Tuesday, June 21, 2016

On Berlin

Sorry for the lack of posting. The quarter that just ended was very full, the end no less than the beginning.

Berlin is as of this moment my favorite city ever, and I'm going to be writing probably a few posts about the city and my experiences of it over the next couple of weeks. This is reflections on Berlin. Next will probably be my traditional "what I learned this quarter" post.

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Schwarz zu Blau - Peter Fox

One of the strongest reasons I chose to study abroad was because of the need to break out of what we on campus call, sometimes with affection and sometimes with hatred, "the Bubble." Berlin is certainly far from the tawny hills of the Peninsula.

What makes it so different? For one, the history and how it is dealt with. Berlin is a city with scars. Scars from WWII and the Cold War manifest in many ways: the violence of National Socialism, destruction from bombing, east-west divisions. Now, there are signs of the refugee crisis and the worrying rise of the far-right populists. Walk around Berlin for a day or even a few hours and you'll find Stolpersteine--the "stumbling block" paving-stones commemorating victims of Nazis. Look close enough at street sign posts and you're likely to see either a pro- or anti-refugee sticker or flyer--and it'll probably be half-ripped off.

Near the Freie Universität


People are more politically aware and engaged than what I've seen in the US, although, to be fair, the Bay Area is stuffed full of vaguely-progressive liberals who are overwhelmed by the complexity of the world and privileged enough to shut out contemplation of many global problems. (This would be me.) My perception of German political engagement is also skewed in that my host dad was a teacher of politics and history.

To make sweeping generalizations--in Berlin one feels a sense of grave responsibility not to forget, not to let historical atrocities repeat themselves. The world feels very present and, if you let it, very heavy.

Statue of Friedrich the Great along Unter den Linden

People say that Berlin is atypical of a German city, but it does feel very Prussian. A parade of Friedrichs, Wilhelms, and Friedrich Wilhelms of house Hohenzollern shaped the city and region (by the way, Hohenzollernplatz on the U3 is a good place for food). The Prussian virtues of punctuality and orderliness are everywhere to be found. Warning: do not be late to appointments and do not jaywalk in front of children. German directness and German reservedness are both absolutely real. Even the dogs are typical Prussian--that is, they won't go up and say hi to you, and are extremely well-behaved.

Berlin started off as a bunch of little villages, or Dörfer, which eventually conglomerated together into one city. The neighborhoods are still quite different, and the city consequently doesn't feel quite unified. It's a jumble of different sorts of experiences, not so much contradictions as unexpected juxtapositions. Wannsee: beautiful lake, site of the conference where top Nazi officials outlined the Holocaust. Alexanderplatz: no man's land during the Cold War, now surrounded by malls and commerce.

International cuisine is everywhere, such that it's actually sometimes difficult to find a traditionally German restaurant (biased because my eating habits skew cheap). Viet-Thai-Sushi fusion restaurants are everywhere. I can't actually think of what Berlin specialty food would mean. If you're thinking Berliner donuts--they're called Pfannkuchen at home.


Linden trees everywhere

Parts of the city are fairly grungy and urban, but there are also a lot of trees and plants and flowers mostly everywhere. When I first arrived at the end of March everything was still bare from winter, and I remember thinking, it'll be beautiful by the time I leave. I was right.

Living in Berlin involves a lot of waiting for and sitting in public transportation. If you don't get headaches from doing so, reading on the train is great. I sometimes do, so I ended up staring at the ads/other passengers/my reflection a lot and introspecting. All the times I've shown people around Berlin, I've been a little embarrassed at how much time we spend in transit, but sitting in the U-Bahn and thinking about where your life is going is part of the rhythm of life in Berlin--or at least it was for me, and a very important part at that.

I really liked and enjoyed my life in Berlin. I count it as my first quarter actually living in a city more-or-less independently because sometime in the middle of the quarter, I started feeling as though I "got" Berlin. Of course that doesn't mean I understand the city as a whole--as a non-drinker who went to literally no bars, there's a whole facet of German culture to which I have no reference. But I felt comfortable moving around in Berlin, felt confident showing people around, and had a solid rhythm. I knew exactly which grocery stores were where and are good for what, and no matter where in the city I ended up, chances were I could find my way home without looking at the BVG app.

This past quarter I didn't read or write much, because I was very busy exploring and didn't prioritize stories. But now that it's summer and I've had a bit of time to catch my breath (though to tell the truth, I am still catching my breath), I see that I have a lot of ideas for new stories directly inspired by Berlin. The number of places where I imagined monsters emerging is astounding.

Old NSA spy tower on Teufelsberg

Looking outwards--it's still too soon to say if being steeped in a politically aware environment will stick, or if I'll relapse once I go home. But I have been entirely convinced of the importance of the social sciences. The world needs people who look at the way things have worked or not worked in the past, who are able to bring a nuanced and informed opinion to the way things should work today. I am a card-carrying enginerd but I recognize that my core disciplinary education fails to ask a lot of important questions. For all that civil engineering is about serving people, we don't often reflect upon what needs to be built and who needs what to be built and why. Berlin is full of examples of technically competent human effort being directed toward goals with which we do not and cannot agree today.

Berlin is a scarred city, a city with a conscience, a city with blood on its hands--not all dried. I miss it already. Mach's gut.
Top level of Hauptbahnhof

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