At first impression Berlin strikes me as a lively but sad city. The eastern part is grey, full of tall concrete buildings, with cheap stores and graffiti on the walls. It resembles a lot of Eastern European cities that still bear the signs of communism, reflected especially in their architecture. Knowing the history, especially of East Berlin, it is of no surprise that the city reminds me of my hometown, Rzeszow, in the southeastern part of Poland.
Exploring a little more, and visiting the western part of the city, Berlin presents its more lively parts. The difference can be seen in architecture, the stores and public places that we pass by and the people who live there. It seems to be more cultured and richer part that did not go through the same experiences as the East.
What connects those two, at my first impression, is the multiculturalism and diversity in the local businesses and inhabitants. The immigrant population is visible and noticeable everywhere in Berlin, even if it can be argued that in some places more than in the others.
Overall, Berlin strikes me as a calm, friendly city that has a lot to offer tourists and Berliners themselves. The greenness and richness of its culture and history is very welcoming. Unlike in other big cities of Europe and the world, people do not seem to hurry anywhere and they are open and friendly and always ready to help. Even during rush hours in public transportation and on the streets, the people seem to be relaxed and the speed with which the city lives is not felt. The public transport is easy to access and use, and since most of it happens underground the masses that use it are not visible at first sight. That removes the overwhelming feeling of a crowd. These encourage the exploration of the city even more and make the Berlin experience even more exciting.
I have had mostly good first impressions of Berlin. It seems to be a very functional and organized modern society within a much older infrastructure. The first thing that I noticed when I got out of the airport was how organized the taxis were. They were all of the same company, and they had one place where they all left from in an orderly fashion. The taxi driver knew the city very well, but he still used a GPS navigator to tell him the fastest route to the destination.
I proceeded to make the same mistake twice in finding addresses. Both of the addresses that I had to find (Max’s and my host’s) were a number followed by an “A”. I had assumed that the “A” signified an apartment number and therefore did not write it down where I wrote down the addresses I needed to find. I spent several minutes looking for the first apartment, and I almost hailed another taxi because I thought I had been taken to the wrong place. Even though I eventually found the first address, I still had trouble finding the second address, because once again, I did not have the “A” written down. I eventually found that building, which was not even on the street where its address was, by recalling what I had thought was a strange glitch in Google Maps when I had copied the address into it. I realized then that there are many differences that arise from a modern society being built in a city with a history such as Berlin’s, as shown by the fact that new buildings often must take an “A” address as there is no room in the numbering system for a new building in between two others.
I have been very fascinated with the artifacts from various periods in the city’s history that are embedded in it today. Most of what is in the city now was obviously built within the last 70 years, as the war destroyed almost all of what was in the city then. However, the very basic structure of the city, the map, where things are, what areas are important, is largely the same as it was before the war. The buildings and transportation are what is new. Therefore, the city is full of quite modern buildings and very well organized public transportation, but still retains the maze of streets that was developed over hundreds of years. This makes it a somewhat jarring experience, as it looks like, and is, a newly built modern metropolis but is laid out like other European cities with histories that are still apparent in the buildings that comprise them.
Another first impression that I have had of Berlin is that people are much more direct here, and they are proud of it. My host knows of a tradition in parts of the US where a host has to ask three times if a guest wants more food before the guest says yes. He made sure that I would not adhere to this tradition here (luckily I was not raised in this tradition myself, so I did not have trouble adjusting to his way), as he thought it was better to be direct about what one wants. The subway is also a good place to see this. People are not afraid to push past someone to get where they need to go; they will just start walking to get on or off a train and others know to get out of the way. There is very little said in this process, whereas I have been used to people asking to be excused in order to get by a clump of people. Also in this vein, there seems to be much more public display of affection in places such as the U-Bahn, where people do not feel like there is a reason to hide their affection for one another.
My first impressions of Berlin make me very excited to learn more about the city. I hope that my overall impression of the city being a pleasant place remains throughout my time here.
Reflections on Myth and Nationhood
Of the three experiences I've been asked to reflect upon in this journal entry, the exploration of Germany's colonial history made the biggest impression on me. During the walking tour of the "African District," Kwesi Aikins referenced the popular belief among ethnic Germans that colonialism is evidence of a glorious German empire rather than a crime that must be atoned for. As a non-German I can see this perspective to be toxic and misguided, but I can also recognize this pattern of thinking in myself when I encounter the myths that form the backbone of the United States.
In the face of all logic and empathy, human beings have a tendency to blindly accept certain cultural narratives. In the case of America, this means accepting that America is a country founded on the principle of freedom. For example, as early as elementary school American children are taught about the many Europeans settlers who came to America to escape religious persecution. While this is all well and good, it neglects to mention the many indigenous groups and enslaved Africans whose freedoms were infringed by these very same freedom-loving people.
As a Japanese studies major, I have seen the same selective memory displayed by Japanese people in regards to WW2. Despite witness testimony and mountains of evidence to the contrary, many Japanese people minimize the atrocities committed by the military in East Asia, simply because it is not in line with the image of Japan they have in their heads.
As an American I encounter casual nationalism every single day. I could see upwards of a dozen flags a day and think nothing of it. I knew all the words to the "Pledge of Allegiance," "God Bless the USA," and "My Country Tis of Thee" by age eight, and still remember them to this day. I used to think nothing of these things, but as I've grown older I've become more suspicious of even the most seemingly innocuous forms of nationalism. If Germans (who have had fear of nationalism permanently stamped into public consciousness by WW2) can still fall victim to prevailing cultural narratives, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?
Reflections on Katharina and the boat tour
The visit with Katharina [Oguntoye] was very interesting because it gave us the perspective of someone who has lived in that area for a long time, and who has spent her time trying to offer support to a community that is often pushed to the wayside. Joliba seemed to be a home for everyone who visited no matter what they needed. While we were there people would wander in and out getting food, and when two boys showed up who Katharina had obviously never seen before she did not hesitate to find them someone who could help them. However, what I thought was most interesting was the quick walk around the neighborhood, where we were able to see the community that Katharina and Joliba are trying to help. The fact that the park there is now being described to tourists as the place for drugs, and the place where the police frequent was not something I would have thought of as being a problem, and something I would have thought was only in a few tourist books. Yet, when we took our boat tour the guide specifically pointed out that very same park and told us all that that was the best place to get weed, and that the police have a heavy presence there.
Being able to recognize what he was talking about, and knowing the park from a different perspective made it possible to actually recognize the possible harm that his seemingly harmless joke could cause. When an area has a stigma, and that stigma is continuously reiterated and told to new people, then it becomes very difficult to break free of that stigma and to get people to recognize the true nature of the area. That is the problem being faced in Katharina’s neighborhood, and being able to see that neighborhood through her eyes, made it possible to begin to think critically about what else we hear during our time in Berlin.
In my short time living in Berlin, I have heard the word "gentrification" more times than I possibly ever have and ever will in my life. Many of the people who we have talked to have made reference to the increasing number of wealthy residents driving immigrants out of their neighbourhoods. Gökcen Demiragli, who grew up in Berlin during the time of the Wall, told us about how the Wall actually influenced the make-up of Berlin. Back then, living near the Wall was very unattractive, and many wealthier Berliners tried to live as far away from it as they possibly could. This meant that housing was fairly cheap in places like Kreuzberg and Neuköln, where major portions of their borders were determined by the Wall, which is where many Turkish and Greek guest workers and their families settled. Once the Wall came down however, these parts of the city became more attractive as central locations in Berlin and the make-up slowly changed. More effort was being made to update housing and bring in richer clientèle, which brought property taxes up and began forcing the poorer Turkish families to find other places to live. It is hard for me to imagine being forced out of my home because I could no longer pay rent; a home that I have lived in for twenty years and raised my family in.
Gentrification is a very complicated issue. On the one hand, it doesn't make sense for an ever changing and growing city to ignore the needs of its residents, and eventually new or improved housing must be built to accommodate those who want it. But once the city has planned to build new housing, they will want to bring in as much revenue as they can from it, and will make them as appealing as possible. Unfortunately this has a deep impact on the existing communities, depending on where this housing is constructed. If the city doesn't renovate or rebuild houses, it cannot move forward, which weakens its power and presence in the eyes of its residence and its country.
One of the ways that might help slow the process of gentrification in Berlin is to make certain apartments rent controlled, where the government imposes a certain limit on rent prices in a building. This would allow families currently living in these apartments to continue paying their rent and living there without too much of a penalty. Of course, certain economists think rent control is a terrible concept, because it does not solve the supply and demand problem that causes the inflation in prices in the first place. They think it will actually cause a shortage in low-income housing and will deteriorate the living conditions of the existing housing by decreasing the incentive to build and renovate low-income homes.
There are as many opinions on this topic as there are people involved in it, and I am interested to hear more sides of the story as the program goes on.
In our walk through Kreuzberg with Gӧkcen Demragli, she told us about the history of Kreuzeberg and how it has changed in recent years. It was interesting to see the neighborhood through the eyes of someone who had grown up there, and who had watched all of these changes occur. What particularly stuck with me was when Gӧkcen talked about the differences between how she interacts with the city, and how her younger brother interacts with the city. She brought up the fact that she often only hangs out in the western parts of the city, because that is what she is familiar with. However, her brother who is 8 years younger, spends his time in all parts of the city; he does not see Berlin as a divided city in the same way that Gӧkcen does, because he never really experienced life with the wall.
This got me thinking of Berlin today, and the fact that I have been unable to tell any difference between the east side of Berlin and the west side. I do not know exactly where the wall ran, and I never experienced Berlin with the wall. So, for me Berlin is just one cohesive city with no difference between the two halves. In this way I am like Gӧkcen’s brother, because it is impossible for me to really imagine Berlin as a divided city. Those who grew up with and really experienced the wall must have a very different mental map of the city than people who did not live in Berlin through that time period. It would be interesting to see if Gӧkcen’s personal experience is shared by others who grew up with the wall. It would be interesting to see if it holds true for most people who grew up in the west that they spend most of their time in the western part of Berlin even though they are now free to move all around the city. This would possibly be a question to ask of the various people that we meet and talk to on this trip.
Reflections on the tour with Gokcen Demigrali and the Jewish parts of Berlin with Caroline Gammon
The debate of immigration in Germany, and especially of the immigration of the Turkish population, is nowadays a very heated discussion in European politics. However, very often the reasons for this immigration, which can be dated in German history back to the 1800s, are neglected. That is why the discussion and tour with Gokcen Demigrali was another interesting experience.
Gokcen’s story was told from a perspective of a person with immigrant background whose parents came to Germany as so called Guest Workers. The tour through Kreuzberg and her assessment of how that part of the city looked how it looks now, and what the issues for immigrants living there were and still are, were told from a point of view of a person who grew up that neighborhood and went through those experiences herself. For me again it could be contrasted with the visit to Neukolln and the meeting with Commissioner for Integration and Migration. His assessment of the situation and the solutions to some of the issues were told from a perspective of an official. Unfortunately, often times, the valuable and genuine assessment, like Gokcen’s, on how to deal with these issues is overlooked. It also uncovered many other problems that arise from immigration and can continue for generations. The inability to vote, chose your own place of residence as a refugee and most importantly the lack of citizenship for the immigrants an even their children and family’s next generations, are only a few to mention. Through Gokcen’s story we could experience the complexity of immigration issue, which sometimes has to be followed until its deep roots in the very early history. It also made us realize that some solutions proposed and integrated by the authorities may not be as effective as planned, and the consultation with the population it is aimed at and predicting the issues that might arise from implementing such programs, are a crucial factor.
A very different meeting that followed was the tour with Caroline Gammon. Together with her we had the chance to see the Jewish parts of Berlin and hear the story of Jewish experience in Berlin, and Germany as a whole, since the first Jews arrived in the country. Even though, she is not of a Jewish background herself, she is very educated in the topic and passionate about this part of the history, having worked with many Jewish witnesses and survivors of the WWII and Holocaust. Even though this tour differed from the one with Gokcen in regards to the content we focused on, they can be very much compared. Caroline managed to present to us this particular part of German history through the perspective of the Jewish population living in Berlin and made us aware that some of the issues and problems the Jewish population faces today can also dated back in even earlier history of the 1500s and 1600s. Her perspective was also very factual and informative, yet personal through the kind of stories we were told by her. I think that the story of Otto and visit to his museum, as well as the telling of the less-known events from the Jewish history during Second World War and the Holocaust had a powerful effect. Not only they made us realize the scale of this experience but also made us aware of why today’s politics and approach to the Jewish immigration issue, the Holocaust and the post-war and post-Holocaust reaction in Germany are shaped in this particular way. Why the anti-Semitism and Semitism sentiments are a sensitive topic for many Germans and Jews in Germany and why the approach to the Jewish immigration problem is dealt with in a slightly different way than it is happening with other ethnicities.
Countless stone blocks, some only shadows in the sidewalk, others dwarfing the people walking among them, stand in undulating rows. They give the
impression of untouchable silence, defying the city that surrounds it. Some visitors wander among the dark slabs while others skirt the edges, unwilling to enter its heart. Tourists pose for photographs, perched on the edge of a table-height block, smiling and squinting against the sun. Children, and a few teenagers, leap from stele to stele or play tag, running and glimpsing each other behind stone corners.
This is what I saw when I visited the Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe, and remembering the contrasts between the sun and shadows that day brings feelings of somberness and confusion.
For a day and a half before that visit, we spoke with Carolyn and Gökcen about the history of Berlin, of how Gökcen remembers the day the Wall fell, and Carolyn's tour of Jewish East Berlin and the history of Jewish people in the city. We heard about the cycles of return and intolerance, of astonishing bravery and kindness in the face of even more horrendous acts and times. We saw recovery, resistance, commemoration, and pain over hundreds of years, and in the Holocaust.
It was shocking to see people laughing and playing on top of a memorial remembering victims of such a period. I stopped for several minutes and watched the different groups of people, wondering if they thought about it or just wanted another vacation photo, a break from the boredom of a middle school field trip. If they had friends or family who had been victims. Why no one else seemed to notice the painful juxtaposition of emotions, or if they didn't care, or gritted their teeth and ignored them.
Walking through, gently touching the edges of the steles to remind myself that this is reality, while several young boys dart in between. In the back of my mind, I worry about getting run into, and pause at each new corridor. A flash of irritation is accompanied by a dysphoric realization: we are all playing on a memorial. Berlin captures its painful history in the streets, the buildings, the names. War, colonialism, racism and hatred are etched into the city, wedged behind plaques and Stolpersteine. And in the middle of the steles of buildings, the inhabitants and visitors play. We walk over graves, sit in parks that lay where bombed buildings stood, shop in squares that were, many gets ago, sites of executions.
Is it wrong, or disrespectful?
I don't know. I might never know. But I will remember a teenage couple, leaping from stone to stone, every time I think of Berlin. And I will remember the people it symbolizes.
Meeting with Katharina
One of the greatest appeals of this May Term, for me, was the opportunity to study Afro-German populations within Berlin. My interests in this subject, and desire to acquire an understanding about the various elements of its composition were heightened and fulfilled by our meetings with Katharina and Kwesi.
Our meeting with Katharina was delightful and exhilarating for numerous reasons! To begin, the food that Katharina prepared for our group was absolutely outstanding. Certainly, it was nice to have some of my favorite dishes for lunch. Katharina was an excellent resource in building a foundational knowledge regarding Afro-German persons. She introduced us to some of the issues plaguing this group of people -- as well as the complexities -- of this group. It was wonderful to get such great insights into Katharina's work.
Serving as an aid to the various Afro-German communities is a task that Katharina is very obviously passionate about. Her dedication to her efforts and these people is incredibly apparent -- and is a link that we share. I plan, also, to go into a line of work which seeks to improve the lives and conditions of people of African descent. This was not the only link that Katharina and I shared. As another Black, homosexual woman -- Katharina reflects three of the identities I hold most closely -- and with the most pride. She was able to also provide great insights into the realms of feminism in Berlin and lesbianism.
Overall, the feminist movements/efforts experienced with Katharina were memorable and tremendously enjoyable. I look forward to seeing more of her work and hopefully speaking with her again in the future.
Walking with Kwesi
Of each of the tours that we have embarked on throughout this trip, undoubtedly my favorite has been our tour through the Afrikanische Viertel (African Quarter) with Kwesi.
Kwesi is extremely (extremely!) knowledgeable. In the few hours that our group spent with him I heard an incredible amount. The information was pertinent, valuable and shocking. There are so many things that I have to explore now. Kwesi certainly inspired me to dive even further into my African studies -- especially Africa's relations with Germany (or vice versa) while I am here. The entire group was so engaged with Kwesi's tour; even with our diverse range of interests and reasons why we chose this trip. We all found ourselves captivated by Kwesi.
Hearing him speak and having the opportunity to ask him questions and engage him in conversation was certainly a valuable experience. These are honestly the moments that help shape the direction of your life. The information he lent me has definitely inspired me to learn more. I have full faith that these studies will help change the course of my further studies (or at least I hope so).
All in all, our meetings with Katharina and Kwesi were great. I hope we will encounter them again during out time in Berlin.
Perspectives on Racism
We have recently been able to talk to Tupoka, a woman who is currently working to help empower black children in Berlin and educate others about white privilege and racism. She gave us a very personal and deeply troubling account of her life growing up in Leipzig as one of the only black children around. Some of her memories are of children pouring sand on her head and adults calling her the N-word while she stood right next to them. Her youth was very rough, but now she is trying to enlighten the masses--firemen, policemen, teachers--and work on their racist issues. She said that she often gets defensive responses about prejudices and privilege, which Andres Nader, another activist against racism, has seen as well.
Tupoka mentioned that Germany does not see itself as racist, but put it in the context of comparison to the United States. In her opinion, Germans tend to deny their racism because they never did anything nearly as bad as enslaving Africans to work on plantations like we [in the U.S.] did. They did however have an African trading system and made people their 'property', who they could buy, sell, or give as gifts. It is interesting that there is such a disconnect in the brains of some of the people in Berlin between how Germany treated Blacks then and how they treat them now. Regardless of how a country treated its citizens in the past, it is how they treat them in the present that really counts.
Hearing her talk about her childhood was hard, because I could never imagine such blatant disregard for another human's feelings. I have no personal experience growing up as a minority, so I cannot compare her stories to mine, but as a child, I remember trying to reach out to some of my peers who felt left out from the pack. I was taught to respect everyone I met, regardless of race, religion, or facial piercings, and to demand respect in return. If the parents in Leipzig were teaching their children that it's okay to discriminate against a fellow human being because she looked different, but still feel that they are not racist, there needs to be a serious discussion.
In general, I have noticed a couple of parallels between our meetings with Tupoka and Andres. Andres also talked about Germany's resistance to facing its racism, but in the context of the Turkish and other immigrants. One of the things he mentioned was that some companies won't hire a person with a Turkish sounding name, even if they are fully qualified. He also talked about the serious problem with racial profiling, especially in Görlitzer Park where there is a vibrant drug scene. Tupoka told us that one of the things she is fighting to prevent is the practice of racial profiling by the police in Berlin. Coming from a fairly left-leaning family and having gone to a liberal college, this seemingly blatant refusal of Germany's citizens to step back and assess where Germany stands is appalling to me, and I commend the people we have met for fighting back and making their voices heard.
Meeting at the Neukölln City Hall
Atop the Neukölln City Hall