It was about 9 pm when I walked into a youth hostel in Berlin. It’s a funny thing living in a dorm room with seven others. Suddenly you’re experiencing the most vulnerable moment of your day – sleep – with people no more familiar than strangers at a bus station. What I felt in the first few moments in that hostel made the prospect terrifying. What I discovered over the next twenty-four hours shifted my perspective completely.
The room smelled like dirty clothes and junk food. On the top bunk by the window, there was a guy, but I couldn’t see him clearly. Even though it was early, the large space was lit only by street lamps outside and the glow of a tiny computer screen. I couldn’t see him, but I heard him laying up in that bed crunching potato chips. Everyone could hear him; it was the only sound in the room – two chips at a time maybe – crunching in the dark. It made no sense to me, crumbs in the bed, all that noise, in a dark room of strangers lit by a tiny computer screen, but it would.
“Where you from?” a voice whispered to me. I looked to my right to find a skinny black man tucked into his sheets. He looked to be about thirty-two.
“New York,” I whispered back.
“You can’t plug your phone there,” he said. The whites of his eyes seemed to glow in the darkness around him. “Look over there by the wall.” Each hostel is different some have outlets by every bed, but this one had only a few scattered around the room.
“Thanks,” I said. “Where are you from?” He looked way too full of energy to be falling asleep at 9:00pm.
“I’m from Nigeria, but I live here.” His head was on the pillow as he spoke, which made him look like he was speaking from the side of his mouth. I knew he wanted to talk more, but I didn’t. I climbed into the bunk above him, fully clothed, haphazardly arranged the bed sheets given to me by the front desk and passed out into a beer induced nap. The computer screen still glowed and the crunching of chips continued.
At about 1:30 in the morning the room screamed awake with the sound of a cell phone alarm. Nigeria hopped out of bed, crossed the room and clicked a button or two. The noise must have woken potato chips because the crunching suddenly resumed. In the corner, the clicking of keys and the glow of the computer screen continued. I closed my eyes and fell back asleep. Fifteen minutes or so later, it all happened again. Nigeria scampered from his bed and I hopped out of mine, too. The room was too electric for sleep.
Within moments I was on the streets of Berlin, a city known for its nightlife. Some new friends had invited me to a club, so I took to the dark streets alone to see if I could find them.
My New York instincts were suddenly on high alert. Every corner was examined for potential threats. I swiveled my head to scrutinize every moving object. I changed course frequently to walk behind the safe looking couple or under a protective pool of light. I felt like an adolescent shark weaving through new reef.
A group of young guys speaking Arabic said something to me as I crossed into Kreuzberg, Berlin’s bohemian center. I gave them a steady look that was neither threat nor warning, but in my mind’s eye I was cracking one of their heads with my elbow. They let me pass without further disruption. The interaction sharpened my senses further. The potential danger around me put my whole body on alert. I felt every bit of life within me at once and I loved it.
When I arrived at the club, I convinced the owner to let me take a look for my friends without paying a cover. “I’m from New York,” I told him. Everyone loved New York, even the people who had never been there.
Inside was empty, except for a group of travelers around a campfire. None of them were the friends I met hours before.
On my way out, the young, Arab owner with his scruffy beard said to me with a smile , “Are you really from New York?”
“Of course I am,” I smiled back.
I performed the same twenty-minute journey in reverse, changing streets, checking corners. I crossed the bridge over the Spree river, once the natural border between East and West Berlin. No matter which direction I turned in, there were lights in the distance.
When I returned to the dorm, the chaos of the room felt like a comfort compared to the potential danger outside – the clacking of the computer and the crunching of chips had become a familiar rhythm. Nigeria’s bed was empty and his phone was gone from the wall. Whereever he went, it didn’t look like he was coming back. My imagination said he had a flight to catch in order to work on some visa issues, but that was just my imagination. The truth could have been so much better or worse. I said a little good luck prayer for him and climbed up into bed.
Someone had opened a window, so the long maroon curtains billowed with each gust of wind. I changed into pajamas under my sheets. The subway across the street cracked, sharp flashes of light through our window as it screeched past. I put earplugs into my ears and a mask over my face. Each passing train felt like a strike of lightning zapped into the room, but I slept just the same. When I woke the next morning, I had barely opened my eyes before I saw something odd.
The room was equipped with one sink that most people used to brush their teeth or fill a water bottle, so I was shocked to see a young man I started to call The Pakistani walk over to the sink with a bottle of Head and Shoulders and start washing his hair. Is he serious? I wondered. There were plenty of showers out in the hall.
After washing his hair, the Pakistani went over to his locker, removed a prayer rug and positioned it on the floor. My mind was blown. I didn’t know all the rules of ritual Islamic prayer, but my time in Turkey taught me that the cleaning of hands and feet was a significant part of the process. Maybe a shower in the hallway didn’t work. The Pakistani did maybe three or four full prostrations, rolled up his mat and put it away. For sure his prayer was shorter than those I’d seen in the past, but he only looked to be twenty-two years old and I wondered how many young people would show this level of religious dedication in such a foreign place.
Of the eight people that slept in the room the night before, there were only four of us left. Chips seemed to have vanished completely. One of the remaining was the girl with the computer and I was determined to find out what she was up too.
“Well, a few of the places have asked me to send more information,” I overheard her say in a familiar accent . She was a petite Asian-American with long dark hair down her back. “I’ll take whatever I could get,” she said to Dan another American bunk mate.
So that was it.Little Blue Screen was searching for a job. She looked to be no more than a few years out of college. Suddenly, her vigilance made sense. I could only imagine what a job search in a foreign city could do to a person. For all I knew she was in debt or depleting her savings. She told me she’d already been there two weeks. I never got her name, but when I told her about some train trouble I had, she offered me her unlimited metro card for the day. There is a certain camaraderie and trust in the hostel world that makes no sense in the outside.
That night, I met Mika from Macedonia. I was talking with Inga from Berlin about how wild the room was when Mika added. “Did you hear that guy above me with the chips? It was the worst night of my life.” Mika was a twenty-five year old architect. This was her first time traveling away from home alone. She was thin and beautiful with a tomboy androgyny about her. A long bang covered the left side of her face, and the right was shaved. “I think he was from Syria,” she said with a surprising lack of sympathy. He slept in his coat, without bed linen. His phone fell on me in the night and he didn’t apologize.”
“Wow,” I responded. “He’s probably a refugee. He could have seen some horrible things.” And then it all made sense.
“I had never thought about that Syrian guy that way until you mentioned it,” Mika told me later.
“I hadn’t either,” I said in return.
That night, I went to sleep feeling less apprehensive. The girl with the computer was under a tent she had made with her sheets typing in the dark, and all the things I had feared the night before had come to light.
Just as I drifted off someone got up to close the window and block the yelling from revelers in the street.
“Nooooo,” the Pakistani yelled from his bunk. “The smell,” he pleaded.
Everyone in the room, only slightly more familiar than strangers at a bus station, burst out laughing not at him, but at the truth of the situation