Approximately 11am on the 2nd August 2015. I had just arrived at Berlin Schönefeld airport and was being talked to in broken English by a young Chinese man – my first direct point of contact to City Travel Review, the company I had arranged to come to Berlin for a month with. At one point he simply turned and asked me ‘Do you like Coldplay?’. I was not feeling very reassured.
CTR organise study opportunities every summer in various cities around Europe, including London, Barcelona, and Lyon – as well as their most popular destination, Berlin. I had found them on a volunteering/summer work website while looking for a way to usefully spend my summer between first year and second year of uni (the prospect of three months in the North of England didn’t sound too inviting to me at the time). The opportunity provided by CTR was a month in Berlin, during which I would have lessons in German and workshops in review writing. In a small group of people (who would be coming from anywhere in the world), we would ultimately be working towards producing a guide to the city, reviewing restaurants, public squares, churches – essentially anything in the city that was worth seeing. A one-off payment would cover accommodation, lessons, and any day trips and tours; all we really had to do was book a flight to Berlin. So after briefly talking to the project coordinator on the phone, and transferring £1000 to this strange company I had never heard of, I just had to lie in wait until the 2nd August.
With two other girls I had just met at the airport, an Australian and fellow Brit, I was escorted to what would be my home for the next month, which turned out to be a fairly ugly apartment block in East Berlin. We were given a quick reminder meet outside the apartments at 8am the next morning (when we would also meet everyone else on the project for the first time), and then left on our own. Wandering Museum Island later that evening and watching the sun set on the Spree, I knew this trip was going to be special.
I believe a lot of people on the team weren’t prepared for how quickly we would be thrust into the project itself (myself included). We spent a long, hot, weary afternoon on our second official day in a beer garden in the middle of Tiergarten laboriously planning which places each of us would review – everyone had to write at least ten reviews in the three and a half weeks we were there. Although this might not sound like much, along with German lessons almost every morning and workshops in the afternoons it amounted to more than a few stressed evenings in the apartments frantically trying to finish a review about a church in Gendarmenmarkt or a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg. But in the time we spent researching places, wandering the sprawling networks of streets in Neukölln or Charlottenburg or wherever we happened to be, I think every single one of us on the project fell a little bit in love with Berlin.
It’s hard to talk about this city without saying something that hasn’t already been said. Its rich history, at times equal parts interesting and horrifying, is apparent to everyone, whether they’ve visited or not. It was simply the feel of the city that surprised me the most. It’s entirely incomparable to somewhere like London, always seemingly on edge, busy, anxious. Berlin is slow, relaxed, content; even rush hour didn’t feel the same as a London rush hour. I had assumed that, at the very least, this may have been because it was mid-August and the intense summer sun was making everyone lethargic, but after revisiting the city this March in the cool of spring and getting the same feeling, I’m inclined to think this is something simply inherent to Berlin.
While the review writing may have been stressful at times, and the apparent utter lack of wifi in one of Europe’s biggest cities infuriating, visiting Berlin in this way enabled us to have a completely unique experience. Our tutors were people who lived and worked in Berlin, and gave recommendations that you simply wouldn’t get from a Lonely Planet guide. And although those recommendations weren’t always great (underground glow-in-the-dark mini golf sounds appealing until you’re being harassed by drug dealers in Görlitzer Park trying to find it at 10am on a Sunday morning), I will always appreciate the feeling of actually getting to know a city, more so than you would get from a four day break and a generic tourist guide. For a month, Berlin felt like home, and I’m grateful for that feeling.
Published in [smiths] Magazine, May 2016