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NU In Berlin

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Move On and Along

 

Studying abroad in Germany this past summer had been an absolute privilege. I was thrown into a completely different culture where societal norms were completely foreign. This trip made me feel a sense of humility as I had been so ignorant on German culture. Such a foreign culture had been humbling to me as I was allowed to reflect on my own American values and culture. There, I learned of the post-war sentiments, saw the scars of communism, and experienced avant-garde movements. I came back a different person after this summer and it was a period of time in which I felt the most growth. I was challenged with learning the German language and customs, marched in the Berlin Pride Parade, and felt the pain as Germany was knocked out of the World Cup. I consider my experience to have been integral in developing my own identity.

 

I do not see Berlin as my home or second home or whatever you may like to call it. Am I emotionally attached to the city? Yes of course, however at the end of the day it is just another chapter that had started and ended in my life. I appreciated my experience there but do not yearn to go back to the summer. For me, I am only focused on the next period that comes ahead of me and I hope to keep on developing further.

Fun Weekend

 

This past weekend, the program travelled to the northern port city of Hamburg. The city is a key German port of commerce and trade and it had held so much significance in the past that Hamburg is its own state. In the day, we were given a tour of the city by one of our program professors, Dr. Jan Behrs. Throughout the city we explored the Portuguese quarter, an area where many sailors from Portugal settled to conduct business in Hamburg. The result is a blend of cultures that can be best seen in the architecture and cuisine. After a long day of walking, we all settled for a late lunch where I ordered an absolute unit of a paella. The paella featured fresh seafood caught earlier that day in the surrounding waters, or at least that’s what the server told me. Regardless, it was delicious and interesting to see a cross of culture.

Later that night, I embarked on a pub crawl through the Reeperbahn with some of my peers. For those who don’t know, the Reeperbahn is a street and entertainment district and exists as one of two major centers of nightlife in the city. Oh, I forgot to mention it’s also the red light district. Essentially, it has all the traffic and neon of Las Vegas but take away the gambling and add in more adult oriented activities. This is largely due to the fact of Hamburg being a port city where sailors would go the Reeperbahn in search of relaxation and nightlife. The existence of the Reeperbahn is something of an anomaly from my pair of foreign eyes. Although some may say its an epicenter of degeneracy, it is actually very well regulated and many government services take care of the area to ensure safety and security. If given the chance, I would love to go back to the city.

A Change in Pace

 

On a more serious note, this past weekend was spent in the quaint town of Weimar where the program visited a nearby concentration camp. Named ‘Buchenwald’, this was a smaller labor camp.When initially arriving, I was unaware of the layout and a sense of anticipation built up within me as we went through the visitors center and watched the documentary. Even whilst walking past the old barracks and gas station I did not know when we would enter. Upon seeing the entrance, I immediately noticed the stopped time of 3:15 on top of the clock. This was the exact time when American Allied forces liberated the camp. Symbolically, I viewed the clock as a counter for the hours of terror released on the camp. The stop time is synonymous to stopping the timer of the killing machine. Passing through and only seeing the lots of the razed prison barracks gave an ominous feeling. As I was able to look off to the peaceful rolling hills in the distance but had them juxtaposed to the grey sea that stood in front of me. A coldness swept through me as I realized that I was standing in the same place where,  a mere 75 years ago, SS guards had been beating and leading helpless Jews to a systematic death.

Later, I moved to the crematorium. Upon entering the actual oven room I felt disgusted throughout my eyes, stomach, and throat. It was hard for me to look at the ovens where so many had been destroyed. I did not want to believe the volumes of death that had occurred in the room and had to swallow the truth. The morgue beneath was perhaps the hardest moment to bear. It was a damp, poorly lit basement, where bodies had just been stacked like animal carcasses, waiting to be turned to ash.

Lastly, I ended with walking in the woods behind the camp. There I found a forest where Soviet soldiers were buried. The graves were all unmarked and only designated my a simple wooden post. These posts had blended and become a part of the forest. Walking back to the entrance, I took one last look behind me and this feeling of sorrow was invoked with me. It was unlike any other sadness as I had felt before. A bleak and remorseful reverberated through me and I wished that I was able to apologize to not only the Jewish people, but to all of humanity for what happened.

Same Person, New Friends

 

It has been 2 weeks, 1 day, 14 hours and 32 minutes since I first stepped foot in Europe. I have parted ways with my brother but met with the other program students in Berlin. At our introductory dinner, I ordered German Schnitzel, which is essentially just chicken-fried steak with the option to choose a different meat. The other program kids seem fine but what excites me the most is our living quarters. We are staying in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, a traditionally Turkish district which also experienced large avant-garde progression in the 80s. Unlike a Northwestern dormitory, we have kitchens on every floor and a bathroom in each room. What is particularly exciting is the entire building is filled with other American students from other Universities. I recently met two girls from the University of Oregon and University of Virginia. I foresee myself spending the majority of my free time with them and with the other Americans in general as they provide a different and more humble viewpoint when compared to my counterparts. All things considered, I am just happy to have settled in and found friends to enjoy nightlife with!

You’re Only Taking That?

If you see someone walking around campus with an abnormally large backpack, there’s a likely chance it was me. Rather than go home to California for a few weeks, I chose to fly directly from Chicago to backpack Western Europe before finally settling in Berlin for 8 weeks. While walking around campus on my last day here, many of my friends were astounded that I am only taking a singular, crammed, North Face backpack filled with just the necessities. Many of my friends called me crazy for having to live out of a backpack for nearly 3 months in Europe but I don’t mind. I have gained this curious, venturesome mindset where I am ready to tackle the long journey ahead. This is my first time on the European Continent and the image I’ve conjured is based on the interactions I’ve had via media. It excites me to now be able to experience Europe first hand and all the culture and history that comes with it. From this experience I hope not to be a foreign tourist who just takes photos and parties while abroad, but become a student to the German culture and heritage and aim to just learn about something completely alien.

Maybe too far from home?

I am back in the States, back at Northwestern. And the culture shock is back, too. As I said in my first blog post, being Italian I wasn’t expecting to go through any major struggles in Germany, and, indeed, I felt just like at home there, aside from minor cultural differences I highlighted in my second blog post. Here in the US, however, it’s a different story, and, after spending three months in Europe with the perspective of a local university student, I realized it’s a story I might not want to keep writing.

Let me explain.

2008: The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression reaches Europe. Italy is hit particularly hard. Our economy never fully recovers.

2018: Our debt is through the roof at 130% of the GDP, youth unemployment sits close to 40%, the banking sector is in huge troubles, and the government is in the hands of the populists and the far-right.

I love my home country, but you can easily understand that the future there is looking very uncertain at the moment. Hence, students have been leaving Italy en masse for the past few years. I was one of them when I came to America for college. I picked the United States for reasons that should sound obvious to everyone: great education system, strong economy offering exciting career prospects, diverse, multicultural society, excellent international connections,… the list goes on. A complete enumeration would be extremely long. However, it will always lack many aspects of the European way of life which I so love, aspects which I had always overlooked and whose deep impact on my personal development I just began to realize. I’m talking about things like being able to experience a wide array of different cultures within hours of distance from my house, living very close — and feeling very close — to my extended family, spending an entire morning strolling around the city center without ever encountering a single car, dedicating two or more hours each day to having great meals full of social interactions,… . Many of these aspects might sound like a complete waste of time to the average American, much more of a Stakhanovite than the average European, and, thus, totally irrelevant. I, instead, believe that they contribute to a much more balanced lifestyle, which I noticed is very much lacking in the United States. And… here’s the catch: after spending so much time in Germany and in Switzerland (I visited ETH Zurich after my program in Berlin ended), I believe that most, if not all, positive aspects of living in America can be found there, as well. The German-speaking countries of the EU seem to me to have the perfect blend of the American and the European lifestyles. In my first blog post I said that I have been considering studying at ETH Zurich for a long time. The realization that my experience in Berlin led me to did nothing but strengthen my desire to actually do that. My parents, who’ve always tried to convince me to go study in Switzerland, will be very happy to hear that. “Isn’t America maybe too far from home?”, they would keep asking me. And, yeah, it may very well be.

View of Zurich from ETH

 

Heimat is Where the Heart is

It has been exactly one month since I left Berlin and it is only two days before I return to Evanston and to campus to prepare for the new year ahead of me. As I pack and say hello and goodbye to all my friends, family members, neighbors, cats, Mt. Rainier, the Pacific Ocean, and all the little (and big!) things that make this my home, I am spurred to consider how my idea of home in itself has changed.

Before college, the only place I considered to be “home” was the town in which I grew up– Everett, Washington. I am not particularly fond of my hometown, but it is home and it is where my family are and will therefore always be my home. Then after moving to school I found myself occasionally slipping and calling Evanston or my dorm or campus “home” (much to my Mother’s chagrin, I must add). And now, after spending 8 weeks living and studying in Berlin, I can already picture myself calling Berlin “home”, too. The streets quickly felt natural under my feet, the diverse and lively community felt like one I could find family in, and the late nights up with friends or out in the city or by the river felt second-nature. I went to Berlin a curious explorer, an avid learner, and a lover of culture and language, but not someone who thought that I could ever truly belong outside of my home country bubble. Berlin subverted my expectations, in that sense, by making me fall in love with it everyday as I grew more courageous, more aware, more willing to speak up for myself and what I need, and more content to sit and sit and sit in a garden and just let life happen without phones or distractions or somewhere to be. The German word for “home” is “Heimat”, and I truly feel that although we just barely met, Berlin could be my Heimat someday just like Evanston, just like Everett. Below is the final picture I took in Berlin on the tarmac of Schonefeld airport– I like to think that the beautiful sunrise I was able to capture is a little hint that my journey in and with Berlin, and Germany, is just beginning still.

i don’t want to go back

August 19th// I am on the plane back to Boston. I’ve decided that living in the United States is not something I want to do anymore. There was a level of freedom I experienced in Berlin that I do not think is possible in the USA. 

One thing I appreciated the most about Berlin was how safe I felt. I never (perhaps I should’ve just to be on the safer side) worried about getting shot or stabbed or stalked for too long. Of course there were moments where I felt scared, but I never felt prohibited from exploring the city because of a fear of crime. I feel like I saw more of Berlin than I ever will of Chicago/Evanston because of how “safe” it feels.

However, being a Black person in Berlin isn’t the best feeling. Sometimes it felt as though I was perceived as a threat and a potential problem. A lot of the people I befriended were Africans who were constantly stopped and searched by police officers. The feeling of being alert and wary of police never left even though we were in a different country.

Other than that, Berlin is a wonderful place!

am i a gentrifier here

July 16th// I am in love with Berlin. It’s lively, it’s so freeing. One of the things I appreciate most is that I can walk by myself through the city at night and know I will be safe.

 

What’s also cool is if you open yourself up to possibilities, you can meet a lot of interesting people. We stayed in Kreuzberg. In Kreuzberg, I befriended a neighbor. They told me how the neighborhood was so much more different back in the day. The buildings were more rundown,the restaurants and cafes around the block were cheaper, and there definitely wasn’t a building filled with American students.

 

He made me think about my role Berlin. Of course it’s great that we were able to get housing meant for students and not be in airbnbs. However, that building used to be a home for dozens of families. Where are they now? Am I a gentrifier? What happens if I end up loving Berlin so much that I want to stay here. What does it mean for me to be in American in a global city that desperately still wants to have a strong German identity?

berlin poor but sexy, i’m just poor

July 2nd // It was 4am, we were on our way to another club. I was tired but excited. I never went clubbing at 4am before. As we neared the huge building, I saw the cost of entrance, 14 Euros. I paused. Did I want to spend 14 Euros at a Techno club? A week’s worth of groceries? I don’t even like Techno! I looked at one of the other students and told them, “I can’t afford this.” I wanted to go home.

 

They said, “We won’t be going out that often, the cover fees aren’t that much.” I saw them all give the people the 14 Euros. In that moment it was to follow along or try to find a way home at 4am alone.

 

Since it was only my first week, I stayed. I was too fearful of getting lost and hurt in an unknown city to have gone by myself.

 

I wish, I wish I didn’t go into that club. It was surreal and something I would have never experienced before. However, it was also just not a financial sound decision for me. I soon realized my peers fell into a pattern of going out to places with cover fees that I could not afford. It made me realize that I couldn’t afford to socialize with them. Instead, I found free and cost efficient things to do in the city. Although I didn’t have people to do them with, I did them, had fun, and saved money.

 

What I wish someone had told me is that your experience in Berlin doesn’t have to end and begin with Northwestern students. I found it so much more meaningful and interesting when I began to befriend the locals and learn about the real gems of the city. Go beyond NU.

 

And lastly, to know yourself and be true to yourself. I don’t understand why I tortured myself through two hours of techno when I know I don’t like techno. Don’t do what I did, do what you want to do.