by Sophia Angele-Kuehn
“We’re neighbors,” the woman next to me said.
“What?” I asked. Sleep-deprived and already feeling the tug of homesickness, I had just pulled out my headphones from my backpack, ready to cut myself off from the world.
“Neighbors… on this flight,” she explained, her English lightly accented. “My name’s Raquel.” And very quickly, an uncomfortable eight-hour JFK to Berlin-Tegel flight had turned into a conversation about home.
Raquel’s accent happened to be a combination of Spanish and Russian. She was born in Mexico yet currently lives in Moscow with her family. But her mother is German (like mine) yet she hadn’t spoken the language growing up at home (also like me). She was flying to Berlin to take a business course.
I told Raquel about my internship in Berlin for the next three months.
“Are you excited?”
I smiled but looked away. “I’m sad to be leaving my family.”
She blinked, squinting. “I’m sorry, ‘sad’?” I nodded. “You’re young! Have fun, enjoy your time in Berlin… and your family will be here when you return home.”
This important piece of advice handed to me from a stranger who had quickly become a friend left me stunned. I would continue to be shocked by just how much “home” I would find across the ocean in Berlin.
Once I touched down in Tegel, I had a family member waiting to give me a hug – a family member whom I had never seen in my life, and whose existence I had only learned about one month prior. It was the husband of my dad’s cousin’s daughter, whose family happened to live in the same apartment complex as my dad’s sister, who happened to have enough room to accommodate me. Just like me, my aunt had come to Berlin from America to get in contact with her family roots. We were both lucky to have neighbors who were also family in a foreign (and not-so-foreign) country.
Berlin is an important city for my family. As fate would have it, my grandparents’ apartment had been just a few blocks down from my internship location at Literaturhaus Berlin. Literaturhaus Berlin is a literature institute located in a 19th century neoclassical villa on a chic side-street off the shopping boulevard Kurfürstendamm. At “Li-Be” (just like the German word for love “Liebe”) a team of eight people organize readings and literary discussions for the public on anything and everything that is of current interest in the world. For example, the first event that I attended was about the American singer Leonard Cohen and the lyrical mystique of his songs. “Eurovision Poetry” and “The Arabic Spring” are just two of the eighteen events which we’ve organized these past three months.
As the intern, I accompanied my supervisors to meetings with other literary organizations, researched suitable moderators and authors to come to a future event on the Italian author Primo Levi, and worked in the archives, documenting information from old cassette recordings of our very first readings in the 1980s and cataloging original photographs of people who had done readings at Li-Be, including the late Toni Morrison months before she had received the Nobel Prize for Literature. After weeks of thumbing through more than 300 photos of authors, translators, artists and scholars from all around the world, I’ve gained a new list of books to read and a much-needed confidence booster. Hundreds of ordinary people have published books that mean something to the world. If they did it, I can too.
The city of Berlin itself is also chock full of literary history and research materials. After my shift, I would attend other events at other institutions around Berlin, including a reading of translingual poetry at the Akademie der Künste and a lecture on translatability and the challenge of “world literature” at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICI). I also shared a couple dinners with Li-Be’s “Open World” Fellow – a journalist from Syria – and was moved listening to her brave story of giving up her family and religion, finding a home in Berlin, and using her experiences to help other women in exile meet and share their narratives with one another.
Suddenly, my neighborhood drastically changed: during a three-week Sommerpause, I took a train to the opposite end of Germany in Bavaria, where I stayed with my mom’s sister in the small, historic town of Oettingen. Whenever I looked out the window, I no longer saw an apartment complex and a courtyard, but red clay tiled roofs, a clock tower, and a rose garden. I found myself immersed in a familiar, traditional German environment – one that included trying on Dirndl dresses for the first time in a Tracht costume shop, eating rye bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, swimming in the Wörnitz river during dry, hazy evenings, and watching typical late-night political talk shows. The town was so tight-knit that I would go to the local gelato shop to meet up with the teachers at the local secondary school, where I worked as an Assistant Teacher for English and Italian. The teachers were delighted that for most of their students, I was the first native English speaker that they had ever spoken to. This experience of being able to work in two very different places in Germany was also rewarding for my SIP research on foreign language learning and multigenerational stories on migration.
All too quickly, I came back to Berlin, but with no family to greet me. My aunt had already flown back to Chicago, and her cousin’s family was in the U.S. touring Route 66. Instead, I was greeted by a second culture shock and a city that I had trouble calling home. For the first time, I was stripped of family and a sense of belonging. It didn’t help that Berlin doesn’t feel German at all. On the subway I would hear an average of three languages. Kurfürstendamm’s sidewalks are always filled with families of tourists. On any given day, I’d pass by Turkish Döner shops, Italian pizzerias, and a couple Starbucks and McDonalds. The entire world seems to live in Berlin. The official language just happens to be German.
Therefore, the biggest lesson that I took away from my CISLA internship is how to find a new family even when you’re not home. Although I had to leave behind my family in Connecticut, I was never that far away. Family is something which can be found at work, in a city, on a plane. While getting to understand my German ancestry better, I was welcomed by others as if I were their family. Around the world, one can always find a home, or at least a friend to call neighbor.