Over the winter holiday, I was so glad to go home and see my family for about a week. We relished in our usual holiday traditions: making sugar cookies, pies, and cakes; trimming the tree; having a Nerf-war promptly after the Christmas Day gift exchange — you know, the normal family things.
After about a week home, I made a pit stop back in Boston before boarding a plane to Germany – a country I’ve traveled through a handful of times, but had never actually visited. Christian met me at the airport, and for about a week he showed me around the place that he calls home.
We spent a couple of days in Berlin, a city so many friends have said is “really cool” and “great” and “alternative” — and I found that they weren’t wrong. Berlin is one of those cities I find incomprehensibly large — one of those cities where you can board a train at one place, get out 30 minutes later, and still be within the city limits. With a population just shy of 3.5 million, it would fall between Chicago and LA in the US (our third and second largest cities by population, respectively). I was particularly struck by the size when I scaled “the Dome,” a church near the Museum Aisle near the city center, and couldn’t make out an “edge” to Berlin — it was city as far as I could see.
The neighborhoods in Berlin had a fairly distinctive vibe to them — sometimes it was a change in the actual architecture of the place, sometimes it was just the types of stores or grocers around. Certainly some places had that “alt-culture” vibe that Berlin is somewhat known for. Just recently it hit the headlines that the Berlin Wall has now been officially “down” longer than it has been “up” — upon actually visiting Berlin proper, there isn’t actually a good way to capture how “the wall” is still there and making an impact, regardless of it’s physical absence. In some areas of the city, relatively fresh architecture and greenways make the path of the wall nearly impossible to visualize, it is so thoroughly erased. In other parts, it is still obvious. But no matter where you are, you are not allowed to forget that it existed — plaques, historical markers and signs, memorials all dot the city and the path of the wall in particular. In this way, the history of the place, and the hope for the future of the place, all mix to create this unique vibrancy — a vibrancy perhaps tinged with…regret? remorse? — that I’ve not experienced in other places so deeply.
On Museum’s Aisle there is a mix of historical, art, and cultural museums (surprising, I’m sure). The one we particularly spent time at is an archaeology museum, the Pergamon museum. Here, a number of original architectural marvels are on display from the regions of the world where some of the most advanced ancient civilizations we know about made their home (the Middle East, Northern Africa make up the majority). While the engineering feat of restoring and stable-y reconstructing these exhibits is not discussed in detail, the actual significance of these works are well established in the free audio tour of the museum. It was an awe-some place to ponder human ingenuity and culture.
We also had the fortune of traveling to another city, Stuttgart, where a friend from my Olin days is now studying for a Master’s degree. We got to enjoy the day with her, scaling the Stuttgart TV tower (allegedly the TV tower that has inspired all TV towers), generally exploring some of the pedestrian malls, and getting some food in. Unlike Berlin which is relatively flat, Stuttgart is built into the hills of southern Germany, making for a particularly interesting aesthetic — the lower city is the most dense, with a highly urban concrete jungle-esque feel, whereas into the hills it almost feels suburban.
While I had traveled just after Christmas Market season, Stuttgart had some holiday cheer left, which was welcome at the end of the day. given how far away my friend had traveled from the US, I was really pleased that I had the opportunity to visit her. I know how moving away from home can be an exciting and rewarding time, but the logistical challenge of seeing friends and family, inaccessibility to some culturally special items (peanut butter among other foods, etc), and sometimes this nebulous feeling of questioning “belonging” in the new place can be tough. Especially around the holiday season which would be a natural time to reflect on these things, I was glad to chat about her experience so far and empathize with some of the challenges.
The majority of the trip however was spent in the more rural countryside in central Germany where Christian and his parents are from, and for the most part I spent time relaxing — a vacation in which I actually got to relax a little! I don’t speak Germany, and barely understand a handful of basic words, so I have to take time to applaud Christian’s excellent translating between me and his family (particularly his parents and older family members). I was so embarrassed not to be able to speak anything to them directly, but as it turns out they felt equally embarrassed in some ways, especially as English seems to be viewed as almost a “necessity” for success in modern life. Despite the inability to speak to one another, we were still able to successfully communicate with gesture and smiles — smile diplomacy is something that, I can attest, goes surprisingly far. I enjoyed the time learning to play new games, getting a sense of the typical lifestyle, and experiencing customs common at holidays.
I am extremely grateful for the ability to travel, and the opportunities that led me to meeting folks who live around the world and are willing to share their lives with me. I was recently asked how I manage to “grow and maintain my network” — and at the time I failed to have a sensible or practical answer. With a little more thought, I think that for me it comes down to genuinely and sincerely caring, as well as being curious. To meet people means to have some shared basis for communicating – maybe you are colleagues at work (as Christian and I once were), or classmates (as my friend in Stuttgart was), or frequent similar clubs or events. And to make that initial connection does take a certain amount of curiosity about who that person is, what they might be able to teach you/what you can learn from them, and what you can share. To maintain that connection is to stay curious, but also to care. I don’t really think about my friends in the sense of my “network,” though of course they logically are nodes in that structure; rather I often think of them less in the collective and more as individuals. And I’ve been lucky to have put aside shyness to meet and care about some pretty amazing ones.