By Cassandra H.
When I first arrived in Berlin I was already numb from a whirlwind of European travel. I had backpacked from Rome to Berlin by myself-- quite the feat for a 20-year-old cedar-rat from one of the unpolished portions of rural Utah. I was dazed by my experiences of the previous ten days, and while in this state of emotional hangover I thought that nothing would surprise me now. I had seen swindlers, drunks, and been heckled by a gang in a language I didn’t understand. It seemed nothing would top the thrill of missing a train in Rome, fighting an aggressive swan in Luzern with the help of a fellow tourist, being lost in the ghettos of Venice, and being sniffed by a filthy old Russian man on the train from Zürich to Berlin. As far as I was concerned, my give-a-damn had been broken by exposure to European culture; I was seasoned, shock-proof, and practically invincible.
I was wrong.
Rome is not Berlin. Venice is not Berlin. Neither Luzern nor Zürich is Berlin. Berlin is its own kind of city with its own kind of rules.
It’s the kind of city where anything goes. The cultured aren’t elevated above the crass; they mix freely without either losing its integrity, (if one can refer to crassness as if it were a virtue to be upheld.) One can’t picture Berlin if they just try to picture one city, it will never be enough to portray reality. If you imagine a mix of every city and culture you’ve ever visited you will begin to understand, but you will still fall short.
To tell the truth, my first few days in Berlin scared the pants off of me. (Almost literally: there was that time that I was already out of my apartment in Charlottenburg and crossing the street to the S-Bahn before I realized that I had forgotten to put on pants, but that’s a story for a different time.) Within my first 24 hours in the city I had already been assigned a hostel room with all men, smelled beer for the first time in my life, been invited to join in a Lithuanian drinking game with a group of traveling university students, and accidentally walked in on a very intimate moment that was taking place in the laundry room of my accommodations.
There are advantages to spending the first part of your experience in a new place panicky and most often in tears: it can only go up from there. Berlin, like the child of an unplanned pregnancy, though shocking at first, weasels its way into your good favor and before you realize what’s really happening, you can’t imagine life without it. You’re glad to be there, sad when you have to leave, and you will be eager to return.
Despite the mess I was in upon arrival, coping equilibrium was soon reached and I perked up enough to realize that I loved living in Berlin. I loved the diversity of the place. My classmates were from Russia, Japan, Italy, Spain, England, Switzerland and Greece. I bought a suitcase from a Turk shop, helped a Chinese tourist get a picture of the Berliner Dom and then I went to an American diner for lunch. I lived in an artsy apartment in a ritzy shopping district, but there was still a dingy-and-most-likely-not-up-to-code 24-hour döner shop directly below us.
Denglish, the mutant-hybrid child of German and English, became my primary language. “Let’s shaff this thing!” instead of “Let’s do this thing!”; “Our trip will have two Umsteigs.” rather than “Our trip will have two transfers.” and other similar phrases became part of my group’s working vocabularies. We all learned to navigate the public transportation systems like longtime professionals, shaving minutes off our time with less congested routes or by transferring to a different mode of travel.
I became so comfortable that I almost forgot what it was like to live anywhere but Europe. As far as I could tell I had always rode a train to school, I had always had to avoid speaking English where beggars and gypsies could hear me, and I couldn’t recall how one calculated sales tax or why you would throw a plastic bottle in the rubbish bin when you could return it for a cash reward.
I had even reached the point where I liked to wander around alone in the city, which was a stark contrast from the first week when I would cling to anyone I knew and nearly hyperventilate if they suggested splitting up. Eventually, though, my dominantly solitary nature took control again and I savored those moments when the only person within a mile of myself that I was familiar with was myself.
It was my third Sunday in Berlin and my last, as we would be leaving the next Friday to go study in Tübingen, a small town in Southern Germany. I realized that it would probably be my last chance to go take pictures of the things I had seen during my time there, so I grabbed my camera, my travel pass, and my map of Berlin and left the apartment as my roommate took a Sunday afternoon nap.
I took the train to the Friedrichstrasse station and walked to the Berliner Dom, and then I took the subway to the Brandenburg Gate. I decided to walk to my next destination, Checkpoint Charlie, since there was not a direct transit line connecting the two locations and from the map it seemed that the two were close, but I found the map to be deceptive. It was actually quite a long walk, especially as the sunlight slowly faded away.
It was a part of town that I’d never been in before. It was a very quiet and unpopulated portion of Berlin. In a city of over 3 million people, I found myself alone on quiet and unfamiliar streets. While walking down a sidewalk that ran between a small empty field and an abandoned building with intricate stonework, something on the ground caught my eye. I reached down and discovered a folded 20€ note. My first instinct was to find the owner; my morals wouldn’t allow me to play the finders-keepers game. But, as I looked around, I realized the hopelessness of the situation. I was in a slightly dilapidated and possibly unsafe neighborhood, I didn’t speak German well enough to communicate such a complicated situation to a native and, besides, there was no one in sight. I had no way of finding a lost and found. The true owner of this money wasn’t ever going to see it again no matter what I did. Almost guiltily, I finally decided that the money was as well off with me as anyone else who would find it.
By the time I reached Checkpoint Charlie it was dark and I felt that I should already be home, being alone as I was. The closest U-Bahn station, Kochstrasse, was downright eerie. I decided that, for future reference, 9:30 P.M. was too late to be out alone in parts of town that I had never been to before. I felt the intense need to get home now.
It was in this mood as I hurried out of the aboveground train station in Charlottenburg that I encountered the Polish couple. They seemed clean enough, which may be why I didn’t trust their story; they claimed to be a couple from Warsaw that had been robbed in transit and needed just 10€ so they could afford a hostel room for the night. I thought they had targeted me because of my camera, I knew I looked more like a tourist than I usually did.
“I don’t have any money with me.” I said, which would have been true if I only had what I’d left the apartment with. Halfway through saying those words I remembered the 20€ that now sat in my pocket, through no merits or work of my own. I wouldn’t be hurt by its loss; it wasn’t something I’d ever planned on anyway. I abruptly felt that I should give it to them.
I didn’t, though. I kept it and later tried to convince myself that I had escaped being cheated by a couple of con artists, the kind that I encountered every day in Berlin: Turkish women with cardboard signs written in English and husbands at home with gambling problems; gypsies with carefully memorized scripts and nimble-fingered children; drunks with no tact but seemingly infinite persistence. I told myself I had simply adapted in the necessary ways to live in Berlin, those unwritten rules: separate your trash, recycle, never stand in the bike lanes, move quickly at the grocery store checkout and don’t give handouts to beggars. It was just a little essential adaptation to a different lifestyle, that’s what I told myself. And with enough time, maybe one day I’ll believe that’s true.