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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.

Experience, an intangible souvenir

Can you develop a habit in just eight weeks? Sometimes, a “Dankeschön” or “Entschuldigung” still slips out when I’m not thinking about it. Before going to Berlin, my interactions with Germany consists of only the world news on The New York Times. It was interesting if someone said they were from Germany or spoke German. I would want to learn more, yet, I never made an effort to seek it out. Now, I see myself paying more attention to music, literature, the news (big or small) when Germany is involved.

I remember reading a past blog post about day to day tasks, such as grocery shopping, as I prepared for Berlin. I wanted to experience the confusion of not knowing if the cashier is saying “Do you want your receipt,” or “Do you have an extra Euro, so I can give you a five back instead of all these heavy coins?” My parents don’t speak English well, so growing up, I did a lot of the translating between cashiers and whatnot. After experiencing how hard it is to understand someone who speaks German in actual contexts instead of textbook examples made me appreciate and also have more patience when my parents ask me to translate something. I definitely have looked up the words for receipt, change, bag, etc. more than once, but I’ve also given the cashiers a deer caught in headlights look more than once or twice or twenty times. I hope the next time I get a chance to go to Germany, my German will be better and I can effortlessly get through check out.

No Trouble Getting Around

One of the scariest parts of moving or studying abroad is the sense of urgency that grips you when it comes to travelling within the city. If you are placed in a situation where you speak a bare minimum amount of the language and you are asked to get from point A to point B, the question arises of if you are even capable of such a miraculous feat. “You want me to go to grocery store, by myself?? USING THE TRAIN??” The first few days in any new place will always be like this and the time it takes to become accustomed after this initial culture shock varies from place to place. It is for this reason that I’m extremely grateful of German efficiency.

The public transportation system of Germany is a combination of trains and buses, known collectively as the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and Der Bus. Immediately upon arrival in Berlin, the amazing teachers and TAs (which I cannot not stress enough how amazing the German department at Northwestern is and how I would not have wanted to go to another country with a different group of faculty) give you a pass that allows you unlimited usage of all public transportation within Berlin. When the scope of where you can travel initially seems overwhelming, Germans over complicate nothing. Within 24 hours you understand how every subset of the transportation works and you have this freedom of being able to go anywhere you want whenever you have free time. There is nothing stopping you and it’s just as easy as walking to the nearest Getraenkemarkt (or casual beverage shop).

(Don’t let the attached map scare you, that’s what we all did at first until we realized how straightforward actually being there was. Also, Gneisenaustrasse will become your best friend [if you’re living in CIEE that is])

A Weekday in Berlin

I’ve grown to so love the 30 minute commute to class in the mornings. Walking to Mehringdamm and seeing shop-owners ready themselves for the day, young people biking to work in heels and long skirts. Despite it being excruciatingly hot and crowded in the mornings, I love taking the U-Bahn to Friedrichstraße. The dogs and people are so fun to watch. Yesterday I saw a woman wearing a button down shirt backwards, with the buttons in the back. People read such interesting things on their e-readers and newspapers: romances, tragedies. Sometimes men will leave me letters before they leave the train, sometimes people will fight me for a seat. Taking the S-Bahn is even more fun because I get to watch the city also: the impressive buildings of Mitte, the river Spree. It hasn’t rained since I arrived seven weeks ago; everyday holds so much promise.

For the past two weeks I’ve been taking the S1 to Schlachtensee after my Humboldt classes, about a 30 minute trip. The lake is so clear and cool on a hot day. For some reason, young people like to play loud techno music even if they’re alone and in nature. So strange! People like to complain about it. I like watching the middle-aged people picnic and swim with their friends. Or I watch the kids jump off a high tree limb with a rope swing. Sometimes I read on the bank, other times I swim with people I meet in the water. Everyone seems so at ease. Really makes me fall in love with Berlin!

In the U.S. Again

A concert in the Philharmonie!

Kreuzberg has such delicious Mediterranean food!

A hike alone

One of the most memorable – and inexpensive – meals of my life

Loved swimming in this lake after class

The plane just arrived in America, but my mind’s still abroad. Already, things feel a bit disappointing and unwelcoming. As though my European adventures were fictional. As though I’m returning to a slightly worse version of reality: one dimmer and with rain. The customs line of JFK is really the worst way to be welcomed into America. Coughing, sick children and impatient adults: rudeness and obliviousness, self-centeredness. It all feels so foreign. Did I really grow up in this environment? I’m really looking forward to showering and eating what I’ve missed so much: free food provided by my parents. 🙂
My summer abroad has helped me so much to become more independent and resourceful. Budgeting, cooking meals, managing time, commuting to school, being vastly alone for eight weeks: these uncomfortable situations have taught me so much. I feel more settled and comfortable in the world, yet also energized to explore and live more boldly. I want to develop my French and German to fluency. I want to write creatively and explore other artistic mediums. I want to surround myself with artistic personalities. I want to hear more live music and bring a lack of hurriedness to my life in America. And eventually, I want to live in Germany as a clarinetist.
My summer abroad was perhaps the most difficult eight weeks of my life. Yet despite rarely feeling comfortable, Berlin feels like a home to me. The friends I made feel like family and challenge me to see myself anew. I feel confident that I’ll continue to make the harder decisions by choosing the uncomfortable.

Land of migrants

More than 3,000 migrants die every year in the Mediterranean Sea. Among those who survive, most are sent right back home and never manage to reach the European Union. Only a few succeed in starting afresh in a big city full of opportunities like Berlin. Firas Zakri is one of them.

He came from Syria three years ago, initially leaving his family back in the war-torn country. Originally a teacher, he eventually reached Berlin after many struggles (he told us he and a few other refugees almost drowned in Greece), and his family joined him soon afterwards. Now he offers tours of the city to explain what it means to be a refugee. On Tuesday, July 10th, we took part in one of the tours around Prenzlauer Berg, one of the most multicultural districts of Berlin, an eye-opening experience which gave me a new perspective on a city that I mistakenly considered familiar.

Indeed, I did not truly understand the dissonance between the life of a Berliner and that of a true immigrant until I heard what these refugees really have to endure. Even after getting to Berlin, refugees are challenged by huge cultural differences, such as a language with which they feel no connection and food with which they are not familiar at all. To make us more aware of this, our guide made us play a game in which we had to find some Arabic words around the streets of Prenzlauer Berg. With so many Arabic restaurants and shops all around us, it was incredibly difficult to spot the right ones, since the words all looked the same to us. We struggled, but we (partially) succeeded, just like these refugees have been doing for years in Berlin. They have managed to shape their own neighbourhoods so that they may thrive in a foreign land, and it is their incredibly vibrant results that we were allowed to experience as a result of our refugee-led tour.

Media coverage of the migration crisis in Europe tends to focus on the most dramatic death stories in the Mediterranean. All of this achieves nothing but the instillation of a sense of panic that fuels the ever-growing anti-immigration view. It also makes us ignore the problem of integration once the migrants have achieved their destinations. Instead, by adopting a quasi-humorous way of describing his own experience, Firas Zakri helped me rationalize the issue without panic, and showed us the exciting effects of great multiculturalism.

I believe that much more support and solidarity from the European citizens is the main thing needed to solve this crisis, and people like Firas Zakri definitely help us move a step closer to our common goal.