Monday, January 27, 2014

Ain't No Magic Schoolbus

I haven’t been on a real field trip since like…middle school science camp (does that even count?) so when I found out that actual field trips are incorporated as part of the class curriculum, I was super psyched. This past week, I went on two such field trips: one to a German supermarket as part of my language class and the other, an eye-opening historical experience to a Stasi-prison. Naturally, I expected to, you know, practice my broken German and somberly reflect upon some of the darker areas of German history during these respective outings…but as study abroad goes: it’s always the unexpected experiences that really hit home.    

Last Wednesday morning, our class of beginner German students met up at Marheineke Markthalle, a shopping center in Kreuzberg.  We broke up into groups and asked about the names and costs of products being sold in German, documented them, and presented our investigations to the class. But I guess our teacher didn’t take into account that having a school of 15 American students traveling up and down a market square might be kind of disruptive.  Long story short, we captured the attention of a pretty disgruntled old German man, who proceeded to take our teacher aside and have a very unpleasant sounding conversation with her. As we continued our lesson, he unceasingly glared at us from the second story until he finally marched down and shouted something along the lines of “If you come to my country, you learn German first! Or else don’t come!” in English. It was an uncomfortable experience, to say the least, and completely took us all off guard.  I talked to a friend about it and she speculated that he might have been a super radical Communist or something. Even though we were obviously trying to learn German, this guy’s anti-tourism sentiment simply wasn't amused by us.

Then, the following Friday, we made our way to an infamous Stasi-prison memorial called Hohenschönhausen, which was a prison run by the Russian secret police. The physical and psychological torture, loss of identity, and dehumanization that took place here is already unfathomable…but add on the fact that it was kept a complete secret from 1945 to 1989 – as in no one knew about it for almost five decades –  and it just becomes mind-blowingly disturbing.  It was a literal black hole in the outskirts of East Berlin. So I went on this field trip anticipating some pretty heavy stuff, you know? What I didn’t expect was to find an angry, drunk Russian man waiting with our group at our meeting spot. He had apparently had a conversation on the train with one of our students and was extremely dismayed about our visit to this Stasi-prison, and, consequentially, insisted on joining our group (Did I mention he was insanely drunk? We were walking on some pretty shaky grounds there). Fortunately, he ended up being taken to security and that was that. But it was certainly an ominous prelude to the prison itself.

I guess the point of this long and visually-unsatisfying post (sorry, readers!) is that I’m just realizing that the painful memories of German history are still lingering and very present today.  It’s a bit shocking to think that the Berlin Wall fell only 25 years ago (only 2 years before I was born!).  Of course I came to Berlin with expectations of acquiring deeper cultural knowledge and unforgettable experiences and (insert any other study abroad cliché here), but it’s only week four and I've already gotten more than I bargained for. Field trips just aren’t what they used to be. 

Until next time,

P.S. I'm going to Prague this coming weekend so if you wanna send me on a mission, do so! :D


  1. What a story, Michelle! Loved it. Have fun in Praha. I think we gave you a bunch of stuff to do there, but if you can only do one, maybe just the Heineken ice bar! - Serena

  2. all kinds of people in this world. their present is shaped by their past. i'm such they have their stories too. these are unusual trips. i'm glad you were with a big group. what are your thoughts? enjoy.