Here’s an open secret: back in the summer of 2018, I did an exchange program through my high school that landed me in Berlin, staying in the city for a little under a month. Back then, I was a Schüler, not a Student.
Anyone learning German in high school is taught that important distinction: Student means someone learning at the university level, and is understood to be a role taken on by an (oftentimes young) adult. Schüler, however, is the word for what Americans understand as a high schooler— or, really, anyone younger that you could call a student in English. Not only is there a linguistic divide, but the roles are popularly understood by German speakers as two, very distinct portions of life.
I had the great pleasure of joining a caring and considerate German family who I still maintain a close friendship with, and learned just how much of a forty minute commute from Steglitz to Mitte could involve near-collisions with trees on Tiergarten’s bike paths.
Their middle son, my exchange partner, visited New York the following spring, experiencing everything from Broadway theatre to Nuyorican Spanglish to the paralyzing terror of encountering a rat unhinged enough to hop up onto the subway platform.
Towards the end of my own stay, though, I remember my host mother saying something very specific. Glancing over at the freshest page of their French-German calendar, (something there to heighten her children from bilingualism to trilingualism), she fretted, “Three weeks is absolutely nothing, you know. You still have so much to do.” Having received a portion of her education in England, every word left her mouth with a crisp London accent.
Here’s another open secret: As of September 2021, I’m back. This time, I’m a full-fledged Student.
A lot of other things have changed about me, actually. Last Sunday, my exchange partner, after seeing me for the first time in two years, immediately began rattling off some examples in German.
“'Bist größer geworden. Langer haar!” Ya got bigger, he gestured towards my broadened shoulders. Longer hair, too, noticing the death of my high school undercut.
He spoke rapidly and excitedly, making his way around a table of friends outside the Nollendorfplatz cafe where he had said to meet. Some other Berliners from our high school exchange program sat there, passing on familiar greetings and hugs. The rest of the table, seemingly new additions to the clique, stared at me with a sense of polite confusion.
“Wie geht es dir?” he asked me. How’s it going for you? I muttered an “entschuldigung” under my breath as I sat myself down at the end of the bench, adding, “Es geht.” It’s going.
An exchange partner of one of my high school friends, a girl at the other end of the table threw me a sympathetic glance. “You seem a little overwhelmed,” she told me.
“I am,” I answered, “Just a little bit.”
Seeing people I only ever knew as high schoolers now go about the world as fellow young adults was bound to be jarring, of course. The cities we grew up in weren’t immune to the passage of time either.
New York had infamously borne the brunt of the start of the American pandemic, and Berlin persevered through the ordeal as Germany’s most populous urban region. Biden had entered into office in the intervening years, and Merkel had made her intention to retreat from public office more than clear. (My exchange partner made his support for the Gruen party just as clear.) And, for better or worse, both cities endured a glut of shared scooters being parked on their streets, seemingly manifesting out of thin air.
Even if the physical growth was the thing most immediately apparent, I’d also managed some personal growth since starting college. Awkwardly peeking at the Berliners I wasn’t familiar with, it crossed my mind how much I hadn’t told my exchange partner— the songs I had taught myself to write, the people I’d added to an ever-multiplying list of best friends, the social theories I grappled with in my term papers, the college romances that came and went, the ways I had learned to love myself more. All the little things that add up to someone being a different person than the one they were yesterday.
This was the time to start filling him in again.
As we got up to walk off to a cheap, falafel-filled dinner available not too far away, my exchange partner sauntered over to a guy sitting on my end of the table. They whispered into each other’s ears, mouthing off words of fondness in German, before finally settling on kissing each other’s cheeks goodbye.
This unfamiliar, yet pleasant, figure was someone I could only chalk up to be his boyfriend— =and an equally pleasant sign that my exchange partner had discovered some things about himself, too.
Later, while we drifted between German and English, we eagerly stuffed falafel shawarma into our faces. Recounting a visit from his Austrian friends, (and forgetting the English word for Austria), my exchange student explained his fondness for his hometown and a desire to find a half-decent flat in Schoeneberg.
“They spent eight weeks here, and they hadn’t even seen a third of Berlin,” he said, echoing his mother’s British accent, “There’s just so much of it, and there’s always something going on.”
He was right, of course.
In a city like Berlin, there’s always something new to see.
And as you grow as a person, there’s always new eyes to see it with.
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Hey there! I'm Avery Trinidad, a junior majoring in Sociology and concentrating in Global Studies over at Williams College! I think long walks by the beach are an unironic fun time, have made a hobby of writing songs with ukulele accompaniment, and have an apparent talent for making eggs. I'm a big ol' New York native, with a booming voice and headstrong attitude to boot. Though born and raised in Manhattan, I've had the opportunity to take German as a third language since my freshman year of high school. I'm looking forward to documenting my experiences in Berlin, especially after it emerges from such a tumultuous time in not only its own history, but the world's! Bis bald!