I took this photo a few weekends back when I was in Berlin. We were in a park, eating a pizza, watching a group of (extremely) eclectic artists play some off-beat, Berlin-esque, it-will-be-cool-in-two-years kind of music. About 86% of the people in the park were wearing dark jackets and thick, angular glasses. There were 4 separate groups of hackie sack players, several rocking chairs at the bottom of the hill, and these guys doing some intense Qigong warm-ups behind us. This, my friends, is where hipsters comes from (in case your had ever wondered). Being in the heart of this quasi-hipster factory was a little jarring, honestly.
These stretching guys represent transition, which is also a little jarring. The one in the white shirt is Transition, and the one in the blue shirt is me. Transition has begun to not just tug, but PULL (pretty forcefully) on my arms, as if to say “Come on Hannah, this is happening, whether or not you’re ready. Just lean into it.” Transition and I are now inseparable as my semester (and time in Germany) come to a close. I have a couple of weeks left and more studying to do than I’d like to admit in writing, publicly. And while this is a seemingly overwhelming process, transitions are meant to stretch us out, to pull us forward. And so I allow myself to be stretched, in this moment, in this proverbial park, because my buddy Transition isn’t giving me much choice.
I found myself rather conflicted a couple of weeks back when Germany played the U.S. in the World Cup. What started out as a casual daydream during a lecture about who to root for turned into an existential dilemma by the end of the day: The Motherland? Or my Motherland?
I invited friends to come over and watch the game in my basement, where every Germany game is projected onto a large screen. My German friends showed up first and convinced me to wear my ragged, once-white-now-gray German soccer shirt. By the time my Americans showed up, however, I was having second thoughts. They scolded me for being “traitorous”. “No”, I told them. “I’m being diplomatic”. Externally I projected my local support, but every time Tim Howard made a save I found myself beaming. I’ve spent much of my life feeling ashamed of how my country is viewed by most of the world. And while this embarrassment still washes over me every time someone in a bar asks me why our foreign policy is the way that it is, or bluntly lets me know how they feel about the Red, White, and the Blue and its extensive list of grievances, I have discovered that I have the power to help shift these projections onto a different sort of screen. And so I tell those people, in their language, that yes, there are many things I would change if I could. But there are many aspects of American culture that make me who I am: a strong work ethic and sense of optimism, a sense of humor, a love of diversity and hospitality.
There is good everywhere, and being able to watch the World Cup in a place with people from all over the world has been a truly unique experience– every evening people from every country imaginable gather on the lawn outside the mensa. To me, the World Cup is a communal celebration of the very basic human fact that everyone comes from somewhere. And a country is so much more than its government, its exports, and its stereotypes. I’ve met people from all over the planet and when I think about their home countries, I think about them. I hope others will do the same for me, long after I’ve left this global cafe.
Something has been really bothering me for quite some time. And I’m not usually one to complain, but this has gone on long enough. I have fully adjusted to German culture…on a human level. But German bird culture is really something I am still coping with. The culture shock has simply never gone away; on the contrary, the tension and pressure mounting. The birds here are sassy, rude, and –dare I say–entitled. They repeatedly challenge me by standing in the road and refusing to move as I ride my bike in their direction, creating a game of chicken which always ends in me swerving at the last second. They fly at my head on the daily. They walk all over my stuff and get uncomfortably close to my food when eating at picnic tables. Like UNCOMFORTABLY close. I lost it last week as I was sitting by the Neckar, trying to get some reading done, as the birds pictured above surrounded me in a sort of oval formation. I tried to stay calm, but they continued to draw in closer. They forced me to secede by running away. Now, I’m a pretty easygoing person. But I simply cannot accept the behavior of the bird community anymore. It has gone too far. Apparently the aspect of German (human) culture which involves a great respect for privacy and personal space was simply NOT transferred to these flying creatures. I’m not sure what I ever did to them, but apparently I rubbed them the wrong way. I think I even heard one laughing at me today as it tried to trip me outside my house. Don’t be fooled by their innocent, feathery exteriors: the birds are boss in this town. And they’re not going anywhere.
I have been fortunate enough to have visited Berlin four times now, thanks to my friend Esther. Not only have I seen a fair amount of the city, I’ve also gotten to experience the city from a Native’s vantage point. It has been a real privilege for me to get to experience the tourism and everyday aspects of Berlin. Esther is now working and has a flat which she shares with two friends. She agreed to let me photograph her as she went through her ordinary routine and as we went through the day together. I call this series “Esther im Alltag”: “Esther in the everyday”. This tiny project (of which these photos are only a sampling) is a celebration of the tiny details of our lives, inspired by a French photographer friend I met in Heidelberg this year who specializes in this type of photography. I think people often assume that only “vacation” moments are worth noticing and appreciating, but I beg to differ. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time in Heidelberg, it’s that everyday, no matter how empty or full or mundane or unique, is full of opportunities which deserve to be fully seen, even if only for a second. And you don’t have to have a camera to appreciate them.
Last weekend I did a “Berlin von Unten” tour. Berlin Unterwelten is a tour company which takes visitors through old bunkers, forts, tunnels and air raid shelters from WWII. My particular tour explored one of the last remaining air raid shelters in Berlin.
“Don’t touch the walls, and don’t panic if you see smoke” were the first words our tour guide uttered in the dark opening corridor behind an unsuspecting green door in the subway station.
The good news? I’m not claustrophobic so this turned out to be a fascinating experience. We weren’t allowed to touch the walls because they were painted with a special chemical by the Nazis which made them glow in the dark. Room after room revealed details of the lives of those who had regularly sought protection during bomb raids: bunk beds, an infirmary, old bathrooms, empty rooms. The stale, thick air made the experience extremely authentic. One doesn’t usually think about the everyday life of civilians living the with and in the reality of war. The tour gave me a deeper appreciation for those in the past and present whose lives were and are lined with constant, numbing fear. We weren’t allowed to take photos while underground, but this is a photo near the entrance. Everyday thousands of people descend and ascend, oblivious to the stories behind the green door.
If you’re interested in travelling in Germany and don’t want to dish out the money for a train ticket, I would recommend Meinfernbus. Book early enough and it’ll cost you less than a haircut.
Just be aware that it will take you three times as long to get where you are going, mostly due to the fact that Germans need to stop about every 45 minutes to take a break. And if you’re hypothetically going from, say, Heidelberg to Berlin, this will end up being a 9-hour process.
You’ll meet great people like “Tanya”, the Chinese girl studying the same things as you. And you and Tanya will end up chatting away before Tanya gets a case of the shut-eye and starts to do the asleep-sideways-head-bob, just a fraction of an inch from your shoulder. She’ll want to go the 100% so badly; her subconscious already feels comfortable with you because of your deep conversation about American misogyny and Chinese farming techniques. And while you think Tanya is cool, you just met and if German culture has taught you anything you’ll know it’s a bit early to be lending your shoulder out to sleeping strangers like that. Plus you don’t know if she’s a drooler—not worth the risks involved. You decide to distract yourself with Tina Fey’s audiobook and the large un-sliced carrots you didn’t have time to peel, calling to you from the wet pocket of your backpack. You’ll start to chomp down, ignoring the carrot’s rugged, freshly-pulled-from-the-ground appearance, when you notice greasy-haired Ricardo giving you the stare-down from across the aisle, judging your primal food choices. You eye-scan the rest of the bus—there’s ADHD Susan who can’t stop getting up to ask the driver questions and has been eavesdropping the whole time on your convo with Tanya. You’ll eventually pull into an unusually nice rest stop, complete with organic buffet and gift shop with an absurd amount of books about the Kennedy Family. The bus will start to drive away, leaving ADHD Susan behind. The driver will realize this and stop just barely long enough for Susan to throw herself into the bus as it screeches out of the parking lot. The bus will advertise wifi but it won’t work, so don’t get too excited. There will be a constant stream of people walking to the front of the bus to purchase beer from a cooler disguised as a glove department. You will have a total of five different drivers but they will all look the same and will likely all make the same jokes. Practically a day later you’ll roll into your destination and smile at the money you saved and the characters you encountered, because you just don’t get these kinds of experiences when you take the train.
(Disclaimer: the bus pictured above is not a Meinfernbus, it is simply a bus I saw in Heidelberg last month.)
On Tuesday I headed over to the Heidelberg Theater around 2:00. The AJY Summer program kids had an opera workshop that I was supposed to photograph for AJY marketing purposes. I was running a bit late (as usual) and wasn’t sure where I would find them in the complex building that is the Heidelberg Theater. I approached the front desk and asked the disinterested man where I could find the “Opfer Workshop”. I described the group. His blank look of disinterest quickly turned to obvious confusion. He directed me to a back entrance. I tried again. I told the guy at this desk that I needed to photograph the “Opfer” kids. He, too, was puzzled, but eventually lead me to the right room.
Fast forward to the next morning. I’m sitting in a Tutorial for a “History of Germany Media/Economy” class. The tutor keeps talking about “Opfer” in the Berlin protests of 1968. I am confused. What does the opera have to do with political discord? I pull out my phone (dictionary app) and quickly discover my blatant error.
Opfer means “victims”.
“Oper” means opera.
Little “f”, big difference.
And here I was, telling everyone and their mother at the theater that I needed to photograph “victims” in the “victim workshop”.
Hence the confusion. So that was awkward.