Finding comfort in unlikely places
Her eyes are a bluish grey, her hair an unfortunate shade of mousy brown, her rucksack or tote always brimming with books and papers. And she is never without a massive water bottle, those 1 litre plastic bottles that Germans seem so fond of. Her name is Anna, and at first, I found her intimidating. Here she was, a girl probably not much older than myself, but contributing to deep philosophical discussions with such ferocious intensity, such a sense of passion, in a language that is not even her first. It is hard not to feel intimidated in an academic setting like this, because where I struggle to string a few words together about medieval ethics in my native tongue, someone far less used to English is doing so, and with profound observations to boot.
Maybe because it is such a small group of us in the class, and so few of us are women, but Anna and I somehow bond. Walking out of the building one day, she unlocks her bike and looks puzzled when she notices that I am not doing the same. “I don’t have a bike,” I explain, not needing to wait for her to ask. This is Berlin, where everyone, I’ve learned, cycles. And those who don’t, well, they just seem odd.
We talk about this for a few minutes, and I give the usual excuses: I have a semester ticket (which allows me unlimited access to public transport) and might as well use it, I am not used to cycling in a city, I don’t want to buy a flohmarkt (flea market) bike since I know those are almost all stolen, and I don’t have a lot of money lying around to purchase a bike.
“There’s a used bike auction in the West, near to Zoologischer Garten,” she says excitedly. “I will find out the details. You have to get a bike, Rose. You just have to. It’s the best way to experience this city properly. You’ll see.” She mounts her shiny, cherry-red bike, says “ciao” as the Germans do (something which I still find odd and can’t bring myself to say,) and speeds off down the street.
On another occasion, Anna asked about my experience of living in Germany as an American. Upon discovering that I never studied German, she is shocked, wondering aloud how I was allowed to come study here. I laugh and shrug, and she apologises profusely, not wanting to seem rude. I don’t take it as rude though.
“You know. I never seriously thought that I would need to learn German here. I guess that’s stupid. But the one person I knew here before I moved, he told me it was something I shouldn’t stress about. And all the time I’m encountering people who have lived here for years but don’t speak German,” I explain. “I know it’s bad. I should learn. I think I’d like to. It’s just hard to find the motivation, because everyone here speaks English.”
She pauses for a minute, clearly thinking carefully about what she’s about to say. “You’re right, everyone does speak English. But you should learn! It would be a shame for you to be here and not try. It’s like with the bike. You’re going to get more out of the experience of this place if you experience it as Berliners do.”
Some might have seen that as condescending, but I didn’t. I was appreciative, because I think Anna is the only German I’ve met who has told me that yes, I should be trying to learn German if I really want this place to be home.