Thomas Waters, Free University of Berlin – Summer ’14
For Thomas Waters—a senior mechanical engineering major from Indian Hills, Colorado—the city of Berlin represents the confluence of history and present, a place where hyper-modernity coexists with constant reminders of the past. It is a city that has seen some of the greatest highs and most painful lows of the last two centuries. Thomas was initially drawn to Germany by his love of German cars. He quickly fell in love with the city and country around him. Keeping the rich history of the area in mind, Thomas decided to explore outside of his major when he went abroad in the summer of 2014. He took part in our language intensive option at the Free University of Berlin, focusing on the culture of Germany, and Berlin in particular. Asked to describe Berlin in one sentence, Tom took a moment to think before responding: “Berlin is impacted by the past, but moving towards the future.” In a city with such an intense history of magnificent beauty, horrible tragedy, and everything in between; memory still plays a vital role in day-to-day life.
From the pieces of the Wall that remain standing, to signs that mark old Nazi bunker areas, walking through Berlin can be a sobering experience. Throughout Germany, in fact, Thomas explored this past and its uneasy and often jarring relationship to the modern. He recalls a particularly powerful weekend spent in Weimar, capital of the German Republic after World War One. A town that housed Mozart and gave birth to Goethe, Weimar was also the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Day one, Thomas explored the city and marveled at its immaculately preserved architecture and culture. He describes it as a classic European city, with the kind of atmosphere that American ski-towns try so hard to replicate. Day two, the group left the city limits to see the camp—also amazingly preserved. “They weren’t afraid to show us anything,” Thomas says, noting that the German people are determined to remember the past to prevent history from repeating itself.
Of course, exploring the history of Germany involves more than the two world wars. Day one of a class called “Berlin in the Digital Music Era,” Thomas recalls his professor putting on the latest Daft Punk single: “Get Lucky”. Fresh off the album “Random Access Memories” (RAM, in computer terms), the single represents a tidal change in the music industry. A duo of real musicians playing real instruments, but with heavily computerized elements, “Get Lucky” could be a metaphor for the ways that technology shapes what music is, how it’s produced, how we buy it and how we don’t. And as the heart of the global club scene in the early nineties, Berlin is the perfect place to explore the ways that the music industry has changed over hundreds of years.
As one of their weekly field trips, Tom’s professor cancelled class during the day, instead inviting students to meet her at a club at midnight to explore the scene close up. They held class at a legendary club named Tresor, German for “bank vault”—the original location of the venue. Yes, that’s right. A club that was once based in a bank vault because the rent was cheap. From Berlin’s legendary classical heritage to its current state as a main artery for the modern electronic scene, music is one of the key points of connection between past and present. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Tom describes how the club scene became an important meeting point for young people between the two halves of the city. In other words, music became a point of common interest that brought the city together.
For Thomas, it was dinner with his host family that brought him closest to Berlin. Eating traditional German foods and practicing his language skills in a relaxed setting became a way to meet a broad variety of people from across Europe, with visitors from Russia, Switzerland and beyond. “Berlin is different from any other big city I’ve ever been to,” Tom says. It feels smaller. Grounded. Experiences like these were a way that he learned to feel at home on another continent. In fact, these kinds of day-to-day activities are what he recalls most fondly. Beginning the day at breakfast with his host mom, catching the U-Bahn to campus, going to class, heading to a Biergarten or museum, or just wandering the city; it was the basic immersion experiences that defined Tom’s time in Berlin. That, and the curry-wurst—a surprisingly delicious combination of sausage and curry sauce. Thomas is currently looking at graduate school, and hopes to do a program involving a study year in Germany at the University of Stuttgart.