University Character Studies
Barely over half a year ago, having recently moved to Berlin, I started my courses at one of the city’s most prestigious universities. Germany, you might like to know, takes pride in its open and inclusive attitude – university buildings are usually public, and anyone, may they be affiliated to the institution in some manner or not, can waltz in or out as they please. This liberal atmosphere is, to my mind, typically German. Entrance was heavily monitored at the British university I used to work for – especially after the incident of the man who was caught ambling down the corridors with a canister of gasoline and box of matches, muttering to himself.
When I asked fellow students, the majority declared in favour of the current open doors policy. On the one hand, there’s a general impetus here in Berlin to be (or affect to be) “cool” (equalitarian?) with everybody. I am not sure how much of this comes from within, and how much is dictated by the fear that someone might literally bite your head off if you give the faintest whiff that you are not. The jury’s still out on that one. On the other hand, I guess the eternal academic problem of being perceived as not acknowledging the “real world ” might have something to do with the readiness to include others. Or is it the Others?
But what does this environment produce? Let’s see… The first week of my programme, there was a circular email going around referring to a case of stalking that had happened a few months before. A young student was followed around by a stranger first on campus, then on her way home. The university was holding informational talks, self-defence classes and counselling sessions, and released a description of the man who was apparently still lurking around. But, I hear you say, stalking can happen amongst students too. Fair enough.
My own experience, from the first few days of classes, was being accosted by a man who was definitely not a student but still in my university foyer. Because it was freshers’ week, and all sorts of stands of different organizations were littered around, I just assumed he was with one of them when he asked me if I was looking for a job. The fact that he was not standing near one of the tables, that he complimented me on my looks, was vague about the job offer (a model for trade shows; a VIP guide; a ticket collector !?!), did not have a business card, and wanted me to skip class and go somewhere outside the university with him did trigger some alarm bells. OK, it triggered Big Ben, and no, I did not go anywhere with this trustworthy employer. But the fact that there was a momentary lapse in judgement, based on the security guaranteed by my university surroundings, and the “official” and “real” aspect implied by his simply being there, scared me a little.
A friend of mine who went to the same university also shared a few stories. First, there is the urban legend of the guy going around girls’ loos, with a camera. He supposedly goes in mostly in the evenings, when the facillities are mostly deserted, reaches over the top of the cubicles, and takes photos of girls with their panties down. Needless to say, I never saw going to the loo the same way again.
Then, there is the intriguing story of the unkempt, elderly person going to a series of lectures and, as my friend put it, “pretending to be an academic”. His nails are long and dirty, his clothes shabby and his beard untrimmed, but he takes notes, nods attentively and sometimes asks questions. He collects free pens and is happy whenever free food is offered. Well alright, this could be the description of any student, really (perhaps minus the elderly attribute, although these days you never know). My friend maintains, however, that he has a desperate air about him, and the look of a homeless man. There is, according to her, a whole crowd of homeless people who attend university events with free catering – they let each other know through a mailing list. (How does that even work? Sorry mate, can you save my spot under the bridge, just got an email on my smartphone about sushi in the big auditorium!) Jokes aside though, what is the story behind the homeless academic? Was he a lecturer in a former life? Is he the ghost of times to come, a warning for us locked in the ivory tower?
Last but not least is one of my favourite tales. My friend worked as a student helper in the university’s Public Relations department, and one day called Human Resources to ask for a file. She spoke to a lady who was very nice and invited her to pick up the documents in the office. When she went to the HR office, the lady seemed to display a bit of an odd manner, but the file was out and waiting for her. Happy, my friend returned to her own desk. An hour later, my friend’s boss came in and asked for the documents. “Who did you get them from in HR?” the boss asked. “Well, I didn’t know the lady… perhaps she’s new” answered my friend. “Oh. Would you mind describing her to me?” “Petite, red-haired, a bit strange…” “Ah, that explains it. She doesn’t work for HR. She’s some poor homeless creature who sneaks into offices whenever someone forgets to lock them, and pretends she works there. She’s done this a few times before. Quite good at it, really.”
Who are these people? And genuinely liberal or not, I cannot help but admire a system that allows enough free play to create these imaginary lives.