Berlin: A lofted bed in the studio we almost didn't get the key for

October 2-6, 2014
Berlin, Germany

Berlin's iconic Brandenburger Tor.
“There’s no key,” the shopkeeper grumbled, sifting through the plastic bin on the register counter. She sighed, heaving every lodged particle of air into a forceful stream that, if she could, would whisk me out of her line of sight and, preferably, I sensed, out of her boutique.

My AirBnB contact had specified this jewelry store, located just off Berlin's Alexanderplatz, to collect her studio key. She, the apartment owner, was out of the country and I, watching the exasperated associate, was stuck.

“No,” the shopkeeper repeated, half to me, half to the container. “She does this every time. As if we're charged with delivering her key to her guests." She stared me intently, willing me to understand the gravity of the situation. "But can I tell you?" The associate was my gatekeeper between homeless for the night and access to the studio apartment Mariene and I had reserved for the next four days. I sensed I’d do better keeping my mouth shut. “Antje doesn't work here anymore. She shouldn't have sent you."

My exhaustion might well have been a separate suitcase parked at the boutique storefront. I had left Kayli’s early that morning after a late evening at Oktoberfest the night prior. Thick fog veiled the S-bahn platform, a brisk chill piercing the early hours as I awaited a train to the Munich airport and onto Berlin. I frankly did not have the energy to argue over this key. All I knew was that I wanted it.

The associate punched numbers into the store phone, a stream of English and German exchanged sharply with who I assumed to be Antje. The vocal tone escalated before abruptly, however thankfully, simmering. She knelt under the register, lodging the phone between shoulder and ear as she pulled out a separate bin. The hidden key lay at the very top. We exchanged no words, but I offered a smile: universal symbol for thank you.

****

Yom Kippur fell on a Friday. It’s the Jewish Day of Atonement, obligating a 25-hour fast intended to harden focus to prayer: redemption from a year’s build up of any less than holy behavior.

Mariene had arrived that morning, Kayli the night prior-- all of us regrouping to attend services that evening. The synagogue required neither ticket nor donation to enter. A High Holy day ticket in the States could well be my grocery budget for the week.

Certainly, the experience might have resonated more deeply had we planned differently. But the services, the Siddur and the rabbi's sermon were in German, losing total understanding to the obvious language barrier. Instead, the nuances of Yom Kippur day took shape around our own self-guided walking tour of the city: through the Holocaust memorial, past the Brandenburger Tor, dipping briefly into an egalitarian service in Berlin's largest synagogue and walking in and around the nooks of Berlin's stunning residential areas.

If anything, 25-hours spent atoning for our sins reinforced just how much you can do on an empty stomach.

T: The East Side Gallery: the longest stretch of a preserved part of the Berlin Wall.

B: Berlin's Holocaust Memorial: The city disappears as you walk individually through the blocks. It's a full body and truly incredible experience. 

Where Munich’s Nazi history is ingrained in the fabric of the city's transformation, Berlin’s Cold War scars are far more raw than the atrocities of its Holocaust past. Plaques across Berlin's streets denote where the former Berlin Wall once stood; portions of the wall remain, with the longest stretch of the East Side Gallery adorned by artists worldwide.

Redefining a country takes time: time to build the history of new era, acknowledging the past's guilt in accepting the future's potential. Hitler had documented Berlin's architectural structure before storing stone sculptures into bunkers underground. The buildings destroyed in World War II are still being rebuilt, and the sculptures reinstated. They’re discolored from the buildings they’re attached to—some of the city’s few original artifacts representing, in their own right, the critical years they lay hidden away.

West Berlin reportedly has brighter lights; the street symbols differ from East to West, as does the coloring of the remaining architecture. But in our four days, I didn’t sense a stark divide. Cranes dot modern Berlin’s skyline. They're monuments onto their own: a powerful symbol of Germany's continuous motion to rebuild and redefine, to find its own redemption in letting go and embracing a fresh slate of the future ahead.


****

The metal bar felt jarringly cool under my toes, still warmed from the duvet moments prior to the shrill of my morning alarm. I gripped the ladder intently, maneuvering tentatively down from the lofted bed to the studio floor. It was neat in theory, a bed lodged over the kitchen. Still, the question beckoned: how’d you get down if, say, you broke your leg in the middle of the night?

The bed, in my own strange way, represented so much of the year lead up to my Germany trip. I’d spent the past 12-months navigating the unsettled motions life post-grad naturally throws. An August low had folded into a September high. I'd received the full time offer at a company I'd begun as a fellow, finally returned home to Florida after two years away, and had been given this: a week escape to travel abroad.

I loosened my iron grip on the ladder’s railing, pleased to see the ground floor firm beneath my frigid toes. My key ring rested on the kitchen ledge, securing the key that shopkeeper had so reluctantly handed over upon my arrival in Berlin. I reeled it off from its silver clasp, placing it back down onto the surface. It lay alone, an independent soul awaiting its rightful owner's return.

That boutique associate could have withheld the key. Our AirBnB contact could have missed her call. The studio door may never have opened. But as the great sages say (passed down by way of my wise acupuncturist), the stone that hits you could never have missed you. It all eventually works out as it should.

My blue shoes have tested the hoops of ladders leading to lofted beds, following through periods of growth, of doubt, and, at points, of unbelievable fulfillment. Life grants us tremendous opportunities. We're tasked with accepting when appropriate, redefining when applicable, and, as I gazed at the ridges of the key motionless on the kitchen counter, ultimately moving forward no matter the prospects in store.


T: Memorial representing the books, written by Jewish authors, that were burned by the Nazis.
B: East Side Gallery.



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