This summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in a study abroad program through BC in Berlin, Germany. When I boarded my flight on May 21, I was a bit nervous—my only prior foreign experience came at eight years old when I visited the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, with the comforting homeland of America still visible just across the water. But I was also excited to experience new things while getting to know a city very different from anywhere I’ve ever been before.
Berlin is beautiful and gritty and modern and traditional all at the same time, and I loved it. I learned so much, gained a broader perspective, and had a ton of fun in between. After being home for a couple of weeks reflecting on my experiences, and remembering some things that a few too many German beers had nearly erased from my memory, I’m ready to share some tales from my 24 days in Berlin.
Going in, my fellow BC students and I were worried about overcoming the language barrier, because none of us could speak a lick of German upon our arrival. Most Germans were able speak English pretty well, but because it’s not their first language they pronounce some things differently, and a little humorously. Some examples: “ideas” = “eyed ears”; “because” = “be coors”; “swamp” = “swamp”, but pronounced with a long “a” like how Slim Thug says wamp in the fantastic Clipse song “Wamp Wamp (What It Do)”.
However, just because most people could understand us didn’t mean that we weren’t sometimes judged due to our lack of any handle on the German language. We got our fair share of puzzled and frustrated looks when we were unable to respond coherently to even the simplest of German communications. That stuck with me, even though we ended up working through the issues without a great deal of hostility. Back in the States, I’ll be much more considerate to foreigners and non-English speakers after realizing how helpless I’d often feel being on the other side.
Interacting with real Berliners was always interesting. There were so many great characters among them. The hospitable IES Abroad staff that first welcomed us to Berlin. The grad student who we had a long late-night discussion with on the differences between Germany and America. The musclehead cooks at Kebab Baba. The eccentric tour guide who made sexual jokes while showing us around Potsdam. The crazy bar-dweller we met while watching the NBA Finals who rocked a glorious Randall Cunningham jacket straight out of 1988 and lectured us on how Jim McMahon was way better than Tom Brady. The pickup basketball players who called a bunch of weak fouls but were otherwise a joy to play with. They were all just gems. But it was also comforting when we ran into some fellow Americans, who usually stuck out like a bunch of sore thumbs, and relate to each other about how different this place was from home.
Most of the tourist destinations I got to were great, but here are a few of the very best. The Pergamon Museum is a top spot for any big history appreciators, with a fascinating and vast collection of ancient artifacts from Greece, Rome, and the Middle East. The Reichstag, or capital building for the German parliament, has a great historical significance and also provides the best view of Berlin from its glass dome at the top. The Berlin Zoo has hundreds of cool animals. I saw two hippos and a mallard duck just chillin’ like inches away from each other, it was awesome. Potsdam, Tiergarten, and Charlottenburg Palace are all breathtakingly gorgeous, ideal places to walk around and see on a nice day and probably pretty romantic, too. The East Side Gallery is a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Berlin Wall now covered with beautiful artwork painted on it after the reunification of the city.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp may have impacted me the most. Going to a concentration camp and just seeing everything there in person hits your heart and mind and soul so hard. There’s all the doubt of humanity that arises, the “how could people do this to other people?” thoughts. Everything is so morbid, knowing that so many people were tortured and murdered right where you’re standing, that the Nazis committed unimaginable atrocities on this walled-in plot of land. Seeing the barracks, the execution trench, the crematorium, the autopsy tables, the torture devices, and every other remaining part of the camp was more disturbing than anything else I’ve ever experienced. I also learned the stories of the resiliency and hope of some of the prisoners, and the people who tried to help them, and the soldiers who freed them, and I got a little bit of that faith in humanity back.
Moving on to a lighter topic, the food in Germany is great. Traditional German items like currywurst and bratwurst were dependably satisfying, and also pretty cheap—you could cop a quick bratwurst from a Grillrunner, an ordinary dude with an ingenious contraption strapped to him that contained everything he needed to sell sausages on the move. Though most meals were simple, that was absolutely fine with me because they were all delectable (especially when the meal was complemented by a fine German beer). There was pretty solid Italian food in Berlin as well, and I’m not the biggest fan of Asian food, but the Thai also wasn’t bad.
The real star food was döner kebabs, a Turkish creation. They’re made of chicken shavings, some salad components, onions and a variety of sauces, all contained in a triangular roll of crispy bread. Some places also included feta, which was a game changer. You could get a good döner anywhere at any time, but by far the best döner was found at Mustafa’s, a little shanty food hut in Mehringdamm. The first time we were over there we saw a gigantic line and figured it must be good. An hour and ten minutes later, we discovered that it was more than worth it. I can’t even describe it—it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. All the flavors, the sauces, the textures, it just all worked perfectly. I felt like Ken Griffey, Jr. did on that classic episode of The Simpsons when he drank nerve tonic for the first time and said, “Wow. It’s feels like a party in my mouth, and everyone’s invited.” We went back to Mustafa’s two more times even though it was out of the way. It was that good.
Before I finish up this up, I should talk about the class, which was the whole reason I was in Berlin in the first place. The class was called Economic Policy Analysis from a European Perspective, and it was one of the best classes I’ve taken during my time at BC. I learned a great deal about how the global financial markets work and gained a ton of practical economic knowledge. The class was so small and we were so tight with each other because we were all thrown into this foreign country together, so the discussions were all natural and compelling. I can’t speak for all the summer abroad classes, but this one was outstanding.
So that’s it, I guess. My writing can’t possibly do Berlin justice, so you should go see it for yourself!