I’ve thought a lot about writing of the uncomfortable journeys I’ve had while living in Berlin. It’s an interesting situation, living here, as unlike my home town or in Birmingham I use public transport frequently, probably spending around 2-3 hours on it every day. As a result, it is likely that these experiences are not unique to Berlin or Germany, but that I have experienced them here rather than back in England because of the regularity with which I use public transport…so this shouldn’t put anyone off of doing a YA or from visiting Berlin.
During my first semester I have had two notably uncomfortable experiences using public transport, specifically the s-bahn. The first happened in September, around 3 weeks into living in Berlin, and the other at the end of November. Interestingly, both incidents happened when my parents were visiting the city (although obviously they were not present at the time), which goes to show that feeling safe by having family in closer proximity than usual, doesn’t mean you are safe.
The first ‘uncomfortable’ journey on the s-bahn happened at around 3.30am on a Saturday morning. For Berlin, this is a busy time for public transport as it’s the time people usually go out to clubs so it wouldn’t be considered a particularly ‘dangerous’ or ‘vulnerable’ time for me to be traveling on the train. I also want to point out that I do not live in the same direction as any of my friends; we are all dotted around the city and I’m probably the farthest out (cheap rent means a 40 minute journey to Mitte on a good day). So the situation was: me traveling by myself at a relatively busy time on the s-bahn. I had been out with friends, I had drunk alcohol and had been sick out of the train doors…not my finest moment. Two men came over to help me, and kindly held back my hair. I finished vomiting and said my thank yous and went to sit down again.
I was sat down when one of the men came and sat next to me, very closely. I was falling in and out of sleep, but as he put his arm around my shoulder and his other hand touched my breast (I was fully clothed, jacket and all), I pushed him away and told him no. Again, he put his hand in an unwanted place; I became agitated and pushed away again, my voice becoming louder and telling him to f*ck off. It took me repeating this several times, more loudly each, and telling him I was calling my boyfriend for him to move away and exit the train.
I don’t think that this experience is unique to me in anyway, there are reports of similar things happening to women on the tube in London, for example. Apart from this man’s behaviour, the second most shocking thing to me was that there were other people on the train- couples even- and no one tried to help me, or intervene when I was clearly distressed. These incidents should not be batted away with the idea of ‘it wasn’t my business’, or the worry that you might embarrass yourself by saying something bold to a stranger. It’s not that I need to be ‘saved’ as such, but knowing I would have the support of others to publicly denounce someone acting inappropriately on transport would make myself and I’m sure others, feel safer.
The second incident happened at around 8.30am on a Sunday morning, again I had been out at a club but was completely sober by this point and not drawing attention to myself in any way (eg. being sick). I was sat in a seat among 3 others, in a carriage with no one else in. There were free seats in the whole section, but other passengers were seated in the next carriage along which could be walked straight through to without doors. I was completely minding my own business when I felt a group of people surround me, but I kept my eyes down. Two people sat in front of me, one next to and I could feel more sitting behind me; when I looked they were turned in their seats to be facing my direction. I had about 8 people all looking at me, chatting in a non-English language and laughing. I kept my eyes away, trying to look ‘bored’ out of the window. The man in front of me was whistling, laughing, clucking and gesturing for me to look up at him, all of his friends (including two women) joining in, obviously I refused to look up and feigned ignorance. Then the classic ‘ginger’ came, oh ha ha how funny! I looked up and said ‘what’, they all burst out laughing and continued to communicate in a language I couldn’t distinguish, although it was not German.
I was irritated, having been made to feel uncomfortable when I had been sitting there first, when I had been keeping myself to myself, and I didn’t want to show that I’d been intimidated by moving seats. However this group of adults (I would estimated around 25-40 years old) persisted in clucking, laughing, making comments I could tell were offensive and directed at me…so I moved, muttering ‘way to make someone feel uncomfortable’ as I did. This earned me an outburst of laughter and I walked on.
I sat in the next carriage, opposite a man wearing headphones, whose presence made me feel safer immediately. From down the carriage the comments continued, louder, some of the men leaning down the aisle jeering at me. I think the man opposite could see my eyes flickering to and from the aisle as I continued to feel uncomfortable, so I felt I had an ally if anything happened (although I wasn’t counting on it after the previous experience). When I came to my stop I waited until the literal last second, when the train says ‘Zurück bleiben bitte’ meaning stand back, as the doors were about to shut. Then I got up and swiftly exited. I had been worried that had I exited earlier, they may have also jumped off the train and followed me to my bus stop…where I had to wait 20 minutes for the next bus. After leaving the train I felt relieved, only to have one of the men forcefully throw himself against the window shouting as I walked past the train.
What bothered me about this experience was that it was day light; 9.15am by the time I arrived at my station…a safe time of day? Also, the age of the group and the fact that women were involved in making another female feel extremely intimidated whilst traveling alone…who were these people and what was their agenda?
I guess what I have taken from these two different experiences is that you can try and ‘protect’ yourself in all the ways advised to women, eg: travel at busy times or in daylight, seat yourself near people who you feel could intervene, not be drunk, not be scantily clad (I was not in either situation), but realistically as a woman traveling alone you are vulnerable, especially when a culture of others stepping in to help another seems to be non-existent.
I am fine after both of these uncomfortable journeys, I have spoken with close friends about them both and am not writing this for sympathy, but rather to exemplify the challenges which come with being a woman, in a foreign place, using public transport, and also to encourage you to intervene in situations that you may not consider to be your business if you suspect someone else is being made to feel uncomfortable.
Here’s to hoping you never feel intimidated on public transport or anywhere else!
As ever, truly enjoying my year abroad (don’t assume that two negative experiences define my time here),