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Anthony Badami '11: Consider Berlin

You know the dichotomies: east meets west, communism versus capitalism, classical goes contemporary, etc. Throughout the span of modern European political and cultural clash, the tension between these sets of ideas has bred conflagrant rebellion and uproarious revolution, new beginnings and salient renewals.

Brown, to some extent, has inherited this discord. We walk the grounds of an antique campus, embraced by an American colonial surrounding spawned from a particular ethno-cultural narrative, while seeking to deconstruct and appreciate the historical legacy precipitating the school's existence.

And when many of us walk through the Van Wickle gates one last time, into a tumultuous and exhilarating future, we will relocate to a city of popular repute, most likely New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami or D.C.

However, I ask you, humbly, to consider a place that encompasses both the nature of friction we have absorbed at Brown and the spirit and character of the previously mentioned locales. I ask you to consider Berlin.

Berlin is a city defined by divergent forces. It exists, strangely, in between the periphery of European society and the conventional set of Western mores. It is tethered to a past that haunts broader Germany and its population, but in turn uses this ghost as an impetus for urban repurposing.

Though the wall has come down, distinguishing East Berlin is no difficult matter. Much of the Communist architecture still remains intact, a bold reminder of a more contentious period. While Brown students may lean towards New York or Boston because of their places in our nation's history, remember that Berlin was the epicenter of a bipolar world order that defined global politics for nearly five decades.

The seemingly frail state of this side of the city only stimulates the creative culture. Unlike other cities, artists can actually afford to survive here. Since Brown students will be setting out to reinvent themselves in the real world, what better backdrop than a city that constantly recreates itself?

Walking around the former Communist East, one encounters buildings, bridges and barriers blanketed with vibrant graffiti and revolutionary allusions. An astonishing amount of squatters occupy decrepit, abandoned buildings, renovating the space as their own, constructing dim, rickety huts to house themselves. Strewn about these makeshift monoliths are banners charging people to "Reclaim Berlin!" and "Squat the World!"

All of these myriad phenomena occur outside the confines of municipal direction. Though it is disputable whether the city has a responsibility to service art and culture (as it usually does in the United States), Berliners take the task into their own hands, reshaping the physical characteristics of the setting they inhabit. Compare this to the open curriculum at Brown: We espouse the rejection of rigid academic orthodoxy for independent, self-directed study. We would fit right in.

Of course, one's financial future is a serious concern. But do not fear — Germany's nominal GDP is the fourth largest in the world. Frankfurt is a veritable hub of European business activity, and the artist-oriented economy provides cheap (let me repeat, cheap) food and housing, as well as a plethora of (admittedly non-professional) job opportunities perfect for young graduates. It is undoubtedly a feasible option for two or three years.

Language can be a barrier, but simple German will get you along. Interestingly, certain companies have already started establishing English-specific housing services, made especially for new arrivals. Plus, would it not be an adventure to learn the language as you live? If it matters to you, nearly thirty thousand expatriates have already made the jump.

And there is something else you might find persuasive — universal health care. Though "Obamacare" has made some strides in improving the ailing healthcare industry in the United States, it pales in comparison to the comprehensive coverage offered by the German government.

But all of this is ancillary. The force of Berlin, the fundamental defining feature, is its situation in our historical landscape. It is a young New York, a 1920s Paris, a city that has yet to experience the sterilizing power of gentrification.

If my column seems like too broad a project, it is only because capturing Berlin's essence would require more pages (and, on my end, more time there). Yet, from my brief days in this world, from my conversations with friends studying abroad, from my reading about the place and my exchanges with graduates and locals, I can say only that there is an allure to Berlin. Like us, Berlin endeavors to push against definition, to ditch the rigid dichotomies of west and east, good and evil, which have plagued it for so long. Like us, it refuses to be pigeonholed.

Thus, consider Berlin — not for its usual draws, but for its underlying makeup. It fights against its Nazi history, its Communist influence and its volatile status as a European capital. It is time to move beyond our preconceived paths for graduation and expand our borders ideologically and geographically. Brown has the reputation for eccentricity and nonconformity. Let us push the envelope further and make Berlin a rightly frequented and generously lived location.

Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at anthony_badami@brown.edu.




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