A study in contrasts
08.10.2013 - 09.10.2013
Tuesday is my first full day in Berlin. I wake up eager to tackle the necessary logistical tasks for my stay in Germany. I have breakfast with my roommates and head out to the Bürgeramt where I need to apply for my Anmeldebestätigung, proof of residence in Berlin. I arrive there around 11am to long lines. It is poor planning because I am supposed to be at the University for an International Student Orientation at 1pm. I wait half an hour, then give up and head over to the University.
Once there, I hunt around for the finance officer who can hopefully get me my stipend. She is out to lunch. I next stop by the Immatrikulation table where one must present seemingly myriad required documents in order to be officially enrolled and obtain the all-important Semesterticket (unlimited student public transportation pass). After a brief conversation with a staff person, I realize that not only do I lack the necessary Anmeldebestätigung (proof of residence) but several other documents besides. I also notice that the staff is over-extended, and that just as with the Bürgeramt this morning, I had best budget a LOT more waiting-around-time for the Immatrikulation.
Meanwhile there is this fact: I landed in Berlin with a €10 bill left over from my last trip and have yet to visit an ATM (was hoping to get the stipend instead). I paid €2.60 for transit from the airport yesterday, another €2.60 to get to the University today, and am now down to a few coins totaling just under €5. I do not know when I will be able to get my stipend; based on my multiple failures this morning I feel the finance officer could well be out to lunch forever. And I have not eaten since breakfast and am hungry.
I have been eying a tray of open-face sandwiches clearly intended for students working on the Immatrikulation team. Much like the TSA’s discarded liquids bin at O’hare, no one seems to be keeping a very close eye on it. I walk up and help myself to half a Brötchen topped with cheese and cucumber, which I eat out in the hall just outside the Immatrikulation chaos. Still hungry afterwards, and figuring my moral transgression has already been committed, I swipe one more cheese and cucumber Brötchen on my way out to the orientation. They are tasty...
Several hundred of us mill around the halls before being politely herded into a large auditorium. We hear predictable, gracious words of official welcome, followed by large quantities of information about student requirements and services. I am feeling tired, bored, almost hungry again, and disheartened about my fruitless encounters with government and university authorities. I slip out of the auditorium about fifteen minutes before the speeches are scheduled to end and hustle back to the finance officer’s office. The halls are empty of support staff and students (presumably all in the auditorium I just quit) and the finance officer is, most miraculously, there. She gives me a form to bring to the Kasse (cashier), even calls to let them know I am coming, and a few minutes later I have cash in hand. It is a good, almost giddy feeling, and so unexpected after nothing else has worked. If I was going to have just one success all day, this is a good one.
. . .
Wednesday looks to be a wash. I made a grave tactical error yesterday: I took a one-hour nap in the evening. Consequently I went to bed around 1am, was up 3-6am, then slept until noon. In any case, all the Bürgerämter in my district, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, are closed due to a staff meeting so I cannot even try to get my Anmeldebestätigung today. That leaves me time to inquire with a local bank about opening an account (which I cannot do without the Anmeldebestätigung, but I can at least figure out what I am doing and what I will be getting).
To avoid buying lunch on the go, I make a spinach salad. (Berlin has wonderfully cheap lunch options, mind you, but they tend to look a lot like falafel, kebabs, sandwiches and pizza. After just one day it has already struck me that if I do not take specific measures to avoid it, I will end up eating way too much bread here and turn into one giant Brötchen.) Salad ingested, I finally head out to a Berliner Sparkasse bank branch I identified on Google maps where I figure I can get my questions answered.
I arrive at my one productive errand for the day only to find that the place is basically a glorified room full of ATMs with not a single live person.
I give up and just walk, following a street that leads to a pretty park/open space. It turns out to be the Engelbecker reservoir, one of the first places I went when I stayed in Berlin last spring; a friend I had met in New Zealand was showing me around town, and we stopped at the picturesque waterside café here. I sit for a while looking at the buildings and trees reflected in the reservoir, reflecting on Berlin’s odd way of making you come full circle as the serpent bends ‘round to bite its tail.
I walk some more, taking whichever streets seem interesting. The city is infinitely charming: Carefully carved facades, ivy burning red-orange with fall glow, leafy courtyards offering seductive glimpses from the street… I notice my own enjoyment and contrast it with yesterday’s frustrations. If I didn’t have to get a residence permit or go to school, I muse, I could happily just live here and take walks as my full time job.
Soon I am wandering into another park, this one comprising multiple playgrounds, gardens and majestic old brick buildings. The buildings all look to have been ‘occupied,’ which means they were vacant and dilapidated until people in the community took over and put them to some creative use or other. I wander up to an imposing yet appealing structure, trying to get a sense of what goes on inside without committing to any interaction. The wood terrace has a haphazard but comely array of planted boxes, empty wood crates, random pieces of furniture, and beautifully unruly potted plants. It is somehow irresistible and I find myself ascending the ramp. This brings me a little ‘too’ close, resulting in a friendly ‘hello can I help you’ from the doorway. I explain that I just moved to the neighborhood, am just wandering around, was just walking by and got curious as to what goes on here. A man answers that this is a space for theater and arts groups to rehearse, choreograph, collaborate, etc., and offers to give me a tour.
The inside of the building has high, high ceilings. One rehearsal room has dark wood floors, some deep burgundy velvet draping, and an upright piano in the corner that I eye somewhat longingly, even greedily. Another room has a large mirror and marley floors; yoga classes, dance rehearsals, and drumming lessons go on here. “And this is the kitchen, where I cook on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for whoever is here… There’s some food left over, would you like to eat anything?” Though my sandwich-stealing days are over for now, I’ll hardly say no to an offer of free food with friendly company.
The man tells me to have a seat at the table while he deftly lights a burner to warm the remaining squash soup (this requires some very close contact with gas and flame on the old stove) and greets two 'theater pedagogues' who just finished rehearsing. We are joined by a woman who also works here. I ask how this place came to be, and she gives me a wonderful earful on the rich history of Kreuzberg and this particular operation. She was actually part of a community effort and legal battle circa 2005 to preserve this community center, which looks to be a model of grassroots urban planning. I comment on how outside its more commercial districts, Berlin seems so organic that it could not possibly have come about through top-down planning but only through such elegant, intricate emerging local patterns. We talk for well over and hour, at the end of which I finagle some playing time on the piano before we all head out.
After my surprise lunch I do not walk directly home. I wander some more, end up at the happening square of Kotbusser Tor, and stop at a vegetable stand to get some tomatoes and avocados. When I go to pay, the Turkish man tells me the total in English. When he hands me my change, I thank him readily in Turkish. He smiles broadly and says something back in Turkish (which I am, alas, in no way equipped to understand).
I am finally heading homeward when I see a couple on a corner peering uncertainly at a map. I must really be taking ownership of a city if I am offering to help other visitors find their way, but here I am asking them if they need help, first in German and then in English. They respond in Spanish-accented English and look delighted when I slip into Spanish to send them in the right direction and give a little background on the neighborhood.
I walk home smiling over the various languages I used today and laughing at myself for giving directions in a place I just moved into. I love the rich spontaneity of this city; I had only to walk a few blocks out my front door to have a mini-urban adventure. Tomorrow the fun will go on hiatus as I head back to Bürgeramt and Immatrikulation bureaucracy… Truly a study in contrasts.