The East Side Gallery is the longest preserved portion of the Berlin Wall still standing. Every section of the wall is painted by a different artist from a different country, many with political messages or themes. Just last week, when I walked the length of the East Side Gallery with a friend from my program, I was particularly struck by this mural:
The poem, if it’s hard to read, is as follows:
und doch verletzbar
das Volk, das Mensch
der Wald, das Baum
I’ve worked on a few translations, neither of which I feel fully capture the meaning of “das Volk,” which literally means “the people” but has a sense of collectivism and community connectedness and a political valence that perhaps can only be matched by the Spanish “la gente.” Directly, but clunkily, the line “das Volk, das Mensch” would be “The people, the person,” but I don’t particularly like it that way.
This is what I’ve come up with:
and yet vulnerable
the humanity, the human
the forest, the tree
And yet vulnerable
The many, the one
The forest, the tree
To do a bit of close reading and return to my liberal arts humanities roots (so to speak), I found this small poem particularly powerful because it feels so relevant and poignant within the current global context of both the climate and public health crises. It simultaneously emphasizes the single entity and the larger collective and expresses the inextricable relationship between individual action and community consequence. In the way that an aspen forest (one of my favorite trees, being from the American Southwest), consists, at least to the external eye, of individual trees, which are all connected by one single, elaborate root system underneath the earth, each individual’s action influences others. It is our networks that simultaneously threaten to destroy and save us in this unexpected and completely strange time.
My study abroad program got cancelled on Thursday morning. Obviously, this is heartbreaking and devastating in several ways, especially because it happened so suddenly. Just the day before, I had floated the possibility to my mother of remaining in Berlin to finish my semester at the German university into which I had just matriculated, in the event that my program got cancelled. It was all very hypothetical and felt, in that moment, extremely far-fetched. The very next morning, I woke up to several emails from both Duke University and Oberlin College calling off all study abroad programs due to COVID-19 and requiring all students to return to their homes as soon as possible, preferably before March 18th. In the span of four days, I tried and fought for the choice to remain in Berlin, sent countless emails, made WhatsApp video calls to my parents, cried and mourned when I was told I had to return home, marveled at the relatively empty public transportation, and tried to enjoy my remaining time in this city as much as possible. The first of my three flights back to New Mexico leaves early tomorrow morning. Right now as I write this, I’m sitting at my host family’s dining room table in their sunroom, the springtime sunshine (which has finally, finally appeared) streaming in through the glass windows and walls, drinking lemon tea and watching my host sister, age 4, play with Kinder egg toys. Her preschool is closed for at least the next five weeks. Every day this city shuts down more. I can’t comprehend the reality of this situation. No one has experienced anything like this in the current globalized world we live in. I have no idea what my life will look like when I get home to Albuquerque, other than that I will have to undergo a 2-week home quarantine to ensure I’m not infected. Beyond that, I don’t know who I will be or what I will do or what the world around me will look like. Mostly, I know that right now I want to go home and heal: physically, emotionally, and psychologically, from a hurt that I can’t quite name or identify.
There’s something so strange about situations that make us remember, in the words of my very wise Obie alum and former blogger friend Teague Harvey, that time is an illusion, a fact which I understand objectively but struggle sometimes to incorporate into my actual experiences. I feel that I’ve lived a month in the past four days and experienced enough emotions to match. But in a way, it’s comforting to know that I can process things quickly when I need to, and that I am capable of condensing goodbyes into a very small space of time, a ritual with which I normally like to take my time. The saddest part about leaving Berlin is not leaving the physical space, though of course I will miss the sense of place and the places I’ve made my own here; it’s that the relationships that I had just begun to form and solidify are now tragically being cut short. In this time, more than ever, relationships feel more important than literally anything else. And they are the very thing threatened as people move into quarantine and/or social isolation (as they should; it’s our responsibility). I’ve never been so thankful to live in a technologically and digitally connected world. Part of the reason I decided to write this more personal post is that I think emotional vulnerability and sharing are key in moments like this when we need to be separated due to the circumstances of the outside world. As an Oberlin blogger, a role which I generally take for granted, I actually have a unique platform in this moment to express what I’ve been feeling and what I feel is particularly important during this bizarre time. It’s easy on one level to recognize the very immediate and real-world consequences of this virus: I won’t get to stay in Berlin and study at a German university. I won’t get to travel Europe on long weekend trips. My German won’t continue to progress at the same rate. I won’t be able to buy cappuccinos for 2,50 Euros anymore. I can get a summer job now (maybe). I’ll get to play with my dog. I won’t have to ride the subway anymore. My senior friends don’t get to graduate or say goodbyes under the timeline they want and deserve (my heart goes out to them). My sister won’t get to do her state- or national-level mock trial competitions and my parents might be teaching their classes from our living room. I will be trapped in my house for two weeks and even after that period my ability to connect with people who are living in the same place as me will be limited. No one will travel.
On the other hand, there are larger, higher-level, higher-order concerns beyond the immediate, physical reality of all the changes I have and will continue to experience.
Everything feels the same and different; it feels like the beginning of the end. Outside this house, people are barely on public transport, facemasks lie trampled on the cobblestones and grocery store shelves lack toilet paper, pasta, flour, and hand sanitizer. Every day there are new headlines about Germany closing its borders, travel restrictions being put into place, and every possible event being cancelled. But people still go outside and enjoy the sunshine, they tend their gardens and they visit the zoo on Sundays. They drink coffee and beer and cuddle and comfort their children. It’s the best and worst of times: this crisis is bringing out the humanity in humans (das Volk, der Mensch) in shining examples of what Oberlin professor Peter Woods called “auffällige Menschheit” which means something like “obvious” or “visible” humanity. Visible, but not performative. It gives me comfort to know that we can unite around a certain cause right now, and I hope people continue to make the personal sacrifices that they are able to in the name of protecting public health and the collective good. It gives me hope that, once this most immediate crisis passes, we can unite around the other crises the world faces, namely climate change. It gives me hope that in the next election, people will see everything wrong with our society that has been laid bare by this virus (as if it wasn’t obvious before), and vote for an administration that will work towards radical change.
Mostly, I hope that I will do my best to stay connected to those who matter to me, even when we are separated physically. I wish health, strength, beauty, nourishment, love, and healing on every one of you.
We are all aspen trees. Even though they are invisible, we have roots that connect us all.
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