To put it simply, Cultural Routes was not exactly what I had expected. In stereotypical terms that my fellow CRiners will appreciate: I expected it to be a trip. I saw the pictures and heard the stories of students in previous years. I heard the stories of students boarding the incorrect train and handling that event. I heard about Jack May flying into the snow without a shirt on. I heard how students had become this odd “familia” by going on the trip. I didn’t get it.
Cultural Routes is so much more than that. Cultural Routes pushed my expectations, my limits, my abilities, my everything far beyond I imagined. I didn’t really think about how much exhaustion the miles and miles of walking would cause. I didn’t really consider how long the days would be. I didn’t ponder the density of information I would be learning. None of that had crossed my mind. But it should have.
Just as an example, Sarah Goldberg and I journeyed to Berlin, Germany in the summer of 2016 with Frog Camp. We saw many of the sites and experienced many of the same parts of the city that we would a year later on CR. We didn’t know what that would result in for us. How would CR look from our perspectives? Sure, we were visiting some of the same places, but we were encountering an entirely different experience.
On Frog Camp, we were coddled. We were directed to the S-Bahn/U-Bahn stations and on to our destinations. We were told everything about a site we were visiting. We had it easy. All of that was taken away on Cultural Routes. We were out on our own. We interpreted German maps, we deciphered monuments and landmarks, we had to figure it all out on our own.
Granted, it was still a unique experience having been to the city before. We wouldn’t have that same element of discovery that others would. We might know a thing or two about a site, but our job was to hold back. Our job was to allow the others to experience Berlin for the first time and to let them soak in the excitement and learning potential that spawns from exploration and self-guided discovery. We could help, yes. However, we weren’t there to make this another Frog Camp for our fellow CRiners; we couldn’t just hand them the information.
That meant a few things. We got lost sometimes. We were racing to find everything on our “to do” list before it was time to meet for dinner. We were spitballing on the purpose of a memorial or mural here and there. But that didn’t matter. (I know this is about to be cliché; just bear with me.) The end result of knowing the facts and answering the questions isn’t what was important. It was the journey of getting there that mattered.
Even though I wasn’t learning as much new material in Berlin as some of the other students, I was still learning a massive amount as well. It was those students who I was with that allowed that to happen.
First and foremost, I have to lend credence to Team Bravo. Jacey, Lance, Madeline, Davis, and Riley made the days in Berlin some of my favorites in my life. They are all so incredibly gifted at what they do and who they are. Just their presence itself had a major impact on me. That doesn’t even begin to highlight their tangible strengths.
Just take Lance as an example. Considering we were working off of a map that was completely in German, he was running around the metro and somehow always knew which platform to be on and which direction to go. I can’t remember a single time we got lost listening to him. Speaking of German maps, the general map was a bear in itself at times. A couple of the spots on our “to do” list each day were a bit off the beaten path, so finding them always proved to be a challenge. However, Team Maps had it down (after a little while I guess). Even though I had been there before, I know that I still wasn’t a pro at any of this. It took learning, each and every step of the way. One of the most memorable times in Berlin was when Riley took over for Team Maps. We were en route to the German History Museum, and I’m convinced that that museum was marked wrong on the map or something. (That just goes to show that just because you think you know what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean you actually do.) But Riley decided she would give it a go. And she killed it. She found the museum that I physically could not. If I have one big regret from Berlin, it would be not handing Riley the map earlier.
In terms of things I learned through those initial days in Berlin, one of the biggest lessons was to relentlessly pursue the present. For instance, when we were tasked with visiting the Tiergarten, we arrived to find it completely gated off because of a marathon soon to be taking place. I was sure that we didn’t have a chance at getting through the layers of barricades, but the others were not about to take “no” for an answer. We were in Berlin. We were going to see the Tiergarten. Thus, we worked out way closer and closer, squeezed through some barricades, and darted into the urban forest. Without the members of my group being so determined to live in the moment and take advantage of the now, we wouldn’t have had an experience with the Tiergarten.
A second tidbit of knowledge I gained from my team was to be comfortable in your own skin. We were living in a culture that was far different from what we were used to, which isn’t exactly the prime environment to all of a sudden be comfortable with your own way of life. However, they showed me that I could be myself and remember to have fun without being an overbearingly offensive American tourist. We on Team Bravo did some outlandish things, from taking awkward solo pictures in front of the East Side Gallery to singing “Medium Leg Riley” through the streets of the city. Typically, I’m a pretty reserved person. I’m not as confident in “doing me,” but this group supported each other so well in doing just that. We may have goofed around a bit, but it was a healthy goofiness. It taught me to “do me” and to be confident in that. I learned that in the midst of an intense study program, there is still room for fun personal growth. If you are constantly trying to cover up your own lifestyle and culture while studying in these countries, it becomes more difficult to compare and contrast the two cultures of foreign versus home. Thus, all of this goofiness did have its due justification.
In sum, these guys made Berlin incredible for me. My Berlin Round Two was not a “round two” at all. They taught me so much more than I ever could’ve imagined about how to look at culture and how to just learn in general. I can never thank them enough for the growth that they caused in me and the love that they unceasingly showed in all the long days and thousands upon thousands of steps.
Although I had been to Berlin less than a year prior, my experience there was magical. I learned in ways that I never expected. For instance, one of my favorite nights was that first night in the city when we traveled to the Book Burning Memorial at Bebelplatz. The memorial itself is concealed underground. Sarah and I knew where it was and how to find it, but we got the chance to hang back and watch the others run through the square searching for the site. We got to witness discovery and exploration firsthand, and it only excited me more for the weeks to come in other cities and countries on the trip.
Looking back, I wish that I had taken that stance more often in Berlin. I wish I had let Bravo run its own course more often. I think I may have been too trigger happy with the map or too eager to share what I knew. And that wasn’t what round two was about. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about what I could do. It was about these people. Every single one of them.
Berlin was an experience like no other, not like Frog Camp at all. I may have learned the basics at Frog Camp and probably a bit more too, but with the familia I learned the connections and the understanding that is only possible through self-guided exploration. CR pushed me. Pushed me way beyond my comfort zones in every sense of the word, and because of that, I learned so much. Whether it was learning to be present or to be confident, Berlin and Bravo inspired me to grow immensely.
I can only hope that that growth will continue. At the Panorama exhibit of the Berlin Wall, we were already thinking about the CRecaders, writing them a little hello on the wall. I know that I was skeptical of what Berlin would be like for me, but I shouldn’t have even thought about that. Berlin was powerful, academically, personally, and socially. And I know that in just 7 months, it will work its magic again.