A few days ago, a friend who is currently studying abroad in Berlin emailed me some photo-snippets of her life overseas. The photos half assure me she’s already engaged in a vibrant life there, half help me to reconnect visually with the somewhat surreal experience I had living in the same city this summer. I like to think of it as a half and half solution, uncurdled and ready for the coffee that I newly drink. Not speaking a lick of German save for the word for art, “kunst,” I felt, like Salinger’s Franny Glass, “hopelessly selfconscious” as I pounded the streets of Berlin with a) little more than the word for the very subject I had come to Berlin to respond to and b) a haircut not nearly as trendy as the preternaturally tan, monochromatic-clothes-wearing young Berliners.
I guess this trepidation was shared by the other American students or at least amplified by my voiced preoccupation with it, because soon “kunst” evolved into a mainstay of our discourse. It was a way to lump our general enthusiasm for Berlin into a concrete agenda of museums, public art and leftover Keith Haring-esque graffiti on the Wall. Art was understood from the get-go as an easy way into the city—something we could not quite own nor have enough time to analyze completely but could at least experience in the space of six stress-free weeks.
“I’m down to kunst today and then meet up for dinner later”; “What’s the kunst like in Prenzlauer Berg?”; “The art history class was fine, but we spent too much time in that one museum. But, I mean, kunst.” Almost any travel guide for Berlin will exhaust the word “art” (read: “kunst”) in its efforts to define the city and the reasons we, as travelers, should want to visit it. Lonely Planet’s guide to Berlin gives an offer no twenty-or-almost-twenty-something could refuse: “Twenty years after its post-Wall rebirth, Berlin is a scene-stealing combo of glamour and grit, teeming with top museums and galleries, grand opera and guerrilla clubs, gourmet temples and ethnic snack shacks.” To the rest of the world, the city is fashioned as art object, immediately visualizable from a few choice words, as if plucked from a review of a restaurant or musical and prepared for easy digestion.
This isn’t a love paean or further evidence (besides the obnoxious red sticker on my laptop) that I left my “herz” in Berlin because I didn’t, really. Any ounce of my worldliness manifests equally in the books I read, the art I see and the two cities abroad—Berlin and Dublin—to which I have become a little pathetically attached, but moreso in the sometimes-arduous and sometimes-frenzied homecomings. A return to my childhood bedroom and the tilting stack of infinitely renewed library books; a return, finally for the happiest and most healthy time, to Durham and to Duke and all they’ve come to represent for me over the past three years. Each return has its initial peace (lying around and reading ten pages here and there) and then, when August hits, its amorphous anxiety (Should I feel okay about these new classes? Where should I want to live in the [near] future and how much should I be thinking about this now?). Whereas my summer’s mantra was “kunst,” “should” is the overplayed word once I—and many of the people I know—get back to Duke. That’s when “should” transforms into a Duke-wide aura, at once pernicious and innocuous, like the elixir of stale beer and pre-autumn dew on the lawns of West Campus.
I chose to go to Berlin this summer—at the absolute last minute, I might add—in direct contestation to this same “should” that sent me literally and metaphorically running all spring semester. I drafted cover letters for positions that, while “relevant,” gradually felt irrelevant to me. When we begin to conceptualize living in terms of our on-paper selves, no matter how quirky or diverse our interests and activities, or how cleanly and genuinely we think we package them, something is lost. Maybe it’s our ability to laugh easily. Maybe it’s a once-prioritized easygoingness that encourages us to go see a band or theater performance we’ve never heard of. I often think of it in terms of Henry’s maxim in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: “When you transcend the limits of yourself, you can cease merely living– and begin to BE!” Our potential for “being” in this sense becomes endangered by the manipulative, almost otherworldly “should.” It keeps us propelled toward an end without clear emphasis on the art (kunst) of present-tense living.
When I read my friend’s email, I laughed at the way she had rearranged her signature, inserting the word “kunst” in place of her last name and phone number. Away from a Duke semester for only a few weeks, she’s undoubtedly already caught the kunst bug, an early taste of the same joie de vivre three friends and I ended our trip with. Bouncing back, bleary-eyed, to our apartments at four in the morning, inundating the empty streets with impromptu collaborative beatbox, “kunst” functioning as both lyric and sound in our goodbye to Berlin. I’d never felt so okay with myself and my situation as I did then—until I returned to Duke this year with an unexpected ability to be. Without knowing it then, I found my time abroad this summer was an exercise in being. It was an exercise in stripping the “shoulds” from life, the act of rearranging my own signature to embody what it means to me to be. Email me and you’ll see.