First Person
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First Person

Lost and pfand in Berlin

Berlin is a small city with a big personality. Much like the city, every neighbourhood is an adjective.

It’s tacky to begin an essay with a dictionary definition, but hear me out. Google Translate defines pfand as a “pledge.” Every time you pay for a bottle in Germany, you pay a small deposit that you can claim if you bring the bottle back. So, you’re pledging to return the bottles. This is one of the many things that I have come to learn here in Berlin.

Here’s another: I’m bad with keys — the most annoying gap in my skillset. When you live with a roommate, you don’t have to remember to take your key. When you’re all alone, you live with the constant, irrational anxiety of getting locked out. I realised that I may have a real problem on my hands when I entered my first studio in Berlin. I did the cute, naive thing that we all do when we are handed keys for the first time: I tested them. I got locked out with my keys in hand. The concierge was nice enough to make the climb and help me out. Twice.

The city’s no longer big on walls, you see. All the lines here are blurry. The places will meet you halfway — somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow.

The changing keys, the changing addresses—I’m a bit all over the place. I’m constantly altering what I think of Berlin and “what this all means to me”(which is probably why I write about this so much).

Berlin is a small city with a big personality. Much like the city, every neighbourhood is an adjective. It’s the kind of city that you’ll never fully know, but every time you find a new landmark, you will pledge to come back (for your pfand). The city boasts of the kind of large monuments that you would want to domesticate on your refrigerator. You’re still more likely to end up falling for places with shapes so complex that they simply cannot be sold as fridge magnets or bottle openers.

You never know what’s around the next corner. You could choose to cross the road to the Victory Column, or you could run through the tunnel with the dancing lights to get to the same spot. If you’re looking carefully, you’ll find the little trampoline park not far from the touristy square by the majestic Poseidon fountain. And if you care more about the journey than the destination, you will uncover murals hidden under the wings of unsuspecting suburban train stations. The city’s no longer big on walls, you see. All the lines here are blurry. The places will meet you halfway—somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow.

By the way, Google Maps is rarely reliable. Only yesterday, I found myself standing right in front of my destination, but the street had been sealed off due to construction. This gave me a lot of time to contemplate the city’s bronchi, because the roads weren’t parallel and the detour was cruel.

Wherever I go, I stop to get a glimpse of the TV tower, the tallest structure in Berlin. It’s a solid reference for the centre of the city. My first cab ride from the airport offered no signs of this looming giant, but she revealed herself on my first walk outside. As a pedestrian, you cannot miss this oddly situated disco ball that orients you on the map of this bizarrely alive city. You will always know the answer to this question: Which way to Alexanderplatz? No, I can’t tell you which bus, train, or tram to take, but I can tell you by waving my hand.

Home is the place you affix at the heart of all your excuses when you’re trying to leave. You could have your own closet or you could be living out of a suitcase.

Two weeks ago, I moved to my fifth apartment in Berlin and I was shocked to find that “Berlin” isn’t the adjective that would fit this neighbourhood. It was much quieter, sleepier — perhaps even more peaceful. The most bewildering part was that I couldn’t wave my hand in the direction of Alexanderplatz. I couldn’t spot the TV tower. After glimpsing the antenna from every other neighbourhood, this was quite shocking. I felt lost. I had to start over and look for the right adjectives to describe this new location. And that made me think of my definition of “home” and the ways in which it had evolved. Home is the place you affix at the heart of all your excuses when you’re trying to leave. You could have your own closet or you could be living out of a suitcase. None of these things particularly require you to know, in your heart, how to point towards the centre of the city.

Surely, it would take me a few more days, but I found the closest street from which I could, in fact, see the tower. My melodrama was premature and lasted for a total of four days — baseless like my hatred for these new keys (which took me two days to get right). I’m not sure if these are the last pair of keys that I’ll have to get used to or even if I’ll ever have to move to a place without a view of the TV tower.

What I do know is that my favourite café will still sit by the river and some kid will always get to the last trampoline before me. As much as I’d like to say that I found these places, knowing how alive this city is, I can tell you with certainty that these places found me.

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Stories of language, travel and culture conjugated in the first-person tense. Brought to you by the team at Babbel.

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Shruthi Subramanian

Shruthi Subramanian

I write and eat my feelings. Hi, I’m Shruthi.

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