The name was right, but the place was wrong.
The sign very clearly and unambiguously stated that I was at Yorckstrasse station, yet despite the fact that I had been catching the train at Yorckstrasse for several days now, I was quite positive that I had never been on this train platform before.
My first clue was the scaffolding. As I stepped confidently off the train – unaware of the mental turmoil about to strike – I noticed that scaffolding covered part of the platform, scaffolding that had not been there when I caught the train there that morning. But the Germans are efficient, right? It wouldn’t take them long to erect some scaffolding. I took a few more steps, and then it started to dawn on me that something wasn’t…right. The entrance to the stairs looked different and wasn’t quite in the right place. Wait, had I turned the wrong way when I got off the train? I reversed direction and walked back along the platform. Didn’t the platform have an entrance at both ends? But here I was at the end of the platform, and there was just some scrubby grass.
Starting to feel more-than-slightly disoriented and also kind of silly, I retraced my steps again. This time I walked past the stairway entrance, to see if there was another stretch of platform hiding behind it, maybe something that looked familiar. There wasn’t. I paused for a moment as my brain tried to comprehend the situation and my heart rate started to climb. I had been here, at Yorckstrasse, less than 8 hours earlier. Could they really have remodeled the entire platform in 8 hours?
Well, there was nothing else for it. I shook my brain out of its bafflement and took the only stairs available to me. I emerged from the station on a street I had never seen before. Looking around, I saw a large sign on a nearby corner for the U-Bahn. It turned out to be the U-Bahn station I wanted, even though I had never seen this entrance before, either. Was I losing my mind? I entered the U-Bahn station, went down the stairs, and found myself (at last!) on a familiar train platform. But I had entered it from the opposite end than usual.
Suddenly the pieces clicked into place. In my relief at realizing that I wasn’t insane, I may have exclaimed OOOOOHHHHH! out loud. I’m not sure; my head was still recovering.
So what, you ask, was the solution to this mystery?
This requires some explanation. Berlin’s public transit system is, as you would expect, thorough, efficient, and orderly. It is, however, slightly complicated. The U-Bahn (the underground trains) and the S-Bahn (the aboveground trains) don’t link together well. Sometimes stations that are supposedly “connecting” aren’t remotely connected to each other. I once got off the U-Bahn to change to an S-Bahn, and couldn’t for the life of me find the S-Bahn. I wandered around the neighborhood for a good 15 minutes before I suddenly – and quite accidently – spotted it.
For my two-week stay in Berlin, where I was attending a global health program, I had at least figured out my commute: take U-Bahn line U7 from Eisenacher Strasse to Yorckstrasse, exit the station and walk up a flight of stairs to the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn station (to be distinguished from the Yorckstrasse U-Bahn station, of course), and take any train from that platform to Friedrichstrasse. For my commute home, the S1, S2 or S25 S-Bahn train would return me from Friedrichstrasse to Yorckstrasse, where I would transfer to the U7 again. Got all that?
But here’s the thing: It turns out, there are two Yorckstrasse S-Bahn stations.
Separated by a couple of city blocks and completely invisible to one another, one Yorckstrasse is served by the S1 line, and the other is served by the S2 and S25. On my morning commute, I had been using the S2/S25 Yorckstrasse station without realizing it. And somehow, over the course of several days of following this route, I had always ended up on the S2 or S25 for my commute home. On the day that I entered the Twilight Zone of Berlin Public Transportation, I had taken the S1 home. And just like that, the S-Bahn had dumped me into the parallel universe Yorckstrasse, where it proceeded to blow my mind.
Like a rainbow after a storm, my revelation instantaneously transformed my state of mind from “Completely Freaking Out” to “Master of the World” – or at least, Master of the Berlin Bahn. Wiser and savvier, I sauntered the rest of my way home.