Arrival and departure times, gates and destinations flash across large screens as we walked into the Berlin airport lobby.
It was 9 a.m. and two friends and I lugged 100 pounds of baggage that held my life as it was in Berlin: sweaters, postcards, posters, a souvenir bottle of Club-Mate (a caffeinated drink), nine biersteins (for friends), a map of the city to hang on my wall.
I had two hours until my flight left, and that was a good thing. One of my bags was 20 pounds overweight, and I found myself sprawled on the floor, frantically re-packing in the hopes I could get both suitcases under British Airways’ 50 pounds weight limit.
Caroline Chamberlain, a fourth-year UCLA history student, and Ethan Kelley, a fourth-year U. California Santa Cruz linguistics student, watched and laughed.
It’s just like me to wait until the airport to finish packing. Eventually, I crammed everything back in and handed my bags over at the counter. A generous attendant ignored that I was still slightly over the limit.
I met both Chamberlain and Kelley through the Education Abroad Program. We became fast friends, solidified after we tried and failed miserably at making our own Korean barbecue. Kelley is staying the year, but Chamberlain flew back a few days after me.
We passed the remaining time lounging on the airport floor, counting the number of leopard print accessories we saw. It’s a habit we picked up in Spain, where faux-safari is all the rage. We tallied eight in just under an hour.
Forty minutes before my flight, I moved to the security line, crying a little and waving goodbye to my friends and to Berlin. Mostly, though, I was struggling to maintain a sense of dignity as I dropped all four of my carry-on bags at security.
I boarded the plane 10 minutes later, and in the comforting sterility of the Berlin Tegel Airport, my time in Germany ended where it began eight months ago.
The transition back to California has been surprisingly easy, but also very strange. To start, grocery stores here feel enormous. As do gallons of milk – in Berlin, we had only liters.
And I stopped by Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on my way back up home from a visit to Los Angeles to move into my spring sublease, ordered a medium cup, and was greeted by 16 ounces of steamy, black coffee. That’s right – finally, a proper cup of coffee, after months where a “large” was 6 ounces.
I thought it would be much harder to come back. I thought I would miss more, find the re-acculturation more difficult, and question my decision not to extend the program and stay for a year.
It has actually helped to relive Berlin through all the paper souvenirs I collected – ticket stubs, brochures, flyers, tags, receipts, etc. Each has a memory associated with Berlin.
During my time there, I also wrote down what I did every day. I can’t recommend this enough – I did so much in my time abroad to remember it all, so I wrote it down and collected as much as I could.
But it also helps that I have a lot to look forward to in Los Angeles. My classes at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin were less rigorous, met less often and were generally taken less seriously than at UCLA. I’m actually looking forward to lectures meeting more than once a week, writing papers in English and returning to math and physics. I’m also taking a German class to ensure I keep speaking the language.
Lastly, my quiet suburban hometown in Silicon Valley is so far from Berlin’s hustling and bustling industrial character that it’s hard to relate the two. Sleepy streets with two-story houses instead of imposing apartment buildings, silent hybrid cars instead of roaring trains and busses. And it doesn’t feel as if time has passed in Sunnyvale – there are even the same stores in the Safeway shopping center, the same highways, the same music on the radio.
Chamberlain said she feels this as well – everything in our hometowns appears so similar to how we left it, it’s as if no time has passed.
Yet, life here has gone on as always.
All of a sudden my sister – a senior in high school – is going to college. I find myself responding to waiters in German. Trader Joe’s has brought back their chocolate-covered espresso beans. My parents renovated the kitchen. And my time abroad already feels like it’s fading away.
“Berlin feels like a dream,” Chamberlain said. “I sometimes wonder why I missed so many things (when I was there).”
There are so many things I “shoulda, coulda, woulda” done in Berlin. Museums whose art I never saw, bakeries whose pastries I’ve never tasted, the list goes on.
But I could not do it all, and overall I am happy with what I did accomplish: Getting to know Berlin better than I know my hometown.
Back in Berlin, Kelley and Brianna Miner, a fourth-year UC Santa Barbara chemistry student who I also met through EAP, are enjoying unprecedented amounts of sunshine. The day following my return home it rained in California, but Berliners experienced their first day of spring.
The cafes along Simon Dach Strasse, our favorite street, have moved their tables back outside, Miner said.
She went to the botanical gardens and bought tulips. And come April, she plans on joining an outdoor ultimate Frisbee team repairing her bike and returning to the weekly Sunday karaoke sessions at Mauerpark, our favorite flea market.
Life will go on as always in Berlin too, and I wonder if it will feel the same when I return one day.