The thing that struck me the most about MacCannell’s writings on authenticity in travel are how little that view applies to our society today. Globalization has drastically changed the landscape of travel and the role of the tourist. Tourists are not as obvious as they were; more common, yes, but they do not stand out in the same way. Traveling, and also immigration, are so commonplace that one can expect to see visitors in almost any city in the world. As families and groups immigrate to new countries, they are bringing their influence and languages with them. This, then, changes the perception that others may hold of this person being a “tourist”. In Berlin, there are tours of the city center conducted by English, Irish, or Australian students, and only in English. Doing one of these tours with visitors was, yes, tourist-y, but extremely enlightening. On this tour, I learned so much about the essential history of Berlin that I never would have discovered on my own. Was it any less authentic because the guides were not natives, but had moved for some reason to Berlin? I think not, and even so, I don’t care. You need a base to start from, and I think that this helped build it. Many Americans blur the line between being natives and being visitors because of family ties to a particular country. As these tourists speak languages that may not be expected of them, they are able to more easily access those very closely-knit communities in different countries. These communities are what MacCannell calls the “back region”, the impenetrable cores of authenticity in a culture. The role of the local, on the other hand, and the “back region”, are still very prominent today. I see this most strikingly in the Turkish areas of Berlin (see post #13). If one of us knew Turkish, then we would not only confuse them, but we would be instantly welcomed into restaurants and offered endless little glasses of free tea and treats. Immigration to Berlin has changed the how a visitor questions the authenticity of this city. Living here, I do not feel as though I am getting a true “German” experience because of the mix of cultures – but on the other hand, being around immigrant communities and the clashing and remolding of radically different cultures is the most authentic thing about a country. Even after living here for a semester, I feel that I will never fully be able to access these parts of Berlin. In fact, I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg.
A real gem in my neighborhood is the glorious outdoor Turkish market. Come rain, sun or sleet, every Tuesday and Friday, the market opens at 10 AM and starts to shut down (and hand out freebies) around 6. As far as I’m concerned, the market really can do no wrong. My roommate and I split a week’s worth of groceries for about $15 each. As I’ve been there over the course of the semester, it’s become something of an institution. It’s no longer just a place where we buy our broccoli, couscous and eggs: it’s a cultural learning center. It’s the closest one can get to going to Istanbul. Some stands sell freshly-baked börek – spinach and cheese-filled flaky pastries – and boxes of baklava. Women in headscarves push strollers around while they purchase entire bushels of onions and peppers. You would never think that Berlin has a high Muslim population – Germany, of all places! But then you have never been to Kreuzberg or Neukölln, where the signs are half in German, half in Turkish, and you can walk for a couple blocks within hearing a word of German on the street. The Market forms the core of this thriving Turkish culture in Berlin. It’s where families get together to get their most basic groceries, and where we can get an insider’s view on life in a non-Western culture. In Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, he almost exclusively describes places over people. He travels around Germany and Switzerland, describing the college town of Heidelberg. He sits in Biergartens with the students and notices the way they all interact: the way professors and students mingle easily over a drink, the easy raft ride down the main river that runs through the town, the beautiful castle over at the top of the hill upon which the town is built. He describes the towns with a mixture of awe and pleasure: awe at the beauty of the town, and pleasure at being able to participate in its lifestyle. I have a similar set of feelings towards the Turkish Market. On one hand, I am simply in awe because of how radically different this environment is from anything else I would experience in New York. The contrasts between the extremely progressive, cutting-edge part of Berlin that most people know and the family-oriented Turkish parts are astounding. Every time I go to the market, I’m reminded that I am truly not just studying abroad in a Western country. I can take a trip into Little Istanbul twice a week and while I admit that I am not immersed, I am still fascinated and drawn in.
Reading De Botton’s “On Habit” struck me as not only witty and funny, but clever. The bedroom in his apartment becomes his vacation, his journey, his plaything, his adventure. I certainly never considered my apartment to be anything of the sort. For me, my apartment was always just home. The bed was an object in which I slept and I stored clothes in the closet. My door was just a door – and yet, the author dares to examine these objects further. We see them every day and over time, it becomes easy to simply live in a space. I think it’s also fascinating how he talks about deconstructing the process of forming habits, because it’s so true, especially when studying abroad. It’s very easy to create a comfortable space for yourself and to stick to a certain pattern when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. No one wants to venture outside of their comfort zone, and that is exactly what studying abroad strives to do. Once you start to become even slightly comfortable in your environment, the human instinct to settle and form a routine sets in. After reading the article, I began questioning the ways I have formed patterns and to which routines I conform. I would take the same bus and subway to class every day – but if I wanted to change it up, I would take the same subway and a different train back home! I did my grocery shopping most often on Tuesday mornings, but sometimes Fridays. I sat in the same chair in my living room to use my laptop. I also began thinking more critically about the ways in which I had grown accustomed to my living quarters. Upon closer inspection of my apartment, I realize that there are in fact many more hidden corners and spaces than I had imagined. Once I’d gotten used to stashing certain items in different patches of my room, I’d forgotten that there had even been space there at all. The corner in which I stowed my electronics was quite large. The two feet between my bed and closet are usually covered with plastic bags or various articles of clothing, but upon cleaning up, I discovered a whole new floor space that I’d forgotten about. In my cabinets, I found shelves that held endless possibilities for storage. The little chair in my room was reborn as a chair, not just a close hanger. By continually stepping back to remind myself of the small possibilities hiding behind every formed habit in Berlin.
I'm sitting in my living room, facing my near-empty shelves and articles scattered across the floor. One of the windows is broken and does not close all the way, so it's just been chilly in here for the past week. One of the living room chairs has a crack that threatens to give way anytime weight is put on it. Our vacuum cleaner has not worked since the second week of the semester, and had been set out on the balcony for the remainder of the semester (it was my roommate's idea...). The fridge and freezer are inexplicably leaking all over the kitchen floor.... and yet, this is home. It has been for the past three and a half months. Now, I look into my room and see several suitcases and my computer bag all packed up and ready to go for tomorrow. There are so many things that I'm going to miss about Berlin, and also some parts of my experience that I would rather leave behind. For one, I'm going to miss the phenomenal Turkish grocery market, the cheap and delicious beer, efficient and easy public transportation with convenient metrocards, the amazing cultural scene, the history that is seeped into every corner. I definitely won't miss things such as the language barrier. That was by far the only real difficulty I hit this semester. If I could speak even conversational German, simple transactions such as asking to try on clothes, buying phone credit and listening to instructions on the subway would have not been a problem. I guess that is part of studying abroad: you risk putting yourself in an awkward position where you can't speak a word of what you need to convey. I'm already anticipating how strange hearing English left and right will be. I've become so used to straining my ears to try and understand German, or to just shutting it out altogether. Getting back to the States will be so... easy. I won't have to try too hard understand, but I would have to put in effort to ignore people, which is the opposite from when you don't understand the language at all. I think that the littlest aspects of my life back in New York will be the most noticeable. For example, I've only seen one coffee shop here offer sleeves for to-go cups. When I get back to New York, I'll probably carry my cup barehanded and forget. Also, the public transport is honor system, so you don't have to pay for each entry into the stations. You can jump on it whenever and take any mode - no fumbling through your wallet and pockets for a Metrocard. Overall, I've loved the experience, and I can't wait to experience these tiny odd moments in New York. They'll be permanent reminders of my short life in another country, another city. As long as I can remember these small cultural nuances, I know that I'll be carrying Berlin with me for the rest of my life.
I woke up this morning (well, afternoon really) and realized that I have only one more assignment left for the semester. The rest of my classes are all finished. I’ve said goodbye to my professors and only have an essay due. The end of this semester seemed so surreal compared to New York. Maybe it’s the lack of actual work that we’ve done, or the lack of giant final exams. It’s very strange to wake up in a foreign city surrounded by friends and have no purpose except to hang out and explore all the places that we have not yet seen. I’m determined to take full advantage of this and to have the best week of my life! Or at least close to that.
After a full semester in Berlin, I can confidently sum up my advice: GO ABROAD. With that said, I’ve realized that study abroad is not for everyone. For those who were willing to step outside of their comfort zone, they had the most amazing experience of their lives. They would get up and just start walking, or just get off the train to see where they were. They’d meet up after class with professors over a beer. They were willing to fumble through their clumsy German in order to find what they needed in a supermarket.
Those who were put off by the slightest cultural difference or moment of hardship spent more time in their apartments than outside. Quite understandably, we did have some difficult moments and I understand completely why someone would feel safe/unwelcome/unsure – just as an example, three cars were set on fire on our street back in September.
As much as I love Berlin, though, there are just a couple things I wish I had known beforehand, the most obvious being the language. Knowing German is not essential but it’s important. Our neighborhood is also predominantly Turkish, so even if you arrived here with a good grasp on German, you would’ve been in for a bit of a surprise. If you’ve visited Berlin, you’d also know that the public transportation system is very extensive, and very confusing. I wish I’d understood a bit better how to use the system, but now it’s easily navigable. I also never experienced culture shock here. Berlin is extremely cutting-edge and modern, and if you like New York, you’ll probably love Berlin.
If you have never studied abroad before, my biggest piece of advice is that you should expect to feel uncomfortable. That’s part of being in a new city anywhere in the world, and I truly think that the people who benefit the most from study abroad are those who just smile and shrug and carry on. Take every experience as a moment to learn something new, not as an obstacle in the battle of You vs. City. There WILL be cultural nuances that you won’t pick up right away. You WILL be confused when the train doors don’t open automatically – after a few rides, you’ll realize you need to press the button – you WILL buy quark instead of yogurt (what even is quark?), and you WILL respond to a stranger’s question with a blank stare and slight smile because you have no idea what they have just asked.
For those of you in the course who took those few extra steps to get yourselves in a new situation, thank you – some great blog posts came out of these experiences, and it sounds like you all learned so much. I say that the best memories and opportunities for learning come from stepping outside of your comfort zone, and it sounds like most of you did just that. Thank you for sharing your experiences here, thanks for reading mine, and thank you for daring to study abroad!
Coming from a family that orients itself as little as possible around religion, I always look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving. No religious denomination, just a cheerful, friendly get-together over delicious food and fun conversation. NYU was kind enough to organize a Thanksgiving dinner outing at a restaurant that promised an “American style” buffet. Of course, as the holiday approached, we NYU-in-Berliners began wondering what this meal would consist of. We were doubtful about how “American-style” it would be. Surely there’d be turkey, but what about pumpkin pie and – gasp! – stuffing? Some of us had resorted ourselves to the possibility that we would be munching on bratwurst and cranberry sauce.
The dinner was actually held on Wednesday the 25th, in the case that students would be traveling on the actual holiday weekend. We all showed up at the restaurant and were pleasantly surprised: turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce… and corn (?). It was a wonderful gesture taken by NYU. Certainly no one complained about the food at all – it satiated our collective turkey-craving bellies, and everyone left happy.
Following the dinner, our program administrator took us around a Weihnachtsmarkt (“Christmas market”) in the area. It was located in the same complex that the restaurant was in, a former brewery called the Kulturbrauerei. The area was not unlike a condensed version of the Meatpacking district, if you could imagine that entire neighborhood fitting within the courtyards of a single warehouse complex. The brewery moved elsewhere following WWII and it is now rented out by various clubs, restaurants, and soon enough, NYU. The classrooms and offices will be in the same building as several clubs, bars, and the Christmas markets, which is a drastic improvement in my opinion (See my post Buses, Trains, Concrete, Commuting for an idea of what our current class building and neighborhood is like). So, right after Thanksgiving, we transitioned directly into Christmas.
My family only celebrates Christmas when we’re with a larger group of family and friends, and so I’ve never really been able to catch the Christmas bug in New York. Here, however, you can’t get away from the glittering Weihnachtsmarkts offering you steaming cups of spiced mulled wine, Glühwein (“glue-vine”). They are in every major plaza and space that you can fit booths in, and who knew that you could fit so many ferris wheels and carnival rides in one city? The markets began on November 23rd so for us, our Thanksgiving holiday become one celebration in a series of ongoing winter festivities. For the first time in years, I am truly looking forward to the rest of what has started as a wonderful, indulgent, Christmas-and-candy-filled holiday season.
Here at NYU in Berlin, the majority of us are lucky enough to have Dr. Jander as a professor (pronounced “Yonder”). Behind his wildly gesturing hands, excited facial twitches and his German accent, Professor Jander’s class is undoubtedly my favorite. On the first day of class, he gave us a brief history of his family and where he grew up. He was from a small town in southern Germany and has lived in Berlin for a good number of years by now. When he’s not teaching, he also conducts private tours of Berlin. He is a true Pandora’s box of knowledge about German history, Berlin history, and miscellaneous facts about the city in general.
For this blog, I had planned to write about Tuncay and Riesa, the son-and-father duo who run the drink market down the street. I mentioned Tuncay in an earlier post, however, and also realized what a big impact Prof. Jander has had on my experience here. I can’t emphasize enough how having him has impacted the way I see Germany and my understanding of German history.
As a half-Jewish American student, I never learned much about Germany’s role in the world aside from World War II, and even discussing this was almost taboo. Through Jander, we approached this delicate time in German history starting from the early 1800’s. He shared details about his family involvement in politics at the time, and about his political activism in the 70’s (how I wish I could have seen him with his long hair!).
Academic knowledge aside, he also carries a host of delightful idiosyncrasies. Something that’s common in English-speaking Germans is for them to mix up “v” and “w” sounds. The letter “w” is in fact pronounced “v” and the “w” sound doesn’t exist, so often the sounds get substituted for each other in their English. This means that when Jander is telling our class that we are going to visit a Stasi prison for class next week, we are actually “wisiting”. A phrase he uses that I feel he may have retained from his university days in the 70’s is “Anyone have any questions? Comments? Protests?”. Thus far, no one has protested in his class.
The best part about these classes is the following “office hours” session. Almost every week after class, we go to a bar 5 minutes away, order a drink, and just talk about whatever may come to mind. Sometimes we talk about class, sometimes about German history; last time we had “hours”, we talked about the aforementioned visit to the Stasi prison. I can hardly wait until next Tuesday at 6:30 PM because I know that as the class begins to wrap up, we’ll make plans to grab a beer and talk for hours. To me, he is the great gem of NYU in Berlin.
This past weekend, most of our group went on an NYU trip to Cologne (in German, it's called Köln). NYU set up a partnership with the University of Cologne between our program and one of theirs. We basically take turns showing each other the cities that we're studying in and discussing various aspects of German vs. American culture, language, politics, and lifestyles. One of our classes prepared presentations on these various topics, as did the class from Cologne. Over this past weekend, half the presentations were done in their school. In the first weekend of December, the Cologne students will come to Berlin and we'll finish the other half of the presentations. I'm going next month - my topic is education and student life in the U.S. and specifically NYU. (While I'm talking about this, is there anything that you think is absolutely essential to mention? I want to make sure I'm not missing something glaringly obvious and important)
The city is along the Rhine River in West Germany. It's about a 4 1/2 hour train ride to get there directly from Berlin. The term "city" is used loosely, in my opinion. By German standards, it's for sure a city. I mean, it does have almost a million people, but it's not nearly as spread-out as Berlin. Perhaps it is for this reason that the areas we spent most of our time in felt younger and more close-knit. Most of the crowds who were out in bars or on the trams were in their mid-20s, which seems to be normal university age in Germany. A lot of the venues cater to students - for example, the Cologne students took us out to a club one night called "Studenten Club", where they played almost entirely early-90's American pop hits. Yep, even Backstreet Boys. My "guide" from the program (who is actually 31) said that it's THE place for first-semester students and he couldn't believe he was back there.
Going from New York to Berlin wasn't such a difficult transition except for the language barrier. However, the trip from Berlin to Cologne was much more different. Most parts of Berlin are not accommodating to students, except for the areas immediately surrounding the universities. Even the Village right around NYU has more of a college feel because of the cheap restaurants, coffee shops, salad bars and Campus Cash signs. Berlin doesn't have this same strong presence of students. The main part of Cologne, on the other hand, was filled with students about our age. It was startling, but also really comforting to be surrounded by students for a weekend. All in all, I loved the trip, and I for sure recommend making a stop in Cologne.
For the past week and a half, I've been out of town. Fall break ended yesterday so I've just come back to Berlin, my second home-away-from-home. We started in Paris, made our way to Brussels, then Amsterdam, and finally Copenhagen before returning to Berlin. The entire trip included two airplanes and three trains. In the hours of transit in between destinations, I found myself entirely immersed in journeys of another kind - I would simply open up Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad and find myself in the Swiss Alps, beside the castles in Heidelberg, or drifting on a raft through the Black Forest. The entire story is constructed as a narrative. It is simply a record of anecdotes and experiences that Mark Twain had gathered while he traveled through Germany and Switzerland one summer. He hires an agent to travel with and guide him, and together they go through all the highs and lows of traveling abroad.
What struck me as I read this book was how much I could sympathize with Mark Twain. Each time I picked it back up, I was either coming or going from a city. On the way to Brussels from Paris, Mark Twain jumped onto a carriage to go to Baden-Baden. On the way to Amsterdam, Mark was hiking by foot up mountains, wanting only to see a glimpse of the legendary Alpine sunrise. Every moment that Mark Twain captures in his accounts strikes me as so detailed and crucial that I can see exactly what his town looks like.
I really hope that some day, I’ll look back on my journals from Berlin – both this one and my actual paper one – and I’ll remember exactly the circumstances behind each event that I have recorded. I spent a weekend in Paris with the same friend mentioned in the last post. At every chance I got, I would whip out my trusty little Moleskin and scrawl down some fast notes or thoughts. Places where this was particularly useful throughout the whole trip were museums. I know that whenever I open my notebook now, I’ll find the names of artists and pieces that I loved. I’ll look back on my journal entries and know exactly what it was about that moment in the Van Gogh museum that struck me. I’ll see my sketches of Van Gogh’s paintings and the names of the pieces, I’ll see the pages I wrote after Paris, I’ll see the endless notes I made about what on earth we were supposed to do in Copenhagen on a Sunday. Mark Twain always understood where he was and remembered every gripping detail of the beautiful places he had been. I hope that my journals, physical and online, become testaments of my tramp abroad in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Copenhagen during that one fall of 2009.
Over fall break, I discovered something very important about my relationship with Paris. It struck me suddenly as I was boarding the questionable EasyJet airplane. I realized that I really, truly love Paris, and that I couldn’t wait to get myself out of the airport and onto the streets filled with French conversations and cigarette smoke. I spent the majority of my 3 days in Paris with a good friend from high school. Together, we roamed the winding streets of Montmartre and munched on the best falafel in the world on Rue de Rosier (not kidding; I really think it is the best I’ve ever had). To quote one of my former roommates: “New York is my home. I would marry New York and live here forever… but Paris is my secret dirty affair. I LOVE Paris, but I’m IN love with New York.” This still accurately sums up how I felt while I was there. I was tickled by being home felt simply scandalous. I had left my dear home of New York City for the mysteriously cool Berlin, and then left BOTH of them for Paris. I speak mostly English in Berlin because my German is extremely basic. This is perhaps a bit of a low blow to Berlin and gives New York more reason to remain hopeful that I have not deserted it for some far-off European land. Then, with little warning, I was swept back off my feet by the alluringly beautiful Paris and found myself happily speaking French and left both New York and Berlin behind for a few whirlwind days. During the Paris leg of my vacation, I found out that I had a mad itch that is purely unreachable. I have been to Paris multiple times and thought that after my last trip, this bug was crushed out of me. It did just the opposite - I came to terms with the fact that Paris was no longer a vacation destination for me, but a familiar city where I could be comfortable. On a separate but related note: If Paris is my sneaky affair to whom I always sneak out, Copenhagen was the peculiar man you meet on the train. He is well-dressed and clean-cut, but simply too lofty and harsh to talk to. At the end of a painfully drawn-out conversation, you realize that he would have struck you as incredibly handsome under better circumstances. On top of my revelations about Paris, I discovered something else rather important: the end of autumn is not the time to visit Copenhagen. In short, it was my first trip to Scandinavia and I absolutely recommend it… in July. It was too cold and windy to explore much. By the end of my second day with Copenhagen, I was ready to return to my tried-and-true love, Berlin.