Studying abroad is really a pleasant version of being in purgatory. It is a temporary state of being between two worlds. You are not a Knox student anymore, except that you are. You may very well be enrolled in a foreign university, live with foreigners and speak in a foreign language all day, but none of that turns back the clock on the day the admission envelope memorably proclaimed, “You are Knox.” You just don’t live in Galesburg anymore.
Before going any further, it might be polite to introduce myself. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Matt Barry and I am a junior currently studying abroad in Berlin, Germany. For the next few months, I will be commenting on life in Mitteleuropa and the experience of a Knox student finding his way in a foreign country.
In the following months, I will be living with a German host family in the eastern part of the city in an apartment building that might fairly be called a triumph of socialist engineering. I will be enrolled at Humboldt University in Berlin, a school where Albert Einstein once taught and a young Karl Marx once attended lectures as a student, though I will mostly be taking classes with other American students at the IES Abroad center here (a situation for which I can thank Knox’s unusual quarter system). All of my coursework will be entirely in German — a language I have only been learning for two years.
Berlin, though, is the subject of this column as I am. This is a city that has experienced a lot over the years. For the historically minded, closing your eyes you can almost hear the sounds of the city through the ages: the cries for freedom of the 1848 revolution, the horrid marching of jackbooted feet as the Nazis celebrated their seizure of power in 1933, the whine of Russian artillery shells as the final reckoning of the Third Reich came twelve years later, and the roar of engines as Allied planes kept the city from starvation during the Berlin Airlift three years after that.
You have to be careful to keep your eyes closed some of the time. The temptation is so great to try to blend in and adopt an attitude of utter indifference, which characterizes locals in every city in the world. There is certainly something to be said for seeing the city as Berliners see it, but there is even more to be said for not doing so. Studying abroad would be pointless if you are going to become totally ignorant to the fascinating things happening around you.
You have to have your eyes open. History has never stopped happening in Berlin. It is rare to find a European city where you can really believe that its best days are yet to come. The city is a magnet for migrants from all corners of the earth: Poles taking advantage of their proximity to their richer neighbor, Jews from the former Soviet Union who are drawn to a revival of a once nearly-extinguished culture, Vietnamese who stayed after entering what was formerly known as East Germany under a socialist exchange scheme in the eighties. The emblematic food of the city is no longer the Cold War favorite currywurst but instead the ubiquitous döner kebab, a gyro-like offering brought over by Turkish guest workers.
The best description of the city came from my language instructor, who proclaimed that Berlin can be summarized as kaputte Charme. All of the depredations of the Nazis, all of the destructive fury of the Soviets and all of the sterile totalitarianism of the communists were unable to erase the charisma of this city. No matter how kaputt the city might become, there is always some ineradicable charisma that refuses to be extinguished.
In the end, I am still Knox. That has never changed. The only difference is that I feel as if I can now say “I am also Berlin.”