The Way It Has Always Been

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 6. Book #1, Berlin by Ashley Jankowski1 Comment

Similar to my brief semester in the city, Mark Twain lived in Berlin for a few short months in the Fall of 1891. His was a time spent before the construction of the Berlin Wall, before the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, and before World War I. Daily, I observe this work-in-progress city, this collage of culture and memory and progression;  I chose to read “A Tramp In Berlin” to try to get a sense of what Berlin’s identity might have looked like prior to their harrowing series of physical and psychological ruptures.

Interestingly enough, Twain couldn’t truly put his finger on the city’s identity either, if in fact it had one at all. He writes, “The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period. The site it stands on has traditions and no history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen” (132).

If it was new in 1891, does that make Berlin old today? It simply can’t be. Berlin is continuously rumbling with the rebuilding of their landscape and culture from the bombings of World War II and the existence of the Berlin Wall. Having practically started again from scratch, Berlin’s history is relatively young, and this made me wonder if and how I even imagined Berlin before I moved here. What is the city even known for? Perceived traditions and stereotypical mannerisms often take centuries of refinement and persistence to become legendary to the place; there cannot be a ‘way it has always been’ if there isn’t first a clear and definable ‘always’.

This can become almost like a trap to outsiders, who – without concrete historical guidance and evidence – quickly form their flawed ideas of of significance and insignificance when traveling somewhere new. When describing Berlin’s prominent monument, Twain wrote, “The golden angel on top of the Column of Victory…It is one of the unpleasantest angels that I have met. I believe I have not seen anything really unpleasanter in this line…” and called the whole structure “a blemish” (94).

But arriving in a city with too heavy of a historic background or a handful of hefty expectations doesn’t allow you to be present, or to truly be anyone in the city at all. The constant comparison of what is the ‘same’ and ‘different’ to your home and to your hopes removes you from what actually is. Observations certainly guide the initial design of a sense of place, and Twain’s interminable list of complaints and descriptions could be categorized as such. But during my reading, it became quite clear that Twain made a serious mistake in his thinking: he failed to ask why. Why are the police officers so patiently persistent? Why have the streets been designed with a width that allows for breathing, cleanliness, and efficiency? Why do people come, live, work, love here?

No, Twain could not have foreseen the troubles that awaited Berlin in the coming century, and perhaps Twain was not physically present in Berlin long enough to make complex, comprehensive interpretations about his space; but I suspect he didn’t even try.

There is a time for observations, but those observations must almost immediately make the transformation from an assumption of fact into a question of meaning.


  1. Hi Ashley,

    I really like your commentary on the book as you point out the importance of questioning the things that you observe. I think that’s a really important aspect of travel that can easily be neglected, and these books that we read can be a reflection of that neglect, but they can also give us invaluable insight that we could not have discovered on our own. It seems that, unfortunately, your experience falls into the former.
    However, it is interesting to me that both you and Twain describe Berlin as “new” and without a real sense of identity, whether it is before or after the two world wars. I haven’t visited Berlin myself yet, but this stands out to me because I’ve often thought about the U.S. in the same way. In my time there, I have never been able to grasp a pervasive “culture” that ties the nation together, other than a few stereotypes and a shared belief in the freedom of expression. Perhaps living amidst the diversity of New York has skewed my perception of the matter, but the U.S. is also a relatively young country, and if Twain is right, perhaps there are just places that simply defy definition. Either way, reading your blog post has definitely made me look forward to my trip to Berlin even more. I can’t wait to discover this city that is at once so rich and so impoverished of history.

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