On the first day of summer school I was sitting in my classroom in Oxford, half a world away from home in St. Louis, Missouri. Before getting into our material on European diplomacy, my professor made a point to recommend visiting Berlin. Heeding his advice, a few friends and I would embark on an adventure there a few weeks later.
Aside from historical implications of Germany, such as Bismarck’s unification and the more sinister era under the Nazi regime, I knew little about Germany, and even less about Berlin.
The major reference in my mind was when Indiana Jones says to his father, “We have half the German army on our tail and you want me to go to Berlin?! Into the lions’ den?” I knew the book-burning scenes from Indiana Jones’s The Last Crusade were long gone, yet I didn’t know what culture had replaced it.
Expecting the narrow, tight streets that characterized many English cities, I was astonished to find the city of Berlin was made on a monstrous scale. Sidewalks could hold perhaps almost a dozen people walking side by side and the buildings themselves were spread far apart.
As soon as we dropped our bags off at a hostel on a Saturday, we rented cruiser bikes for 12 euros apiece and hit the road with maps in hand.
As we biked through the streets, I felt like I had slipped into a post-apocalyptic world. Although the city was designed around older buildings of the past, many modern glass buildings interrupted the scenery. The capitol building itself was a testament to this non-uniform city. As we passed the capitol, we saw it was a massive, old-looking building but with a beautiful glass dome on top that symbolizes Germany’s new future.
This clash between old and new was somehow cohesive in this unique city. Perhaps the extensive graffiti that covers Berlin from head to toe helps disguise the overwhelming inconsistencies in the city.
We biked along the Berlin Wall and visited Charlie’s Checkpoint. It was clear to see that Berlin was still very affected by World War II and put a lot of emphasis on the different I’m-sorry monuments. We biked to all the major war memorials that were scattered along the city center and rode right underneath the Brandenburg Gate landmark. It was a very hot day, so we had to stop several times to buy water. I was shocked (and slightly irritated) to discover that in Germany, a coffee or beer is cheaper than a small water.
Now, I would be amiss if I were to neglect describing the language barrier. I think what made Germany such a new experience was the fact this was the first time I have ever been to a non-English country.
It was not until we went to a restaurant when we hit our first language difficulty. As we read the menu, we found that the German words were long, had lots of vowels, and lacked English cognates. The waitress spoke no English but ended up giving us an English menu. Even then, we couldn’t pronounce the meal names and so we just pointed to them instead. With gestures and context, we were able to figure out words like small, medium and large very quickly. With this experience, we added small phrases like “thank you” to our vocabulary as well.
Another language difficulty came when we tried to call for a cab. We had a lot of trouble telling them the street name where we wished to be picked up. Similar to the food on the menu, the streets were very hard to pronounce. Our small group of five stood under the street sign, and passed around the phone trying different pronunciations, attempting to convey our location. As people passed us, some shouted out suggestions on how to say the words. Finally, a stranger took our phone and helped tell the cab company where we were located.
While this may have been a little embarrassing, in retrospect it was a wonderful human moment. It’s easy to feel alone in a foreign country that speaks a different language. But the German people really showed us that we were definitely not alone. We could not have made our journey without help. We got directions, suggestions and instructions from those around us. Luckily most people were kind enough to speak to us in English and understood that we were simply visiting students.
To clarify, we were not helpless. Together our group successfully biked to our major destinations and that night we went to a beer garden and ordered the classic German sausages (Rostbratwurst) and pretzels (Laugenbrezel). I ordered a grilled steak sandwich called a Schweinenackensteak.
During our weekend in Berlin we visited markets, viewed art and got a good feel for both metropolitan and local areas. By the time we boarded our airplane back to Oxford, I had decided that I really loved Berlin. I opened my Diplomacy textbook to read for class the next day and my chapter started out by talking about how all of Europe was deeply focused on Berlin in the 1930s.
Studying Berlin at the time of my visit was almost surreal. I was eager to delve into my reading assignment because reading about the history of Berlin helped me greater appreciate this now modern city. It’s one thing to visit a country on vacation, but entirely different to take the trip in conjunction with a class. I am grateful for my professor’s recommendation to go to Germany. I loved Biking in Berlin.