Hallo to Berlin

So for those of you who don’t know: I’m studying abroad in Berlin this semester, and I arrived at my study-away dorm in Kreuzberg (read: hipster central) on Monday. I flew in from Stockholm, after a weekend spent with the Lishansky family, who kindly put me up for two nights while I wandered around Gamla stan (Old Town) and saw the palace, a flea market, and a variety of wonderful churches.

The strange thing is that Stockholm seems like a month ago, not just a week. I’ve only been in Berlin for six days, and already so much has happened – I’ll try to do a recap below the cut:

A lot of time has been taken up with NYU orientation. The way my campus at Berlin works is that it is, actually, NYU; we have various campuses scattered around the world, sort of like an academic version of Starbucks. Unlike Starbucks, some of these campuses are “portal” campuses – that means students go to them and stay for all 4 years, considering it their “home” campus. You can only do this at NYU New York (where I go), NYU Shanghai, and NYU Abu Dhabi – everything else is considered “study abroad.”

So there are a lot of NYU Shanghai and NYU Abu Dhabi students here with me in Berlin! Most of them are world travelers, and many of them aren’t American; I’ve met people from Beijing, Ukraine, Mexico City, Venezuela, Sydney, Bermuda, Russia, and more. One new friend was raised in Beijing, studies in Shanghai, and has traveled everywhere from California to Europe to – get this – North Korea. Another friend was born in Michigan to German parents, spent her childhood hopping between America and northern Germany, and now studies in Abu Dhabi. I was initially worried that I’d be in an “NYU bubble” here on campus; I’m still focused on meeting Berliners and making German friends, but I’m no longer worried that the NYU bubble will be homogenous or over-American.

The arrival of the massive snowstorm on the East Coast meant that students trickled in pretty slowly. On my first night in Berlin, there were about 75 students; by Wednesday evening we’d reached our full compliment of about 150. All of us New Yorkers are getting used to the fact that, after going to a university of 40,000, we’re now at a small school. Everyone’s going to end up knowing everyone else; a good few of us already do.

But NYU isn’t all that interesting – what’s interesting is Berlin! So let me try to remember what I’ve done and seen so far this week.

I’ve settled in at my dorm, which is a couple blocks away from Checkpoint Charlie. We’re on the east side of what was the Wall, but only just – our street actually has the double-line of cobblestones running down it that marks a place where the Wall was.

I’ve been to our academic campus, the AC, in Prenzlauerberg. It’s in an old abandoned brewery converted into a sort of mini-town square, called the Kulturbraueri; we share it with a dance studio, a few cafes, a design shop, etc. It’s absolutely surrounded by wonderful restaurants, and it’s beautiful – the brick walls and the lovely architecture make me feel like I’m going to school in a church.

I’ve visited the Bauhaus museum, and Potsdamer Platz; the latter reminded me very, very strongly of Times Square, except that it was extraordinarily quiet. All of Berlin is, really – again, going from a metropolis of 8.5 million in 789 square km to a metropolis of 3.5 million in 900 square km is a major culture shift. The city feels very empty, especially during the early evenings when the daytime work has ended and the nightlife hasn’t begun. Combined with the piles of rubble scattered over the city, empty lots, and low buildings that let me see huge areas of the sky, Berlin can sometimes feel like a ghost town.

Really, being in Berlin means being constantly reminded of its ghosts. Even crossing the street is a historical event: the traffic light designs are different in East Berlin and West Berlin. The distinctive little men with hats on the traffic lights in East Berlin (ampelmännchen) are unbelievably adorable, and as part of a sense of Ostalgie, or East German nostalgia, they were kept. Walking around Berlin, you’re vividly reminded of the extraordinary change and trauma it’s been through in the last century: a democratic revolution, a fascist regime, devastating bombing, division, isolation, reunification. A professor in orientation called Berlin life “dancing on a graveyard”, and for now, it seems appropriate.

I’ve been thinking about the graveyard, but I’ve also been doing some of the dancing; I’m now legally allowed to buy alcohol, of course, and so I’ve been taking the opportunity to explore Berlin’s nightlife and alcohol scene with some of my new friends. Last night we went to a really lovely gay bar – the first gay bar I’ve ever been to! So this was an awesome experience for me not only as a foreigner in Berlin, but also as someone who belongs to the international LGBT community. It really was an absolute joy to sit in a bar where the walls were covered with pink fur, trading broken German for broken English with a couple of delightful gay German students and watching men dance with men and women dance with women.

It was a joy – and it was odd to me, halfway around the world from where I was born and an ocean away from the city I’m trying to build a life in, to find something that made me think: Ah, yeah, I’m home.

Anyway. I know I’ve not been updating this blog much recently, but I believe it’s traditional to keep some sort of study away blog, and so I’m going to try to go back to writing something weekly – no promises. I do have a lot to say that I barely touched on here, though, so high hopes.

Looking forward to the next four months – gute Samstag, all!

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