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In Praise of Berlin and Very Slow Travel

I’ve been moving cities every 2-4 years since college. While I look forward to ‘growing up’ and committing to one place, I am fond of how the chapters of my life are filed neatly under city names.

I love this slow travel—exploring a locale by making it home. My last stop was 3.5 years in Berlin. While I haven’t seen any* of Berlin’s sights, I know what the tourists never will: The pulse of the city’s chaotic energy, the distance between the long stretches of summer mania and winter’s small gray windows, the anxiety of years slipping by with little progress in German fluency.

I love so much about Berlin. I love the way the city mocks advertisements, its billboards defaced moments after they’re plastered. I love the residents from seemingly every nation who spill out into the parks to drink beer on sunny Sundays. I love the pragmatism that guides citizen life, like how most drink bottles are not recycled but returned to manufacturers to be refilled.

On my first morning in Berlin, I awoke to a strange, oddly pleasant sensation. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then a local informed me that Berlin is not privy to natural disasters—not hurricanes, nor tornados, nor earthquakes, nor fires. (“But world war does break out every so often,” he quipped.) In the U.S. I had taken it for granted that you must trade one natural disaster risk for another—if not earthquakes, then hurricanes. It was this that felt new to me: a sense of safety.

Perhaps I was also feeling the maternal embrace of Merkel, the German chancellor who had held office since George W. Bush, re-elected thrice. In her I found the female role model I had longed for: a woman who eschews fashion and frivolities in her total dedication to serving the public. She is the rare politician who will openly admit to not being an expert on a subject, or publicly admit to having been wrong. If only the world could have more Merkels.

A famous Silicon Valley VC once jibed that Berlin is where 30-year-olds go to retire. And I can see what he’s saying. In Berlin, the quality of life, for the majority of people, is good. So why strive for more? And compared to the U.S., you needn’t run so hard from the threat of falling through society’s cracks. While there’s still homelessness and other issues, there’s a more comprehensive safety net in German society. Certainly the threat of bankruptcy via medical bills is a lesser concern, and immortal student loans are nonexistent.

On my first evening in Berlin, I was astonished to see throngs of people lounging by the canal, beer in hand, to celebrate a glorious sunset. They struck me as slothful in their open squander of daylight hours. Didn’t they know they should be using this time to hustle to a future that might just come if they worked hard enough?

Likewise, I laughed when the public transit system workers went on strike, demanding to work less than 40 hours. “These people are so spoiled, this would never happen in the U.S.,” I cynically remarked. But, as a colleague pointed out, why not let people work less and enjoy life more? Isn’t this what societal progress should be? And certainly what the environment needs is less GDP, less consumerism, less doing.

Over time I came to understand: This day, this sunset, this time together, is all we have. And maybe this is enough.

Enough is something that Americans do not know, but it’s something I’ve tried to learn.

I have tried, over and over, to write about Berlin. To convey what the city has meant for me. To laud it for its openness to me, an immigrant fleeing Trump’s America and a California that is every year more in drought and on fire. To convey what it’s like to live in a city where it’s the unblinking norm to sit at a ten-person dinner where each person hails from a different nation.

But I don’t think I can ever truly convey what Berlin is, or my experience of it. I can only urge you to go, move there for a few years, and find out for yourself.

Or… don’t. Instead, look around you and see that wherever you are, whoever you are, and whomever you are with, is enough.

Viel Glück.

*Actually, I did go on a walking tour and witnessed the place where Hitler shot himself. Spoiler: it’s now a parking lot.

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