Monday, August 29, 2016

24 hours in Berlin

“Sushi on conveyor belts looks the prettiest. Colorfully decked up, as if going to a Halloween party,” I thought, sitting at a Japanese restaurant at the Hauptbahnhoff and eating an early dinner. I have just arrived in Berlin for my visa interview the following day. A little hungry, I wanted to finish off dinner before heading to my hotel. I saw the usual around me, a McDonald’s, Burger King, Turkish kebab place, and a coffee shop. None of them appealed to me. I was craving for something hot and soupy. That is how I found myself at Tokio, devouring a steaming hot bowl of udon noodles with seafood as my mind went in ten different directions.

“Berlin has always been a city of necessities for me,” I further reflected between mouthfuls of body parts of sea animals I did not recognize. I only visit the city when I needed something. Berlin never gave me a chance to woo her.

I sadly reminisced about my life in Germany for the last two years. This trip was like getting closure. I had first planned to visit Berlin in 2010. The trip never happened. I injured my leg on the streets of Sicily, pulled a muscle, and after covering a dozen different places in that first Europe trip, Berlin is the only place I did not visit. I went there for the first time last year, to get a US tourist visa. I had a whole lot of things on my mind then, including why I am visiting the US as a tourist. I did take an extra day and saw some of the usual suspects, but I never saw Berlin extensively. Over the next year, I went to Berlin many times, but every time to catch a train or plane to somewhere else- Budapest, Hamburg, Poland, Croatia. I never stepped outside the very coolly designed Hauptbahnhoff with four different floors of trains and restaurants. My ICE trains always arrived in the basement floor. The U-Bahn and the S-Bahn and the Regional Bahns (different kinds of trains) always left from other floors.

Post-dinner, I had to take the S-train and then a bus to get to my hotel. Déjà vu, I was not only in the same hotel, but also in the same room I stayed last time. I had an 8 am interview the next day, so I tried going to sleep early. I wasn’t even carrying a laptop or camera. I have been practicing living minimally and traveling light these days. Even without the internet distractions, it took me a long time to fall asleep. This never happens, I am usually asleep even before I hit the bed, and wake up much after it is time for me to wake up. But tonight was different. I had a hundred different things on my mind.

I went there armed with everything I had, my passport, every degree and accolade earned since high school, my 80-page long petition, a CV, and of course my knowledge. I was prepared to talk about anything. The future of research. Women in science. NGSS. NCLB. The training process in medical schools. Grant writing. My next five papers in the pipeline. Full form of ERIC. H-index. How tenure works. Why I think I deserve this job. The names of Native American tribes. The future of education globally. And a 5-minute synopsis of the history of the United States. I was going to rock this visa interview.

And the only question they asked me was, "Your tourist visa was in your stolen passport. Did you report it to the police?"

"Of course," I said, taken aback. How else would I get the new passport they were holding?

"Visa approved," they said rather impassively, momentarily throwing me off-guard. I kept standing there, expecting them to ask at least some questions from my HLM class.

"You can go home now," they said, their voice laced with impatience. "Next?"

Seems like my passport thief in Greece was more on their mind than understanding the intellectual mind of a budding faculty member.

And as for going home, of course I'll be going home now. A new home in a new city to start a brand new chapter of my life.

I was inclined to see a little bit of the city, since my train back was not until evening. However, I was carrying all important documents except my passport, and did not want to risk another robbery attempt. I have seen 16 new countries in the last two years, including 10 new ones in 2016 alone. I was kind of done traveling and sightseeing for now. I paid four times more for a new ticket and took an earlier train back home.

People have different favorite memories of a city. Berlin could mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, my personal little haven in Berlin will remain that triangle between my hotel, the US consulate, and the nearby metro station. Those are where I have most of my memories of Berlin, of getting visas, walking those streets, taking the bus, drinking coffee, or eating. In a strange way, this is where I got closure. This is where my journey began, and this is where it is ending after fighting a long battle of finding my way back to the US being exactly who I aspired to be.


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