I choose to participate in the Berlin: Then & Now: People, Places, and Experiences study abroad program. Throughout the month long program, I learned about different important people, places, and experiences that all had a part in creating Berlin today. My fellow students and I visited many different locations in Berlin and the surrounding area that, with the aid of class time, were designed to educate us on the cultural and historical aspects of the city.
When I was preparing for my trip to Berlin, I was expecting to be dropped into a very different alien environment. I was expecting to experience a culture that didn’t resemble my own at all. I was expecting something so different that I would have difficulties adapting to the city. In actuality, the city had some elements of this alien landscape that I expected, but it also had many aspects that I was able to relate to my life in the US. I thought that I would be constantly lost, but within a few days I was fairly confident in abilities to navigate the complex train – or should I say the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram, and bus – system, which is all interconnected. By the end of the month, I had seen most of the city and knew the history and significance of most areas. I could recognize the contrast between old West Berlin and old East Berlin. As John F. Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
Wasserturmplatz (Dicker Hermann)
One instance where I saw both the similarities and differences between Berlin and the US was during our first meal in the city. The dining experience in Berlin is quite different than that in the US. In Berlin, it is normal to eat dinner for 2 hours or more. The waiters never rushed us to leave. Many times we would have to ask for our check, it was rarely brought on its own. It was a much calmer experience and more of an event than another task to be completed. As many of you know, this is quite different from restaurants in the US, where you are pressured, to place your order, eat your food, and to pay your check quickly, then leave immediately.
Through speculation, we came up with a theory for this cultural difference. In Germany, waiters are paid minimum wage and rely less on tips than American waiters. Due to this, it is custom to tip less than one would in the US (around 10% or less) and because waiters are not relying on tips, they have no benefit in turning tables quickly.
One day, while on the S-Bahn (Berlin’s above ground train system), my fellow students and I meet a group of German students around our age. We began talking and ended up hanging out a few times throughout the month. While we were talking one night the topic turned to politics, more specifically American politics. These German students were VERY interested in the upcoming presidential election. At first, it was surprising that they had such a vivid interest in our opinions and what the opinions were actually like in the US. They wanted to know if anyone actually supported Donald Trump, who they said says “all of these crazy things”. We sadly had to confirm that for some reason people do support him. Reflecting on our conversations, it makes sense that they were interested and slightly concerned about the upcoming election. American politics ultimately influences Germany and the rest of the world. Later, we learned that there is a similar movement in Germany right now that is supporting this radical conservative view, it’s called Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The main points of the platform focus on returning the “old gender roles”, stopping the expansion of wind energy, reinstating conscription, and anti-immigration. The AfD also includes a large number of neo-Nazis. Interestingly their platform is strikingly similar to that of Donald Trump. The AfD is currently gaining support throughout Germany, they currently do not have any representation in the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament), but things may change with the upcoming elections. It is scary indeed.
Berlin Wall Memorial
Overall, I think the most influential aspect of my trip to Berlin is simply the exposure to another culture. The main concept of a major in Anthropology is understanding different cultures, my professors try to teach us this in class, but it is sometimes hard to imagine or truly grasp a people’s essence. The best way to understand the way a different people think is to immerse yourself in the culture; to live the way that they do. It hard to pinpoint a precise experience that was transforming when your entire month was a gentle, gradual transformational experience. I admire the resilient and confrontational aspects of Berlin’s culture. It is a city made up of survivors and revolutionaries. I truly believe that this experience has been one of the best decisions I have made in terms of my personal goals to travel, as well as an experience that I can apply to my future education. Since returning from Berlin, I have begun looking into different graduate programs in my field that are in Germany as well as other parts of Europe. One program that I have especially drawn to is at the Max Planck Institute of Human Evolution in Leipzig, Germany, which is not far from Berlin.
Graffiti – “The city has sold out.”
Below I have attached a link to the blog post on Rosa Luxembourg that my group completed while studying abroad.