Navigating Berlin: A Story of Being Lost and Found

By: Rachel Fischler

In a city of over three million people and an extraordinary public transportation system, it is a miracle I only got lost in Berlin once! While uncomfortable in most ways, such a time ended up being an experience that laid the foundation for the most fabulous transformation, and I didn’t even know it yet!

Berlin’s Public Transportation

Through the eyes of a mesmerized American college student, this is how I conceptualize Berlin’s public transport in simple terms. Your world is centered on just one ticket–this is your prized possession! It covers everything, the only caveat is to make sure you always have a valid one or you could get fined during a random check! You can buy one on Berlin’s BVG app, or at a ticket machine–just stamp it with the date once you get it! (Unless it already has a date range printed on it, for those longer-lasting tickets). I prefer the app, because I always have my phone with me.

sitting for bus abroad

Your ticket covers all forms of transportation: U-Bahn, S-Bahn, train, tram, bus, and ferry, all within three mapped-out zones: A, B, and C. In a word, the U-Bahn is the subway. It is the slowest train with frequent stops mostly underground. The S-Bahn is faster and stops less often than the subway; it is also mostly above ground. The train within the ABC zone of Berlin’s transport is very fast moving and covers a lot of distance between stops. You usually only use this if you are going to the airport or another city like Potsdam in Berlin’s C zone. The tram runs on tracks in the road and is the slowest form, but still very useful, especially in the gorgeous Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. The bus and ferry are self-explanatory.

Every mode of transport runs on a line, its “route”. The line is dictated by a number, and the direction by a location. Like two lanes on a road, each line is always going in both directions. For navigation purposes, I used Google Maps or CityMapper. Such apps will tell you what line, direction, stops, and transfers–knowing the answer to every question like a genie in a bottle. You know which way to go based on the name of the terminus (a mode of transport’s last stop). For instance, if you need to take the 248 bus, you will take the 248 Sudkreuz if you are going one way, or the 248 Alexanderplatz if you are going the other. 

rachel train abroad

Even broken down, it is a bit complex to explain! Yet, that is the way of life, most often we need to live these things to truly understand them. When we do, we get the hang of things far quicker than we may have feared–Berlin’s transport system is really user-friendly. By the time I left Berlin, it was all so obvious and second nature. Berlin’s public transport really was a joy! A marvel of humanistic infrastrucutre. I felt safe and free–the world at my fingertips! No car is needed, not even at any odd hours of the night! 

train abroad

The Beauty of Getting Lost

Now the philosophical side of things. The best way to learn is through experience. And I had plenty of those, some welcome and others more of a surprise. One day, I went to an interview for my internship with a non-profit in Mitte, the center of Berlin. I took the U-Bahn there, no trouble! After the interview, I decided to wander over to Potsdammer Platz for a vegan burger, delicious! Needing a few groceries, I popped into a Kaufland nearby. It started pouring rain, and I realized I needed to get back to where I was staying and do homework in time for a fun evening with friends. I tried to figure out a route home. I didn’t want to walk far, weighed down by bags of groceries and a box of vegan donuts. (Berlin spoils those with dietary restrictions!) 

I found a route in Google Maps for a way home that I didn't require too much walking. It included a bus ride, I had never done that by myself yet! I had a hard time finding the stop because I didn’t recognize the sign, it wasn’t as simple as walking down to an U-Bahn track and getting on the train. So I finally figured out where the bus stop was. I got on, but then realized I missed my stop, so I got off and rerouted. I struggle to find a new bus. Once I did, I realized I was going the wrong way! I got off and tried to find shelter from the rain so my phone screen would work by touch, unfettered by raindrops sliding on the glass. I started to panic, as the weight of the city and predicament flooded me in raindrops as I started to cry. How would I ever get home? Where on earth was I? Why did I think I was ready for this? “I can’t do this” I thought. “I want to go home”.

There I was, a foreigner sopping wet, with donuts soggy and sullen. I picked myself up and realized I could get myself back to my housing. Maybe it would take hours and hours, but I knew for a fact regardless of the trials and tribulations, I would fall asleep in my own bed that night. I took a deep breath, and routed myself again–finally understanding how to find bus stops, how the stops were displayed as you rode, and which direction to go. I found my new stop for my new bus. And finally the bright yellow sunbeam of Berlins colorful busses splashed up to the curb and I got on. I rode, maybe 10 stops. And then there I was, stepping of the bus, home. I had made it! I would never get lost like that again.

wall quote abroad

5 months later, at the end of my studies, I walked through Mitte knowing so much of the vast Berlin like the back of my hand, at least in an abstract way. One night, as the evening dusk blanketed Berlin in quiet solitude I crossed a street…and froze. Here I was. I knew this spot. I had seen this before. Yes! This is were I had gotten lost, that one rainy and cold winter day in Berlin. It had looked like I was on Mars then, everything foreign and scary. Now, it was my backyard, it was home. I had once stood here lost. A teary eyed mess. Reduced by the unknown. Five months later, after infinite new experiences, discovery in every corner and crevice of Berlin’s places, people, and culture, I had learned Berlin’s transport system and its daily rhythms which resonated in my soul. I was a new person. Stronger. I walked Berlin’s streets with my head held high, full of possibility, fuller than life itself. I held a happiness in my hands unlike I had ever known before. Life tasted sweeter than I knew it could. Life would never be the same, and I knew I would move back after graduation. For a million reasons, the most important being: I shine the brightest in Berlin. I had first been so lost, that one day. In location, but also in mind, body and soul. I eventually found my way home, and now, I realize, I had found myself. 

“I painted over the wall of shame so freedom is ashamed no more. Inferno ruled too many years until the people chose the light. I put my faith in you Berlin, and give to you my colors bright” - Fulvio Pinna, Italy / East Side Gallery, Berlin

This quote rests on the former Berlin wall in a beautiful painting by an italian artist. A place of so much unknown, now brings so much beauty to all who walk by. It reminds us to surrender, to let go. And from that openness, so much light will flow in it is as if you have grown wings. It represents such a wandering, of losing and finding: a symbiotic relationship, ever-changing and blooming.