It took some time but then one day I finally received my first challenge:
stay for one hour in the Berlin railway line which circles the whole city and get off only after you have passed all 27 stations*.
Since it takes me more than 40 minutes every day to go to Bard College Berlin with public transport, I thought that 60 minutes in the railway wouldn’t be a difficult challenge for me. I like railways as much as I like subways, buses and airplanes. I think it is an extremely fascinating space: it is not something you go to intentionally; you go there to go somewhere else. You might not disappear from this world for a few minutes because you entered the subway, but once in, you are neither where you departed from, nor where you want to be. A lot of people think that this time in-between two places and situations is wasted. They are right to some extent, as you cannot use this time on a tram or in a train to be productive (except if you forgot to do your reading for class and were too lazy to wake up at 6 in the morning to finish it – not that this has ever happened to me, this is just a purely hypothetical thought). I think it is great that we are not forced to do something productive on the train. We can either not use this time at all, or maybe free our minds from stressful thoughts for some minutes. As John Lennon already noticed: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted.” So I was very glad for the challenge and decided to enjoy the “wasted time” in the subway and just observe what will happen to me.
With a delicious brownie from the student cafe and a hot coffee that turned to ice coffee the second I went out in the cold, I get on the bus to Schönhauser Allee, where my journey will begin. I am excited because I do not know what to expect. On my daily route to Pankow I’ve already seen a lot of unbelievable things. One day I chanced upon a homeless man who was playing Vivaldi on a saw in the subway station. Another day I met a guy who told me all about his reincarnation and how he is now going to save the world. But this does not happen very often. Sometimes I spot my professors in the subway, which is very confusing because, with all the wisdom they share in class, I never thought of them as normal human beings who go to work by subway.
There are two different “Ringbahn” lines that circle the city: S41 and S42. They both pass the same stations, but in opposite directions. At Schönhauser Allee I get on the S41, which first goes east. The car is full of people, so there is no way I can sit down. It is around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and probably a lot of passengers are going home or coming back from their lunch break. Two stations after Schönhauser Allee I find a place to sit next to a window. From my seat I can perfectly observe the door. I take off my coat because it is warm. The people that now enter from the modern station of Ostkreuz all wear scarves, woolen hats, winter boots and large winter coats, which they do not take off even though the heating is in full swing. They will only stay in the train for a few stations, however, and won’t do an entire lap. I take off my boots because I want to feel comfortable for the next hour. The woman sitting across from me is shocked and just stares at me. With a smile on my face I take a bite from my brownie and stare back at her. From that moment on she avoids eye contact.
We Germans react very strangely to direct eye contact. One of my American fellow students pointed out to me that Germans feel very uncomfortable when some stranger looks them directly in the eyes. I make a game out of it and smile at everyone when I meet eyes with them. One young man first smiles at me politely, but he feels so uncomfortable after a few seconds that he closes his eyes completely and pretends to be asleep. An old woman stares at me very angrily as if it was a crime to look people in the eyes. Usually there are not many passengers that smile at others in the subway. Everyone is left alone in anonymity.
I start looking out the window. In the east of Berlin there are many GDR buildings now covered with strange drawings and graffiti. I imagine different scenarios as to how these got there. Maybe it was a group of young students who felt wild and free, and came out in the middle of the night to tell the world their message. Sadly, I do not understand what they were trying to say. There are many letters that make no sense to me. Maybe these are desperate love declarations or names of secret underground organizations that seek world domination. I let my imagination run wild. I wish I could talk to the artists (what are they if not artists?) and ask them why they thought these messages were worth sharing.
The city subway passes by various areas full of small gardens, called Schrebergärten in German. In summer it must be similar to being in paradise to sit in these small gardens and escape the big city life, but in winter they are all abandoned; the plants have lost their colors and the swimming pools are full of dirty water waiting for the next swimming season to begin. It is so cold outside, that you can see your breath. Every new person that enters the train has red hands and nose. The door opens and there is a breeze of fresh but cold air, which reminds me of how lucky I am to be able to sit in this warm train. It is not the right time to be outside. At the old Tempelhof airport, which is now open for the public, I see many people resisting the temptation to stay at home in warmth. There are people running, bicycling, inline-skating, walking, and flying kites. The only thing that makes this day different from a summer one is the blanket of gray clouds over the city’s skyline and the many layers of clothes that people wear.
The station Südkreuz is very modern and built with a lot of glass. Is this the first station in the west? I am not able to tell the difference between what used to be East and West Berlin. Suddenly I realize that I am in ‘the West’ but it does not look extremely different to ‘the East’. It is like all the different districts, they all look different from one other, but there is no radical change of architecture or lifestyles. Both East and West are now united in this one beautiful city of Berlin. I see many workers who build new parks, houses, office buildings and subway stations. This is something I observe in both east and west Berlin: the city is never finished, there will always be construction sites or road workers who are part of the town scape. What I realize now is that the city’s identity is made up of multiple identities. There are so many districts that have all different appearances, but combined create this city that cannot really be described. The population fits perfectly with the character of the city: different origins, different ideas, different habits––all living in one city that constantly expands and changes. This is what makes Berlin so beautiful and exciting.
At Innsbrucker Platz there are again a lot of graffiti. There are only a few people left in the S41. I guess most of the people living in the south take the underground train to commute, because it is much faster than to nearly circle the whole city with the Ringbahn. Now the city railway runs parallel to the freeway A100 to Hamburg. On a wall next to the freeway there is a painting of the cathedral in Cologne and a sign that says: Only 565 km left to go! It seems to me as if someone had just drawn this painting knowing that I would sooner or later pass it and get homesick. At Heidelberger Platz the houses are now smaller, it is probably the area in which families mostly live.
Suddenly there is movement in the train. A beautiful blond woman enters, smiles politely and says one sentence that many are afraid to hear: Your tickets, please. I see many worried faces fishing in their pockets for their tickets. The businessman right next to me cannot find his ticket. He goes through the pockets of his black suit, his black winter coat and his black attaché case in which chaos reigns. I feel pity for him because I can read his inner turmoil on his face. I try to make some small talk with the woman so that he has more time to find his ticket. At first the woman looks at me as if I were an alien. I must look like one, since I am traveling on this train with my shoes taken off and I am also having a small picnic. Yet she answers my questions politely while still directly asking for the tickets again. The man next to me tells her that he must have lost his ticket. He has to tell her his name and his address and pay a fee. At Westend he gets off despondently. I wonder why this station is called the end of the West even though it is not. A woman with a neon orange raincoat now sits right next to me. She is too involved with Candy Crush on her mobile phone, so I cannot ask her what she thinks of the station’s name.
At Jungfernheide a lot of people enter the train again. There is no one left from the passengers I started my journey with. Not even the train operator got to complete one circle with me. Suddenly there is a different voice, which warns everyone “to stand back from the platform”. At least the H&M commercial remains the same at every station. Near Beußelstraße I can see the television tower at Alexanderplatz that reminds me that I am still in Berlin and not somewhere else. At Westhafen (harbor of the west) there are so many passengers already crammed in the train that no one can get in anymore. In Wedding there are many yellow, green, blue and red buildings that bring color to the dreary winter day. I put on my shoes again because I am close to Schönhauser Allee where I started. I say goodbye to the people sitting next to me and wish them a nice day. After precisely 1 hour 1 minute and 35 seconds I get off the train again and breathe in the cold air.
*In London for example there is a so-called “Tube Challenge” in which many different people try to visit all stations of the London underground network as fast as possible. There is even a Guinness World Record of this. One man really spent more than 16 hours in the subway. London has around 270 subway stations, Berlin has “only” 137 subway stations. One of my colleagues here at Bard College Berlin, David Kretz, actually attempted to set a record for riding the entire Berlin S-Bahn network in June last year – he and his friends managed to do a full trip in 17 hours and 1 minute. But my fellow students who gave me this challenge were not interested in letting me suffer in the subway for hours, they wanted me to experience Berlin. They suggested the Ringbahn, the railway that goes around the city, because it is a good way to see the whole city and the different districts and people in a short period of time.