The "long one" - Berlin before and after arrival.
Certain things can be described as nebulous regarding this journey I’ve taken. Not my wish to go, since I’ve had a strong desire to be in Germany since I started learning the language as a freshman in high school, but certainly not the point at which I decided I wanted to do so. Similarly, the image I had formed in my head of Berlin was fuzzy, incomplete, with no real beginning or end. Sure, there were the pictures of our apartments that NYU had sent us and the postcard images of the Reichstag, Brandenburger Tor, and Fersehturm with which I am familiar, but I, for all my research and preparation, didn’t really have a picture in my head of my neighborhood, or the U-Bahn stations, or any of the other parts of my life. However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t encounter surprise upon arrival.
Even though I didn’t have a clear image in my head of Berlin, I had a definite mental atmosphere that equated to Berlin before I left. Part of that atmosphere is history, years and years of history, world-changing history, the history we all think about when we hear the word “Germany” as well as totally different history. Another portion is best described by my experiences with Lufthansa. For both of my flights with them, they were extremely efficient. They apologized profusely for being fifteen minutes late landing in Berlin. Aboard the second of my three flights, I was attended to by a variety of clean-cut, multilingual, courteous individuals dressed in regulation blue and yellow. Matthias, my main flight attendant, periodically walked up and down my aisle, asking passengers “Kaffee? Coffee? Kaffee?” while I watched American movies and TV. Although I grew lightheaded, weary, and, admittedly, grumpy, the personnel kept their sparkle of efficiency.
Ten hours in one plane can certainly skew one’s understanding of the world. It isn’t as though I’m not used to airplane travel (getting to NYU entails the five or six hour journey to Newark Airport from Portland), but there’s something about setting up a life in planes and airports, countryless, sleepless, without actual day or night, that’s different. You get settled within motion, best described by the experience of being on a plane (you are hurtling through the air in a metal tube, but simply sit there, wait, poke at your food, perhaps watch some movies or do a crossword). Trying to prepare, trying to anticipate, trying to remember while you’re there in the first place – all of these things become more difficult in such transient spaces.
Dragging myself to the baggage carousel in Berlin Tegel airport, I was still surrounded by the glitter of Lufthansa. But on the cab ride to my apartment, the reality of being in this particular city finally hit. The composition of Berlin doesn’t really fit our conceptions of “old world” Europe, or the modern gleam that Lufthansa portrays. I was struck at how mish-mash and hodge-podge the city is, newer buildings standing on the spaces where old buildings were bombed. There are some structures that were built in the past twenty years, but plenty of them have the lackluster architecture of apartment housing built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. These buildings, however, often stand right up against those that were not bombed, beautiful pieces of work from the past.
What really stands out is the graffiti. Berlin isn’t necessarily a “dirty” city (it certainly smells better than New York!), but a huge amount of its surfaces are tagged by spray paint. Perhaps this is emphasized by the weather’s grayness, or by the fact that Berlin has a smaller population and business density than New York. Still, graffiti is found most places, save for historical and government buildings. It seems to be accepted, almost celebrated, rather than scrubbed off and forgotten, like in many places in the states. I never really expected there to be so much, dancing over walls and impossible places.
It is true, though, that my surprise at the architecture and graffiti, my forgetting that Berlin isn’t simply the “new efficiency” or the “old world”, has reminded me that the city wasn’t just waiting here for me to come to it. It lives. It houses life. And, similarly, even though I’ve been anticipating this journey for five years, I need to stop thinking of being here as the culmination of all that waiting. Rather, I’m here as a continuation. I’m here to live my life, including going to classes, buying groceries, and washing dishes. And, to be honest, I’m still compulsively drawn to Berlin. What’s here is more interesting than my fuzzy anticipatory mental image.
The picture above was taken by me at the, somewhat cheesy, reproduction of Checkpoint Charlie. For those of you planning on going to Berlin, I strongly recommend spending more time at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe nearby.