Europe | Germany | Berlin – Language barriers and walls
I arrived in Berlin last night after a six hour train ride from Amsterdam. There are two things to be said about riding the rails in the off season: first, you do not need to worry about reservations nor that you won´t get a window seat because the train is practically yours alone, and two, the train is practically yours alone. Which means it´s a bit lonely.
It is now about 19:20 in the evening and I don´t believe I´ve had a single conversation with anyone. I have had communication, sure, but not conversation. Between the cashier at the Pergammon Museum, the owner of this Internet shop, the Turkish waitress at the Kabob restuarant, and the police, I have only had utterances, and they are in no language in particular. In fact, I seem to adopt this really strange way of talking when I´m overseas. I not only do not speak the native language, but also I seem to forget my own too. For example, when I bump into someone or feel I need to excuse myself, instead of figuring out what the German expression would be, or using the English I know, I go to French and say Pardon or sometimes the Spanish version Perdoname. It is no wonder that no one seems to know where I come from. When the German doesn´t work with me, they try Dutch, then French, until at long last, I admit English. After I said, ‘English bitte,’ the man at the museum said, ‘Do you speak it?’ I was asking for an English brochure. I smiled, and halfway laughed and then said, ‘Yes. I do.’ He replied, ‘Do you speak it well?’ Instead of saying, ‘I´m a native speaker!’ I said, ‘I´m from California,’ as if the best English-speakers are, of course, from California!! His response was, ‘Bill Clinton. Good guy.’ What kind of communication is this? English is supposedly a world language and yet it is me who is afraid to use it. Only once all day has anyone replied when I´ve asked that they do not, in fact, speak it. So why am I so hesitant?
I like to blend in, I guess. But it´s more than that. I think the cummulation of my travel experience has really warped my language abilities. I´ve been wanting to speak French all day long, if only because I know how to ask ‘Where is…’ but not in German. But why shouldn´t I default to the second language I know best — Spanish? I think my mind says to me, ‘Okay, you need to speak a broken language right now because you aren´t from here, but you dont´t even know enough broken German to do that, so go to French.’ I´ve even had an Irish expression, which means ´wonderful´pop into my head today as a swear word. What?! I am thoroughly confusing myself and probably all those around me.
I did have one conversation, though short, this afternoon as I attempted to take my own walking tour with the help of an outdated walking guide I spent too much money on… At the statues of Marx and Engel, a man came up and asked me in German who the men might be. I asked him if he spoke English and he switched immediately and with ease. He was Dutch, after all. Amazingly, there is no indication on the statues at all as to whom they are…
The rest of my walking tour didn´t go as I´d hoped. It was terribly cold and I´m finding that stopping to put your nose in a book makes the temperature drop even further. Nevertheless, I did go to the Neu Synagogue in East Berlin, which is where I had to converse with the police and be searched, like all visitors do. Most of the synagogue was bombed during WWII, but it has now been partially reconstructed and is used as an educational museum about the lives of Jews in Berlin. It was fascinating though somber. One of the sites I most wanted to see was the Babelplatz, or the memorial to the burning of the books in 1933 (I think). The memorial was supposed to be directly across the street from Humboldt University where there´s a statue of Heinrich Heinz, an author who wrote, ‘Where books are burned, people will be burned.’ But what used to be a nine-foot deep grave to symbolize the burning of 20,000 books, is now an even deeper grave soon to be built into a parking garage, or so the Frenchmen told me in French. Did I understand him correctly? He thinks they will rebuild the memorial elsewhere, eventually, but I don´t like the omen. Where people build parking garages, they will be run over by cars. Or something like that…
As diaries go, this one is scattered at best. Last night when I arrived at the train station, a swirl of Almuth (my hostess) arrived on her bike. She´s recently been elected the Green Party Chairperson here in Berlin and is thus busy busy busy. We threw my backpack on the back of her bike and walked swiftly to her flat in Prenzlauer Allee, once a working class neighborhood of East Berlin, now a more or less gentrified burrough. We quickly deposited my stuff and then walked a few blocks down the street to a Mexican pub. A Mexican pub where all the male wait staff were Turkish and all the female wait staff were Ukrainian. We had the fanciest quesadillas I´ve ever seen and a half liter each of beer.
Over dinner, I got to ask the burning questions about life in East Berlin before 1989. Almuth, being in her early forties, was just my age when the wall came down for the first time in her life. She said she´d heard some talk of liberation earlier in the week, but didn´t expect it, in fact, went to bed without knowing it had happened that November 9th. The next day, when she went to work and no one was there, she found out that the wall had crumbled. East Berlin was nearly empty as all easterners fled to the western side simply because they could after so many years…
Back at the flat, Almuth unrolled her spare bed, on the floor, just like hers is, and just a few meters away. Then she introduced me to her other guest, a friend from Armenia who´s just begun studying diplomacy at the university here, and to the cat Brommel who looks much more like a bobcat than a house cat, so tall and agile. I now have my own key to the flat and adjacent garden, complete with a San Francisco key chain a former guest brought her as a gift. I have access to the tiny kitchen, where a bowl of bread, butter, jams, and cheeses are left out for breakfast. And access to the bathroom as well, which like most modest European flats is small and multi-purpose. The bathroom holds not only a tiny triangular shower in the corner, but toilet, and washing machine. The flat is right on the tram line and not far at all from a remaining part of the wall.
I must go now. I need to return ‘home’ to warm up my toes and drink some hot tea before going off to find the pub where Almuth and the Green´s will be having their ‘after meeting.’ As she´s so busy and I´m a Greenie (though not officially), this is how I will spend some time with her, and take in another bit of German culture I´m not likely to find in guidebooks. Oh and I must mention because I´m stunned on the language bit (and need to tie all of this together somehow), Almuth speaks (are you ready for this?): German, Russian, English, Swedish, Hindi, and some French. If I´m confused with just 1.5 languages to call my own, she must be lost!