Finding Balance in Berlin

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Going on a study tour in Berlin, Germany was unlike any other experience I have had. Not only was I able to explore the city’s rich history and vibrant culture, but I had the opportunity to bond with my classmates in a way that would have not been possible in a typical classroom setting. From visiting landmarks like the East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie to trying German cuisine (and beer), every moment of this trip was unforgettable. Most memorable, to note, were the historical sites we visited, including the Jewish Memorial and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. These visits were emotionally challenging but incredibly significant in understanding Germany’s past, as well as the violence and hate that so horribly manifested throughout the Holocaust. Because of the intense nature of what we were learning, our instructors encouraged us to take care of ourselves during our time in Berlin; for me and my other classmates, this meant finding balance. In the following, I share with you how I spent my five days in Berlin and what I did to take care of my mental health in the light of learning incredibly important but heavy lessons.

Day 1: Day 1 began in the best way any day can begin: MAX Burger (a fast-food restaurant in Sweden). Seriously, if I could pack up MAX’s entire menu into my luggage and bring it back to the United States with me, I would. I got chicken nuggets and fries – the perfect airport snack while awaiting our departure. I slept through most of the flight, and by the time I woke up, I could look down from the plane window to see an aerial view of Germany. Leaving the airport, we got on a bus and the commuting continued until we were able to drop off our luggage at the hotel and attend our first event: a multi-cultural food tour. The tour took place in a neighborhood in West Berlin, which our guides said was known for its diversity in both its people and food, which was reflected in the food we sampled. We had five stops: two appetizers, one entree, and dessert of Turkish, Japanese, and Arabic cuisine and, of course, we got German beers. Every food item did not disappoint, and I was in heaven. Even the beer, which I expected not to like, I enjoyed a lot. Our tour guide taught us the German tradition of saying “Prost” as a cheers; per instruction, I made sure to make eye contact with everyone I clicked drinks with. Our guide warned us all that if we were not to do this German tradition, we would be cursed with “seven years of bad sex.” No one took any chances, making sure to say “Prost” and keeping their eyes wide open. By the end of the day, my belly was full and happy, and I was ready for bed.

Day 2: We had an early start to Day 2, beginning at 7am. After enjoying the hotel’s breakfast, we gathered in the lobby and began our walking tour with our tour guide, Finn. Before it was even noon, we had visited several sites and learned a great deal about the Nazi regime, Hitler’s life and reign, and the people who were victims of the Holocaust. As our class studies the Psychology of Violence and Hate, these topics are relevant to our class themes of radicalization and extremism. We saw the Berlin Wall, Hitler’s bunker, the Jewish Memorial, and the Topography of Terror; while standing in these places, Finn gave us insight into the history behind them. He told us of divides created by the Nazi Party through the dehumanization of Jews and other marginalized groups, as well as the Berlin Wall, which served as a literal divide. He, too, shared details of the political dynamics leading up to and during the Holocaust and of Hitler’s last moments in the bunker. Although I have learned about some of these things in my schooling, I hadn’t received such a detailed account, and I was left feeling a sense of grief. To counteract the knowledge-intensive morning, the rest of our day was mainly recreational, including a class lunch at TV towers. Never in my life did I think I would be eating over 200 meters in the air, but it was an unbelievable view. Continuing the recreational activities, a few of my class friends and I did an escape room, and (with many helpful clues from our game master) we won! It was a good way to end a long day.

Day 3: This day was the hardest day; it was the day we visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Although I won’t go into detail about the terrors we learned of and the horrific places we saw, I will say that touring the camp made me understand and feel the gravity of the Holocaust more than any textbook or lecturer ever could. When my teacher and I were talking after the tour, we shared this sentiment: “You feel it in your body when you’re there – everything becomes stiff and tense. It feels like the air is 5x thicker, and it’s hard to breathe. It’s an awful place.” The hour-long bus ride following the visit to the camp was silent, and we were given two options when we returned: to go to the Berlin Wall Museum or sit at the restaurant to take a mental rest. I, still feeling quite emotional, decided to take a mental rest. While in the restaurant, I doodled in my notebook and eventually myself and another student began to unpack some of things we had learned and witnessed that day, which helped. As a class, we ate a meal together, and a few of us went to a bookstore and to get ice cream afterwards. Later that evening, we decided it’d be best to do something we found fun, so we went to possibly the hardest mini golf course I’ve ever been to. It was a more lighthearted time than the time that we had earlier in the day, and it gave me the balance I needed to care for myself and those around me.

Day 4: This day was primarily spent at a workshop with someone who works for the Violence Prevention Network in Sweden; they told us their story and about deradicalization work, and we soaked up all the knowledge he thoughtfully presented to us. Following the workshop, a few of my friends and I decided to view the artwork at the East Side Gallery, which was so cool. Truly, I will never fathom how talented some people are, especially in their ability to convey a story without words. A theme of storytelling carried throughout the day, as my last sightseeing adventure was the Dark Matter Museum, a museum of artwork through engineering, music, and lights. Each exhibit was immersive, and my friends and I had a blast going through. We finished our day with Schnitzel, a sausage platter, and jugs of beer – what better way to spend your final night in Germany.

Day 5: We had coffee and breakfast at a café in the morning, followed by reflections of the tour and a fancy lunch. Our flight followed soon after, and the study tour was after.

Reflecting on my experience in Berlin, balancing my time between educational experiences and recreational activities was crucial in sustaining my mental well-being. While my experiences at places such as the Jewish Memorial or Sachsenhausen fostered my learning and growth, it was the recreational activities and talking with my friends and instructors that helped me maintain a healthy mindset throughout my trip. Learning about history and realities of radicalization is so important, and so is prioritizing self-care (whether that be from doodling, doing something you enjoy like an escape room or mini golf, or just reflecting with people you feel comfortable with). I think that this study tour has confirmed for me that balance is always key, and I’m glad I managed to find that balance in Berlin, so that I could gain the most from my trip.