culture shock

I met this dude from Madagascar on the boat ride between Sweden and Germany.  He was a cool looking guy with dread-locks and rainbow colored clothing.  There was a nice bar area on the boat and everyone was making their way to it.  The protocol was to order a tall beer, probably Stella Artois or something.  Once the beer started flowing, we started talking about our individual journeys.  He was on his way to Berlin to hook up with some relatives.  He lived in Gothenburg, Sweden and had lived there for most of his life.  Apparently, his family had migrated up from Madagascar to Sweden to find work and a better way of life. Sweden, especially Gothenburg, was fast becoming a multi-racial country.  This guy had been there awhile, so he was quite assimilated.  The newer arrivals were being met with some racial backlash, but for the most part, indifference was the order of the day during the 90’s. 

            As we chatted and drank the night away, the boat started its long journey over the Baltic Sea.  It was exciting to think that we were now crossing the great Baltic Sea.  After all, this was the sea that the Germans had fought fiercely to protect during WWII.  It was also the site where the Russians defended against the Swedes during the Great Northern War in the 1700’s.  It was then, under Peter the Great, that Russia began to take its rightful place on the world stage.  This sea had seen it all, right up until the Cold War ended.  So here we were, a couple of new comrades making our own journey across.  It was definitely a moment to think about.  This was going to be my first time visiting Germany.  I was a little fearful as to the reception I would receive.  In a sense I over-prepared myself for my German visit, ultimately setting myself up for a complete culture shock.  I would go into Germany with somewhat negative presumptions about its people and its past.  These preconceived thoughts would alter my initial mindset, yet would also reinforce some of my ideas. 

            Once the boat docked, we soon transferred to a train bound for Berlin.  Here is when I made first contact with the German masses.  Right off the bat, I noticed something was unusual.  The people were definitely more stoic in manner and appearance.  Not realizing this was their natural way; I soon started to take offense.  My friend didn’t seem fazed at all.  I guessed he was used to it.  The people on the train stared at the interaction between me and my Madagascar friend.  I went straight for the race card in my mind, thinking that nothing had changed here in Germany since the days of Hitler.  Obviously this was quite naive and marked the beginning of my culture shock experience.  I automatically assumed that these people didn’t approve of my conversing with a black man and showed their disdain with nasty looks and scowling stares. 

            We neared the great city and I started to stare out the window, watching everything move past me.  One thing I noticed right away was the graffiti.  It was everywhere on the walls and bridges.  This was a common sight across Europe, especially when entering the cities by train.  We soon passed the Reichstag and I noticed that something was going on there.  A white sheet material covered the entire building.  It was a though the building was covered by a big white mask.  I automatically jumped to the nearest racial conclusion.  This must be some kind of ritual practiced by the local white supremacists.  Of course, I was way off base.  I found out later that the artist Christo was behind the masking of the building.  But at that moment, I was starting to create a narrow-minded picture in my head.  At the center of this picture was an unchanged German state, still wallowing in the bitter past.

            With my mind racing, we finally pulled into the station.  Here is where the fun really began.  We had not landed at the modern West Berlin terminal.  Our final stop was the East Berlin station.  It was the mid-nineties and this side of the city was still trying to catch up to its western cousin.  All of the buildings were quite drab in appearance and looked as if they were from another age.  In fact, the whole atmosphere seemed to cling to the days right after WWII, with everything frozen in time.  This was especially true of the people working at the train station.  My friend and I started to work our way up to the counter to find out how to get to the other side, to the modern world.  My friend went first.  Then something happened that seemed to justify all of my mixed thoughts about this strange city.  The man behind the counter refused to help my friend with any of his questions.  It was a mad scenario.  They would not talk to him.  They would not even acknowledge his existence.  I freaked out.  My American arrogance kicked in and soon I was up at the counter defending my friend.  I demanded that he be helped and that his questions be answered.  They were clearly taken aback by my aggressive stance.  Whether to keep things calm or just finally giving in, they quickly helped my friend and then myself.  The crowd seemed to usher us away after this ordeal and we soon found our way to our connecting train to the other side of the city.  By this time, the culture shock was kicking into high gear.  I was immediately on the defensive and now looked for troubling signs of aggression from the people.  My friend still seemed quite calm, as though everything happening was the norm.

            Once we reached the West Side, everything chilled a bit.  We walked around for awhile and I noticed the people staring again.  Maybe I was just paranoid by this point.  But hey, that is what was going through my mind at the time.  On the subway, my friend suddenly jumped up and went over to another black guy.  This was his cousin, the one he was coming to see.  They started talking in their own language and soon bid me farewell.  I was now alone.  I went back up to the street to finish my tour of the city.  Now the stares were gone and everyone appeared to be smiling at me.  It was as if a dark cloud had lifted off my shoulder and all was good now.  They readily accepted me as a visitor of their lovely city and what was theirs was now mine.  Perhaps this was my paranoid mind at work, who knows.  In my mind the damage had been done.  I didn’t feel welcome here and my plans to stay the night were out the window. 

Before leaving Berlin, my one goal was to see the remnants of  The Wall.  Obviously I couldn’t leave without seeing this famous site.  Pieces of The Wall had been left up as a reminder of the past and the many lives lost because of it.  It was an eerie sight.  There were quotes and sayings all over the remaining pieces of  The Wall.  At my feet were makeshift tombstones lying flat all over the place.  On those slabs were the names of the lives lost trying to get over The Wall from the East to the West.  They seemed to represent the final resting spots for these poor souls searching for freedom.  I soon realized that some of the victims were children.  They too had been shot down in cold blood by the Russians manning The Wall.  It looked as if some had made it over the wall, only to be pinpointed by a sharpshooter, then struck down as they ran away from The Wall.  To walk along The Wall and see how history unfolded over the 30-odd years that it existed was a great experience.  The experience really gave me a feeling of gratitude for the easy life I was now living.  I would never know this type of hardship.  I would never feel the fear of being gunned down in search of freedom.  It was a true soul-searching moment and I took it all in. 

After my time at the Wall, I tried to search out Hitler’s bunker, but never found the exact spot.  I did come across a field that a local said was the spot, but I never knew for sure.  I stared out across the field thinking about the events of that fateful day when his grotesque world was collapsing around him.  His reign was over and the only thing remaining was a fenced off field for people like me to stare across.  Another site in the city also caught my eye.  In fact, you couldn’t miss it and that was exactly the point.  In the middle of the busy city center of West Berlin was a bombed-out old church.  Most of the structure still stood, except for the roof where the sunlight now shone through.  It was indeed a stark reminder of the effects of WWII on this once beautiful city.

My time was over in Berlin and I had decided not to stay the night.  I wanted to leave this place of mixed emotions and try to find a less complicated scenario. Budapest was my next stop.  I yearned to rid myself of Germany, never looking back.  I know that my culture-shocked and paranoid mind took me down the wrong path many times during my visit to Germany.  Yet, I was still not ready to overcome these thoughts and embrace the country as I should.  I was scared and at that moment only wanted to flee.  Perhaps my views would change when I ventured back across the border again one day.