“Remember with the ‘ie’ and the ‘ei’ in German, you pronounce the second letter, so ‘bier’ sounds like ‘beer’,” my father repeated two hours before I left for the airport. I nodded along, remembering reading this line in the little information packet he typed up for my trip. It has been eighteen years since he had been in Germany, and he still remember everything about the language. It was a language he spoke infrequently, and only in short remarks here and there. But I always loved hearing its sound, full and tumbling out of his mouth. His eyebrows always rose when he spoke and I could tell how much he missed the country. Like him, I hadn’t been back in 18 years, but my ties with Germany were weak and ill remembered. To me, Germany was my fun fact during ice-breaker challenges, the screams I yelled during the World Cup when the team took home the victory, or the lederhosen that hung in the back of my closet from my 2nd birthday. At 21, I was finally returning to the country in which I had been born. It was finally time for me to return on my own adventure.
After nearly 17 hours of travel, Emma and I emerge from the U-Bahn station, exhausted yet smiling. We have finally made it Berlin. In just 20 minutes we have experienced the bus and metro systems and gotten our first look at the city’s super-efficient transportation system. As we walk to our hotel, the streets are quiet. There is a sense of calm and peace that I have never before experienced in a city. Just six months prior, I had been shuffling down the streets of New York City, crammed between humans and vehicles and concrete and glass. Quiet is not a word for New York, nor is peaceful. But here, cars are few and far between, and although it is 12:30 on a Saturday, there are only a few others mingling about on the sidewalks.
Cut to 2:30 PM, and my friend Aren is leading those of us who arrived a day early through the city of Berlin. We walk like zombies, overwhelmed with excitement, fatigue, and hunger; not sure whether we should sit down or just stay standing, afraid we’ll doze and miss something new. We are on our way to a festival, which was a suggestion from Aren’s Berlin-savvy sister. We figure we’re up for anything that will keep us awake. The metro there is pleasant and easy. I keep thinking it feels simple and colorful and easy, its insides rounded and smooth. There are teenagers on the seats next to us wearing platform converses and black, which is a stark difference from UVA. Everyone is wearing black, and I am realizing it is a city with some grit. In a lot of ways, Berlin seems like a city of opposites: clean and gritty, loud and quiet at the same time.
The festival is loud, and much different from our experience on the street. We spot a baby slumped in his seat, sound asleep on the back of a bicycle. Emma mentions it’s how she feels right now. Aren tells us that the city has historically had trouble keeping up its population and offers monthly monetary incentives for having children, which explains the seemingly disproportionate amount of young families milling about. There is delicious-looking food everywhere, but we’re too tired to decide what to eat. We spend most of our energy just taking everything in, and it’s fun to watch the people walking past us, listening to the way they speak. Chris orders sweet potato fries and repeats the word ‘sweet potato’ over and over in German.
After a short dinner at a small Italian restaurant near our hotel, Emma, Aren and I are exploring the blocks surrounding our hotel. We end up standing on the edge of a field of hundreds of concrete monuments. Each is a different height, and the ground shifts beneath my feet as we walk among them. Aren explains that this is the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is unlike any memorial I’ve ever seen. It is not a tall statue of a man on a horse or a curved black granite wall. There are no words written anywhere. Its purpose isn’t explicitly stated, at least not to my knowledge in that moment. Its meaning is only revealed when I walk through it alone, hand tracing along each block, grabbing corners and turning left and right. It is never ending and overwhelming. It feels heavy and constricting, yet there are children running through the maze. A boyfriend jumps from behind one of the taller block, scaring his girlfriend, and her scream echoes. Like Berlin, the center feels the most important. It feels clean and gritty at the same time; terrifying and restricting yet open to the sky. Dozens of paths reach out; its identity only revealed through the use of the senses. I slowly find my way out towards Tiergarten as my eyelids and legs grow heavy, the sun setting on my first day in Berlin.
Guest Blogger: Cat Humphries