Begin In Berlin (and End Up Where…?)

There was once a boy in a bubble. He had, for all eighteen years of his life, lived in the same country, resided in the same house, and been surrounded by the same people. His plans for the future quite resembled his past: graduate from an American high school, go to an American college, then get an American job. He was safe to a fault. Then he received an email, an invitation to pop the bubble, to take a risk, that would shape the next year of his life.   

That boy is me.

I had never traveled outside the U.S. before arriving here in Berlin, and I had no plans to do so. I initially expected—as did my parents—that I would spend my first year away from home in Annandale, only a few hours from where I lived in Pennsylvania. When I skimmed the email about the Begin in Berlin program, my heart jumped at the thought of not only studying abroad, but doing so in my first year. It was a risk. I’m still not entirely sure why I leaned uncharacteristically into the unfamiliar; perhaps something deep inside me desired to explore the world beyond the bubble-wrap borders I grew up in.

To say my parents were unenthusiastic about the idea would be an understatement. My father reported sleepless nights and irregular bowel movements (which I had zero desire to hear about) as a result of my decision. My mother, after sitting her down at the kitchen table for a foreboding family meeting, nearly had a panic attack, not ready to see her little boy—her only child—go off into the world.

But that little boy, in his little bubble, was ready to go off into the world. I had grown tired of the sameness and dependence that I’d developed. Just traveling two hours upwards to New York wasn’t enough to assert my individuality and independence, but moving to an entirely different country for a year seemed drastic enough to foster significant maturity and while learning about a new culture. Studying abroad, even doing so on an English-speaking campus, demands more adaptability and perseverance to thrive. To my parents, this meant more risk of physical and mental harm, and greater distance meant greater difficulty reaching me in the event of an emergency.

After printing out articles and information on the benefits of studying abroad, exemplifying conviction and being unwaveringly stubborn, I persuaded my parents to let me take this journey. My mother sat next to me on my flight, landed with me at the Tegel airport, and helped me move into my new home. Following a tearful goodbye, I began in Berlin.

All of it was jarring: the buzzing city, the shared room, the focused academic environment. I had never explored any place where English wasn’t the default language. I had never maneuvered through an intricate public transport system. I had never been part of a community filled with so many people from so many different countries. Despite multiple warnings of inevitable culture shock and the agitation it entails, I wasn’t fully prepared to be struck so many times with feelings of shame, anxiety, and regret during the first few months of my studies. I felt like some ignorant stranger stumbling his way through a campus—a country—where he didn’t belong. Some part of me longed for my cozy, isolated room in the U.S., yet I repeatedly encouraged myself to embrace the newness. I couldn’t give up. I had already come so far.

During the Language and Thinking Program, I made friends. I had never before spoken to someone from Syria, from India, from France, and doing so gave me a glimpse into cultures and perspectives that had once seemed so distant. Once German courses began, I started ordering meals in the language with increasing success (I’d get further and further into conversations without the server switching to English) and reading German children’s books about death and sex (Germany, or at least, Berlin, is a much more sexually liberated culture than the U.S.). [*1] I started to learn out of enthusiasm, not necessity, and discovered intellectual passions that had previously rested latent in my heart. A new academic environment and a new cultural environment demanded that I approach challenges (such as cultural differences, difficult reading assignments, language barriers, etc.) with an open and engaged mind, and having to adapt tested my mental endurance; it seemed more was being asked of me from all directions: more work, more obstacles, more adventure.

I explored Berlin; the city has a pulse. I’ve learned how to ice-skate, staggering along the ice like a newborn deer with complete strangers cheering me on. I’ve observed a diverse and lively (though occasionally rude) population of citizens. Though some of the most precious moments were spent gazing out the window of an S-Bahn, watching the shapes of the city blur, and feeling so small yet a part of something bigger.

Before all of this, my only access to the outside world had been through books and journalism, but now I can say that I’ve taken my first steps into something truly unfamiliar. From now on, when someone says “Germany,” it will conjure intimate images of the streets of Berlin, not just vague mental pictures like those one finds in a vacation brochure. Speaking to people of different backgrounds allowed me to appreciate cultural diversity and hearing what they had to say not only gave me a window into their lives but also prompted me to reflect on my own; I’ve heard a wide range of passionate opinions on global politics formed from experience that not only left me more informed, but with a more balanced perspective on topics such as patriotism, globalization, and opportunity. Some of these people have lived lives so utterly different from mine, beyond what I could fathom, and though I had always known such people existed, now I was talking directly to them. My experiences have made me into a more independent person who can manage funds, time, and stress. Simple things like observing efficient and integrated environmental policies (trash sorting, bottle/can return systems, etc.) invited thought on how (or if) my own country could learn from others.

It would be dishonest of me to say that, at times, I haven’t missed my bubble. My life, especially my youth, has an alluring simplicity to it. The world seemed much smaller and much safer then, but as the semester comes to a close, I can look back with pride. The past months have somehow felt simultaneously quick and drawn-out, and I anticipate the upcoming semesters will pass in a similar manner. Looking forward, it seems the cookie-cutter future I’d arranged for myself has broadened; now, I’ll proceed through the upcoming stages of my life with a deeper understanding of the world. I feel for the first time that I am shaping my own story, a story that begins in Berlin and ends anywhere I’d like it to.

Notes:

[*1] For anyone looking to do the same, I recommend Der Besuch vom kleinen Tod by Kitty Crowther and Und was kommt dann?: Das Kinderbuch vom Tod by Pernilla Stalfelt. Available on Amazon.de!

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