Laid-back in Berlin: valuing the present

Students at NYU Berlin enjoy the city’s relaxed pace of life compared to the hustle and bustle of other NYU campuses. Some feel anxious about returning.

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Hunter Alexis Martin

The hustle and bustle of New York City is considered part of the NYU experience. NYU Berlin offers a welcome change of pace. (Photo by Hunter Alexis Martin)

By Hunter Alexis Martin, Contributing Writer

BERLIN — As “Aquaman” played with English subtitles on the Lufthansa airplane monitor, I reflected on leaving my home country, the United States, for the first time in my life. With my suitcases, a backpack nearly bursting at the seams, two mandatory COVID-19 tests and three basic levels of Duolingo German, I left the Berlin Brandenburg Airport.

The 50-minute taxi ride to the NYU Berlin Student Residence consisted of Hot Hits Deutschland playing on the radio as the driver argued in Turkish over the phone with his brother. My bags slid around as he bobbed and weaved through traffic. A patchy drizzle fell from the cloudy skies through the car’s open windows. I could not help but think how similar this experience was to the many Uber rides I have taken in New York City.

This taxi ride, however, has been the only experience close to my fast-paced life back in New York — even after living in Berlin for almost a month. And I’m not the only NYU Berlin student who feels this way.

Sarah Al-Yahya, an NYU Abu Dhabi junior from Jordan, believes Berlin offers her an anxiety-free morning routine.

“[I’m] enjoying my morning commute, instead of rushing through it, and enjoying the small things, like spotting a squirrel or having some sunshine during the day,” Al-Yahya said. “I’m slowly embracing the Berlin lifestyle, and it helps me understand what people value and how they like to spend their time.”

In New York, I would regularly scarf down an overpriced Starbucks chicken caprese or Sweetgreen salad during my commute from campus to work. In Berlin, it seems more socially acceptable to enjoy meals, to stroll on the sidewalk and sip your coffee — a nice change from chugging it on the subway, which you cannot do in Berlin even if you wanted to.

Steinhardt junior and New Jersey native Mya Hoist appreciates how Germans cherish time off compared to Americans, who still struggle to take personal days. For example, all commercial businesses — including grocery stores — are closed on Sundays. 

“Rest is something that is very important here since [Germans] always have Sundays off,” Hoist said. “I feel like it’s a really good thing to take a break every once in a while from school and work because I feel like it’s something that’s never really valued in America.”

On Sundays, restaurants, flea markets — Spätkauf — and little corner stores — Späti — sell goods at inflated prices because they are the only places open. A few weeks ago, I’d forgotten that the local wine shop, Planet Wein, was closed. Instead of my bottle of Riesling, I got a low-grade €39 ($45) alternative at a Späti — almost double the price.

After buying the sad Späti wine, I thought about how I still sometimes miss the open-24-hours, 365-days-a-year culture back in New York. Like those of us from New York, Al-Yahya also occasionally reminisces about the places open late at night or 24/7 in Abu Dhabi.

“The supermarket just across the street from campus, Saadiyat to Go, is open until 1 a.m. every night,” Al-Yahya said. “My friends and I have this tradition where we go out for breakfast food at an absurd hour in the night, after midnight mostly, and we always find something open. I’m not sure if we would find as many options here.”

Gallatin senior Carly Wang is originally from northern California. She has noticed that Berliners value their careers and career progress differently than New Yorkers.

“Basically, it’s OK if you’re lazy, and it’s OK if you don’t have a full-time job and aren’t doing a million internships [in Berlin],” Wang said. “Which in New York, I feel is really stressful and has negatively impacted me and my friends. We’re all really stressed and anxious all the time about getting jobs and getting internships, so I like the difference.”

Hoist said that she feels pressure at the New York campus to constantly be efficient and productive that she doesn’t feel in Berlin.

“I am a bit anxious to return to NYC, mostly because I spent 90% of my time there online without as many mini-breaks in between [like Berlin],” Hoist said.

Wang feels anxious about her return to New York for the spring semester.

“There’s a pressure to be constantly doing something [in New York],” Wang said. “Since I’m a senior, and after I graduate, everyone will be going off to jobs and grad school.”

Wang isn’t the only student anxious about returning. Sometimes I, too, wonder if I’ll be able to handle the fast-paced, future-obsessed New York campus, especially after being immersed in the complete opposite. How will I transition back? Maybe I’ll just stay and go to graduate school here — the jury’s still out on that idea.

Contact Hunter Alexis Martin at [email protected]