Making Berlin Home

Karl-Marx-Strasse, Neukölln, Berlin

Winter break was spent away from Berlin. It was a quiet Christmas in the Sauerland and a New Year’s in the Netherlands full of card games, late nights and Amstel. Despite the shock to my out-of-practice German and an alcohol tolerance that’s been ruined by grad school, those three weeks were much needed.

But by the end of the holidays, and especially after signs for Berlin started popping up on the Autobahn, our bus couldn’t get back to Berlin fast enough.

More than its cultural reputation and general coolness, Berlin has a special spirit that makes it easy to love. It’s a city that welcomes diversity, celebrates it. It’s what makes Berlin Berlin. Unter den Linden, Karl-Marx Straße, Schlossstraße, they couldn’t be more different and yet somehow I feel like I belong on them all. The city has a homeyness that’s unmatched by most of the other places I’ve lived. I dare you to walk through any neighborhood, sit down in any cafe, talk to any person and not go home happy. You find yourself smiling everywhere: in the middle of the street, ordering a coffee, in the U-Bahn, buying stamps.

And when our bus finally pulled into the Berlin station and let us off, despite stumbling out of the bus and into a Russian winter, nothing could have made me any less happy to be home. Not the miserable sprint to the night bus, not dragging my suitcases across icy streets, not even the long, cold walk from the last stop to our apartment.

If you were at all curious about what life in Berlin has been like in the last three months this is a pretty good illustration—a collection of unnecessarily difficult, ultimately rewarding learning experiences.

As much as I loved it, it was hard to feel independent in small-town Germany. Berlin has given it back. It’s much easier to forgive my still imperfect German and to shake off any self-consciousness over it, easier to make my own plans and to get there on my own.

But as encouraging as Berlin has been, it has also meant that figuring the city out has been a lot of trial-and-error. You’ll do things the hard way and learn from your mistakes, but you’ll also come away with a collection of stories to laugh about later. Like the one where a much-anticipated trip to a museum is foiled by a protest and my own ignorance of train lines—my day of culture may have wound up being dinner at Pizza Hut but now I have Mitte’s U-Bahn stops committed to memory. Or the one where a week of clutch apartment hunting pays off and we’re able to move out of an apartment with a daily trash collection, only suffering through two weeks of early wake-up calls and not two years.

But once you make it through those first crazy months, through Berlin’s brutal rental market, Telekom’s incompetence, and the understaffed Burgeramt, then you get to the fun part. Exploring a different neighborhood each day, searching for Berlin’s best burger, a neighborhood coffee shop, a used bookstore, comedy shows, flea markets or the restaurant that George Clooney visits whenever he’s in Berlin.

You start to settle into the city.

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