The acrid scent of cigarettes deluged our nostrils the second we stepped on Tegel Airport’s turf, the jetway creaking underneath the weight of 20 over-packed and under-rested teens. Looking out into the city, we groaned, calculating just how many clothing casualties the dismal downpour had claimed from each of our suitcases. So far, we felt disillusioned, betrayed by the guides that promised us a sun-drenched stay. And yet, despite the illusion of bleak misery that the weather spread, my 19 new friends and I—recipients of EF Tours’ generous Global Citizen Scholarship—were able to fulfill the purpose of our trip: to immerse ourselves into the unfamiliar and paradoxical environment that is Berlin.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Over the course of a week, we mastered the complex S-bahn and U-bahn systems, dodged guileful gypsies, and examined every inch of every monument, building, and plaza on our itinerary. Despite our breadth in exploring Berlin’s historical past and its architectural prowess, we failed to unearth its most priceless jewel: its diversity. The irony of this situation was not lost on me—to forgo interaction with the city’s marginalized minority groups would undermine our boundary-breaking message—so I decided to do something about it. It wasn’t until our last night, however, that I figured out what that would be.
With empty pockets and heavy hearts, we returned from Hackescher Markt to Ostbahnhof, planning on wasting our last precious hours in the sleek station and stocking up on last-minute epicurean treasures. It was here that my friend and I struck up a conversation with a Turkish ice cream vendor. Despite our language barrier—his poorly-structured English was matched by our primitive German jargon—he empathized with my desire to see the multicultural aspect of Berlin and directed us to Kotbusser Tor, a Berlin U-Bahn station. With our sights set on Kotti, we set off, not knowing what fate lay in store for us.
The first thing we noticed on our way was the stark contrast between adjacent landscapes: the empty streets surrounding our hotel became sidewalks ruled by bikers and groups of teens weighed down by the gel in their hair. We walked alongside graffiti-coated buildings until our noses sensed the change. Gone was the pungent smell of gentrification and lost dreams, replaced by a pulsating air filled with a hope that can only be found in seedy areas like Little Istanbul. For what seemed like a never-ending stretch of land, satellite dishes dotted balconies, döner stalls lined the streets, and dark-haired girls—both with headscarves and without—freely mingled with punks clad in dark clothing.
After savoring the scenery for a little bit, we began to delve deeper. Unlike the Berliners in the plazas, who mistook me for a Turk and consequently ignored my hesitant “Sprechen sie Englisch?” the citizens here were more willing to open up and give us a closer look at their lives. After a few failed attempts, we befriended Nader and Siba, siblings whose roots lay in Beirut but whose lives lay in Berlin.
“Sometimes you don’t know which culture you belong to,” Siba admitted. As they conveyed their identity crises to me, I realized that it was similar to my own situation: one foot stuck in the East, the other stuck in the West, but unable to jump and integrate into one world completely. Despite our different environments, the universality of our issues united us on a deeper level. We were going through a transformative phase. Likewise, Berlin was in a state of metamorphosis, and herein lay its charm: like any person, it was confused. Fragmented. Struggling to be.
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