Alone on the U-Bahn
This is exactly what my Mom said not to do.
I could hear her voice in my head: Do not, under any circumstances, go anywhere by yourself. You should never be alone.
And yet, there I was, standing on the subway platform in Berlin, Germany, a city I barely knew and a place where I didn’t speak the language, waiting for the next train.
I had arrived four days earlier for my journalism study abroad program and every day I had zipped about the city seeing monuments and sites with my peers and professor. I felt brave and empowered when I was with them.
But I had never navigated Berlin alone. Actually, I had never navigated much alone.
I grew up in Bemus Point, a small town outside of Jamestown, New York. The only public transportation I had ever taken was the school bus that picked me up at the end of my driveway. There are more people enrolled in my Sociology 101 class than students and faculty in my grade 6-12 school. I’ve visited plenty of major cities, but not by myself.
Now, my close friend, Olivia Valone, who went to a neighboring high school and was in Berlin for a semester, messaged me to meet her. Today was the only day that worked. I knew where she wanted to meet – I had been to the exact spot with my group and professor. I just didn’t know how to get there.
And I was late.
I felt my stomach drop.
Would someone see me with a map, know I was a tourist and take advantage of me?
Years of watching Lifetime Movie Network taught me people prey on the vulnerable and I definitely qualified. I didn’t speak German. I didn’t have family here. I didn’t even remember how to dial the emergency number, although my professor had told us. I was a young female and I couldn’t use my phone because it didn’t work in Germany.
My class had just visited the Topography of Terror, a museum built on the ruins of Nazi interrogation and prison cells. Before that, we had seen the Monument and Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which commemorates the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
It was emotionally draining – like so much of Berlin.
Although most of my classmates wanted to go back to our hostel and relax, I wanted to visit Olivia. I asked my professor how to get to the meeting point and she showed me on the map. It looked easy, and when she asked if I understood I said yes.
But I guess I hadn’t. Or I was so nervous none of it registered because when my class got on the train, I instinctively followed them. I forgot I was supposed to go the opposite way.
After two stops, I realized I needed to switch trains. I was terrified. Frozen. I didn’t want to get off. I could already picture myself going back with everyone and crying myself to sleep for being such a coward. I imagined my friends back home asking me how Olivia was and I would have to tell them that I didn’t see her because I was too afraid to take a chance.
I stood up quickly and hopped off the U-Bahn.
Alone for the first time, I got on the first train that came. It was the wrong one and I knew I had to get off and switch to a different one. I went to where I thought I had to be, but when I peeked discretely at the map, I realized I was headed for the wrong train. I needed an above ground train, not an underground train. But which one?
Berlin’s subway system is famously accurate and practical, but it’s also frightening. There are several platforms lined next to each other, and people swarm each side. It’s confusing and the German words are long and impossibly hard to decipher.
I had no way of contacting Olivia to say I was lost.
What if I got there and she wasn’t even there?
I felt disoriented and afraid. I was even scared to ask for help. But, finally, I put my fear aside and went up to a couple on the platform.
“Entschuldigen, sprechen Sie Englisch?”
My voice was shaky as the unfamiliar German words I had only learned days ago came out.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
They looked at each other and then back at me.
I asked them a few senseless questions, afraid to tell them my exact stop, but trying to find a train that went in the right direction. My questions confused them.
Finally, I blurted out, “How do I get to the Zoo?”
I was in a panic. The Zoo was my stop. It was 6:45 p.m. and our meeting time was 6:30 p.m.
“Oh! This will bring you to the Zoo!”
The woman was pleased to help. She wasn’t mean or intimidating.
We packed into the train. I glanced back and forth to make sure no one was watching me. My mom’s voice still echoed in my head.
Before I left I told my mom I would never do anything foolish and she trusted me.
Would I disappoint her? Would she trust me again? Would I tell her what I had done? Would I get the chance?
Just as I was imagining my doom, a booming voice came over the speaker announcing that the train had arrived at Zoologischer Garten. I couldn’t pronounce it, but I knew it was “the Zoo.”
As I walked off of the train and up the stairs following the signs for “Ausgang,” I immediately recognized where I was and went to the meeting spot. Olivia and five of her friends walked in a few minutes later.
I’ve never felt such warm, comforting relief. I was not only happy to be with Olivia, I was also safe.
Olivia had been in Berlin for five months and she effortlessly guided me to Potsdam, a city 15 miles southwest of Berlin that used to be home to the Prussian kings and German Kaiser.
I had one of the best nights of my life there.
I never want to forget the way we walked down the cobblestone street laughing with strangers who smiled and laughed with us. Arm in arm with Olivia, all of my panicking and fear of strangers and insecurities about being alone seemed far away.
Before I traveled to Berlin, I would have never considered venturing out on my own; I didn’t even feel comfortable jogging by myself. Now, I realize that not everyone is out to hurt me. Getting on the wrong train now seems like a silly mistake, not a reason to panic.
Berliners helped me. Berlin was kind to me.
If there is something I want to do, I now know I need to do it. Life requires risk. And risk is necessary for perspective. If I could redo that night, I wouldn’t change a thing. Even the panic.
I am proud to say Berlin – the city of Hitler, Stalin and the secret police – has taught me to be more of an optimist. I never would have guessed people would be so willing to help me for no other reason than to simply be kind.
The next day I told my mom I had gone out with Olivia. She was upset I had been alone, but I refused to feel guilty. I had no regrets.
Being alone in Berlin taught me that fear can’t control my life. I can control it.
And I will.