The beer has spilt and the cleavage has overflown—I am officially in Germany. This country of Angela Merkel and salted pretzels is part of the motherland to me; I am half German, half Indian, so hearing the guttural language spit around me isn’t unusual.
For this photojournalism program, our project is to find an interesting subject in Berlin, interview them, and create a photography series of their everyday lives as Berliners. Find examples of previous presentations here. Easy, thoughtless, practically a sneeze, right? It sounds simple to approach a stranger, but swallowing shyness in a foreign country is easier said than done.
Emailing random Berliners is 200 words of schmoozing, begging, and “sincerely yours, Mackenzie Patel” tagged on the end. Speaking to people might be a “soft skill,” but it’s much harder than pressing send. I found a few potential subjects: a freelance photographer for VICE and a food blogger from Boston living in Berlin. Explaining the assignment in a way that isn’t invasive or serial killer is tricky; it’s towing the line between fly-on-the-wall and foreign horror movie.
I redownloaded Tinder, hoping a bio of “Looking for an interesting, English speaker in Berlin” would result in a magical washing of subjects. It didn’t. Only creepy, half-naked boys responded to my casting call for exciting lives in the capital of Deutschland. I ditched Tinder, feeling frustrated at these useless, thirsty boys and guilty because my boyfriend is stuck in Gainesville for the summer (whoops). *
After walking by the Spotify office in Leipziger Straß, I tried contacting Spotify employees on Instagram—Spotify is horrible for stalking people’s emails, so I had to rely on public social media accounts. My filmmaker friend, Jahi, scouts and recruits talented, beautiful models through Instagram direct messaging—how does he do it? None of my potential Instagram subjects responded, their accounts public but dormant. Facebook groups seemed too sketchy for me (although Tinder wasn’t? How does your mind work, Mackenz?). Bumble, Grindr, and the rest of the dating apps were thrown out the window.
I must find a breathing, in-the-flesh human and interact with them on the streets. What am I, some sort of socially comfortable extrovert without fear of rejection, kidnapping, or humiliation? Maybe Tinder isn’t so saucy after all. I’ve mostly gotten over photographing people up close—they either wave “no” with angry cussing in German or embrace the lens with slight drunkenness or indifference. Translating that photographic courage into a social one shouldn’t be that difficult.
*As an aside, it’s hilarious the rate at which people download, delete, and redownload Tinder. Being in your 20s is just a collection of slut/regaining dignity/rock bottom phases.
Other Berlin Tales
- The first day was a never-ending slush of walking, bratwurst, and hiding yawns behind a Canon T6i. As my study abroad group was flying in, a few of us walked to a nearby park: Volkspark Friedrichshain. The greenery was almost too emerald, like a filter was overlayed on the landscape—and what a contrast seeing snogging couples next to babies and their mothers. The pollen snow, a white, dandelion-like covering from the trees, stuck in my hair like real snow. My shutter clicked furiously, although I felt awkward photographing children. They aren’t aware their sticky faces—expressions—balled fists—might end up in my slideshow presentation. I’m not exactly exploiting their unawareness, but I smell a Sally Mann controversy when I focus on their small bodies. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer strasse; the displays in the museum were static, enlivened only by the sight of the Wall through glass windows. Many East Berliners died attempting to cross this preserved stretch of wall; seeing the images of a demolished church—now an industrial birds nest of a building—was also disquieting. Oh! I also ate my first street bratwurst, paying 1.50 euro to a grisly man as he handed me a steaming dog. Dirt leaked under his nails, but I haven’t gotten sick yet, so success?
- I. Love. Bike. Riding. Getting around on tires and sore legs was never ideal for me; I’m more of a Elizabeth-Bennet-walk-everywhere kind of girl. Saturday was a four.five bike tour with Fat Tire Tours, a company that zips tourists around the city on two wheels and possible collisions. I haven’t ridden my bike in over a year; at University, I steer away from those contraptions because college students don’t obey traffic laws. However, in Berlin, it was simple—the citizens actually follow the rules and stop when the little red man tells them too. How refreshing. The route escapes me, but the highlight was biking without rules on the runway of the Berlin Templehof Airport. Soviet airport turned into a public park and refugee camp, this place was oozing with edge and childhood freiheit (freedom). Biking down a runway—standing up for maximum velocity—was feeling like a badass without any of the risks. The rest of the bike tour was narrow lanes and bumpy roads; my cheeks jiggled around my nose, above my lips, but the sore legs was worth it one hundred times over. And did I mention lunch? Five euros for a mountain of falafels and hummus, also from a sketchy man with hairy hands and no gloves, Also, I won a free piece of the Berlin Wall since I knew Erich Honecker was kissing Leonid Brezhnev on an East Side Gallery mural!
It’s only been two official days of my study abroad, but I’ve photographed and explored Berlin like no other city. The history from the bike tour, the flavor of authentic foods tasted on every corner, and my familial ties with Germany makes this place unforgettable. Where else can I sip a casual bottle of wine while writing a blog post in a hotel lobby?