Berlin: an experience in time and thought

Photo by Jacob Jardel

Jacob Jardel
Assistant Managing Editor

One thing stuck with me from the Study Abroad: Berlin experience.

There was a four-sided display in the middle of a courtyard in Hackesher Markt in Berlin. On it, the words “Before I die” were ubiquitously emblazoned.

On two sides, the phrase “Before I die, I want to…” were printed in both German and English, laid out into six columns. Blank spaces followed each instance of the phrase, tantalizing even the most apathetic of passersby to complete the sentence, to complete the thought.

Abstract answers like “change the world” and “LIVE” shared chalked-in space with concrete answers like Jobeth’s “see a cure for cancer,” Joey’s “marry you” to Tanya and Hannah’s “go to Germany” with a checkmark next to it. No matter what the answer, one could do no wrong.

So why is it so hard for me to come up with mine?

That phrase has been on my mind since the moment I saw it staring me in the face with its chalked-up glory. There is no one correct answer to that statement, which makes it hard for me to think of just one answer now, let alone in the fleeting moment in that courtyard.

What makes the answer more difficult is the fact that “Before I die” makes me think of the concept of “life after”: life after the trip, life after the semester, life after graduation – life after any big thing comes to a close.

For someone trying to live more in the moment, this concept is tough. Then I think about the places we went to and the things we did throughout the trip.

We went to the Reichstag, the parliamentary house for the German government – a building that has seen war, destruction, renewal and openness in its existence. We saw numerous Berlin Wall memorials as we walked in routes impossible to tread less than 30 years ago.

Our group visited Schloss Cecilienhof, where Truman, Churchill and Stalin met to reconstruct the face of the world after the Second World War. There was a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, where we all bore witness to the true stories of people seeking a new life over eight feet of concrete and a seemingly endless death strip.

We took a tour of Sehitlik Mosque, a symbol of peace despite arson attempts and the rising flame of anti-extremism unfortunately oversimplified into anti-Islam. Four of us even saw the home Dr. Von Underwood stayed in during his time in West Germany and visited with people who did not realize there would be a “life after” until 1989.

In short, this entire experience in Germany was a study in the concept of “life after.”

Dr. Underwood teamed with Dr. Tony Wohlers to teach us about the numerous aspects of German life – the social, the political, the cultural and the historical. Throughout this time, we learned about one of my new favorite German words: “Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung.”

Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung is a composite word that roughly translates as “struggle to come to terms with the past.” It’s oddly fitting for a city and a country whose past is riddled with things the people have to struggle to come to terms with. You see it walking through the city.

I may be mistaken, but Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung is one of the most vital aspects of thinking about life after anything – not only because of the demons that plagued you in the past but also because of the good things you have held and still hold onto that you’d rather not let go.

It’s that second part that made the plane ride home a tough concept to swallow.

That plane ride home reminded me of the spoken word poem at the end of Childish Gambino’s song “That Power.” Details on the meaning aside, there’s a moment where he wishes it was a story about getting on the bus as a boy and getting off the bus as a man, more cynical and hardened.

“The truth is I got on the bus a boy, and I never got off the bus. I still haven’t.”

As I look back at my time in Berlin, at what I did and learned, who I bonded with and everything in between, I think about that damned board again, blank space staring me in the face like a Taylor Swift music video. I think about Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the struggle to come to terms with those things I cannot let go of and the others I don’t want to.

More than anything, I think about the amazing time I had with amazing people – all the things people want to cross of their lists that I did in the course of ten days and all the things the trip inspired me to cross off my list in the future, how it encapsulates more than just a meter-long blank line.

I wish this was a story about how I went up to that board without a direction and came back with a singular purpose, thought through and easily fulfilled as I drop the chalk like a mic.

The truth is I went up to the board without a direction, and I never left the board.

I still haven’t.


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