New Life, New Start in Berlin

Sitting on the U-BAHN, on my way to Prenzlauer Berg, I look at Berlin’s city skyline and I can feel the history of this city. Its communist legacy is very much evident in the architecture passing in front of me. Alone on the train, I sit nervously as my thoughts drift to my current situation. My head’s filled with questions:

“What have I done? ”

“How could I quit my job and life and go on this trip with no plan?”

My mind goes blank. I don’t remember the reasons for blowing up my life, but I’m sure they must’ve been good.

I get off on “SchonHauser Allee” dragging my bags behind me down the street. I make my way to the Airbnb I’ve rented for the month. It’s a reasonably priced apartment in a nice neighborhood. My thinking was to ease myself into a budget mindset, it would’ve been a shock to my system if I’d started my trip in a hostel. Being honest here, it just might have killed me.

Life in Berlin is like a breath of fresh air. My first days are spent wandering its streets and enjoying the beautiful spring weather. I was surprised to discover that Berlin is a melting pot of cultures that mix easily with one another. It comforted me to see so many ethnic faces, it made me feel like I belonged.

Being a stranger in a new town is liberating, the anonymity gave me the courage to explore life in a new light. I no longer had to follow the rigid social norms of a Arabic society. Not that it matters in Berlin. This place has a relaxed “live-and-let-live” attitude, there’s no judgement or shame. People are free to test the boundaries of life and draw outside the lines. I could feel myself unwind as I embraced this liberty.

While I easily explored the city, I did struggle a little with the language barrier; I ran into a lot of people who didn’t speak English. So I decided to join an intensive four week German course. It was taught by Melanie, a beautiful svelte woman in her thirties. Although I tried my best, I was the slowest student in the group. Worse, Melanie insisted only German be used in class. I understood the logic, to really pick up a new language you have to immerse yourself in it.

The reality? It turned me into a great mime. By the end of the first week I had the mad miming skills of Marcel Marceau. I could effortlessly mime “Please madame, how much is that puppy in the window?”. I’m not complaining, it unearthed a great talent I didn’t know I had.

One afternoon, after class,  I was having lunch with Melanie. She started telling me stories of what life was like behind the wall. After all, it only came down 26 years ago and she was a young girl at the time. She remembered those days well. It affected me seeing how emotional she got talking about it. She recalled the suffering and hardships they faced. Things like the food rations and how they feared their neighbors spying on them for the authorities. It was an incredible evening, her stories brought that history to life.

Brandeburg Gate
Brandeburg Gate
Berlin Street Art
Berlin Street Art
Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

Germans are interesting. While they can be rigid and conservative, they can be equally relaxed and liberal. My first case of culture shock happened in the locker room of a McFit gym. I figured since I was in town for the month I may as well join a gym and McFit was cheap, only 20 Euros a month. I always went to the branch near Alexanderplatz. It’s big and clean. It’s in said gym, that I learned how comfortable people in Berlin are with nudity.

Here’s a hint: They’re VERY comfortable.

Before I tell this story please remember, I come from a very conservative culture. Nudity is taboo.

As I walked into the men’s changing room I was stunned to see people walking around naked. In Kuwait nudity, even in changing rooms, doesn’t happen. Immediately I threw my gaze to the floor and walked to the nearest available locker. I  changed quickly and went up to the gym to exercise. Once done, I returned to the changing room and went to the showers. I was dismayed to find they only had open showers,  no privacy. I’ve never been naked in public in my life, but I needed to shower. I was sweaty and extremely stinky. So I waited until the showers emptied and I ran in and set the world record for quickest shower.

As I was drying myself, a female cleaning attendant walked into the changing room. At this point I felt like my head was going to explode. I mean come on! I’m not being a prude. You have to admit, this is f-ing weird!

Reflexively I threw myself between the lockers, feebly trying to protect my dignity. The strange thing was, I was the only one who reacted. All the other guys continued changing and being naked in front of her. They didn’t care that she’d walked into the men’s changing room. Without bothering to properly dry myself, I put on my clothes and ran out of the room like my hair was on fire.

I was beyond shocked, I was shaking! I couldn’t process what just happened. I’d heard German’s were relaxed with nudity, but this took it to another level.

What’s truly shocking though, I eventually became a convert.

Honestly, for me, it began as harmless naughty fun. I started small, getting comfortable with being naked in the gym. Then I graduated to the big leagues, German Saunas. These aren’t your typical American spas. Men and women share everything, and I mean E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. They share changing rooms, saunas and pools (if available).

Walking up to the sauna, I felt like a total perv. I cased the joint and waited to make sure that both men and women were going in. Even then, I had to force myself through the front door. I kept imagining the morality police lying in wait, ready to bust the spa in a sting operation. My mugshot splashed across the next morning’s papers with the title: “Arab terrorist blinds women by showing off his package”.

Oh, the embarrassment.

The first time I entered a German Sauna, I didn’t see much. I kept my eyes glued to the floor all the way from the reception, through the changing room to the sauna. I will say this, the feet I saw that day were pretty. The second time I was more relaxed and had fun with the experience.

When I first left the Middle East, seeing naked flesh was like a siren call to seduction and sin. Now it doesn’t even register in my head. I have to say that I like it. I never realized how a conservative culture places such shame on the human body. Once you’re comfortable with showing your body in public it does wonders for your self esteem.

The month flew by, but I absolutely loved my time in this city. I loved the people, the food, the art and the nudity 😉

Below is a cool time lapsed video of my time in Berlin.


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