There are many aspects – sense-wise – that have been fairly universal in my European travels over the years. There’s certain smells or sensations that have been imprinted on me that, whenever I smell them elsewhere, immediately take me back or fill me with nostalgia. When I noticed these things in Berlin, I knew I was in Europe again.
This first one will seem very strange, I know, but one of the smells I always notice, overwhelmingly, is that sewage-y type scent. (I once read an article that said something about how “The stench of medieval Europe still echoes today”.) I don’t know if it’s medieval Europe I’m smelling but I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about. The strange part about this is that I have occasionally smelled it (especially after big rain storms) back home and whenever I do, I always feel waves of nostalgia for my time abroad before feeling something closer to repulsion!
Smells are very strong here – cigarette smoke is more prevalant than it’s been in other cities I’ve been to in awhile. Unique to Berlin, though, (particularly Kreuzberg so far) is a pervasive scent of marijuana. (Between the cranes and the marijuana, I might have thought I was still in Seattle…! Haha)
I love the sounds here, the hustle and bustle of the city. I haven’t ventured to many other neighborhoods yet but the soundtrack of an urban space is on constant loop – traffic, people socializing, shouting, laughing… I’ve noticed a distinct lack of horns honking, which surprises me. And, of course, my favorite sound of all – the sound of languages all around me. Mostly German, of course, and English, but I’ve caught Spanish, Many Arabic conversations, Turkish, etc. It’s the collage of languages that make the urban sounds of Europe different from those back home (and this is the thing that I think I love most.)
And, sometimes at night, in the hostel, we get to hear people who are completely unaware that there are people trying to sleep around them…! (Though we’ve heard some interesting conversations!)
Tastes are wonderful. The food is not so different here and yet it is. We had Lebanese food the other night and I was woefully reminded of how watered down food often seems to be in the United States, when it comes to cuisines from other countries. You couldn’t pay me to eat a plate full of parsley at home, but I had the brightest, most delicious, proper tabbouleh here. I’m writing this in a “health food” cafe (after so much bread and cheese, I needed something green) and even the green smoothies which have the same ingredients as what I make back home taste slightly different. (Not worse, just different). Though I love the bread and cheese and I have a huge appreciation for a culture that so values it’s bread (such a nice reprieve from the gluten free culture back home), sometimes I need a day without the bread and cheese…! 😉
One particular taste that I’ve been seeking as “familiar” is the coffee. I am a diehard “third wave cafe” coffee drinker (think of all the swanky coffee shops in Seattle) and I’ve been seeking out a new coffee place each day from a list I’ve been cultivating for a year. The coffee is exactly the same as Seattle (I’m not going to say better because, come on… I live in Seattle!) but this is the one thing I do to give me a sense of routine and remind me of home. 🙂 One interesting note: Third wave cafes are completely globalized, I think it’s safe to say. That is to say they are all exactly the same – the same aesthetic and interiors – no matter what country you go to! (I had hunted one down in Italy, as well and you’d have never known you weren’t in a hipster cafe in Seattle…) Normally this isn’t something I’d like – globalization and homogenization of culture concerns me… but coffee, oh coffee. This is a familiar, routine thing and Berlin puts it’s own spin on it. (Actually, I’ve never seen cafes back home as beautifully designed as Populus here in Berlin. Maison Han is also quite lovely.)
I LOVE the visuals of Berlin. It’s a feast for the eyes here! When I first walked around Kreuzberg, I was amazed at all the graffiti and street art here. It seems like every surface is covered with layers of colors, scribbles, words, images… I don’t have time to read every word and look at every picture on any one street! It’s creative chaos. (Conversely, I’ve been to Dresden a number of times and the thing that always struck me there is how pristine and orderly it was. It surprises me to see how different Berlin is.) The fashion, as well, is wonderful to pay attention to – there’s plenty of “normally” outfitted people but in between there’s some wild outfits, brightly colored hair, risque clothes, chains, piercings, ink, hairstyles that I wish I could get away with and to a greater extent than I’ve seen on my other travels around Europe. It’s just an incredible mishmash of EVERYTHING here in Berlin – the modernity of the new buildings and sculptures, old buildings and cranes creating new, carefully detailed art and chaotic amateurish scribbles… It’s easy to be inspired here and it’s pretty much everything I love about Europe.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that, like Seattle, there is a great disparity between the new construction, the tourism, and all the “privileged” things about being in the city versus the street populations (homeless, squatters, etc). We passed a squatter community the other day that I’m interested to learn more about – Kopi (I’ll need to double check the spelling.) I am constantly comparing and contrasting – mostly contrasting – with Seattle, though. From my perspective (which may also still be a bit starry-eyed), there’s a greater freedom of movement and use in the space here (greatly helped by the incredible transit system… Oh, Seattle. Why can’t we have this?) The human element feels strong, unlike Seattle which often feels very sterile with all the new buildings that are mean to look impressive. Though certainly, Berlin and Seattle may have more in common eventually – the signs of gentrification are everywhere. A friend who lives in Neukölln said her neighborhood has changed drastically in the 3 years that she’s been there.
Regarding our “scavenged item” yesterday – mine wasn’t really “found” as I knew I wanted to see the Book Burning memorial as soon as it was mentioned. It was one of the more interesting memorials I’ve seen because it was styled differently than most. I had to look closely to realize it was an actual space underground that held several empty bookshelves (I’m told it was enough space to hold all the books that had been burned.) These things are all particularly interesting to see now because of the political situation in the United States. I see memorials like this and the possibility of being told we should burn books or censor society in some similar way doesn’t seem like a completely far-fetched idea. (And this frightens me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s paranoid to walk through all of the history here in Berlin and think, “This history of fascism and censorship could be our future.”)
I am also constantly reminded of my privilege here (which I’m glad for) in the simple fact of my mobility. With all that’s going on in the world today – particularly the US – I was hyper aware of how easy it was for me to just leave the US to come to Berlin for a month. All I needed to do was decide to go and then buy a ticket, essentially. (I need a passport, too, of course, but I’ve had mine for 20 years and it was very easy to acquire. Filling up my first one well before it expired and having new pages added was a point of pride for me.) Even in terms of the public transit, I can easily afford to get around this way. When the program in Berlin is over, it’s nothing for my husband & I to casually mention countries we may go to afterward. I’m reminded of something I read in a previous class on immigration, that “having a passport from a Western Country such as the United States or England is like being royalty.” The Palace of Tears was another thing that reminded me of this idea of mobility and how much power there is in controlling how people move. I’ve often taken for granted my ability to just go wherever – to other countries, other cities, other states. This ability is one of the things that I consider most important to me and I tried to imagine being told I can’t leave Seattle or can’t enter Pennsylvania to see my family. This idea of “mobility” and borders and movement has been on my mind for awhile – it really is an incredible freedom that should be a right for all, not a privilege.