After several days playing around in Berlin (more about that in a moment), I settled into my student digs last night in preparation for the beginning of my language course today. If I were asked to describe my shared flat, I’d say “modest” and leave it at that. For those of you who know me well, it’s probably somewhere between Batumi and the Co-op. But the bed is decent, and that’s saying a lot.
While the flat comes with furniture and kitchen basics, on the down side there’s no wifi because some former student broke a barrel of German cyber laws by downloading copyrighted materials (and getting the school charged 6,000 Euros in the process) so that amenity went by the wayside. But there are some unexpected compensations. This morning I was awakened at 4:30 am by a cacophony of bird songs in the courtyard behind my flat – warblers, chirpers, doves, crows – all rejoicing in a new day and inviting me to share the beauty with them.
So, up early this am and out the door to face my first day of school. But before anything else, I had to find a cup of coffee. There is a small so-so bakery downstairs with decent brew, so initially caffeinated off I went to the subway to arrive in time for the 9:00 am placement test. No problem there – six stops away. Once on site, it turns out they weren’t ready for me/us, so I started by cooling my heels in the “library” appreciating the excellent free wifi and catching up with news and notes, while the pleasant and obviously busy staff scurry around.
I won’t be identifying this school for several reasons, the main one of which is that I plan to be very honest and that isn’t fair to an organization that didn’t sign up for a “secret shopper.” The second reason is that this is the internet, after all, and I want to protect the privacy and security of my colleagues here. So we’ll just call it My Language School (MLS).
The placement test has come and gone (can you spell “KEIN DEUTSCH”?) and I’ll be getting my results later this afternoon. Following that little exercise, the director himself, a lovely man, gave us a nearly two-hour orientation on everything from German dos and don’ts to all the get-togethers they have planned for us to get to know each other and to speak German. English is probably the lingua franca for most of us, so it will be a bit of a challenge to stay in character, as it were. The newbie bunch of us featured eleven students in a range of ages from countries including Italy, the Philippines, Great Britain, Singapore, Switzerland, Poland, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and the US. I may have forgotten one or two, but you get the idea. One of the placement questions featured a sentence that read something like “There are over 500,000 foreigners living in Berlin, hailing from 186 countries.” That’s pretty damn international.
So we’re officially finished for the day although there’s a welcome party a little later this evening (if I can stay up past 8:00 pm). I’m going to head out to find an Internet USB stick, so wish me luck. But before I go, here are a few pictures from my first few days here. First, a lovely shot of the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) at dusk:
One of my goals for this trip, though, is to move away from the beauties of Berlin and to spend a little more time digging deeper and trying to understand the not-so-photogenic parts of the city. Berlin is, believe it or not, quite poor and very gritty, with an arty edge that makes one think everyone here went away to university and never left. Aside from the tourist spots, fancy hotels, and shopping streets, a very different urban environment quickly reveals itself, often consisting of large construction sites or whole sections of neighborhoods covered with street art. Amazingly, this spirit was beautifully captured over 100 years ago, even before the horrors of the 20th century had begun to reveal themselves: “Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein” (“Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.” (Karl Scheffler, author of Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal))
In that spirit of being and becoming, here’s a great piece of urban art featuring Anne Frank, currently gracing the Haus Schwarzenberg done by an artist who goes by the name Jimmy C:
So in addition to book larnin’, this month I’m going to make an effort to spread my wings, as it were, and look beneath and museums and cafes. Part of this is because Berlin appears to be “Ground Zero” in Europe for the process of Islamic integration and refugee asylum, so I’m eager to learn how that’s going and what that looks like moving forward. If the old world is going to survive in any sustainable and civic-minded way, its cities are going to have to start looking a lot more like this one. You won’t be surprised to hear I already have some thoughts on this, but they will have to wait for another time.
More to come.