Ok, for real this time. I have tried unsuccessfully on three different occasions to write this new update. All three times I’ve given up and gone to bed in order to get a few hours of sleep. You’re about to find out why:
“Write drunk; edit sober.” – Hemingway or somebody.
I’ve been meaning to update you for a long time, but so much has happened, and I’ve been so tired, that I just haven’t found time to get around to it. I still have German homework to do, and its 2 am for me, but I’m still a bit drunk (apparently 3 beers will do that to you in Germany; gotta love the German efficiency) so I’ve decided that if I don’t pay the price in sleep now in order to tell you about my latest adventures, I’ll only fall further and further behind. (Holy run-on sentence batman!)
Where did I leave you? Friday. Oh god. Wow. Ok. It’s now
Wednesday Thursday Friday!
On Friday I decided to run down by my school just so I’d know the route and where it was. Good thing I did because I needed to confirm my registration and buy books.
There’s this big yellow sign above directing you to the direction of the school. I’ve also noticed that the announcements at this particular station are also in English. I’m assuming BVG (the transportation people) realize that this is a stop next to a popular language school, and thus have the directions in English for those who are learning German.
I got my books, confirmed my registration, checked out the classroom, and was terrified that I might not be at the right proficiency level. If I don’t pass this class and the exam, all my plans fall apart. That was Friday, then comes the weekend.
My first weekend in Germany was crazy. I’m normally not an extroverted person, but given that I’m on a new continent where nobody knows me, in a city of three million people, you tend to have more of an ability to go out and risk being extroverted. A German girl I was talking to suggested I go out to this club on Saturday to go dancing . I wanted her to come with me, but she’s sick and can’t go out. So by myself I boarded the train and made my way to some club I’d never been to before in order to do something I had never really done before: go dancing.
I was told to go to this club on the other side of town (the party district) called Cassiopeia. After getting off the train and walking around for a bit, I found it. It’s a multi-level club with different genres of music playing in each room.
I was fully expecting the night to be disappointing. I’d never gone dancing before. I was really nervous, but then I started to get into it. In the 80’s pop room there was a stage where a bunch of people where dancing. I decided why not and jumped up on there. It was scary and liberating at the same time. I never do this stuff back in the states. I can’t dance for shit, and here I was, on a stage in some dive bar in old east Berlin, dancing to some German pop song I had no idea what the lyrics were.
The best part? Nobody cared. It didn’t matter. I was just another guy having fun, and it was amazing. Some people were trying to get up on stage so I put out my hand and pulled them up. They said thanks, and it turned out that they were French. They seemed touched by the simple gesture of a stranger extending a hand to help them up, that they started introducing themselves and dancing with me. And just like that, I was dancing with a bunch of French people.
I was dancing for a while before I got tired and started looking for a seat. I ended up sitting down next to this German couple. (I swear, everyone has a boyfriend/girlfriend in this town)
I introduced myself to them and it turned out they were from Southern Germany. I started dancing with them and ended up spending the rest of the night with them and their two other friends who they had brought along from Southern Germany.
Here I set out on this mission to go to the club, fully expecting to have it turn out as another awkward night alone, and yet here I was making new friends. Berlin seems to have a way of doing that. You might think all is lost, but then something falls in your lap.
So I danced with them and their friends all night long. To 5:30 to be honest. It was insane. We stopped to take breaks and talk about culture, our homes, families, etc. They said my German sounded funny, which isn’t a surprise, but then again, they’re from southern Germany and southern Germans get made fun of for talking funny by northern Germans. The girl did say, however, that the way I said “warum nicht” (why not?) was sexy. So I’ve got that going for me at least. I went home, crashed, and slept until later into the afternoon.
The next morning I got up with the intent of spending the day on my computer working on this blog post, looking for apartments, and studying. I set off to find a cafe. It seems that dogs walk themselves in Berlin. I’ve seen so many people walking around with dogs not on leashes. The dogs just keep by their owners and occasionally stop and sniff things. They also know to wait and not run across the road. You’ll often see dogs in cafes, on the train, and in shops.
I had heard on reddit about this nice little cafe on the side of Berlin. I decided to go spend the day over there to see if I could write. I walked around a bit in what looked like a neighborhood before seeing a good sized group of people standing outside of one shop and figured that had to be it.
I got my cup of coffee and couldn’t find a place to sit down. I think I also drank it too fast. Everyone here seems to take their time with their coffee. Gulping mine down probably pointed me out as an outsider, though that usually happens the moment I open my mouth. It’s the way I pronounce my German. I’ll say something auf Deutsch and people will sometimes respond in English, as if they instantly know.
After finishing my coffee, I walked around till I found a library where I could go in and set up my laptop. I stayed their for a while before being invited out to another club with my Dutch friend, Laura. I was pretty tired and kind of hesitant of going out to a club a second night in a row, but I ultimately decided I should just go do it and see what happens. It was Saturday night after all and the trains run all night on the weekends.
I told Laura I’d meet her at the club. She said she didn’t really know where it was, but that she and her friend who did know where it was would go there and let me know. I headed out into the night of Berlin once more.
After getting off the train stop that Laura told me to get off at, I started walking in the direction of where she said the club was. I couldn’t find it. I retraced my steps again and again, but nothing. I texted her and she said she’d come out and find me.
It turns out it wasn’t just any club, it was an underground club. Berlin has a really big underground club scene. These clubs are semi-secret and you need to know where to go to find them. They don’t advertise or put up signs. The clientele all know somebody who knows where the club is. Turns out Laura’s friend was a native Berliner and took us to this club!
I walked with Laura down a side street that I had passed and saw a lone unassuming guy standing outside a doorway. He let us enter and we walked through a small courtyard and through some industrial cargo containers. There was a manikin sitting in a chair dressed as a sexy police officer with blue lights shinning on it, standing guard. We enter this seemingly abandoned building to discover a make-shift club has been setup inside with a bar, a dj, seats, and a dance floor!
It was a really fascinating experience! Again we spent the night dancing and chatting again. Laura’s native friend K was great to talk to! I decided to ask them about dating in Berlin, and what the cultural differences were with perhaps dating elsewhere. I was told something really fascinating:
K said that ever since feminism came along, German men are very confused. They don’t want to insult the woman by doing something too active or forward, or say anything that might have an unintentional connotation that the woman depends on them for anything. As such, they’re much more passive and reserved about dating. The women, however, are more aggressive. They are independent, sexually liberated beings who will likely drink you under the table. It’s a bit of a culture shock for me.
I slept in till 10 when I woke up and realized it was Sunday morning. Sunday morning. Oh shit… My reservation for my hostel only lasted till Sunday morning. Shit. When’s checkout time? In an hour? Double shit.
I rushed to pack all my stuff back into my bags while quickly looking for another hostel near my school. I decided I didn’t want to extend my stay in this one. The shower was shitty, the internet was shitty, and I wanted to see what else I could find. I found one called “The three little pigs” that had a good rating and booked it. Luckily they let me book for the same day. Some hostels I looked at wouldn’t let me book a room for that night.
I grabbed all my bags (100lbs + my backpack) and made my way to the train station, tired, without a shower, and dehydrated from drinking the night before. To put icing on the cake, this particular station didn’t have an elevator….just stairs…
It took me about an hour to get to the other neighborhood with all my bags, but I finally found the hostel. You have to go down this little alley way next to a church to find it.
When I got into the hostel, the people took a guess that it was me the way the booking came in over the internet a few minutes before and I guess I looked pretty haggard. Unfortunately I couldn’t check into the room until 3pm. It was noon at the time. I felt like shit, looked like shit, and had three hours to kill. I looked at my map and saw that checkpoint charlie and the old Gestapo headquarters were 10 minutes away. I decided to drop my stuff off at the desk and take a walk.
There is this hot air balloon near the headquarters that you can go up in to get a better view of the city. If you’re walking around elsewhere in Berlin, it’s always easy to see. They just raise and lower it for tourists to get on and off.
After walking around for three hours I was finally able to get into my room. The beds were nicer and I discovered that they had an actual shower that stayed on, not this 15 seconds of water BS!
The lights automatically turn off in the hostel so all the hallways look dark and eerie like you’re in some old eastern European military installation. You just need to hit the switch though and they’ll brighten up.
Hungry for dinner, I heard of this famous Doner shop called Mustafa’s. I was told the line was long though. Boy were they not kidding. I stood there for 45 minutes to get a doner. In Germany the customer is not king, and the store people take their sweet time. It didn’t help that a couple of Japanese girls wanted to get their pictures taken with the cooks.
After getting a doner I meet up with a Greek woman who was a PhD candidate in pharmacy for some beer. We chatted about living in Germany, cultural differences, crazy boyfriends/girlfriends in the past, and then I headed home to get ready for class the next morning.
When morning came, I was terrified of going to class. I don’t know if I’m at German B2 level. (There are 6 levels in the system that tell at what proficiency you’re at. A1, A2, which is like beginner, B1, B2, which is intermediate, and C1, C2 which is advanced.) This is a B2 class. You need to have B1 to take it. I never took a test, I was just guessing at where I was. I also need to pass this to be able to apply for classes here in Germany. I was afraid that they’d go around the room, asking everyone things in German, and I’d blank, be unable to speak, and they’d throw me out of the class for not being able to speak in German.
Of course that’s not what happened, I was just being overly nervous. I left a little early that morning since while I’d made the trip from my old hostel, I hadn’t made it from my new one. I wanted to give myself some buffer room. I made it to the classroom, took a seat in the middle near the front and looked around. There were people from all over. The teacher came in, a middle aged man who looked like he could have just come out of a pub or running errands. He was smiling and seemed to have a sense of humor about him.
He read down the roster and asked us all where we came from. Brazil, India, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Venezuela, Russia, Libya, Croatia, and more. Sitting there, the lone American, was a little nerve wracking. As the professor read down the list and people said where they were from, I started to notice that a lot of these places are what American media might label as “anti-American.” The unsavory dark shadowy countries that conspire against the states. I consciously know this is absurd, but it’s hard to undo the years of conditioning that one undergoes by growing up in an environment where these countries and their people are repeatedly demonized in the media.
I looked around at these “dangerous and unsavory enemies of America” and saw just a bunch of normal people nervous for class to start. It was a surreal moment of being away of a cognitive dissonance in your own mind. I started talking to the woman next to me. She was from Venezuela where she was a political journalists. It was fascinating speaking with her about world events because she passionately had exactly the opposite point of view I saw in American media. She lamented the US’s meddling in South American affairs and wished we’d stop trying to control everything. This wasn’t directed at me personally, since she recognized that I as an individual person am not the US government. She also lamented the death of free media in the world, saying how she as a journalist, knows first hand how controlled and manipulated the media is all over the world, in her country included.
The professor went around the room and asked people what they do. Work? Study? Vacation? There were some pretty impressive people in the room. One’s a brain surgeon from Vietnam, trying to learn German to practice in Germany. Another was an electrical engineer. There was a psychologist and then of course people getting master’s degrees. All of them just normal, unscary people.
Making friends with people from other cultures is the best part of living in Berlin. You’ll meet someone from an entirely different country and way of life, only to discover how similar you both are. You’re both people. There is an incredible array of things about the human condition that are universal. It’s easy to forget that among the politics, the distance, and the fear, but when you’re sitting there at the bar with your new friend having drinks, or dancing stupidly to a song in a club, or both racing together to catch the last train home, you look at the other person and know they’re just like you. Connecting with someone on a basic level is a really warm feeling, like you could fly perhaps. It makes me so happy here in Berlin.
Back to class. I survived. I had fun. The entire class is in German. The professor forbids us from using any other languages. If you ask him a question in something other than German, he plays dumb. You must use German, or else. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, the other students have to explain it to you in German.
And you know what the craziest part was? I understood what we were doing.
I’m at the point in my German now where I can understand a lot of what people are saying to me. It might take a moment, but I get the gist of it. I just have trouble responding since I have a limited vocabulary.
The best way I can describe what the feeling is like is by saying it’s similar to walking across a very high bridge. You’re walking and you’re doing fine. You keep looking straight ahead and everything’s alright, but the moment you stop and look down, you realize how high up you are and where you’ve been walking. That’s what it’s like with German. I’ll go the entire class, all in German, speaking in German, understanding in German, thinking in German, and then when I stop and realize what I’ve just been doing for the past three hours, it’s terrifying. How can I do that!?! I can’t do that! Holy shit I just did!
Beware of the bike lanes on the sidewalks in Berlin. They’re to your left. If you wander in them without paying attention, you’ll get a rude awakening at the hands of an angry cyclist.
If you look closely at the picture of the chocolate eggs, you’ll see faint black lines. (Easiest to see on the floor). This is because the frequency at which European lights flicker is at a different interval than American cameras take photos. The effect is that every so often the camera will capture a few frames where the light is off.
With two of my British friends, Matt and Scott out on the town. We were drunk at this point on a quest to find curry wurst. (Sausage and curry sauce) Later that night Matt would take me to my first gay bar. Technically every bar in Berlin is a gay bar, but some are just more gay than others? This particular bar was packed and there wasn’t a woman in site. It was a really interesting experience. I also ended up chatting to this Libyan International relations student about the Arab spring. (He was there and took part, which was fascinating.)
Since I’ve come to Berlin I’ve wanted to go urban exploring. Urban exploring is the exploration of urban landscapes, often abandoned, that may at times include some minor trespassing. It’s a bit of a thrill honestly and I’ve been trying to be more adventurous.
My friends and I heard that there was an abandoned Iraqi embassy here in Berlin. It was left to rot after the first Gulf War and is in the southeastern part of the city. My friends and I decided to go check it out this last Saturday. We agreed to meet up at a station, but because I got on the wrong train and was coming from far away, then went in before me. I ended up not meeting up with them, and going in anyway by myself.
It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. You’re not really allowed in there. There’s still barbed wire around the fence and Germans have this habit of calling the police whenever they see someone doing something that she shouldn’t be doing.
I got off the train station and walked a mile down to the embassy. It was like a spy game. I pretended to just be standing on the corner waiting for a friend while listening to music, however the entire time I was casually looking around my surroundings trying to take it all in. Access points, barriers, escape routes, and most importantly, on lookers. There was a woman at a balcony having a cigarette. People were walking down the street with their dogs. Business people were coming out of offices. I couldn’t go when any of them were looking or they’d call the police. What’s their line of sight? Will they go in soon? Where are the nearest blind spots I could hide behind?
I surveyed the fence. It was lower on one side than the other and didn’t have any barbed wire. There was also a chair on the other side. I could use that chair to get over the fence on my way out. It’d also be easier to get over going in. I’d just have to run through the woods a bit, which might be a little loud, but it was less visible than going in at the front where there were offices.
I kept my eye on all the possible onlookers. My heart pounded in my chest as my opportunity came.
“Now. Go now. GO NOW!” I ran, vaulted the fence, it swayed under me, not as stable as it looked. I landed on the chair and it groaned in protest. Off into the woods as fast as I could, hunched down, bobbing in and out of trees trying not to take some branches in the face. I reached the first column under the building and stopped. I froze and listened. Nothing. I peaked my head around the corner. Nobody. I darted into the blackness of the building. Stop. Listen. Clear. Slowly now, get your gear. I had brought my camera and some flashlights with me. Carefully I put them on. Click, my headlamp flickered to life and I could see. The place was trashed. Papers were strewn everywhere. Broken glass littered the ground. It was a minefield for someone seeking to move unnoticed. I angled my headlamp down instead of directly in front of me. I didn’t want the beam to be visible to anyone who could see into the building.
Carefully, as if navigating the dark passages of some horror game, I moved through the building. I’d peak around the corner, let my eyes adjust and survey the destruction. It looked like some of the places had burned. Graffiti was everywhere.
I came to some stairs. Were they safe? Hopefully. I tested my weight on some of them. It seemed sturdy and made of concrete. Nonetheless I spread my arms out on the walls and railing, carefully easing up each step. I got up to the first floor and looked around. It was brighter here as there were broken windows and opened spaces, but that meant that people could see in more easily. I clicked off my headlamp and edged up to the corner of the hallway. Slowly I peered around the corner to see if anyone was looking. From time to time someone would walk by the building and I’d freeze, heart in my throat. When they were gone, I’d dart from one side of the hall to the other, careful to avoid the glass and debris that would surely give me away. I explored the building for perhaps 20-30 minutes. Funnily enough, after speaking to my friends later that day, there was a chance they were on the roof when I was there. We were both so quiet we just didn’t hear each other.
As I went to leave, it was like trying to navigate my way back through the level of a video game. Ok, left or right? Was it this way or that? No, this way. There’s the broken mirror. Ok, we go down this hallway, second door on the left, then the stairs. Got it. I got to the column where I first came in. Now the hard part. Getting out without getting caught. This was perhaps the most risky since I didn’t have a clear line of sight to what the side street might look like the moment I come running through the woods and jump the chair. There could be a woman walking her dog, or a cop car for all I know. Nonetheless I had to go for it. Luckily the only person who saw me was a kid on a skateboard and I don’t think he cared.