Arrival in Berlin: Ready but not Ready for Freedom

Ella finding her way through BVG
Ella finding her way through BVG

Berlin makes me feel like a small child. Actually, a big child. I look of-age, with my grandpa’s brown leather coat, my light-brown heeled oxfords, my black beanie, black hair, and black eyeliner, but I am completely incapable of being an adult. At least, a European adult.

Being in Berlin has made it clear that it is time for me to grow up. To not get lost, repeatedly; to be comfortable with nudity, to drink responsibly, and most importantly, to manage my money.

The difference between the U.S. and Berlin was apparent immediately. My first night out, I saw partygoers sipping beer on the U-Bahn. People here can even leave restaurants, beer in hand. Most shocking are the kids, who I call kids because I swear they must be preteens, occupying a table beneath the massive disco ball at the overcrowded An einem Sonntag in August bar.

Alcohol isn’t limited to bars, subways, and the streets, though. It can also be found at the neighborhood gym, SPOK. When I walked though the glass doors for the first time, I noticed a long, vertical poster, with glowing, diverse women, wearing workout clothes and swigging smoothies. I thought I was in just the right place, until I looked to my left, at a giant cigarette dispenser filled with Marlboro red, Marlboro “Ohne Zusätze” (without additives), Chesterfields, Lucky Strike etc. Behind the counter, where a fit woman with short black hair instructed us to bring water bottles and place towels between our sweaty bodies and the equipment, were two twisting slushy machines. Just past the counter was a restaurant-bar, checkered tablecloths and everything.

unnamedThis kind of gym, one where customers are tempted to reverse their progress, does not exist in Annandale, in New York City, or in San Francisco, where I am from. Those gyms are stark, filled only with body better-ers. At SPOK, I am challenged to resist a gallon of strawberry ice cream after a heated run on the treadmill.

SPOK has also opened my eyes to nudes. “You’re gonna see a lot of naked people”, explained Andrea, a Begin in Berlin student from Mexico City. “No problem” I said, gripping my towel. Walking through atrium-like room filled with lounging women and men, I thought it was funny that we had to share any space with the opposite sex. The spa itself was no more segregated, though. Naked men and women, mostly middle aged, mostly men, roamed sans towel, sans underwear. It wasn’t until my second visit that this custom directly affected me, though. Sitting in our private minty steam room, my friend Gaby and I took off our towels, only because the fog was thick enough to obscure our bodies from one another. For a few minutes, this felt really nice. My skin was absorbing the water it desperately needed, and, well, I was naked and I felt like I was taking a big step. That was until a (naked) man took a seat next to Gaby. We both scrambled for our towels, and, to prevent us from looking too childish, Gaby told a story we could let our laughter out at. Still, we didn’t last more than two minutes. Afterward, Gaby was daring, and led us into the sauna, where we were told, by a middle aged naked man, that our towels needed to be beneath our feet. So there we sat, towels beneath our butts, towels beneath our feet, towels not on our bodies, in the presence of multiple older men.


As for feeling uncomfortable in an open space, I am perpetually lost. I have come to realize, here, that I have zero sense of direction. Just last weekend, I didn’t question when Google maps sent me to the end of the U9. It wasn’t until my phone told me I had another hour of walking that I understood that I was in the wrong place. And this happens often, just about every time I head off campus alone.

More than anything else, though, my inability to manage my money makes me feel so young. With grocery stores, thrift shops, bars, clubs, and deposits to spend money on, it’s harder to be frugal here than at Annandale. It’s like an everlasting vacation with the budget of a post-graduation Euro-trip.

Though Berlin is an adjustment, it’s a worthwhile one. I’ve made some serious progress in the six weeks that I’ve been here. Though I still have severe difficulty getting places, I’m better at finding my way home. When I took the wrong M1 a few days ago, I realized sooner, and didn’t end up in the middle of nowhere at a bus stop with an old lady who didn’t speak English (I know I’m a prick for expecting her to) and drunk teenagers making out to techno music. As for the nudity, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t ever plan on going to the SPOK Spa alone, but I guess it’s good to learn how to be naked in front of strangers. For the sake of nude beaches. Maybe. Money management… isn’t there an app for that?

5 replies on “ Arrival in Berlin: Ready but not Ready for Freedom ”
  1. I love Ella McLeod’s tales of confronting a different culture. It demonstrates how much anyone can learn from choosing to live in a different place and how much young people learn from these study abroad experiences beyond the classroom curriculum. I think Ella’s gut might be right to leave some of the older nude men alone in their steam. :) Berlin is a fantastic place to grow up a bit more!

  2. Ella, awesome story and information on how an American feels in Berlin. It is interesting in Berlin and Germany in general how alcohol is treated so differently than here in the United States. It seems more free when it comes to the use of alcohol, which is great. The other things you discovered about Berlin though like the nudity or how to get about is also interesting. Berlin sounds like a pretty fun place.

  3. Even going to a difference city/region of the USA is definitely something that can take some getting used to, and that isn’t even close to the culture shock that one can feel as a college student moving to an entirely new continent. Being in the stage where you are responsible for your life and then having that stress compounded with a whole new environment makes for great personal growth i think. I can say for myself that the nudity aspect would have been an adjustment for me too!

  4. I enjoyed reading this article because I can relate a lot to it. Living in different countries and being able to adapt is a part of who I am. I also found interesting how Ella compares and contrast the social cultures between Germans and Americans.
    Great job!

  5. The observations and comparison of Berlin to US cities is very interesting and eye-opening. I knew that Germany was known for their beer consumption, but didn’t know you can consume it freely. Do American franchises, like McDonalds, sell beer at their locations? It’s also interesting to read how Berlin gyms works and what they consider getting healthy. Recently, American have taken an initiative to eat healthy and exercise due to the high obesity rate. You wouldn’t find beer or ice cream being sold at a gym. This blog was very informing for someone who wants to visit Berlin from the US.

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