A Winter in Berlin
In the winter of 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Europe with a small group of 20 to 30 peers from my high school. I traveled along Europe’s roads, and Berlin was my first stop. I was 17 and eager to travel to a foreign destination.
In Berlin, I visited my distant self, learning to speak my soul’s own buried language. I learned that through travel I visit an unknown self, while simultaneously seeing the world through a less blurred lens.
Sauntering around the cobble stone streets, I could sense the distance I had traveled. The sky matched the immense gray block-shaped structures I found myself in the midst of. I had parted my school’s travel group hoping to explore in depth the meaning behind the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Berlin’s clouds seemed to be preparing to stream — I clutched on to my coat.
I looked at my phone to check the time; I had 10 more minutes to uncover the meaning behind the gray abyss, and had yet to really understand it. All I knew was that I was in the center of a Holocaust memorial and it pained me that I could not unearth the symbolism behind the ashen chunks. I felt so small amidst the blocks, yet my inability to comprehend their meaning faded away. I leaned against one gray block and felt the concrete’s cold seep into my coat. As I stared at the blocks that bordered my tiny being, I realized it was okay to be surrounded with that which was beyond my grasp. Attempting to understand was worth as much as comprehension. I felt like a child trying to make sense of my surroundings. I did not simply overlook the obscure symbolism that laid behind the memorial, but tried to unearth its meaning. What did the gray blocks signify? Pain? Union? Grief? It was as though the confusion affirmed the world’s massiveness and incomprehensiveness. I immerged myself into the unknown, and did not shield myself from its unfamiliar spirit.
One by one I walked past the blocks. I could see unfamiliar faces climbing atop them, standing, reading, observing. These people seemed to be Berlin natives, or at least lived in the city. Their ability to act nonchalantly as they breathed in the city’s irreplaceable misty air astonished me. I wondered if they knew the meaning behind the artist’s use of blocks, but as I checked my phone for the time, I realized I was five minutes late.
I was back in the herd of familiar faces. Peers, teachers, friends, they all gave me a sense of comfort. However as I walked along side them, I felt as foggy as the air. A part of me wanted to join my friends’ excursions around Berlin, so I did — ignoring my urge to see the city free from my home’s familiarity.
I hopped on Berlin’s metro, awaiting my destination. I scanned the people around me; all wore scarves, fleeces, and shoes equipped for the weather. I stared at them for quite some time; each one stared off into the window, thinking of their own lives, their jobs most likely, and their relationships. Their whole lives were in Berlin; I was merely seeing a glimpse.
I got off the metro and once again Berlin’s cold winter greeted me. But as I walked a few minutes I could see ahead a menagerie of warm colors, the hues of civil dissent. Ahead of me were the remains of the Berlin Wall. It’s paintings and graffiti ran across streets; this historical concrete fence seemed like a mile-long colorful blur.
The words and art on this wall welcomed my observation. The words “freedom,” “Deutschland,” and “love” were interspersed along the immense canvas, entangled with the lively art which consisted of peace signs, presidents, and people.
Although I felt comfort encircled around friends, the memory of home they carried neglected my want to feel free from my past. I wanted to view the city’s art, and roam around it, away from any essence of familiarity. I touched the wall, the wall that had separated families, detached love, and had contributed to the disunion of Germany. And here I was touching it. If I were here decades ago I would have been shot, but instead, my palm caressed the wall freely. I had seen the wall across my high school history classes, I had studied its fall, and the revolution it had seen rise as it fell. However, I opened my eyes to see beyond what any powerpoint or book could teach me. It was surreal to feel its creases; its cracks, which held within them the tears, and hopes of a generation, succumbed to fear.
I broadened my view on the mural in front of me and realized it was of a hand holding up two fingers; the wrist was chained and cell bars trapped the gray hand. The two fingers were clearly representing the universal peace sign. Unlike the blocks, I understood this mural’s direct exhibition of our jailed freedom and tranquility. I stared at it, admiring every stroke of paint. An imprisoned peace, a topic I find to be internally familiar. At first I analyzed the pain the wall once cultivated, the freedom it destroyed. The idea of liberation clouded my mind. Identifying with the imprisoned figure, I felt the force of the bars and the ache of the chains. Standing there, staring at one mural in the middle of countless art, I not only felt the pain of those who stood here awaiting freedom, but I felt my own self wanting to dismiss fear, to feel liberated.
As I stood at the spot where the ache for civil freedom was felt, my own want to escape the bars I had constructed for myself grew. I had to disrupt my mental pathways and unearth a comprehension of my flaws and desires.
As the time neared to meet up with my school’s group, I touched the wall, and took advantage of this moment; I would not see this art again. I walked away and looked back at it once more; I felt something inside me bundle up. I do not know what the feeling was, relief? sanity? insanity? I had fallen in love with it all.
The next day I awoke to an open hotel curtain that displayed an awake Berlin. The metro was visible and I could see it transporting Berliners. The cars passed below me on the concrete floor. For some reason, my window had no protective screen and so I was able to stick my whole head out. I felt the city’s icy breeze — a California girl in a European winter made for a humorous setting. I breathed in the city’s spirited air, and remembered the mural that covered the historic fence. With the wind enveloping me I stretched my arm out and held out the peace sign. As I did this, I felt a love for the city that laid before me. I no longer cared whether someone would look from their car and judge the strange girl proclaiming peace from her window; I did not care whether the frosty air would give me a cold. I stood with my arm out, staring at Berlin’s landscape. I had no coat; the wind’s breath was all I felt, yet I did not try to cover myself. I just wanted to feel the cold, to shiver, to exist in my own body without fear.
It was my last full day in Berlin, and I arrived at Brandenburg Gate. There was a marathon happening and hundreds of Berliners intertwined with eager visitors. The gate stood in front of me like an intimidating warrior. Its ashy complexion and bulky columns erected a complex atmosphere. This gate had stood upright since the 18th century; history flowed through its fervent columns. I aimed my eyes higher and saw the green-colored statues, which seemed small compared to the colossal gate. I began to think about all the people who have stood where I stood. All with multiple ideologies, passions, and goals. From the Nazi soldiers to the 1989 rebels, my feet touched the ground stepped on by the past’s cultivators.
I prepared for the next excursion on my trip, and once again looked out the window. Berlin’s dusky sky unfolded before me, and the jailed freedom of the mural once again remained pertinent in my mind. I had seen the history of another world, and understood the effect of my own.
The memories of my time in Berlin flooded my thoughts. It was my last night in the city; I took pleasure in closing my eyes and reliving the moments I’d spent in Berlin. I had visited the city, but its vast history left much more to see and feel.
The sun was rising. I had seen many sunrises my whole life, but to see one over an unknown city allowed me to emerge myself fully in the moment, to admire it deeply — I have never seen a sunrise impassively again.