Now that I had abandoned the plan of having a travel partner for the next month, I was both liberated and nervous. Sitting at the platform in Frankfurt, Germany with butterflies in my stomach, I turned to the girl sitting next to me to ask if I was at the right place to catch the train to Berlin. We struck up a conversation and there was something about her confidence and eloquence that told me we would become friends. Like me, she was travelling on her own. I followed Ruchika onto the train and we found a compartment with one other traveler sitting inside. I guessed he would have some cool stories to share since a backpack the size of a mountain sat next to him on the seat. Andy, from Stuttgart, was on his way to meet his sister for three weeks of backpacking in Sweden. The three of us settled in and took turns sharing details about our lives, while passing around snacks each of us had packed for the long train ride. At some point, I pulled out my book of Rumi poems, a touchstone from home, and passed it to Ruchika. I wanted to show her a poem called “The Music We Are,” (an excerpt is below).
…Listen. The wind is pouring wine! Love used to hide inside images. No more!
The Orchard hangs out its lanterns. The dead come stumbling by in shrouds.
Nothing can stay bound or be imprisoned. You say “End this poem here and wait for what’s next.” I will. Poems are rough notations for the music we are. … —Rumi
Thus began a poetry reading in our little train compartment. Flashes of green fields and villages with red roofs outside our window only added to the profundity of the poetry, written thousands of years ago by a Persian Mystic, ecstatic with love for the divine. We took turns flipping open the book and reading aloud whatever poem we found. Ruchika made a film of my reading, and we passed the hours chatting merrily about our journeys ahead and the beauty of travel, some of us napping intermittently. By the end of the train ride, it was clear we could have spent many more days happily in each other’s company. We swapped email addresses and said our goodbyes in the hectic maze of Berlin’s Central Train Station. Weeks later, Ruchika and I would hatch a plan to travel to Prague and Vienna together. I will see her in just a few days from now. But that’s a story for another time. Back to Berlin.
The hostel I chose turned out to be just as small and charming as its pictures online showed it to be. I lugged my belongings up to the 8-person dorm room and climbed into a top bunk to make my bed with fresh sheets. While I was struggling to stuff a cotton comforter into its cover, a man walked in and asked if I was the new roommate. He offered to help me with the comforter and I was glad to have the assistance. He was staying in the bed below me and joked that I could whack him with my flip flops if he snored. I promised I would, as there’s nothing more awful than being kept up all night by a hostel snorer (I know this from experience).
And that’s how I met Mario from Italy. He had come to Berlin looking for work and now that he had a restaurant job, was planning to stick around. I met the rest of the crew later that night in the tiny lounge downstairs. I had just ate a hot plate of Pad Thai at a restaurant nearby and settled onto the couch to check my email when someone called out “hey, come join us!” I pulled up a chair and introduced myself, surprised to hear English.
I spent the evening having an invigorating and inspiring discussion about a wide range of topics ranging from WWII, travel, the “rat race”, and how to make the world a better place with my new friends: Naira from California, Chris from Belgium, Claudia from France and Robin from Sweden. Before bed, Naira and Claudia invited me to join them on a free walking tour of the city in the morning. I accepted the invitation and the next morning, my eyes were opened to the history of Berlin.
Berlin is a city under constant construction, both ideologically and physically. Huge cranes hover above historical buildings, waiting to tear down another block, only to build it up again. Taking a peek into the past, WWII destroyed the majority of the city and later, the Soviets created an ugly gray scar overnight that separated thousands of people from their livelihood and their loved ones. The Berlin Wall not only divided East from West, and Communism from Democracy, it also oppressed the people and created a deep psychological fissure in the world. It was the petri dish of a political clash between two ideologies. The wall was built to destroy anyone who attempted to cross it. There were horrible contraptions with spikes on the other side, trip wires that alerted guards to shoot you, barbed wire and other torture-like instruments to maim, trap and kill any trespasser who wanted to get to the other side. In 1989, the world watched as Berliners tore the wall down. It had lost its power. After 28 in a half years, East and West Berliners saw each other for the first time. The emotions of such an event still cling to the walls of the city in the form of graffiti and stencil art. Squats, punk clubs, art collectives and young radicals rose from the dust of the Berlin Wall, making the city the vibrant, edgy place it is today. Although the anti-establishment attitude is less visible today than it was in the ’90’s, it is still just present enough, to make you feel the edge of a bubbling resistance just under the surface.
Berlin has been scarred, stripped of its dignity, filled with the hatred of the Nazi Regime, turned to rubble, and then rose up screaming with both fists in the air. It’s a city of both destruction and shining renewal. It is a constant work in progress, a place unafraid to confront the faults of its history and a place of hope for a peaceful future. For these reasons, I fell in love with Berlin.
Back at the hostel, it was Saturday night and Berlin’s club scene was calling. I cooked a coconut curry dinner for my new friends and we drank beer and wine to the sound of electronic music from our resident DJ, Mario. The small kitchen had become the central meeting point and travelers shuffled in and out, eating, drinking, chatting, nodding to the beat. Chris and I found every reason we could think of to ‘cheers’ each other. It got to the point where we were clinking glasses so often, we were practically making our own beat, punctuated by fits of laughter. After we were all sufficiently full of booze and good food, we decided to follow a group of young Danish kids from the hostel to the clubs.
On our way, we passed through sections of the road that were so covered in shattered glass, each step made a crunching sound. I was wearing open-toed shoes and gladly took Mario’s arm to help me weave and dodge through the glittering shards of glass. We stopped every few blocks to buy beers and a bottle of wine and drank along the way. By the time we made it to the queue (line) outside the club, we were all riled up and pink-cheeked, laughing and rough housing like a bunch of kids. It was SO much fun!
After being turned away from several clubs since some of our crew were under 21, and a stop at a shop for Turkish Kebab (which is the best thing in the world), and after my friend and I were propositioned to have a threesome (gross!), we ducked into an 18-and-over club beneath an old parking lot littered with glass and plastered with street art. It was gritty and raw and exactly what I wanted to experience in Berlin. The floor and walls were made of concrete and the electronic music pounded above a crowd of dancing people. At about 4:30 am, I was exhausted and wanted to go home. Robin was ready to leave also, so we set out together for the long walk to the hostel. As we neared our street, the sun was just beginning to brighten the sky and the cobblestone appeared to glow beneath the gentle light. Holding hands with Robin under the sunrise after a memorable night spent with people who already felt as close as family, was a feeling I will never forget. My cheeks were warm, my heart was full, and I was happy. Later I wrote in my journal: “I have never laughed so heartily in my life! It was 48 hours of complete joy, humor, connection, friendship and fun.”
My last night in Berlin was equally as magical. Claudia and I set out to explore the more alternative side of the city on another walking tour and it was there that we met Yan, Tutku and Tolga. Claudia and I had become trusted travel partners, navigating the city together, all the while discussing politics, history, and the human experience. She dubbed me the “street smarts,” while she was the “map reader”. By putting our best skills together, we were a well-oiled team. Our walking tour ended at the Eastside Gallery, a mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall still left standing. The wall has been painted by hundreds of artists from all over the world with images of loss, war, hope and rebirth. What once divided people now brings people from all over the world together. The gallery felt alive with healing. People paused to reflect, discuss the artwork, touch the wall, pose for photos with their loved ones. The sun was shining and many languages were palpable in the air.
Claudia, Tolga, Yan and I decided to spend the evening together at the holocaust memorial, and then at the Reichstag where a documentary was being shown outdoors. We all got along so well, it was as if we had known each other for many years. What struck me was how we all took care of each other, finding a restroom when one of us needed it, offering a jacket if someone was cold, resting our feet if one of us was tired and lending kind words and solidarity when sadness came, in the case of the holocaust memorial. We hopped on and off the S Bahn, always looking over our shoulder to make sure the others were right behind. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to me when the three of them insisted on walking me to the underground station and making sure I got on the right train when I was tired and ready to go back to the hostel for bed. Once I hugged them each multiple times and stepped onto the train, I caught Yan’s eye as they climbed the stairs above the platform. Tolga looked back too to say goodbye, and I blew them both a kiss. They smiled and waved. They didn’t need to say a word. I knew they felt the same. It was sad to say goodbye.
Walking back to the hostel alone, I had these thoughts so loudly I felt like yelling them. Instead, I cried tears of gratitude and love and longing and understanding. I said the thoughts I was having to myself over and over again like a mantra until I reached the front door to the hostel: “I am so in love with the world. I am so in love with Berlin. I am so in love with the people I’ve met. I am so grateful for this moment. I am so grateful I am alive. So in love….so in love…”
I know this has been an epically long post. I was able to use a friend’s computer to type on instead of my little windows phone, so I am savoring this moment to write without the burden of tiny touchscreen buttons. But there is also so much to say…
Thanks to those of you who have made it to the end of this entry 🙂 I appreciate you reading!
I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote in red ink inside Claudia’s journal as a keepsake of our time together in Berlin:
Passionate about the world, two girls unite;
Berlin, we have come.
Berlin, we are listening.
Although your tides have swallowed so much human dignity, we feel you rising;
Peace IS possible!
Two women walk toward the future, a city rolling underfoot, ready to explode.
Mystery, revolution, sadness, evolving.
August 2013, Berlin, Germany
Up next: stories from Krakow, Poland