The man in the gigantic skirt spat half-chewed potato chunks at the audience, then flung the remnants across the stage. Later in the production, he donned a soggy octopus suit and cried in a corner in the fetal position. My first thought was “wow, German theater is weird.” My second: “wow, Stanford’s paying for this!”
This experience, bizarre as it seems, pretty well summarizes my Berlin experience: weird, wild, and wonderful. Berlin is an evolving city bursting with opportunity and excitement, and in this post I’ll explain why Berlin is truly wunderbar.
WEIRD: the differences between Berlin and ‘Mericuh
- Public transit is clean, efficient, effective, and almost always on time. Like Adam mentioned, living in such a huge city has me redefining “far,” and I’m grateful to have a system that so seamlessly supports my spontaneous wanderings. The route-planning website can’t be beat, and the quiet S-Bahn (for “Strassebahn,” or street train) and U-Bahn (for “Unterbahn,” or underground train) make it easy to do homework on the go.
Food is cheap. Especially so at grocery stores when you DIY meals, but even for grab-and-go and restaurants, delicious eats can be acquired without straining your budget. The typical rate for fresh ice cream is a mere 1 Euro a scoop, and Berlin (land of chocoholics like myself) has chocolate everywhere! There are two chocolate company headquarters here (Fassbender u. Rausch and Ritter Sport) within two blocks of one another in the city center. Most grocery stores have at least one chocolate aisle.
- Sound levels differ greatly. Excepting small children, even drunkenly carousing Germans on weekends speak at a max volume of the American “indoor voice.”
- Punctuality: if you’re there two minutes in advance, you’re already late. I’ve learned the hard way – I missed the whole first half of a ballet because I arrived at the stroke of seven. The trick I’ve learned is to always have a book or homework on you, and just plan on arriving early and killing some time.
- So many coins! With 2 Euro coins, you can buy significant things – meals, even – with just pocket change. It’s really efficient, and I prefer chunks of change to crumbly $1 bills.
WILD: observations both under- and above-ground
Street art capitol. Street art is more accepted and less discouraged than in the States. Indeed, by the Warschauer Straße station, there’s an entire neighborhood devoted to street art, with timed competitions in an abandoned train station (and the best Wienerstrudel I’ve found yet). Abandoned warehouse exploration also yields artistic treasures, but is not for the faint of heart or easily spooked.
- Theater in Berlin generally follows the Brechtian premise of making the familiar unfamiliar. This concept of “Verfremden” is echoed in a variety of modern pieces, as each production seeks to do something entirely new. I’ve seen incorporation of new media (random injection of Michael Jackson music videos), special effects (bubble foam, ashes, and “rain” onstage), extensive cross-dressing, and literally burying Macbeth in tree boughs to represent Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane Hall.
- Nightlife: there are numerous clubs available for those interested, though the Stanford partier be warned: most only get started at 1 a.m. or so… no wonder Red Bulls are so popular here! The social dance scene here is also big, with all types of dance represented. There’s also super weird stuff for the adventurous, like blacklight minigolf, Michael Jackson tribute brass bands, the hard-to-find Badeschiffs, and more.
- Clothing here is wild because… it’s not. The Stanford concept of “rally” clearly hasn’t made it to Germany, with very conservative colors and black on black on black dominating most of the ensembles I’ve seen. I get stares for occasional tie-dye and my turquoise sneakers, and I don’t dare bust out my froggy beanie.
- Smoking in the land of the green party? It’s always a culture shock traveling from practically smoke-free SoCal to Europe, but I’m most surprised here because of Germany’s health-conscious culture. Everyone’s big on biking, hiking, and organic food, so it’s strange to see so many youth hooked on nicotine.
WONDERFUL: why Berlin is BOSP‘s best-kept secret
Museums are unlike anything in America because history is so fresh here. There’s practically a museum for everything: art, technology, history, ancient architecture, food, and even Currywurst! It’s fairly inexpensive, especially since there are many discounts for students and package deals for sight-seeing in bulk.
- Arts you glad you studied in Berlin? There are attractions for all tastes, from ballet to theater to painting exhibitions to stand-up comedy to film festivals to… okay, I think you get the point. The arts are heavily subsidized here, so prices are impressively low.
- Approachable people abound in the once divided city. When people realize you’re not German, they don’t automatically switch to English, but rather give you a chance to try and soldier on. They’ll often help you along, because they want to interact with you! Some of the most German-language-ability-affirming experiences here have been phone plan negotiations, getting (and giving!) directions, and navigating public transit. Find excuses to talk to people, and you’ll be glad you did.
- Spoiled by Stanford. If people actually knew how amazing the Berlin program was, everyone ever in everness (only rounding up slightly) would apply. We have our own property, in the form of the beautiful villa “Haus Cramer,” which abounds with computer labs, a hammock room (for naps), an electronics lab, multiple student lounges, a laundry facility, a gym, a basketball court, a tulip garden, a grand piano, classrooms, a full kitchen at our disposal, and a beautiful lawn for Frisbee and soccer. There’s also big full-time staff with a part-administrative, part-family-away-from-home role as well as multiple language tutors to help you brush up your German. We’ve also had 3 out-of-town trips so far, multiple hosted dinners, ballet and philharmonic outings, a boat cruise, and sports classes through local universities (shout out to my peeps in Beginning Badminton!). And if you’re in the theater or sports/gender class, you see free plays or matches every week.
- The bottom line: Stanford in Berlin is incredible, and I’m very grateful to the Bings, George Will, and Stanford for everything they do to make this experience amazing!!
P.S. Berlin is awesome. Studying abroad is awesome. Especially Stanford underclassmen – if you have questions about studying abroad, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments!
Tschuss! - Kristi