Berlin is foreign. Berlin is new. Berlin speaks to me in voices that I do not yet understand. It is loud, and alienating, and frustratingly unfamiliar. German signs and words are thrown at me left and right, clouding my surroundings and ensuring that I am merely an observer incapable of deciphering the simplest of phrases. I am a stranger in my new home, an unfamiliar presence in a city I do not yet know. Walking underneath the summer sun I can only guess that Eis, which sounds similar enough to ice, is ice cream– or that the delicious smell coming out of the Bäckerei means freshly baked breads.
I have lived abroad before, but never in a place where I could not communicate with its inhabitants, where the language which formed my identity was so different from the rough consonants and grumbling syllables I heard all around. It was shockingly unfamiliar to be a misunderstood stranger in a foreign land. I had taken for granted the simple ability to communicate my most banal thoughts and observations. Or even the ability to read simple signs. Or to understand the nondescript voice of the subway systems telling me to get off at the next stop due to repairs being done further down. I found that I could only navigate the city based on the actions of the people who did understand, those who felt at home. I became an observer of their motions and their walks, attempting to imitate their confident strides through known streets and familiar parks. I wondered if they noticed just how out of place I felt.
I keep walking, turning corners and confidently pretending I’ve lived here forever, that I know the journey to my destination like the back of my hand. The jumble of noises blurs together and sounds like static around my ears. However, it’s this very cloud of unfamiliarity that makes me hypersensitive to any small detail I know well. Sharply cutting through the cloud of sounds are the distant but familiar sounds of the rolling Rs and the hard Ts so essential in my mother tongue. Someone is speaking Spanish! The voices echo around me, and draw me in. The young Argentinians just ahead of me having a spirited conversation in the comfort of friends feels so natural, that for a second the elusive world of Berlin that had been filtered away through language is almost close enough to touch.
I let myself rejoice in the comfort of simply listening in on their conversation, and I continue walking now less intimidated than before. That young group of friends made me feel immediately empowered by showing me that I wasn’t alone. Maybe home wasn’t as far away as I thought it was, maybe the distant world across the Atlantic was here in Berlin as well, present in me and in them and in so many others I have yet to meet.
Foreign worlds are daunting when you choose to focus on the parts that make you feel excluded, the parts that are loud and uninviting in a foreign language that appears to mock you in your lack of fluency. But it doesn’t take much effort to look beyond– to let yourself be welcomed by the small specks of familiar symbols, sounds, and objects that form part of the landscape that only before seemed strange and from a different world. My way to bridge the gap between the home I know and the home I feel so far away from is by finding small pieces that belong to both. All around the intricately woven fabric of Berlin were small threads of home: a Mexican flag hanging from a balcony, a taco truck with a loud cook having spirited conversations with customers, a Mexican store just a short ride away on the M1 that sells the candy and chips that I was so fond of when I was growing up.
Being new to such a small college frightened me, as I was unsure about how many Spanish-speaking peers I would find. I desperately scanned the class list over and over again, looking for names that sounded recognizable. A wave of relief immediately washed over me the fourth time I read through it and found a name I recognized. Without knowing who it even belonged to, I already felt like I had made a new friend. The nerves that overtook me just that morning seemed to fade away, I was reassured that I wasn’t heading into completely unknown territory after all. There was a piece of home in my future home, and with the newly-found confidence that this promise granted me, I found myself emboldened to go ahead with this new experience.
The intimacy of a native tongue is something difficult for me to express, and I continue to experience the full extent of its power every day and with every new person I meet. There is a part of myself that is truly only accessible by others who share the effortless ability to understand my words. At BCB, language made me feel immediately connected to a family whose origins spanned the diameter of the globe. Students from around the world came together, and made me realize that I was not, or would ever be alone.
We band together and form a group of common belonging. We listen to Spanish music and make tortillas or chilaquiles late on a Thursday night. We watch movies and shows, and above all, we are able to share the wonderful complexities of our common culture with everyone else around us who is willing to listen to our stories but perhaps doesn’t share the same language. Always finding, much to everyone’s surprise, that this community cannot be limited to one single language or geographical place. Although an important aspect that helped a small number of us find each other initially, any connection that we have with all of the other friends that we met along the way goes well beyond mere words. We all bring a unique component to our diverse gatherings, which now have expanded and cannot be limited to one language alone.
Speaking Spanish made me feel at home in a place that was far away, which was necessary for me before I recognized that the community I was about to be a part of was so much bigger than that. It is important to find groups of common belonging, but the most important thing is to recognize that you will have things in common with people regardless of the tangible and obvious commonalities that might be carried by a name, a nationality, or a language.