September 21, 2011

Terrible beauty found in the capital of Germany

Forgive me if my writing is a bit shabbier than usual; I’m afraid I’m slowly forgetting how to speak English. I’ve spent the past two weeks in a classroom at Humboldt University, learning German slang and trying to become confident enough to give a presentation without notes. When I’m not at the Uni, I’m getting lost in the city or trying to figure out what’s in the shampoo I just bought.

This semester, I’m living in Berlin, a city unsure of its future and constantly reminded of its past. Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, the differences between East and West Berlin are still starkly apparent. I take the Straßenbahn (tram) to class every morning, something I couldn’t do if I lived in former West Berlin because the Straßenbahn doesn’t run there. Even now, the West seems more polished, and the East retains a certain grit that is off-putting at first. My German professor described Berlin as “hässlich” (ugly), which was also my impression when I stepped off of the plane. I had expected soaring classical architecture and neatly manicured streets, not sprawling apartment complexes and steel grey skies.

I live in Prenzlauer Berg, a district in the East. Once the center of punk culture in Berlin, the area has since experienced gentrification. Charming cafés line cobblestone streets, with conversations continuing late into the night. At the same time, graffiti left over from the era of the Berlin Wall still covers buildings in a kind of historical street art. I do my grocery shopping at a modern supermarket located inside the Kulturbrauerei, an old brewery converted into an arts and culture center. The clash between old and new is constant and inescapable.

I came to Berlin to study German politics and, of course, the language, but increasingly I find myself intrigued by the evolution of the city’s identity. It entwines itself into every facet of life here; even just walking down the sidewalk, you might step on a marker indicating that a Jewish person died near that spot during the Nazi period. In an unprecedented action, I have signed up for a course outside of political science, economics or language: a sociology course entitled “Reflecting Otherness in Multicultural Germany and Europe.” Even 20 years after German reunification, the influx of immigrants from Turkey and other countries poses new challenges to the idea of what it means to be German.

In Berlin, I’ve experienced politics from a standpoint I hadn’t explored much before: that of the people. I’ve been rushed out of a speech by the Turkish president due to a bomb threat to find hundreds of protesters screaming across the street. I’ve had to alter my commute because of neo-Nazi demonstrations. I’ve watched Berlin elect 15 members of the Piraten-Partei (yes, that translates to Pirate Party) to the local parliament in an expression of discontent with the traditional parties. It is one thing to sit on a diplomat’s bench in the Reichstag (where the German Parliament meets) on an official tour of the building; it is another to see the politics of another country play out in the streets.

Over the course of my time here, I hope to gain a more well-rounded understanding of how politics operates, both in Germany and in the U.S. Classes here don’t start until Oct. 4 (we’ve only had intensive language instruction so far), but as cheesy as it sounds, my coursework will only be supplementary. Alexanderplatz (one of Berlin’s main plazas) is my classroom, my fellow commuters on the Straßenbahn my teachers. I would not call either Alexanderplatz or the Straßenbahn beautiful, but I’ve learned that my expectations were based on façades created for tourists. Now, I’d much rather experience the city as it truly is.

I am reminded of a lyric about Berlin from German musical sensation Peter Fox: “Du kannst so schön schrecklich sein.” (“You can be so beautifully terrible.”) After three weeks here, I’ve decided that I disagree with my professor. Berlin is not ugly. It is real.

Anna Meier is Co-News Editor for The Knox Student.

Anna Meier

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