Berlin streets are exhilarating on a bike. As a pedestrian I thought I’d never want to ride one in this city. That could be because we saw a bike accident within our first hour of arriving in our neighborhood in August. Not so much an accident as a slow-motion collision between auto and bike, the car backing up into the bike, the cyclist shouting at the driver, a mom with a small child strapped to a rear seat just a few feet away. The dad was still upright but getting dragged backwards as the car backed up. The driver quickly realized his error, threw it in drive and sped off, and the biking family was rattled but intact. A little unnerved, we continued our orientation walk in which I was planting all kinds of misinformation in my brain, mainly which direction was north and which was south, along with a renewed fear of riding a bicycle in traffic. I’m still trying to undo the faulty messages I received on that walk.
I never thought the word “entschuldigung” could roll off my tongue, but it did, several times, on the streets of Paris. Narrow sidewalks, crowded streets; I was saying it all the time. I’d hear “Pardon” in return, and kick myself. I know the right word to say in France when I bump into someone, but my brain couldn’t keep track of our change of address.
It’s fall now. We flew back to Berlin yesterday and discovered that the trees had turned orange and yellow in our absence. The leaves fluttered down around us as we walked. We turned our backs and fall snuck in.
I am exceedingly grateful that we do not have a car in Berlin. There are many reasons we have one in the states (two, actually) and none in Berlin. Here we have: No commute. A walkable neighborhood. Grocery stores in every direction. Great subway system, and buses too, though we haven’t tried those yet. Friends with cars.
There are advantages to not having a car: The cost of buying/renting one. Insurance. Where to park it. Relearn manual driving. The cost of petrol. The need for an international driver’s license.
There are also disadvantages to not having a car: Going to Ikea on the subway, stocking up on housewares, then schlepping the heavy bags on a walk in the rain and two trains. (Note to self: Next time, ask a friend with a car). And having to walk the pitch-black, deserted streets from the rowing club up to the S-bahn station after an evening practice. (Sometimes I get a ride, but many of them bike to the lake).
But more than any of this, I realize that one of the reasons I am so slow in grasping the layout of the city is because I haven’t seen it by car.
Last week I tried to explain why I decided to call this blog “Lost” in Berlin, but I haven’t explained why we’re in Berlin in the first place. Some days I’m not even sure I can trace the path that led us here. But I’ll try.
Neither M nor I are German. We don’t have any German relatives. We’re not here to find our family roots. That’s what people often assume, but that’s not what drew us here.
It all started with a music history class M taught when E was about four. To prepare for the class, he watched a lot of opera videos. A LOT. He had just discovered Met Player (the Metropolitan Opera’s online trove of video recordings of recent and historic operas they’ve produced), and he was getting his money’s worth. When our older girls would hear a plug for Met Player on public radio, they would tease him, “And we’d like to thank our one subscriber, M Mazullo…”
M was watching a ton of Wagner, especially the Ring cycle. And E was right there next to him, glued to the TV. She loved it. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t understand a word of it, and couldn’t read the subtitles either. M told her about every character, major and minor, every plot twist, and what the different musical motives were that related to the characters, and soon it became as exciting to her as The Lord of the Rings. Quizzing her about the arcane details of the four-opera cycle became our family party trick and we shared this game with many dinner guests.
One day she said to us, “I want to know what Brunhilde is saying.”
Normally I have a good sense of direction. I like to sort my neighborhood, city, region and beyond by north, south, east and west. This is normal, isn’t it? But I can’t do that here. I keep trying, but it’s slow in coming.
Our street is one block long, and it curves. It is lovely, but it will not help orient you. On one end you must turn left or right onto an east/west street. On the other end you can turn onto a north/south street. And those two streets intersect somewhere behind our building. I find that baffling.
I have at least twice now left our apartment building, followed our street around the curve, taken a left the next street, reached the corner and thought, I’m finally getting somewhere. And then I look to the left and realize that all I’ve done is make a circle around the block, and it would have been much shorter to come out and make a right. I’d like to think I won’t make that mistake again, but I probably will.
I thought that the tree in the circle at the three-street roundabout intersection in the middle of our one-block street would be a helpful marker, until I realized there is another maple tree in another three-way roundabout just two blocks from here, which is a little surreal. I walked down one of the offshoots with groceries last weekend with my keys pulled out, ready to unlock the front door of an apartment building that appeared to be in the right spot, but was not ours at all. That’s when I realized the tree in the circle had a clone, and that I needed to start paying more attention.