It’s been one month since I stepped off the plane in Germany and officially began my two-month expedition throughout Europe. I have divided the journey into two portions; “education” and “exploration”. The first half, which has now officially come to a close, was centered around my month-long study abroad partnership at Freie University in Berlin.
I arrived in Germany with a vocabulary strictly limited to “Guten tag,” “Blitzkrieg,” and “Bastian Schweinsteiger.” Nevertheless, I successfully managed to navigate the S and U-Bahn (Berlin’s metro system) and arrive at my hostel located near Checkpoint Charlie that evening. The next day, I relocated to the student dorms that would be my home for the month. The dorms were located in Lichterfelde, a sleepy suburban area populated by students and pensioners in the southwest corner of the city. Six roommates, including myself, occupied a small “socialist chic” apartment about 20 minutes by bus from campus. Upon moving in, I instantly connected with my roommate Cody, a Canadian history student with a personality as outgoing as his liver was strong. I also befriended Phil, an eccentric 20-year-old engineering student from Long Island with a passion for jogging and falling asleep in class. Cody’s friend Emma from their home university also joined our tribe later that day. She had already been in Europe for the summer living on a farm in Denmark and had recently backpacked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The other two individuals living in our apartment were pretty much nonexistent, arousing questions of whether they were even alive still on several occasions…
Cody, Emma, Phil and I promptly made friends with the numerous interesting characters living in our area. Below us lived Robert, Ellie and Austin. Robert is an air force cadet/renaissance man from Miami who was in both of my classes. Ellie, a sophomore at Berkeley, is a Hong Kong native with an unrivaled talent at pool and karaoke. Austin came from North Carolina and delighted everybody with his southern charm and killer Mason Jar cocktails. Other residents included: Ajax, a tall and club loving metal head from Santa Cruz with long red hair who may be Thor’s half-brother; Amy, a bubbly UCLA socialite who seemingly knew everybody at school by the first day of class; and “Tom-Tom,” two dudes who somehow both happened to be named Thomas, came from Boulder, Colorado and studied engineering at the same university. Amazingly, neither Thomas knew the other before the trip began.
Getting to know all of the colorful characters in program reminded me of my first quarter in the fall of last year at Santa Barbara. The only difference was that the bonds of friendship that would have taken weeks to develop back home were expedited into days given the brevity of our four-week program.
I was enrolled in two courses at Frei University. The first was “Seduction & Terror: Hitler’s Germany.” I was excited to register for the course given my interest in the topic and because every day there were excursions to historical sites around Berlin. Our instructor formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and had specialized in prosecutions against perpetrators of the Holocaust. We quickly nicknamed him the “Nutty Professor” due to his eccentric personality and interesting mannerisms. On one excursion to a former concentration camp, his tie was on backwards the entire trip and it looked as though like he had just emerged from a 12-hour binge session studying classified Nazi documents by candlelight in a top secret facility.
The nickname was appointed out of affection though. He had an immense passion in the material and shared many firsthand documents and experiences that strengthened our understanding of the Third Reich’s rise to power and the horrors of the Final Solution. During the daily field trips we visited sites including the Wansee Villa, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, Topography of Terror Museum, German Resistance Memorial Center and numerous other historic sites that supplemented his passionate lectures.
The class was one of the most interesting and engaging courses that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing. Our interest in the material inspired myself and two other students to skip two days of school and visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland where witnessed firsthand the frightful climax of racism and genocide. As fellow history nerds, the professor and I quickly bonded. On the final day of class he spoke to me after the final and said that I would make an excellent candidate to apply for the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. His kind words meant a lot to me. I’m already excited at the prospect of enrolling in a graduate program abroad at some point and plan on looking into applications upon returning home from Europe.
(I mentioned that I took two courses; the other was a Cold War history class. In short, we visited the Berlin Wall and our professor took the class out for beers with his dog at one point. Good times and knowledge were shared by all.)
While living in Germany for a month, it was an interesting experience getting to step into the role of an everyday Berliner. The city is enormous and has so much to offer that it’s kind of overwhelming at times. It’s also surprisingly affordable for a major European capital. Central to the Berlin experience, as well as the German existence in general, is beer. Open-air beer gardens and small bars are prolific throughout the entire city. There are no open-container laws in Berlin and you can drink alcohol in almost any location imaginable. Brews were shared on city buses, outside historical monuments, within public parks, atop rooftop bars and inside subway trains below. The beers in Germany make those back in the America seem like fermented gruel. One weekend, at a beer festival with an attendance of several hundred thousand, we sampled beers of all flavors, shapes and sizes imaginable. Light beers, dark beers, cherry beers, mango beers, beers in boots, beers brewed by monks, communist branded beers, tequila flavored beers, beers mixed with lemonade, beers infused with cola…. By the end of the evening, I felt like the Forrest Gump of beer. Interestingly enough, beer was also cheaper than water in many situations. The tradition of alcoholism extends eastward into Prague. One restaurant that I visited in the Czech capital offered a 1.5 liter bottle of water for $6, or a liter of Czech pilsner for $2.
An interesting social ingredient that makes Berlin unique is the large Turkish population. Many Turkish citizens moved to the city during the Cold War due to a shortage of labor. They have since created a thriving immigrant community. On nearly every street corner you can find a restaurant selling “Doner Kebab”, a Berlin specialty that’s essentially a grilled sandwich stuffed with sauce, veggies and questionable flesh shaved from massive rotating towers of meat with a machete. It’s essentially the greatest drunk food known to man. Another Berlin specialty is “Currywurst”, an additional Cold War creation that features an intestine wrapped bratwurst topped with curried ketchup and served with fries. Ordering food was always an interesting experience due to a limited comprehension of the German language on behalf of several of us in the program. At one restaurant, someone attempted ordering a “pilsner,” which was interpreted as “pizza.” When the pie arrived at the table, my buddy realized that it had been strange when the bartender asked if he wanted meat on what he ordered. However, he was not alone in his blunder; later that evening, I ended up spending $5 on an alcohol free hefeweizen.
Despite the city’s novelty, a routine of school, sightseeing and partying quickly developed. After visiting most of the major tourist locations and museums within the first two weeks, I felt sufficiently cultured enough to just enjoy everyday life in a European metropolis. Some nights we would go out and visit the popular clubs and bars, while others we were perfectly content sharing stories and laughs at the nearby café. I can’t place my finger on the exact moment that it happened, but sometime about halfway through the month our collective mentality shifted from “we have a whole month here” to “WE ONLY HAVE A MONTH HERE” as our classes quickly came to a close.
I found myself experiencing several contradictory feelings during the farewell ceremony that was held the final day of classes. It seemed as though I had been in Berlin for only a few days, yet simultaneously felt like years since I had left home. I shared a closeness of experience with the friends sitting beside me that felt as though we had been companions since childhood; only somehow, we had only known each other for four short weeks. These divergent feelings remained within my spirit today when I said goodbye to Germany and boarded a train to Amsterdam, the first leg of my five-week backpacking trip through Europe. I’m overwhelmed with enthusiasm for the adventures and experiences to come, but I’m also already nostalgic of the life that we created in Berlin.
I’ve grown in more ways then I probably even realize since the trip began. I plan on happily cherishing these memories that will surely last a lifetime. Despite the difficulty of saying goodbye, I’ve found solace in knowing that no matter where I find myself in this vast and unpredictable world, I can always comfort in the fact that “Ich bin ein Berliner;” I am a Berliner.
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