By Melissa Wozniak


Never ride the Berlin subway without a ticket. Plenty of people do. There are no turnstiles. The only deterrent to catching a free ride is knowing there is a teeny, tiny chance a plainclothes ticket cop will be on board, issuing fines to anyone caught without one. It’s the honor system, sporadically enforced.

My partner and I are honorable people. We teach yoga and take spiders outside instead of killing them and really wanted to buy tickets, but the machine wouldn’t take our American cards or fresh-from-the-airport large bills. So we vowed to make up for it next time. What are the odds that anyone will check on our very first train ride on our very first day in the country?

None of this mattered to the steel-faced ticket cop who left us holding 120 euro worth of fines on a deserted U-Bahn platform in Kurfürstenstraße, stewing in our rotten luck.

Monday morning, I trudged to the BVG office to deal with it, the sky sagging under the weight of pent-up drizzle. A ramshackle collection of plywood shacks suddenly appeared from the row of gray buildings lining the thoroughfare. Graffiti revealed it was an African art collective. Spotting a sign for vegetarian food, I wandered in. I heard him before I saw him: a voice as rich as timpani drums carrying the highest frequency of pure joy. “Welcome!” The jumbled smoke cloud of thoughts in my head instantly cleared.

To the men who make up the collective, he’s known simply as “Papa.” Some of them call him “Uncle,” the much-respected, unofficial head of a clanship of Gambians, Ghanaians and immigrants from across the continent. To me he was a sage, and he became my teacher as I sat at a picnic table outside his kitchen one afternoon — and another, and then another — sipping homemade peanut soup and feeling the electric energy of someone completely present.   

Papa told his stories in motion, a leisurely walking meditation between preparing food, leaning on the counter, and pouring tea for his friends. “People come to me and say, ‘Oh! I am so worried about what is going to happen. I am worried about money.’ And they have forgotten what is in here.” He clutched his chest and fixed a pale blue gaze on mine. “You must sit quietly with what is in here. That is who you are. The mind is both the master and the slave. It can give you great freedom, but it can also create things that are not there. If you trust who you are, you will always be where you need to be. There are no accidents.”

There are no accidents. And there is no such thing as luck. What seemed like misfortune led me to the brightest place in Berlin, which I wouldn’t have found without it.

The sun emerged, for the first time on my trip.