When I first signed up for this program, I expected Berlin to be like any other European capital. During my years in high school, I had a travel program that took me to Europe for a week. I went from Paris to Nice, then from Montecatini to Rome, with several stops along the way. I got a first-hand look into what I thought most European capitals were like then, with Paris and Rome. Little did I know how Berlin was, my assumptions were the complete opposite of what my experience here turned out to be.
In high school I took an interest in history, however my class schedule focused on math, music, and design. My classes in history became limited to prehistoric times up until the first centuries A.D., and then United States history, so I never had a formal class that focused on recent European history. Because I was taking a college-level US history course, I studied deeply the events that happened in Europe only as they pertained to America. I knew some history of the Third Reich and the Nazi party; I was very interested in war films and novels at the time. I knew about the Berlin wall, but less about the division of Germany, and the coming and going of whole Cold War era was before my time, and I grew up in a world where communism had already faded away (albeit China).
My thoughts on Berlin prior to my trip over here were somewhat optimistic; I knew that the city had incurred much destruction in World War II and was divided for about four decades after that, so my assumption at the time was that there was heavy rebuilding of the city in that period, and that when the two halves became whole after the reunification, the gap was filled as the city became complete again. I knew it was one of the largest populated cities in Europe, and going after my logic with Paris and Rome, assumed that it was a bustling friendly city where a lot of commerce was going on, and four million people lived together fairly peacefully. A lot of history had happened there, and after I decided to take a semester abroad and try something new, I read ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ by Brian Ladd, hoping it would give me some better insight about the city’s history prior to my trip. As I got an idea about the urban development and overall growth of the city, the dark times came about and I started to understand more the affect the industrial revolution had on the city, and the political struggles of Germany following the first World War. My thoughts still assumed that the city was still a very redeveloped world urban center, and that I would enjoy the time I spent there as an architecture student.
After our first 10-day travel elective, our group was exhausted and eager to arrive in Berlin to what would be our new home for the next three months. It wasn’t exactly what my initial thoughts had led to, however it helped that the weather was beautiful at the time, and our bus ride to the apartments along the U-1 overhead railway gave me a parallel to something I had seen before in New York. I think when I turned on the television set that night I was surprised to see how much of American programming had made its way over to Germany, and I thought it would feel familiar, but the lack of English speaking channels (other than CNN and occasionally MTV) quickly set me back into the reality that I was living in a different culture and I would have to get used to it. The next morning we went to the grocery store and it was probably the first bit of culture shock that I got. My first thoughts were: “Okay, nothing in English, and I don’t know much of any German; Hmm, beer is cheaper than soda; I had never seen so many types of sausage in my life; Wow, I can’t read any of this; They don’t keep milk refrigerated; Why isn’t there any Peanut Butter; I guess I’m eating pasta and oven pizzas for awhile.” Then of course, they don’t bag your groceries, which I was warned about ahead of time, and you pay for grocery bags, though stuffing my backpack worked the best. I figured, okay, I’ll get used to this pretty quick, I’ll try new food and maybe I’ll start being less wasteful with bags and recycling when I go back home.
The next part was getting on the subway, and the fact that there is no ticket check was the first really confusing part to me, but I guess an honor system is something that promotes less traffic jams going through checks and buying tickets, but I was planning on getting a bike to ride to studio and learn the city a little better anyway. The first week or so on the subway taught me that German people, Berliners in particular (I’m assuming) generally keep to themselves, and I’ve never had a quieter subway experience in my life. Generally, those of us who got on together were carrying the only conversation in the car. Later I found that by going to places to buy supplies or to get food, Germans in general seemed a bit cold. I think it has a lot to do with history and how they were brought up within division, especially in the communist East Germany, where you really had to watch what you said, so even now I can understand people not being so open to freely expressing themselves. Berliners are a true working-class group of people; they’re quick, to the point, very direct in what they say and it sometimes comes off as rude, but that’s just the way people are, I don’t blame them for it, but perhaps their society has made them that way.
Once I had gotten a bike and we were taking trips around the city with our classes, I noticed that Berlin wasn’t really the giant urban metropolis I had expected. The city is on a very human scale, different to something like New York where it’s super-human scale. The street walls were generally not higher than 5-6 stories, and in urban centers or major boulevards contained the more prominent buildings, but were generally not higher than 20 stories. There was also more green space than I thought, and after learning to the extent of how badly Berlin was damaged at the end of World War II, you could tell that once a long row of apartment buildings suddenly had holes here and there, pieces seemed to be missing, and it all made sense that they were left after destruction and still not rebuilt. After going to many museums and memorials, I started to take in how much history this city has seen in the last century. It started as the industrial capital of Europe, an ever-growing center to central Europe and the skies were the limits. However, involvement and defeat in World War I left the economy in pieces, and though it was able to rebound in that sense, political reform saw the ride of a power that was thought to be the answer to restore Germany to its former greatness, but it ended in darkness and destruction as that leader sought European domination and the destruction of a major religion and its people throughout it. I feel bad for the citizens of the city who watched the city’s destruction and had to live with picking up the pieces and moving on. But they couldn’t do that, as the world political powers led to the division of the city and of its people for nearly four decades. And when things fall apart there and everything comes back together again, how do you deal with the past, with everything the city and its people have dealt with in the last 80 years? You can put it behind you, but memories of hard times will always remain, and they can be used as example for future reference so that such a hardship on a country’s population won’t ever happen again. In this sense, I can see why Germans in general are sensitive about there past, and want to put it behind them and move forward as if nothing happened. So they come off as cold, not very social and in general just keep to themselves.
In general, now my view on Berlin is one that it is a major re-growing power in Europe, and soon again it will be what it once was before war and oppressive governments crushed the spirit of the people. I think it has a lot to do with the coming generations becoming educated and continually making the advancements in technology and society happen, keeping Berlin and Germany the leaders of innovation and engineering in the world. It was hard for me to find my way in this city for someone who doesn’t speak German, but in reality you can get by okay without it. I have enjoyed my time here and hope to visit again someday; this trip has broadened my view on the major cultural differences between Germany and the United States, and I will go back knowing (somewhat) how to live like a Berliner.