenstraße, going past the Neue Kirche (or New Church), a beautiful neo-Baroque church at which the legendary ETA Hoffman was a parishioner. Soon after this, heralded by a rusted copper Pegasus atop a building in the distance, I come across the Gendarmenmarkt, a neoclassical plaza home to two churches and the massive Konzerthaus. Before long I turn right and approach Humboldt University on the left, and the Bebelplatz, where the State Opera and St Hedwigs Cathedral (seat of the Archbishop of Berlin) sit on the right. Winding down some smaller streets, I cross over to the Museum Island in the middle of the river Spree, location of the olden city of Cölln and current home to many museums. On my ride I specifically pass by the Alte Nationalgalerie, the neoclassically designed home to many paintings by one of my favorite artists Caspar David Friedrich. Crossing back to the mainland, I bike up a tough hill and finally reach the Academic Center, which is located at an old brewery. And this whole time, I can look up and see the Fersehturm Berlin, the TV tower which claims the record of being the tallest structure in Berlin and features a scale replica of Sputnik near the top spire.
So the variety of sights and sensations along this minor escape from Kreuzberg through Mitte has become a daily ritual, and a daily reminder of the weight of the history of this place. It still astonishes me every day to bike alongside these beautiful pieces of architecture. But in the end, I remind myself that I’m only a commuter on his quotidian struggle of getting to class. This juxtaposition makes it even more crazier, but somehow soothes the irrationality and makes me feel more and more like I am building a relationship with this small area of Berlin.
Soon enough, maybe this bike ride will bore me, and I’ll take a right where I should go left and come across some majestic art or strange sight. I’ll be taking baby steps into the hinterland, which happens to be German word literally meaning “the land behind” and usually refers to a place outside of a city. So this whole semester abroad, I will be pushing out into my hinterland gradually and comfortably, until I have seen every neighborhood of the city, riding my bike and taking whatever turn I feel I should take.