Looking to the Past in Berlin

Emlyn Van Eps, Class of 2016, experiences Berlin through her J-Term class, Memory and the City.

Of all the months to visit Berlin, January is not a popular one. Temperatures fall well below freezing and the strong wind blows dry, powdery snow off of curbs and into your face. On the first day of my January Term course, Memory and the City: Berlin in 20th-Century History and Literature, the class made its way to the Brandenburg gate for a two-hour tour of the nearby monuments and memorials. We had been told to layer up, and while many of us did, I found myself burying my face in my scarf to keep my nose from going numb. Ignoring the cold, I scribbled down notes as our equally cold tour guide discussed with us the reconstruction of the Reichstag and the buildings around the Brandenburg gate. But once we got to the memorial dedicated to the Roma, or gypsies, killed during the holocaust, I forgot the cold completely.

We were given no description of the memorial, just told to walk through the opening in the frosted glass wall and observe. It's the kind of memorial that makes you fall silent as soon as you see it. The area is a well-kept grassy lawn surrounded by tall trees and flowers, a strange sight in the middle of a city. You almost forget that there are buildings outside. In the center of the sanctuary is a large, black, circular pool filled with completely still water. In the center is a black triangle with a single pink tulip on its side. After a short time of silently looking at the beautifully simple memorial, I noticed the quiet sound of a violin playing long sad notes in the background. The memorial stopped me in my tracks, spellbound me, and hasn't left my mind since.

The subject matter of Memory and the City focused on a dark time in history, stretching from WWI to the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the issues that we dealt with in class was how a country could atone for its past. It is a question none of us could answer. We visited many memorials, monuments, and museums, and through novels we experienced the daily lives of those living during those dark times. This was not a course about changing the world or inventing new things. It made me think about history in a new way and gave me incredible insight into the complicated past of an amazing place.

Most of this insight came from experiencing the city itself. We read three books in the class — Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, Heroes Like Us by Thomas Brussig, and Berlin Blues by Sven Regener — each referrencing street names that were nearby, or that we had visited. Many times in class we all pulled out maps, searching for streets mentioned in the books, only to find that they were just blocks from the classroom. I walked by many of these places, thinking about how different Alexanderplatz or Prinz-Albrecht Strasse (now Neiderkirchnerstrasse) must have looked 50 years ago.

This was not a course about changing the world or inventing new things. It made me think about history in a new way and gave me incredible insight into the complicated past of an amazing place.

Emlyn Van Eps, Class of 2016

Walking down the street in Berlin is completely different from walking down the street in Abu Dhabi. Hot food stands entice passers-by with delicious sausages, bread, hot coffee, and beer. Vietnamese restaurants, bars, and shawarma places stand side by side, interspersed with bookstores and thrift stores. The restaurants and food stands were my favorite part of the city, because having to cook for myself proved a daunting task. At first, ordering lunch at these places was a challenge because of the language barrier, but I became increasingly confident with my few words of German, which all revolved around ordering food.

Life in Abu Dhabi and Berlin could not be more different. While I missed the warmth of Abu Dhabi and the large community of Sama Tower, I enjoyed taking the subway instead of a taxi, walking down the street to shop instead of heading to a mall, and admiring all of the European architecture absent in the UAE.

Even though I was far from the heat and the mosques of the Middle East, I still found myself surrounded by women wearing the hijab. The NYU Berlin dorm is situated in the middle of Keruzberg, known for being bohemian and for its large Turkish population. While I expected Germany to be an international city, I did not expect the large numbers of residents from different countries.

I haven't done much travelling in my lifetime, and Berlin opened my eyes to a whole new part of the world. Now back in Abu Dhabi, my classmates have been asking how my J-Term was. To sum it up, I tell them: "Freezing cold. But now I want to live there."