Book Review: Let’s Take Berlin by Jessica Guzik

Have you ever been planning a trip, a short vacation or maybe even an entire move to another country for so and so many months or years? If you have, then you surely have at times wanted to know what may await you at your destination . What is life like outside the tourist bubble? What can I get at the supermarket? What do people eat after a hangover? etc.

I can certainly say about myself that I do at times look for experiences like that to get a better picture of the place I am going to, preferably written in a more vivid and entertaining narrative style than the average Lonely Planet guide. Although I have been calling myself a Berliner for almost 16 years now, I really enjoyed reading the book Let’s Take Berlin when no one other than the author herself, Jessica, offered me to write a review of her work in exchange for a free copy.

In short, charming vignettes, Jessica, who is from the United States describes the first six months of her experiences on coming to live in Berlin after she fell in love with the city during an earlier trip. The reader is taken on a humorous journey through the forming of new friendships in the unknown, the discovery of the Döner Kebap, the signature food of Berlin not to be missed and single moments of what I would call culture shock.

So far I have been lucky enough to receive books for review that I found particularly useful with a pinch of laughter and fun. I honestly enjoyed reading this book not because I got it for free as some might think but because I love the fact how newcomers and native Berliners alike can take away something from this book. While the benefit for newcomers of reading this consists in getting an image of Berlin that sums up the aspects of day-to-day life pretty well, I as a native, got to discover a whole new angle from which one can look at life in this city. This becomes especially interesting when looking at the parallels Jessica draws to her life in the United States. I never would have thought, for example how confusing the non-refrigerated display of eggs can be for someone so at the end of the day, I got to learn something new about another culture while reading about my own.  Even though  I already know about the existence of baggers who help pack the groceries in pretty much any country but Germany, watching as the author evolves through her adventures in Berlin made me smile every so often. It is always good to know that there are other people out there who miss the assistance at packing groceries.

So in short, if you want to have a look at what life in Berlin can be like on day-to-day basis, if you always wanted to know how Americans do things differently and if you want to have a good laugh while doing so, I highly recommend this short read. Short enough for me to say that I really hope to read more some time soon as there is definitely more to explore about Berlin.

Why We Need Libraries to Fight Social Inequality

In a district in Berlin among its Turkish residents stood once the Jerusalem Library, not far from the city’s Jewish Hospital. With a gloomy face, 10 year-old me walked up to the building in search of a book to read, as ordered by my mother. There was a new rule in our house at the time, that at least two hours of my day as a third grader with little to no homework was to be spent reading.

Like so many immigrants before and after them, my parents had lost a great deal of their social status, now being scientists with little to no future in their new home country. So while the German state was figuring out how to help parents with children to take care of make a living for themselves  – a pondering process that surprisingly is taking until this day- my  single mother fought my laziness and unwillingness to be curious with the power of books.

Libreria Alta Acqua, Venice, Italy 2017

Now as an adult, I remember my first independent encounter with books like others remember meeting their romantic partners. Having been an introvert from a very young age, finding myself in a room with hundreds of books to choose from, was like having to make friends in a room full of people I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of these books. Their names, their authors even their appearance marked by several years if not decades of sitting on those shelves were alien to me. Why and how on earth should I pick one book above all others and take it home with me, allowing it into my personal space? And then, as I was about to grab something random for the sake of just taking anything home, I spotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on a metal shelf in the middle of the room. I sure knew Harry Potter, so I took that one with me for the next three weeks, happy to have found something familiar. The realization that I started with book three out of seven instead of book one did not appear to me until years later.

Not only did my library visits that followed cure me of my screen addiction, looking back at it all, this library was what helped us children of low social status keep up with kids who were, generally speaking, better off than us. While our more privileged counterparts spent their summers in their holiday homes in Italy or Greece, paid for by their hard-working parents who were either lawyers, doctors, teachers or businessmen, the kids whose parents had no money for vacation because they had to think of how to manage the grocery budget till the end of the month, had the library as a summer retreat. It was with the help of librarians and social workers giving us their time and energy, that instead of wasting our time watching trash-TV in sticky rooms, we had games and other activities to keep us busy every day of summer vacation without paying a single euro.

When school started again and our parents were not able to answer all our questions, we always knew we had the library where there was supervised homework completion.

In Germany the debate on the opportunities of working class children versus children of academics is strongly based on one argument. Summarized to its simplest form: working class children consider themselves at a disadvantage because their parents don’t have money they can spend on cultural activities. Therefore, it is argued, working class children don’t have a chance at the same intellectual development as those  of academics.

This debate is missing one essential point: it is not the amount of times you went to the opera or the art gallery that determine how smart you are. What one needs is an interest in these things and interest is something that needs to come from the person rather than being shoveled down their throats. It was at the library where we not only could cultivate said curiosity for art and music but where we could also practice it. The books, movies and  CDs showed us what the world had to offer. It provided free brain food for those who wanted it and some of us took that as an inspiration to achieve more in life, just like our companions from wealthier families.

I’ll leave it up to the rest of the world to debate whether a person’s interest or even taste in art, music or culture is something that can be bought. There are enough people in this world with money who have never set foot in a museum simply because they don’t care.

It was in this very library where children whose parents had no time or did not speak the language were read to out loud by volunteers. It was among one of those wooden shelves on the first floor where I found an exercise book to practice writing stories. Today, I have this blog to share them. Those who had no computers at home had access to the ones on the second floor in exchange for 50 cents per hour or maybe it was free, I cannot remember.

To many of us it was like a second home. We knew the staff, we met our friends there, we knew every nook and cranny. Ten years ago, I walked across the street to the light blue building only to find it shut down. Our second home, our window to the world and source of free knowledge did no longer exist. When I visit my friends in this district today, I can still see the outlines of the now empty shelves through the windows. It breaks my heart every time.

A few years later, now living in a wealthier part of Berlin, I walked to the library in the building of the town hall to return my copy of Three Comrades after weeks of being sick. I was greeted by closed doors and a note informing me of the shutting down of yet another library. All books were to be returned to somewhere else.

This is  just one story of a library being made unavailable to the public. More and more of them shut down over the years all across Germany due to insufficient funds. And while people debate about (new) ways in which one can fight inequality in a society, I wonder why it is so hard to hold on for a second and look around oneself, at the things, at the resources that we already have but don’t give enough importance to. If we want to give children a chance at curiosity and intellectual growth that shall motivate them to grow into successful adults, we need to give them a space where to start their journey free or of little charge, where everyone is welcome.

What better place can there be than a library?

Language Classes are the Mirror of the Soul

When I came home this afternoon, instead of continuing my crochet project, I started thinking: “I totally want to take Italian classes when I get back to Berlin”. I was somewhat taken with the sound of the word scrittrice, meaning “writer”, when I came across an Instagram post of a book café in Milan I have always wanted to visit but have never come around to doing.

My next thought was that my best bet when it came to actually getting into an Italian class was what in German is known as Volkshochschule, a general term used for institutions or “schools” in every district of Berlin that are probably the closest this country has to the American equivalent to a community college.  Although a source of various learning opportunities, the German community college model is often frequented by people  who are at least old enough to remember  how the Cold War ended; not because the Soviet Union ran out of money but because Mr. Hasselhoff tore down this wall with his bare voice. That’s historically inaccurate sarcasm in its purest form right there but you see what I am getting at, right?

For a number of  reasons, my quest for learning a new language will probably end in a place where I am surrounded by people who take their retirement as a second chance at life. Many  of my peers may find my choice of learning environment a rather weird one. However, the fact that I started this post by talking about a crochet project at the age of 22, says more than enough about my personal level of weirdness which is what I love most about my character, if you really want to know.

I think learning a new language is a fascinating business. One may follow a similar pattern at any new language they learn but every tongue has its own curiosities in grammar and vocabulary so at the end of the day, with the same old learning mechanisms you gain a tiny bit of new knowledge every time. So even though I have yet no intentions of using my Italian knowledge, I’ll sure as hell love listening to how it works.

I remember writing a blog post with a bucket list of things to do, a few days before I turned 20. In there I mentioned that a person should, at least once in their life, spend time with people who are older than oneself. In the light of the classes I took in the company of well accomplished adults on their journey to retirement, I noticed how beneficial this experience could be all strange feelings aside. In that sense, language classes provide a very interesting environment.

Finally, my Italian learning fantasy lead me to the thought that language classes are like a mirror of the soul, especially the kind that focuses on conversation. Right before I moved to Mexico, I took a course with a Spanish gentleman in his 70’s. In our talking sessions, his words about his life experiences in Spain and then Germany over the past decades painted the most colorful paintings of a life well lived, not to be found in any history textbook.  I couldn’t fail to take note of how most of the time when people are asked to use their language skills to talk about themselves,  they can open up about what drives them on the inside without even intending to do so. All of a sudden you know about what they do for a living, what makes them feel tired at the end of the day, what they wished they would have done when they were still young, what their favorite places in the world are or how they prepare a delicious chocolate cake whose recipe they have inherited from their Polish great grandmother. As a young person I felt like I could especially learn from the way how these people did things to apply them to my own life.

I remember a Spanish class spread over the course of a weekend during which, among other things, we were learning about expressing wishes in the form I would like to, but… In the ten minutes that followed the explanation of the grammar rules, I listened to a group of mostly over worked adults whose only chance at learning a new language was a 20 hour weekend course, talk about their wishes. They all had great visions. One gentleman with a special interest in finance wanted to write a book about economics, another woman wished to play the piano. Even activities like dedicating oneself more to reading or listening to classical music seemed like great aspirations. While the ideas of these people were different, they all had one answer in common. Their but part of the sentence consisted of the phrase “I don’t have time.” A plain, almost cliché like answer and yet one that left me in deep thought. Indeed, once working life begins there is little time for anything else. Many people get accused of being head over heels in their work but how can they not be if it takes up most of their day, five days a week in the best case scenario?

I walked out of that class that day, not only having refreshed my Spanish vocabulary and with some knowledge of what was going on in the heads of people twice my age but also with the realization that dreams are there to be followed while there’s still time.


You’ve Come to the Wrong Neighborhood, Güey

We’ve all heard them: rumours about what countries are like. The ones say Kosovo is a war-torn country, where tanks dominate the streets. Others get goosebumps at the thought of living in Saudi Arabia and Belarus is apparently exotic enough to be a destination serviced by travel companies like Young Pioneer Tours alongside North Korea and Chernobyl.  In the case of Mexico, German reporters don’t fail to mention that although they have been living here for a long time, nothing dangerous has happened to them yet. Words of consolation. Like they absolutely have to say it or else no one will believe it.

Here’s an interesting observation: When I lived in Riyadh those to warn me of the dangers of this place were expats. None of the Saudis I had ever struck up a conversation with talked to me about not leaving my house on my own or lectured me on the things I couldn’t do because I ended up with the wrong genitals at birth. In Mexico City however, the warnings come from the locals (which also may be due to the fact that I barely know any expats).

How exactly do you recognize you have come to a bad district? Our security advisor talked me through the neighborhoods I should avoid right after I got here but as fascinating as the prevalence of the Aztec influence in Mexican Spanish appears at first glance, who on earth is supposed to memorize all the district names? Some Mexican words of Aztec origin are so complex, you’d rather learn German.

So again, how do you know you’ve come to the wrong neighborhood? Is it the poor appearance of streets, buildings and people? Is it the shop you have passed on the way there named Recuerdos de la Guerra (Souvenirs from the War) that has a swastika next to its name? I’ve still got a few months to figure it out but when your Mexican Uber driver tells you not to stay until dark, that might be a good indicator.

Just as there exist prejudiced opinions about people from different countries, my years abroad have shown me that, depending on where in the world you are, a similar prejudiced attitude may come from locals towards expatriates, regardless where they are from. Sometimes, when people come to live in a country for a while they are believed to only stay among themselves, creating their own little worlds where everything is familiar. More often than not, this cliché is true.

Sitting in the back seat of my Uber, watching as skyscrapers of metal and glass were replaced by buildings of weather-beaten stone, often no more than two stories high, it was somewhat becoming clear that I was getting out of some sort of comfort zone other expats have defined before I even had my own passport. The strangeness of a foreigner coming to a remote part of town is, among other things, what creates this gap between locals and foreigners. If more of us were travellers, not tourists, maybe we would be living in a different world by now.

Interestingly enough, districts that are known to be the bad ones, have a similar infrastructure to the ones that aren’t. Even in a bad district you will find homes, shops, offices, schools, kindergartens, you name it. It’s not like the world ceases to exist where the common and familiar ends.

I may have come to the wrong neighborhood but even bad neighborhoods are sometimes  frequented by good people. A Russian woman in Germany once told me that you can come to a birthday gathering in Berlin not knowing anyone and by the time you leave you will probably still not know anyone.

In Mexico, the first lesson you might learn upon joining a birthday party is that walls and floors make great tools for crushing large quantities of ice in bags. Take the bag, think of your ex or whatever it is that gets your blood boiling and hit the wall. An easy, fun and cheap alternative to anger management therapy with a purpose for everyone involved.

Once you have released your excess stress by manually crushing ice and its combination with a drink of your choice has got you all calm, take a bowl of traditional Mexican soup that the host will offer you. Just like the name of the district you find yourself in, its origin probably goes back all the way to the Aztecs. You will just have tried your first mouth-full of soup when the first person asks you about where you are from, how long you have been here and what it is that you like the most about Mexico. You are likely to be treated like family and even if you have spent the last couple of years as a wallflower, you’ll notice that social gatherings are actually not that bad.

As the hours go by, you will notice that your progress in Spanish can be measured by your understanding of jokes told. In the coastal regions, so a fellow Mexican party guest, out of 4 words spoken, 7 are cuss words. 😉

Of course all the fun eating and drinking between conversations doesn’t mean you should forget your driver’s warnings and walk the streets in the dark. The locals probably don’t like that idea either and even if you live over an hour away, someone’s gonna give you a ride home. Not least to tell you more jokes on the way.

The Earthquake After the Drill

At 11 a.m., on the 32nd anniversary of the Mexican earthquake of 1985, there was the customary earthquake drill, so people could practice for a real-life situation. Same procedure as every year. At 1 p.m. we agreed to have lunch. At 1.20 p.m. hell broke loose.

I sometimes can’t help but think about the situations I find myself in when the most inconvenient things happen. When the skyscraper, a very noticeable one since it’s the only one on the entire street, started shaking, I was between floors. Running out of the bathroom I had just enough time to press myself against the wall and put my feet in the most stable position possible during an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2.  It was me, the cleaning ladies and stairs above and below, all of us caught in immediate darkness.

My security instructor had been right at our chat from two weeks ago. Those who are old enough to remember what happened in 1985 scream during every earthquake that followed. One lady screamed while another tried to calm her. I don’t know how I was in that moment. I don’t think I was scared. At first it felt like this whole thing was not happening to me but I was just watching from a distance as this was happening to something that looked like my body. Then the adrenaline kicked in. As soon as the actual movement ended, I ran up the remaining stairs to the door.

My colleagues were all gathered under and around the zona de seguridad sign. They pulled me into the crowd and made sure I stayed close. A young Mexican who was probably working in another office tried to calm me by saying that this was just a bit like a rollercoaster ride. As we gathered our things as quickly as possible, I gave one last look to the plastic bag with the salad I had just bought for lunch before everything happened. I held up the bag and put it down again. I was not going to be the stupid one who ran around with her bag and her salad.

When I was reunited with my family later that same day, I was asked a few times whether I was scared. To tell the truth, the actual fear kicked in once we were about to leave the building. You never know when the next shaking will come around and with dozens of people coming down the stairs from the 18th floor you really learn what fear of the unknown means, if this is the right way to express this in English.

For the first few minutes everything seemed just like a few hours ago during the drill. Everybody stood gathered outside while the civil security staff gave orders in Spanish. Next thing I knew, my friend grabbed my hand and we both started moving down the street as fast as we could. With the screaming around us growing louder the term mass-panic took on its real-life form. Some of us heard the explosion right behind the building we had just left.

I shall dare to possibly exaggerate when I say that the whole situation started feeling a bit like Roland Emmerich’s 2012 movie. It was a feeling out of this world watching as people tried to reach their loved ones and as mothers tried to find out whether their kids had left their schools safely. Even as I tried to contact my own parents on y cell phone, I, as the rest of us, kept fighting the invisible yet omnipresent crash of all communication lines. All without effect.

Another building – we had now moved a few streets further- seemed to have caught fire. Military helicopters- according to my other friend- were making their way through the dark grey, almost brown smoke. I watched as some people came down the street in nothing but a bathrobe and socks. Soon we couldn’t hear our own voices over the noise of the emergency vehicles. Someone let his drone ascend into the air. Others got out their phones and if they already couldn’t reach family and friends, they at least tried to film what was going on.

There was no way we were getting lunch so we went ahead to get our friend’s dog from her building. In some parts, traffic was pure hell, in others, police had already blocked the streets. A building was said to have crashed somewhere in the neighborhood. The air smelled like smoke and the dust of broken stone and construction material. Most people remained in the streets, looking up to the buildings that have just been evacuated as if they might fear the fall of one of them. Somewhere in a corner by a hotel, a young Mexican woman was crying her heart out. I promise you, it was a sound with the power of breaking your own heart into a million pieces.  Between all this chaos one could see two types of people. Those who, in all calmness, kept eating their tacos at the vending carts and journalists with their giant, professional photo cameras, preserving the ongoing events for the rest of eternity.  In between all this my friends and the dog, safely brought out of the building by my friend’s neighbors, risked their own safety to get me home. I salute them and their concern for me! Mexico is a place where it is the easiest to find a family.

I know that aside from me, the rest of my fellow people have experienced this multiple times over the past years. I bow my head in respect for their bravery.




A Tribute to the Grasshopper I Had For Lunch

There would come a day in my life where I would find myself on a weekly market in Cholula, thinking about whether dried grasshoppers have bones. If somebody would have told me that way in advance, it probably wouldn’t have been so much of an intense moment.

I may be an A-student in university and a curious person with glasses which makes most people think I am some sort of super smart but actually I am not. I mean, I don’t even know if insects have skeletons. Well, I just looked it up. They do have something like bones though it is made of another material. More like fingernails and our fingernails are made of a protein called keratin. Thanks, internet! Next question: Do insects have feelings? Do they have a conscience?

I looked at the plastic bag filled with dried, brown little somethings and fished out one of them with two fingers. I had no idea why I was doing this. Maybe to get it off my bucket list, even though dried grasshoppers with sauce and lime juice were not on it but it sounded like something you would put on a bucket list.

I took a deep breath and popped in the tiny protein bomb called chapulines. In the eastern- european culture I partially grew up with, in my childhood there was  a custom of making a wish when eating something for the very first time. I made a wish from the depth of my racing heart, chewed and swallowed. That f***ing wish better come true now, it better do. Please.

The legs were thin and crunchy. Something like  individual dried herbs from a dish or a tiny piece of uncooked spaghetti or vermicelli better yet, for the pasta connoisseurs among my readers. The crunchiness of the insect was short-lived and so was the spicy shock coming from the sauce as it was smoothened by the lime juice only a few seconds later. The fish-like taste in the finish made me wonder about the contents of the sauce. I doubt the vendor, who at the same time sold cherries in one bucket and dried grasshoppers with chilli and lime in another, used fishstock for this but this was Mexico so you never knew. In fact, the taste reminded me of the packages of dried fish from the Russian supermarket. Typical beer snacks, as addictive as sunflower seeds way before Socialism was introduced to Pringles. Or the other way around?

I left it at only one encounter with the dried insects even though they may be the healthier alternative to chips. Mexican markets are a curious thing of its own. No matter how much I hate crowds by now I can’t cease to be fascinated by them. There are all sorts of food and drinks and while one part of me really wants to try this pancake shaped pastry with chocolate filling, called  gorditas de nata, my fear of food poisoning forces me to remain rational and enjoy the surroundings with my eyes and nose rather than with my taste buds.  Even as I pass by mexican women whipping cocoa to a cold and foamy drinkable substance, followed by stands of giant corn cobs topped with mayonnaise and shredded mozzarella, I remain stubborn despite the medical charcoal in my pocket whispering that everything will be alright.

Michelada,  a beer cocktail made of beer, tomato juice, salt, lime, tabasco and Worcester – or Maggi sauce (so basically what…beer soup? Beer gazpacho?) makes me feel glad I don’t drink alcohol.

20170916_125201  Sorry for the disturbing imagery. Here’s a picture of candy to calm down your nerves. 🙂



Observant Thoughts From Mexico By Someone From Berlin

I have lost count of how many times I have used the sentence other countries, other customs  on this blog. I may have done that so many times that it is almost like a cliché by now.

On the other hand, at the end of my fourth week in Mexico City I notice that some things are really different from Berlin. In a good way. In a way I find so interesting that in today’s writing session I want to list some observations from living here. They are rather random and don’t appear in an order of preference. Just some things that make me realize I have really moved countries.

First of all, I am amazed at how open and friendly the mexican people are! It may be a matter of personality, but I find it much easier to approach people here than I did in Germany. I have heard a couple of times from other expats that the people in Germany are sometimes a bit distant. In Mexico I noticed how people greet each other randomly sometimes in the streets, sometimes in the elevators. I noticed that since I am here, I smile more often at strangers and they smile back, too. My Spanish is not yet at its best but my mexican peers keep speaking Spanish to me instead of English, bravely listening on to my mix-up of the different past tense forms and misplacement of adjectives in a sentence, not to mention my confusion with so-called false-friends words I get from my knowledge of English.

I sometimes come to think that different cities have different sounds. When I first got here and heard the calls of the street vendors, I first thought of prayer calls I am familiar with from muslim countries.  Beside the constant traffic noise, the sound of musical boxes strike me as very dominant in some parts of town. That way, a walk through the streets has a fun fair feeling to it.

Because I have been here for only a short period of time still, every trip to the supermarket for me is like a whole adventure. Currently, I am pretty much trying my way through all sorts of yoghurt, pastries and (american) junk food. I can’t fail to take note of how even the ssupposedly sugar-free things like Dr. Pepper or the non-alcoholic sangria drink I found are almost too much for me. It seems like the people in Mexico like sugar in general. I mean, I really love churros but with all the sugar on top I just can’t take it.

Speaking of food, as someone who spent most of her life in Europe, I am still in search of all sorts of american products and fast food chains I can find. The most exotic american thing that I have come across in Europe was the Taco Bell I found while in Madrid and even then I only acknowledged its existence instead of actually eating there. So generally speaking, things like Olive Garden, Hershey’s, IHOP etc are things I only know from movies or TV shows, which makes them seem like…I don’t even know…pop-culture items? Just imagine all the things I had to go through to get my hands on a can of shortening, not to mention the price. There’s a seven-eleven shop at nearly every corner here and they sell Reese’s flavored cappuccino. Yes, the USA are definitely somewhere near here. Am I the only one who thinks Life-Savers gummies taste very artificial?

But even if not all things I find in the supermarket are really my thing, I am super grateful for the people at the cash registers who pack the  groceries for you (I believe the actual word in english is “baggers”). I have never liked to do groceries on a big scale in Germany because there I always have to pack my items myself under the impatient stare of the other shoppers right after I have paid. Here in Mexico I get help with that and am always happy to leave a little tip for that kind of stress relief.

Street Food stands are constant part of the picture when walking around town. Pretty much anyone can open such a stand and the locals don’t seem to mind the food at all. In fact, I have sometimes seen people wait in line for their tacos or quesadillas before they sit down at the plastic tables. I haven’t tried any of that food and I probably shouldn’t for the sake of my sensitive, untrained stomach but I can at least take part by registering the scent of fried meat, hot fat and corn tortillas.

I have decided to visit Mexico after I had seen the movie Frida and since coming here I am really excited about how the people here seem to like art. From a european point of view, museum tickets are very affordable and there is a lot to see for art lovers. Museums here are always well visited, even on week days. If I am not mistaken, Mexico City has the highest number of museums on the american continent.

While in Germany it is common to go to parks during the summer months to grill, in Mexico do you not only find absolutely stunning green spaces but will also notice that they are always well visited on the weekends. Especially families like to spend their free days in parks and if you ever find yourself in this beautiful city, pay a visit to Bosque de Chapultepec! Do it.

When I go to a pharmacy in Germany, most things sold are pretty much medicine related only, with the exception of some cosmetic products, teas and glucose candy. A pharmacy in Mexico City sells pretty much anything from medicines to corn flakes to chocolates to shaving supplies for men and hygienic items for women. Some pharmacies even have doctors on site that you can consult if you have any health complaints.