There are an aboriginal people in Australia who greet each other by asking what direction they are going. This means that in order to have a conversation one must first state whether they are headed northeast or due west. Unlike those of us who speak English and are only vaguely orientated at any given time, these people have a constant sense of their orientation in the world.
Lera Boroditsky explains this phenomenon in her TedTalk on “How language shapes the way we think.” I watched this just a few days before I took off for Berlin over two weeks ago, and I began thinking about my own sense of direction. In general, at home, I always know which way I am facing, but it is easy to do in the northwest corner of Washington state. West is the water and east is the mountains. I realize that this surety of orientation is part of why the pacific northwest feels like home.
Knowing this, I have made a point to identify which direction I am facing as I try to feel at home in Berlin. The Spree river is south, my bedroom window faces east, and I ride my bike north to get home from school. The museum island is southeast, and the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate is southwest from school. Not only for activities and classes, but also directionally, the IES Abroad Center is the center of my understanding of Berlin geography.
By securing my orientation, I can explore with ease, read a map with familiarity and establish personal landmarks. When traveling, I find that places exist as small, separate entities. For example, I have spent time in Portland, Oregon on several different occasions. When I go to visit my aunt and uncle, I see their neighborhood and favorite grocery stores, but that Portland is completely different than the Portland I explored on a high school band trip. Both are independent of the Portland I visit for lacrosse tournaments. One of my goals during my semester in Berlin is to understand the city as one cohesive city and to know which direction I’m going wherever I am.
On Friday night, I went to bed early, around nine, to prepare myself for a busy Saturday. But around ten o’clock I kept hearing music and noise coming from the street. After a while, I decided to go check it out. I threw on some clothes and followed the sounds to the nearest cross street. Riding down the street was what looked like a parade of bicyclists. People had strapped Bluetooth speakers to their frames or racks or stuffed them in their water bottle holders, grabbed a beer and took to the street.
I looked it up on my phone and found an article on the gratis-in-berlin website that explained that this Critical Mass would ride through the city, and while the main idea was to promote commuting and stand up for bikes rights to the streets, many people just participated to have some fun and to be together. I thought, what am I doing standing here watching? I have a bike!
I ran home grabbed my lights and my bike and caught the group of cyclists a few streets south. It was more bicycles than I have ever seen all in one place, taking up the whole lane and stretching as far as I could see before me. At intersections, cyclists pulled in front of cars to keep the road clear. When someone crashed, everyone behind would stop calmly as people helped the person off the street. The police rode at the front of the crowd and at the end to usher the group in a loop around the city. It struck me that every day these people commute individually, looking out for only themselves, and thinking of their own life, but on that night we became a community, there to help and support each other, if only for that night.
At first, I intended to turn around at some point before it got too late, but it wasn’t long until I was too far away from home, and I figured I might as well stick with it and see where it ended. As we rode, I tried to keep oriented. We were on Florastraße going west, then Wollankstraße going south, then rode past the train station where I had stopped earlier that day to find an ice tray at JK Max. Then we ended up on Bernauerstraße, riding past the wall memorial. But as we got farther and farther away all I could do was read as many street signs as I could see, and assume we were still going southish. We crossed the Spree and soon I was seeing signs for the airports and southern districts.
For three lovely, nighttime hours, I let myself be disoriented and awed by this tremendous, extensive city I get to live in. Around 1 am, we came to a corner and everyone stopped. I watched for a moment, that great mass of bikes collecting around me, then checked my Google map, found myself not far from the IES Abroad Center, my navigational center! I rode home through Alexanderplatz, then on the same route I had taken home that afternoon.
Quite by accident and with a little uncharacteristic spontaneity, I ended up on the coolest bike tour I could have asked for and was given another opportunity to fit a few new pieces into my Berlin puzzle.
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<p>Apart from my first two years at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, I have lived my whole life in Bellingham, Washington, a college town surrounded by green hills and snowy mountains on one side and the Puget Sound on the other. Since I was eleven, I've made a point to ride my unicycle down my town's Memorial Day parade route before it starts, a tradition interrupted briefly in high school when I was in the marching band. My summer job is teaching swim lessons, and I have gotten quite good at talking a scared four-year-olds into jumping off the diving board.</p>