Story and photos by Ashley Mullin
Berlin was a city that terrified me; it was the farthest east I had been in Europe, and I had imagined it to be dreary, brutalist — severe, even. Throughout my senior year of high school, the phrase “I just can’t see myself living there” fell out of my mouth often. There is a temptation to continue this story with a grand “Instead…” or “Boy, was I wrong…”, but the reality was that freshly 18-year-old me landed in Berlin for my first semester of university, discovering a city and culture imbued with that very same independence and “coldness” that scared me. However, beyond first glance was a city that also boasted a uniquely inclusive and tender community of people, lifestyles and careers.
I quickly realized how cultural upheaval had been woven into the fabric of Berlin. Out of such a rigid and authoritarian regime emerged a city liberated socially, sexually and culturally. It was the very decline of the BDR and Soviet Union — coming to a head with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — that left Berlin with the physical and cultural vacancy to be fulfilled by a renaissance of musicians, writers, street artists, techno-creatives, photographers and alternative youths that shaped our modern vision of “Berlin.’. As our months abroad grew, the CIEE classrooms filled with students in darker and darker wardrobes. What ensued was a gradual plunge from pastel tees and sweaters to black wool coats and cigarettes between fingers. I feel the need to clarify that this shift in physical appearance was not some emotional spiral or affinity to sadness reflected externally, but rather the first time I felt society embrace dolefulness, or perhaps even embrace our own independence from others. Berlin has a sense of individuality and appreciation for aloneness.
During my months abroad, being “alone” no longer became some shameful last resort but instead a sacred ritual, as I became more and more aware of the space I took up in society. I found a unique love for the silence that had, in my eyes months before, been standoffish and cold. The Berliners across from me on the UBahn, in line before me to get a milchkaffee, were all people with uniquely tender and human stories, only barely hidden beneath the cultural norm of quiet — of respect for shared spaces. I saw this in strangers all around me: a mother and daughter hand-in-hand walking home from the elementary school across from our campus, peaceful first dates on our local canal, a father buying jewelry for his daughter at a Sunday flea market.
Berlin’s air of inclusivity manifested in our nights out as both male and female students embraced cultural adaption. I distinctly remember walking into a dorm while freshman boys stared into the mirror before them, in many ways surveying their masculinity, before reaching for a stick of kohl or a pot of glitter on the sink edge. An image I certainly did not expect to bear witness to during my first semester of college: cisgendered, heterosexual boys painting their eyes black with eyeliner before heading off to leftist, anarchist techno-clubs. Much less had I expected this scenario to be one in which boys felt secure and confident. This is not to say that girls were immune to our changing environment, either. Berlin redefined my own perception of femininity. Queues for clubs were peppered with oversized blazers, loose-fitting pants, and abstract microbang bobs — all drenched in the same inky-black everything. The delicacy of femininity in Berlin was not lace or blush fabric; it was in soft eyes and attentive conversations from across a foosball table.
I found that as the December departure date loomed closer, a common sentiment from NUin students was, “I don’t want to go home, I’ll never have this degree of freedom again.” And while I think some of this feeling may have come from our ability to drink, club and travel abroad at 18, I think much of our “freedom” was woven in Berlin’s cultural liberation, in the human craving for creativity and eccentricity.
The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition).