Berlin: Fragments And Memories

Bin ich ein Berliner?

Berlin street
Drizzly, moody Berlin. Credit: Lyon Nishizawa

1.

Your gesture of welcome is grey clouds and drizzle and bright yellow raincoats. Stepping out of the U-bahn elevator, dragging my suitcase, I’m greeted by your TV Tower, its futuristic UFO ball, its pointy-end protruding like a promising mosquito — the imprint of an old metropolitan dream. The red Ampelmann traffic light glows through the mist, its arms spread out. I wait. The Ampelmann walks, green, I go.

The host of cobbles on the sidewalks is just wonderful. My suitcase drags along in sharp little heaves as my arm violently shakes and its circulation goes haywire. It is only when I reach the front door that I realize I don’t have a SIM card yet — I can’t reach my Airbnb host. I’m not sure which room number to ring; I nestle solemnly at the front door. Soon enough, an old lady comes by, her face stern and wrinkled and a little sad-looking. “Enschuldigung…” Sorry… I’m looking for…? My clumsy German falters. Her smile is sweet and simple. She starts mumbling, keeps shaking her head. I don’t know. I don’t know. She keys open the front door for me anyway. She gestures at the different buttons on the elevator, seven in total. One by one? 

Yes, OK, one by one.  

Berlin Bware Ladenkino Theater
The bar at B-ware! Ladenkino. Credit: Lyon Nishizawa

2.

I find the right door. The woman who opens it is another guest of the Airbnb. “I got evicted from my apartment down the road, a few weeks ago,” she explains to me. “They’re doing a refurbishment. I can’t go back in until next month. I miss my roommates, you know. We’ve kind of needed the refurbishment for a while, but we kept postponing it because we were getting used to living around each other.” She has permed hair, but is distinctly Asian. Quite small, with square glasses. “In the meantime,” she says, “this place is not so bad.”

“Yeah, it looks nice.”

The first things that catch my eye are some half-opened mail on top of the whiskey bottles on display above the kitchen table. As for my room, the first thing I note is the heater. It’s there, I relax. Many hangers to hang my many jackets. More storage than I need, a double bed all to myself, even a little balcony.

The lady turns out to be a forty-year-old software consultant, a local of Berlin since fourteen years ago. Her accent is heavy-American; she says she grew up in Oklahoma under Chinese parents. “I’m American, though,” she clarifies. “I’ve never felt Chinese. I can’t speak the language really well, either.”

I cook a quick pot of instant ramen while she hangs around, fidgeting with a wet cloth “I can speak Japanese and I’ve lived in Japan, but I don’t feel very Japanese, either,” I confess.

Identity isn’t a buffet. I’m assigned one, I remind myself. There’s no picking or choosing.

Berlin Shakespeare and Sons
Getting lost in Shakespeare and Sons, one of the coziest English bookshops in town. PHOTO: Lyon Nishizawa

3.

There’s a bakery right across the street. Open on weekdays only. Always a line stretching from the front door — grandmas and grandpas by morning, mothers and kindergarteners by afternoon. When the wind is blowing just the right way, the smell of wheat and sugar wafts over to my fourth-floor window, never overwhelming. Just enough to tease, to transport me into a muse.

Only a couple of tables fit into the space on the sidewalk. They’re usually occupied by old, retired men who sip their espresso and glean over the newspapers through their age-worn reading glasses. I don’t take the time to find out if it’s always the same men. Now I’m thinking I should have.

My (Chinese-?) American roommate tells me one day that the bakery is in fact very nice. I decide to give it a try. One glance, and I judge the old baker doesn’t speak a lot of English. It’s my chance, I brace myself. Ich hätte gerne… I would like a piece of cheesecake, please.

“Cheesecake?” The baker clarifies in perfect English. Berliners can be so disappointing sometimes.

“Yeah.” I know my smile looks more resigned than grateful.

“Drei Euro Fünfzig.” He says the price tag out loud in German. I don’t know if it’s on purpose. At this point, he knows I’m a foreigner. Is he encouraging me to practice my German?

I pay. Dankeschön, I say. Thank you. That I can say perfectly well. 

4.

After a few days, my Airbnb host comes home from a work trip and I finally meet him. “It’ll be a party tonight,” he says, and holds up a rather heavy-looking paper bag. Glasses clink together inside. He winks at me.

I end up joining a dinner table with this late-thirties man I barely know and two of his male colleagues. As a young woman I am quite frightened. But even after hours, their chitchat never strays far from the ground — college memories, insurance options, the best kinds of alcohol.

I’m not much into alcohol myself, but I take what they offer. They ask me how I like Germany. I talk about the baker who instantly figured out I was a foreigner and spoke to me in English. “Ah, yes,” a Swiss-Mexican man chuckles. “Next time, say, wie bitte?” Pardon? “But say pardon in the most perfect accent. They’ll think you’re fluent in German — you only happened to miss whatever they said at that moment.”

“But even if I ask them to repeat themselves, I still won’t understand,” I point out.

“It doesn’t matter,” the Swiss-Mexican replies simply. “At that point, you will have already convinced them that you are a Berliner. It would be hard to prove them otherwise after that. You are a Berliner!” he laughs.

Berlin Soul Concert Hotel Orania
Soul artist Mike Russell and his “All Star Band” jamming in Hotel Orania PHOTO: Lyon Nishizawa

5.

My best friend calls me up; she wants to introduce me to two of her local friends. Both of them are from a different town in Germany, and one of them is half-Japanese. “I think you’ll vibe with them,” she says. “You’re shy, but you’re not shy. I mean, you’re not so loud. So, we’ll have a good conversation.”

Still not having figured out what you’re shy but you’re not shy means, I bike for a good half hour, cutting across Alexanderplatz and Under den Linden, my ears stinging in the wind. I make it to a popular Indian place. They greet me there.

My friend had given me no context at all about these two new people. I say hello, but I don’t ask any questions in case they’ll wonder why I’d come when I hadn’t known anything about them beforehand. We aren’t rigid, like when you’d fire each other with the usual questions of where are you from? What do you do? — which are impossible to answer accurately, anyway. Instead, the conversation floats, like a boat stranded at sea. Strangers, that’s what they are. I have no information on them, no sense of direction I must take with them. I don’t even particularly want to become friends. I quite like it this way.

Sometime during the night, we find out that three of us have significant experience in karate. I, the only full-Japanese person at the table, have none. Which form did you learn? they ask each other. I didn’t know there were “forms” to karate. That’s quite fascinating.

I did Wado-ryu, the Japanese-German girl says. Oh, that’s quite unusual?  says someone else.

Wado-ryu is so peaceful compared to the other forms, she explains, smiling wistfully around a spoonful of warm paneer curry. My coach would make us all lie down on the floor for ten minutes before every session to get in touch with our minds.

Get in touch with your mind? I say. As in, meditate?

Kind of, she says. In karate, or at least the way I learned it, you pay attention to the state of your mind, not the state of your defense against an enemy. It’s just you and your mind. Sometimes, it’s torture, because our minds can be so loud. But you get used to it, and you learn to treat your mind as a friend. And then, when you’re training, the time begins to feel so pure.

Earlier, my friend had said, “you’re shy, but you’re not shy.” She may have meant that my body is shy while my mind is not. My mind is always racing, while my body fruitlessly seeks to shut it down: Can I speak German like a German? Do I belong here? Am I still Japanese, even when everyone knows karate except for me?

My mind speaks at me, asks me questions. But I just want to be your friend, I tell my mind. Be my friend, please. Be my friend like everyone in Berlin has shown me how.

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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