A year after moving to Berlin, reflecting on language and community

Omnified contributor Zeynep Lokmanoglu, originally from Turkey, moved to Berlin in June 2018. In an essay, she questions whether the common bond of language is enough to forge connections between strangers.

Photo by Håkon Sataøen on Unsplash

A piece for Omnified by Zeynep Lokmanoglu

I arrive at Tegel Airport on June 1, 2018. The cart carrying my heap of luggage (two suitcases and two duffel bags) is dangerously close to toppling over. The taxi line is already too long, and I only have $5 of cash on me. I request an Uber.

The author in Potsdam.

It is so hot. I’ve never been to Berlin when the weather was even remotely warm. It’s humid and oppressive. Lack of sleep combined with the exertion of lifting my bags up and down has left me flushed and sweaty. My glasses keep sliding down my nose.

The Uber driver insists on handling my luggage, and I watch him, afraid he’ll hurt himself as he leans too far back, making sounds as if he’s a weightlifter. We have to put a bag in the middle seat so I sit next to him, and small talk is inevitable. I’m not sure if I’m capable of it.

He hardly speaks any English, and I don’t speak German or Arabic, but we manage to communicate some basics. He’s Lebanese. I’ve just come from New York, but I’m from Turkey. I’ve come to live here.

After I explain my background to the driver, he makes a sound of excitement and motions me to wait. He’s scanning the FM on his radio for something. He clicks through variations of static-laced German news, bad house music, classical music. Finally, he finds it: news coverage in Turkish about the upcoming elections in Turkey.

He says, “Radio, only Turkish!”

A pop song in Turkish I’ve never heard before starts playing. He turns it all the way up, bobbing his head and smiling at me, expecting me to sing along. He sings along to some words he picks out: “Hayaaat… İntikam hmmmm.”  The windows are down and we’re blasting the music into traffic. I close my eyes as hot wind fans my face. I am jetlagged, my tailbone aches from sitting on an airplane seat for about a day, my lower back hurts from lifting my bags. Just yesterday I was crying, looking out from another car window at my friends as they stood outside the apartment in Brooklyn I had just moved out of, and now I am very, very disoriented.

***

I grew up in Mersin, Turkey. I left when I was 17 to attend university in the United States and moved to New York right after I graduated. I haven’t lived in Turkey since.

The first community I settled into in New York was a group of people from Turkey around my age, who had gone to international high schools and left home to attend university in the United States. Together we spoke a mix of English and Turkish, taking liberties with both languages. As I continued to live there I joined and built more communities for myself. These were the kind of people I could eat with, do nothing with — people who shared or understood my sense of humor, my interests, my world views. We communicated beyond language.

But after living in New York for seven years, I needed to recenter and think about what I do well without being thrown around by the demanding pace of one of the world’s most demanding cities. I decided on Berlin because it’s relatively more affordable than New York, it’s closer to my parents and it has a young, international population.

As I settle into my new city, language is at the forefront of my mind. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve lived somewhere without knowing the official language. And although English is commonly spoken, it doesn’t get me very far as I try to settle and feel at home, and I am constantly on Google Translate. It’s a very isolating feeling. Within a week, I sign up for German classes.

I hadn’t foreseen how Turkish, my mother tongue, spoken in a very concentrated area of the world, would offer some help in a European country.  There are hundreds of thousands of people living in Berlin who have roots from Turkey — people have been coming here since the 1960s. Though I’d been to Berlin several times before, in my first few weeks living in Kreuzberg I eagerly notice, with childlike eyes, the Turkish on the shop signs, grocery stores, community centers, the last names of people that adorn white vans — people I might be able to speak to.

Soon after moving to Berlin, I speak Turkish to a vendor at the Turkish market near my apartment and he responds to me in German. This confuses me, especially since I had just heard him speak Turkish to the vendor next to him. It’s very likely that he didn’t hear me — I tend to mumble — but I’ve been paranoid about my identity here and thoughts start bubbling in my head.

I go to the Turkish market again with an American friend. Different stand, different guy. I ask him, in Turkish, where the lemons are from and he replies in Turkish: “Spain.” He’s noticeably grumpy, so noticeable that my friend gives me a look of wondering what’s wrong. She asks to buy something, in English, and he’s so friendly with her, almost playful. My mind spins, trying to figure out why he’s behaving like this to me.

Do we speak the same language, if we don’t share a community? There is presently a new wave of people moving here from Turkey to escape a deteriorating economy. The Turkish-speaking population here has been arriving from varying areas during varying political and economic conditions over the course of decades. In reality, this shopkeeper and I aren’t likely to have much in common. I have very little grounds on which I can claim a deep connection to someone who left a city in the east of Turkey in the 1980s during a time of absolute turmoil. My coming here was on a whim. In a city with so many people with ties to Turkey, ours isn’t a special connection.

***

I have the most direct and substantial conversations in and about Turkish in cabs and Ubers. These instances are intimate and transient. Once the journey is over it’s not very likely that we’ll see each other again. It’s like a two-way moving confessional. During one ride the driver, a 60-year-old Kurdish man, actually says to me in Turkish: “I have a confession!”

“I’ve lived here for 40 years and I don’t speak German,” he says. He says it mischievously so I giggle in response. “It’s a hard language,” I say.

“I am very shy,” he says. “I didn’t even know the neighborhoods other than my own until I started driving this Uber. Now I meet all sorts of people.” He tells me that in the 1970s, he moved along with his extended family and friends. They were all from the same village outside of Samsun and they all moved into the same neighborhood in Berlin, practically the same street and same buildings. He worked with friends and relatives. Who would he speak German to if he didn’t meet anyone beyond his comfort zone?

“My grandchildren speak German among each other and I have to remind them that I don’t understand. I am learning now for the first time,” he says.

For some immigrants who came here from Turkey early, not learning German wasn’t just a product of timidity. After we bond over how good the food from his hometown Gaziantep is, another Uber driver tells me about the circumstances of his immigration in the 1960s. “When I first got here, we were put straight into the factories. There was no time to learn German, and no encouragement. We had translators in the factory, and the only other people I spoke to were mostly Turkish speakers. I began to learn German properly 20 years after I moved here, imagine.”

I notice that the timeline of their arrival in Germany carries more meaning to some than where they’re from. Who they came with, who they became neighbors with is significant to the life they’ve built here. And out of the many I speak to, only one says “This is home now.” Keep in mind that these are all people who are 40 and older. There’s a lot of talk of going back, investing in a business in Turkey. A few say: “The children are German, so we can’t go back.”

When it’s my turn to answer questions, I get asked why I came here, if I came alone, where my parents live. I feel that they are trying to place me. I didn’t come here for family or even for a specific job. Through me, they are also trying to make sense of the larger group of younger newcomers who are moving into the city.

These newcomers are a multinational group, moving to Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Wedding. I hear almost as much English on the street in Kreuzberg as I hear Turkish. When one taxi driver tells me that his grandmother lived on my street his whole life, I imagine all the older people in the apartments that line surrounding streets. How strange the changes on their streets must look to them. Their once dominantly migrant worker neighborhood suddenly a coveted, “hip” place inhabited by people from everywhere.

***

Walking on the streets in Berlin, I sometimes feel like a powerful ghost. My Turkish identity is undercover; I am quiet and can observe. I observe the familiarity in which people talk to each other in Turkish in my neighborhood. Asking each other about a recent move, talking about indigestion, gossiping. A little boy proudly boasting to his friend about a deal he got on chocolate bars in a mix of Turkish and German. I can only understand parts of it.

We are living in an age where people are moving around with more ease and less detachment to find better living situations for themselves. Perhaps the dreaded word “assimilation” doesn’t have the hold it once did, and living in pockets of communities we make for ourselves is more ordinary than it was before. But the fact that people aren’t forced to speak a language, doesn’t discourage people from trying to learn that language. It helps people do it more willingly and with intention, not because they have to, but because they’d like to be able to connect on a deeper level with where they live and those who live with them.

My feeling of isolation is replaced with a realization. How much beauty there is in displaced people sometimes shyly, sometimes with surer steps attempting to understand and connect with one another.

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