To all new students: welcome to Berlin. As you make your way through the city, you will hopefully immerse yourself in the endless exhibitions and concerts, wide-ranging festivals celebrating all things from film to butter, engaging street art, striking museums adorned with (not uncommonly) stolen artefacts, shabby clubs that will reject you thrice in a row, and countless döner places that will have you believing döner is as much a part of the German cuisine as a schnitzel. At this point, it just might be. Many things in Berlin will enchant you, but it is only fair to warn you that there is also an adaptation period (which I have affectionately nicknamed my existence here thus far) that most non-Berliners will have to face.
Coming from Brazil, I don’t think the cultural differences could be any more striking than I have found them to be. After 17 hours of flying, one goes from saying “good morning” to strangers on the street to inadvertently sharing one-second eye contact at the U Bahn – which here could be interpreted as risqué flirting. Why would one look a person in the eyes? We have shoes for that.
Indeed, it is a peculiar day in São Paulo when the handrails of the train are not used for pole dancing by a teenager with a sense of humor or a street artist as a performance prop. I was not naive enough to expect a Carnaval at the U-Bahn, but it did surprise me when I dropped a water bottle on the train by accident and observed that the facial expressions that ensued could contextually fit a funeral. I know you are big on recycling, Germany, but I was going to pick it up.
And surely my professors will not accept this as an excuse for my persistent lateness – and they should not – but our relationship to time is a little more fluid in Brazil. If you invite someone to a party that will start at 20h, it is actively rude to show up then. One just isn’t ready. Show up at any point between 20h30 and 23h30, and we’ll receive you with arms as open as those of ‘Christ the Redeemer’ in Rio.
So, when in the first week I was told not to be late, I interpreted that my presence was required at the scheduled time with a generous range of about 3 to 5 minutes. To my great disillusionment, when I got to the lecture hall for L&T at 9:01am and prematurely congratulated myself for being on time, I witnessed that not only had the class already started, but at least half the students turned to look despisingly at the tardy kid.
I was not in Brazil anymore.
Yes, there are many differences between the tropical, diverse, violent, wonderful mess I am from and this beautiful, orderly, cold, compulsively punctual and nauseatingly white (I do not mean the snow) neighborhood of Pankow. Maybe the cultural contrast isn’t as striking to you as the one I’ve described, but, even so, at least some adaptations must undoubtedly exist for everyone. I hope to make you feel better about yours by describing my disturbing first day in Berlin, the quintessential anecdote about my Brazilianism in Germany:
Once upon a time, when I did not yet conceive of Rewe as an extension of the campus (and in my head pronounced it “ru•we”), I wanted chocolate. This starts nicely enough, like it would take us to a happy ending. But it was my first day, and I hadn’t shared with a single soul an interaction that wasn’t pitifully awkward. On my way there, I met two American students whom I had talked with on Facebook beforehand. As per tradition in my country (a sexist tradition, admittedly), I shook his hand and gave her one kiss on the cheek – a “nice to meet you in person” that, to me, seemed natural enough. Sadly, she appeared horrified by my greeting, spewed out an audible “oh” and stood as frozen as yours truly in the winter of Berlin. We have since become really good friends, and when I mentioned the incident to her a few months later, she didn’t even remember it.
This enlightening experience, followed by an already strange first day, didn’t exactly endear me to human interactions when I eventually arrived at Rewe. Once inside, my nonexistent German made itself apparent by the fact that I had five items in mind and spent upwards of half an hour looking for them all. I transitioned from shelf to shelf with Google Translate in hand – the supermarket seemed like a labyrinth at the time – refusing to speak to a single soul I knew I would inevitably disappoint. Once I had all the ingredients (likely produced in the global south) I was ready to pay for the neocolonialist bread, jam, chips, chocolate, and (alleged) shampoo.
It then seemed providential that this first world country had a thing called a self-checkout station, which I had never seen before. For previously established reasons, I did not want to put to use my pathetic German and still uncomfortable English, so this appeared to be the safer option. Though struggling to understand what everything meant (I did not know Sprache meant language, and could thus be changed into English), it was going alright. Unfortunately, the bread had to be weighed, and as I did not notice this item wasn’t magically registered like the other ones, my no-human-interactions plan went awry when a woman that was working there started screaming at me for (what I can only imagine) thinking I was trying to steal. Granted, she could have just been talking, but any amount of German said fast and loud enough seemed to me like an angry rant. Keep in mind even Portuguese curse words hover around one’s ear like a lullaby.
I don’t remember how the issue resolved itself, but I did end up paying for everything and going back to campus. The night that followed was surprisingly pleasant, with twenty new students who had gone through similar (though probably less humiliating) situations that day gathering around the garden to talk about where they were from, sharing life experiences and oversharing life experiences in an unnecessary game of ‘never have I ever.’ That night solidified that there could be a comforting place in the still wild and unfamiliar city of Berlin, even though adaptations were still ahead. Indeed, I realized a week later, while browsing a previously unexamined aisle at “ru•we”, that the aforementioned shampoo was in fact body lotion. The German word for shampoo is – drumroll – shampoo.
Needless to say, I am not in this semester’s Detective Fiction class, and I’ve been putting Bard’s therapy health insurance to good use.
There is a specific vulnerability inherent to experiencing foreignness in a culture so different from your own, but I’ve found that familiarity is also a fluid thing that builds itself over time. In fact, I am proud to say that since that first week – at least to my (admittedly questionable) knowledge – I have not used body lotion as shampoo.
It’s the little things.