This summer, I took a Global Seminar in Berlin, Germany. My favorite part of the experience was taking the Berlin subway — the acronym in German is BVG — to little corners of serendipity in the city.
One day, I decided to visit a brunch spot called House of Small Wonder near U-Bhf — short for “U-Bahnhof,” or “subway station,” in German — Oranienburger Tor. As I sat on the bench waiting to transfer from subway line U7 to U6 at U-Bhf Mehringdamm, I realized how familiar the station had become to me. In the two minutes before my train arrived, I snapped a photo of the Mehringdamm station. Looking at the passengers on the other side made it feel like looking into a mirror. I realized that quite a few of my encounters in Berlin — some lovely, others bizarre — had happened in subway cars.
I had heartwarming experiences in the subway. On my way to U-Bhf Zoologischer Garten, an old lady who reminded me of my grandma smiled and complimented my dress. We had a small chat, exchanging where we were from and what we were doing in Berlin before she left the train. Another time on my way to a book award event, a baby in a stroller kept reaching out to play with the hem of my yellow dress. I smiled at him, and he looked up at me with clear, curious eyes that melted my heart. My friend said she thought he liked me. His mom joked that he was working on his flirting technique. These small instances in the subway always made my day.
I also made bizarre observations on the subway. On my way back home late at night, my friends and I rode in a car full of debris — broken wine glasses and a pair of broken women’s sunglasses — from a fight that had just ended. In fact, before we entered the car, we saw a man barging out with his bike, cursing when he bumped into an old lady. I stared at the broken glass pieces on the subway floor, aghast.
Perceiving my consternation, a man tried to explain the situation to me in German: “Ein mann und eine fraue…” A man and a woman were involved in the fight. “Aber warum?” But why? I asked. The man shrugged, and we sat in silence for the rest of our ride.
I even encountered marginalized individuals in the subway car. There was a homeless couple rapping and singing with the newspaper Motz in their hands, which I later found out was the biggest homeless newspaper in Berlin. With that knowledge, I found their lyrics commenting on Taggeschau and other German media platforms to be bizarre and funny. I saw a homeless man pushing a shopping cart around in the subway car, asking for food and money. I saw a mentally unstable man repeatedly shouting, “Ruhe!” Quiet! at the top of his lungs.
During my time in Berlin, I was impressed by how convenient it was to navigate the public transport system. The Berlin subway is a microcosm of the city on the move. Because I went everywhere by subway, I got to observe and even encounter completely different facets of Berlin society in the bubble of a subway car. Strangers usually keep quiet and distant from each other in that bubble, which made the few times I actually interacted with strangers in the subway all the more precious.
A Chinese song that I really like has a line that goes: “Every moment I spend loving you / Feels like a subway train passing like the wind.” I have always struggled to find my own interpretation for the line, but now I know. For me, loving Berlin is intricately connected to taking the subway.
It is hard to pinpoint what I really love about Berlin; all the reasons pass through my mind like a fleeting U-Bahn train, which has always taken me on different adventures in the city. I guess the appeal lies in the uncertainty and hope symbolized by the U-Bahn. The city kept surprising me with its different hidden quirks and mischief, and for that, I know that one day I will be on the yellow U-Bahn train again.
I wonder how Berlin will have changed then?