My backpack felt unusually light – so light that I kept checking and rechecking my pockets to make sure that I didn’t forget anything. Riding over to the airport last week was weirdly liberating – no suitcase, no laptop, and only the essentials. It was just me, my backpack, a discount plane ticket to Berlin, and directions to a “couch surfer” host I met online who offered me a place to sleep.
I was pretty nervous. But I’ve learned that the more nervous you start, the better things usually end up. After spending the past few months going on organized trips and traveling with swarms of people, I really wanted to do something outside of my comfort zone, and I don’t think it could have turned out any better.
Denis proved to be an amazing host; he cooked for us (Alberto from Mexico also stayed at Denis’ while I was there) some traditional German meals every night (liver meatballs, sauerkraut, potatoes…just like Ukraine, think carbs+meat and you’ll get the general idea). After going to class in the mornings, he would meet me downtown for lunch and sightseeing. We watched Bayern Munich destroy Real Madrid on Wednesday night with his flat-mates, and sat on the beach drinking delicious Dju-Dju beer at a Jamaican island bar. We tried fried grasshoppers from Mexico and drank Berlin’s famous green beer. I asked him tons of questions about Angela Merkel and World War II and currywurst, but he never seemed to mind.
Outside of the “couchsurfing,” Berlin was a wonderful city to explore. In terms of politics, it is probably one of the most interesting cities to study. The past century has brought dramatic changes and challenges, including the devastation of WWI, the rise of Hitler, the Jewish tragedy, the East-West partition during the Cold War, and the formation of the European Union. All of these events have left their mark on the city, with many statues, museums, and memorials commemorating its tumultuous history. You can’t help but feel a little confused and overwhelmed as you walk through the busy streets.
But as great as the city was, what I’ll really remember is the people I met. Perhaps I just got lucky with my couchsurfing experience; but being the optimistic type, I feel that Denis is more like the norm than the exception. Often, we are too wary of strangers, especially in a foreign country. I think our first instinct is to be deeply mistrustful, to look over our shoulder and prepare for our next uncertain encounter. Sure, a certain amount of caution is needed. But caution should never prevent us from trusting strangers – perhaps not with our lives, but maybe enough to give us a couch to sleep on for a few nights in a new city.
Above all, Berlin showed me that people can be incredibly generous – not necessarily in terms of money, but with their time and space and minds. I think that more often than not, you’ll meet good and honest people in the world. Hospitality is an unmistakable virtue.