I have a fascination with a few common day objects, one of which is street signs. Wherever I go, I find myself photographing them. It could be the contrast between the sign and the background, the static words and the life behind them, or maybe just the awesome bokeh they produce, but signs get me every time. Before I know it, *snap*, a hundredth picture of yet another street sign. At least I can make a photoessay out of them, right?
I spent most of my time in Berlin, which means I wandered through a lot of Berlin’s streets, sometimes with Claudia and sometimes alone. I’ve included some signs that don’t quite qualify as street signs, but they have words and I liked the photograph. Words, ya know? They work. Enjoy these eighteen snapshots from the streets of Berlin, Germany.
A couple years ago, my mom introduced me our neighbor’s new German au pair. His name was Aljoscha (eye-yo-sha). I invited him to my impromptu, three person birthday party at the bar, introduced him to Pabst Blue Ribbon and we’ve been friends ever since. So when I planned my trip to Germany, I knew that seeing Aljoscha was a no-brainer.
We spent the first day walking around the big city of Hamburg, which has plenty of beautiful sights but requires a lot of leg work to see them all. The next day, he took me to his home city: Lübeck. The city of Lübeck is smaller than Hamburg, but definitely packs a punch in terms of gorgeousness per square foot. It feels a little more cozy and friendly, and didn’t give my feet too much of a reason to complain. Aljoscha and I wandered, sat by the water and went searching for tiny alleyways to duck into. The photographs will do this gorgeous little city considerably more justice than my rambling words, though, so let’s begin!
Sometimes Facebook terrifies me. The fact that I constantly have to keep my privacy settings in check is annoying at best, kind of immoral at worst. I don’t own my photographs once they’re on Facebook, the new graph search is pretty creepy and my older brother always insists on putting weird, sometimes vulgar posts on my wall, because he’s my older brother and that’s what they do. Thanks bro.
But despite all of the concerns I have with Facebook and privacy and the company using my information for advertising or stealing phone numbers from my phone, there’s one thing that stops me from deleting my account entirely. (Actually, if I’m honest, two things: I have to keep up my social media presence for this blog!) It’s because Facebook does what it’s supposed to do and it does it really well: it connects.
When I was 17, a junior in high school, I set off on the adventure of my somewhat-short-so-far lifetime. I went to live with a family in Austria and be a foreign exchange student through the lovely program AFS. We were a group of strangers that left New York together and arrived in Vienna as a group of friends. During our arrival, we met up with all of the various people from around the world that would be living here too. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Canada and Finland. Hong Kong. Iceland. USA.* We all had one thing in common: we were going to be foreigners in Austria. We all crossed our fingers that our host families would be nice.
That semester led to plenty of new Facebook friends, who would later become old Facebook friends and buried under news feed of newer acquaintances as the years passed since our life in Austria together. Occasionally someone would pop up in my feed and I’d click on their profile to try and decipher what they were up to these days. In 2011, I studied abroad in Argentina and had a short but lovely reunion with one of the old AFSers named Berta. We hadn’t seen each other in four years, yet here we were, meeting again in Argentina this time and feeling like no time had passed. For that, I definitely had Facebook to thank. (That also sparked my decision to stop deleting Facebook friends all the time.)
So when I was doing my bi-annual Facebook stalking of all of my old AFS friends earlier this year and saw that Pinja (from Finland) was in Germany at the moment, I immediately messaged her with news that I’d be in Germany this July/August. Soon enough I had a reply and our schedules lined up. If it weren’t for Facebook, I’d have never known to get in contact with her in the first place and I’d probably only have the most ancient email address to do so.
We worked out a plan, I flew to Germany, took a train to Leipzig and did a couple things in between that exact sequence of events. We found each other quickly at the train station. Apparently, I look the exact same as I did when I was 17, but so does Pinja. We started out with a short tour of the city, touring at old churches and noticing the beat down buildings, remnants of communist East Germany. The conversation was endless: we had over six years of catch up to do, yet we slipped into our friendship as comfortably as we’d left it. And it was just as hard to say goodbye, this time, too.
The laughter, the old drudged up memories of being a teenager in Austria, the hilarious German vocabulary that only we (and all of Styria) know; these are the things that old friends share. As old friends we, of course, created new memories too: pasta making adventures, the search for baby clothes (don’t ask) and my first curry wurst. But our old friendship was only reignited because of modern technology. Because of Facebook.
So as much as I dislike consonantly monitoring my privacy settings, knowing that people look at the my photographs and information without me knowing and that Facebook is collecting and creating a nice little personality file on me, I will remain. Because as long as Facebook keeps doing it’s main job, keeping me connected to old friends and new friends alike, then I’m going to stick around. For days like the short ones I spent with Pinja, for last year’s reunion with Berta from Argentina, it’s always going to be worth it. Seeing smiling faces and great big hugs after years-long hiatuses are two pretty good reasons, if you ask me, to keep that Facebook page up and running.
*I know I didn’t include every country represented, sorry guys. Writing style, ya know?
We sat ourselves down at a sushi restaurant in the nice part of Berlin. The waiter came out, speaking in his unmistakably accented German, and gave us the typical welcome and a few menus. The avenues of Charlottenburg are well kept and built to impress, and I eyed the well-dressed Germans as they walked down the street, scouting out a table of their own.
Next to me sat Claudia, a native Austrian and across from me was Firat. He’s a third generation Turk who’s lived in Berlin for his entire life. His parents grew up in Germany, as well. We met each other years ago, when he was a foreign exchange student at my high school in the United States. When I booked my plane ticket to Berlin, he was one of the first people I contacted: “Guess where I’m going on vacation, let’s meet up!” So after a many-years-long hiatus, we resumed a friendship certainly not where it had ended, but somewhere new. And on that day, we resumed with Japanese sushi.
The waiter, certainly foreign himself, began a friendly conversation and asking those basic questions. He started with me, as my accent was the most noticeable and asked where I was from, what I was doing in Berlin, how long I planned to stay, etc. Next was Claudia, who has an easy to mark Austrian accent. The way we’d pick someone out from the South in Philadelphia, he picked up on her twang right away and inquired about her situation in Berlin. When he got to asking Firat, the native Berliner, he asked a simple “So how do you know them? You are all friends from before?” before dropping a small, but significant question.
“So, where are you from?”
“I’m from Germany.”
“Yes. I’m from Germany.”
“Firat, do you hear the question all the time?”
“Always. And I always say I’m from Germany. Because I am.”
That conversation got me thinking about identity and immigration and foreign countries, which are things that I often think about because I’m that kind of nerd. The Turkish/German situation has been a running affair for years, and while there are certainly some underlying opinions that some Germans hold dear, it’s not the kind of issue you notice while walking down the street. What you do notice, though, is when you’ve entered a “foreign” district. There are certain neighborhoods in Berlin (and I’m sure in most major cities of Germany), that house most of the foreigners, many of whom are Turkish. Suddenly every second person on the sidewalk is dark skinned and definitely non-Aryan. And this bothers some Germans, who avoid these areas like a ghetto. They are disturbed that there’s suddenly a mosque and five Turkish grocery stores in the same block.
But what I’ve learned from Firat is that Turkish immigrants often can’t get housing anywhere else. They apply for an apartment and are turned down, because of their immigrant status. They don’t have much of a choice except to live in these foreigner districts. Which would obviously make it much more difficult to practice/learn German, which is a common complaint of Germans who like to complain about immigrants. You can see the cycle here; it doesn’t take a genius.
I saw a lot of foreigners, particularly people who looked to be of Turkish descent, everywhere. The subway, the train station, restaurants, you name it. But what I didn’t see was even more remarkable: Turkish people speaking Turkish with each other. I can name only one instance in my eight days in Berlin, during which I heard Turkish people speaking a language other than German with each other. I expected something different, of course. When I see my foreign friends in Korea, even if we are both practicing and learning Korean, we speak English. Yet these Turkish-Germans spoke (accented) German with each other in nearly every single situation I was able to witness, despite the fact that they could just as easily speak their mother tongue, gain some lingual privacy and possibly convey their feelings more accurately. To put it lightly, I was surprised. Very surprised.
And so (from my admittedly limited experience), I have to say that I can’t really see what some Germans are complaining about, at least not in Berlin. I’ve never been so surprised by a population of immigrants and their attempt to fit in, just from what I’ve witnessed in my short time. It seems as though the Turkish people I witnessed knew that learning German was important to the culture they were in, and did something about it. As for the mosques, Turkish grocers and restaurants, those are all commonplace for any immigrant population. (And do Germans really want all the delicious Turkish food to disappear? What are they going to do without their doner kababs if they force Turkish people out, who don’t speak good enough German and haven’t “properly” assimilated? Tragedy!)
I don’t even want to get started on Germans in Argentina, or Germans in the USA, or Germans in Brazil or any of the countless other places where Germans have been the ones clinging onto their culture in a foreign land: German villages, newspapers, restaurants and neighborhoods. I’ll just mention that it happened multiple times in the past. In the end, every country is just a bunch of foreigners to someone else and we’ve all moved into other people’s territory at one point or another throughout history and attempted to make it feel a little bit more like home.
After all, Firat, Claudia and I were sitting around in a sushi restaurant in the middle of Charlottenburg, the uppity neighborhood of Berlin. Imagine the hole it would leave, if Turkish people were to disappear and immigration had been tightened up all along to keep that population more Aryan. To preserve Germany, as some might argue.
I, for one, would be sitting at a table eating who-knows-what and looking at an empty seat. There would be a good friend missing from the situation (and I’m not talking about my good friend sushi, though that would also be a tragedy). My German friend from high school would be lacking. My German friend, Firat.
Istanbul is one of those huge cities with both way too many things to see and longer distances to navigate to get there. Because my mom and I had a short time in Istanbul, only five full days (we traveled to Cyprus as well), I suggested that we look into a tour that covered some of the most famous sites in a shorter amount of time, right at the beginning of our trip. The idea was that we’d see the must-sees and wouldn’t waste any time getting lost on the way there, and in the process get ourselves somewhat oriented to getting around the city. So I did a little blog research and came across My Local Guide Istanbul, also known as Salih.