God hath no fury like the customs line at an American airport.
I’d go so far as to argue that if Pharaoh hadn’t conceded to Moses after the tenth, then the customs line at Newark Liberty International Airport would have been sent down as the eleventh plague of Exodus.
But a queue that takes at least half-an-hour to get through—long enough to notice the cruelty of monolingual signage in an international airport, that just about everyone in your line is speaking English, that somehow other American college students bother to wear masks but can’t even wear them correctly in a pandemic in a crowded airport—is a good as any, open-armed greeting to the United States.
The kurt and friendly minute-long exchange that follows with the customs officer is more encouraging, though. “Welcome back,” he tells me, handing back my passport.
I’ve been back in the States for a little over a week now. A few hours longer, even, if you’re counting the amount of time we spent in turbulence over American airspace. Every morning, instead of the Berlin sunrise forcing its way through the curtains, it’s been the Manhattan dawn crawling through the window frame.
The basic facets of city life have followed me back from Berlin. There’s still a famous, internationally recognizable tower in eyeshot of the apartment. There’s a bus stop almost right in front of the building I live in. The sidewalks are all as gritty and grey and grimy as ever, and one of the city’s most happening neighborhoods (legally) begins right across the street. Hell, there’s even something called “East Berlin” only two blocks away from home. And, as always, tourists and young people (not that they’re mutually exclusive) prowl the streets, day and night.
It’s the small details that change. It isn’t the Fernsehturm weaving through the skyline, it’s the Empire State Building. It’s not the BVG’s 165 and 265, it’s the MTA’s M9 and M14D. The sidewalk is narrower, but a bit more even-leveled. Kreuzberg isn’t what begins below 14th Street, the East Village is. Back in Mitte, I really was in East Berlin—“East Berlin,” here, is just another alternative downtown bar.
Most damningly, here in New York, I’m the frustrated local. But there in Berlin, I was the obnoxious temporary resident, mucking up the neighborhood with a visiting student’s foolhardiness and an unintentional hand in gentrification.
My younger self probably would have joked that the twelfth plague would be New York’s out-of-towner college students, drowning the Pharaoh’s kingdom in discontent just as the waters of the Red Sea swallowed his army.
Out-of-town students block the sidewalk every time they take a selfie with a tourist trap. Out-of-town students inconvenience everyone else every time they botch an attempt at using public transport. Out-of-town students drive up the prices of living in neighborhoods they’re so set on “discovering.” Out-of-town students displace local business by their incessant dependency on Starbucks. Out-of-town students disrupt a good night’s sleep by drunkenly hollering down the block every weekend. Out-of-town students disrespect locals when they force them to speak Standard American English. Out-of-town students call themselves “New Yorkers,” when really they’re just clueless yuppies who’ve been here for a semester or two. Out-of-town students treat the city like their playground, and its street culture like their newest toy.
Those were the bits of vitriol I had accumulated as a Gen Z New York townie. There really was something obnoxious, after all, about every other apartment building being transformed into a new dorm, every other person my age in the neighborhood apparently being undergrads at the same, hulking university, the erasure of community legacy, specificity, and memory.
But vitriol gave way to sympathy a long time ago.
Study Abroad is about exploration—of course you’re gonna want to see all the sights, of course you’re gonna have trouble navigating a new place, of course you’re gonna find out what you like in the neighborhood, of course you’re gonna depend on what’s familiar, of course you’re gonna want to have fun, of course you’re gonna have trouble with the local lingo, of course you’re gonna try and act like you’re from here, of course you’re gonna want this to be your city too.
Sympathy, however, isn’t passive acceptance. At least not in my book.
When I went abroad, I committed to exploring: but I made sure not to be a hypocrite. I mastered the Berlin S-Bahn map, respected the nighttime quiet of the street, and engaged with mom-and-pop shops as much as I could. I didn’t just speak the local language—I began to speak in the local dialect. I celebrated Berlin’s nightlife, often, enthusiastically, and socially; but I always recognized it as something that wasn’t singularly mine to own. I didn’t call myself a Berliner, but I sure as hell understood Berlin.
It wasn’t a perfect effort, but it was my best. Exploration didn't have to mean desecration. I stepped out of my comfort zone, but that didn't mean everything outside of it had to be deemed uncomfortable.
In retrospect, the bizarrely frequent question of “Kommst du aus Berlin?” makes a lot more sense. I walked the walk, and I talked the talk, and I wore a lot of black. Berlin, after all, is the New York City of Europe. You from Berlin?
Sure, there’s been a few things to adjust back to in the States. The nutrition labels on things in the pantry stand in pure English, as opposed to a column of French-Italian-German-Danish and so-forth. Bouncing back-and-forth between Tagalog and English in conversation with my parents, I’ve had to stop myself from blurting out a German “genau” more than once. Spanish isn’t spoken around here in the Castilian dialect, but rather, in the Puerto Rican one. Having to whip out a Metro Card in order to enter the subway— instead of just waltzing onto the U-Bahn— has me a little bothered by the inefficiency of it all. When I found myself ordering at the Kosher diner in my natural bred-born-and-raised New York accent, I couldn’t even help but be a little surprised.
But this shift in positionality—not-from-here regressing back to an easier from-here—has probably been the most consequential change. The truth is, there’s power in being local just as there’s power in not being a local. And the question of the century is, of course, how to use that power.
The other day, at a holiday market modeled off the ones populating every corner of the German capital, I order apple cider at an ostensibly German stand. Its menu, amusingly, features $9 Currywurst, the longtime starlet of the Berlin street food scene. As my drink gets poured, I thank them with a short, “Danke sehr. Schoen Abend.” Thanks a ton, you have a good night. They chime back with a sincere, “Gerne, auf Wiedersehen!” pleasantly surprised by hearing something so familiar to them. You're welcome, 'til next time.
Cities aren’t there for discovery, nor for consumption. Local communities, inevitably, will always have been there before you’ve even heard of a city. And treating a city like a finite good, like something you can ever be truly done with, is, for lack of a better word, cannibalistic.
I’m not saying that Study Abroad is actually, always, inevitably, simply an evil against the places it takes you to. I’m saying it’s just the opposite.
Study Abroad is an invitation to change how you engage with new places. To recognize that intentional exploration, really, should mean self-exploration. To recognize the cultures of others not as static, unchanging things to study under a microscope, but rather vast, living, metaphysical organisms that are performed and reinvented every day.
You don’t discover a city. A city discovers you.
Hi. I’m Avery. I was in Berlin for Fall 2021.
God might not have a fury quite like a customs line, but I think a Study Abroad student counts for something. That student, this past semester, was me. That student, next time, could be you. Go for it.
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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!