We just hit week three into our Berlin adventure, so I thought I’d share some first impressions. This is a fairly random assortment of thoughts, sightings, and impressions of life in Germany’s capital city. Over the next couple months, I’ll share more in-depth posts about the logistics of moving overseas and setting up in a new country.
Until then, here’s a few things that shaped our initial impressions of Berlin.
If you like good food, you’re going to like Berlin. And if you prefer your food cheap and diverse, then you’ll love Berlin. From our corner bakery (where they’ve been churning out fresh bread for more than 100 years), to newly launched Thai-German-French-etc. fusion restaurants, to the ubiquitous doner kebab, there’s easily something for everyone. And, I’d wager, the food is cheaper than any major city in Europe, and definitely cheaper than Seattle. Almost everything here costs less and tastes better, whether it is a delectable €5 bottle of Italian wine, a heavenly €2.5 glass of German beer, or a €2 block of French cheese that would easily set you back $15 at Whole Foods.
There are certainly exceptions, which can be surprising if you’re not careful. In the US, for example, water at restaurants is either tap water or fairly affordable mineral water. Here? There’s a good chance that sparkling water will cost more than your beer or wine. We were trying to figure out why a recent meal was so expensive, only to realize we’d spent nearly €10 on one bottle of sparkling water.
There is no good way to say it: compared to most first-world countries, public transit in the United States is almost universally terrible. So it really isn’t fair to compare transit in Berlin to, say, Seattle. But I’m going to anyway. Transit here is so incredibly comprehensive, that there’s barely a part of the city you cannot reach via a clean, well-run, and frequent train, tram, or bus. Seattle? Not so much. Want to head to the outskirts for a picnic at the lake? Jump on the M4 to Weißensee. Fancy a stroll through the Tiergarten? Take the U-ban. Yes, all this takes more time than driving about suburban USA, but on transit you can relax, read a book, and destroy the environment a little bit less.
Welcome home. Here’s a thousand things to do
Ok, maybe not a thousand, but it’s a lot. Visiting somewhere, even for an extended stay, is very different than taking up residence in a new country. In the past three weeks I’ve gotten health insurance, a tax number, social security number, an apartment, insurance for the apartment, two bank accounts, four phone plans (more on that later), a city registration, transit passes, and likely more things I’ve already forgotten. I’ve done all of these before in the US, but never all at once. Oh, and most of this was in German too, which I don’t yet understand (thank you Google Translate).
English? “Ehh, a little”
While you can get pretty far not knowing German in Berlin, there will be plenty of times where your mono-lingualism hits its limit. Many Germans in Berlin are modest about their English. They’ll say they only speak “a little”, and then replying in fluent, expressive prose that would make an English-teacher envious. But just as many locals will mean it, so you’re reduced to nodding a lot, smiling inanely, and more Google Translate. Daniela has started her language classes, and I expect to start soon. Fortunately, everyone has been surprisingly kind and patient with our muddled butchering of their language.
When they say “Berlin isn’t like the rest of Germany”, this is certainly part of what people are talking about. Graffiti is everywhere.
No doubt, you’ve likely heard that Europeans take their work-life balance quite seriously, piling on vacation days and closing shops on Sunday and holidays. I can affirm this is very much the truth, especially in Catholic Germany. We arrived in Berlin on Easter Weekend. In the US, Easter (like most holidays) is mostly an excuse for stores to pump profits with sale prices and kitchy, seasonal products. Here in Berlin? It is a four day weekend, and most shops (including grocery stores) are closed.
Most stores are closed on Sunday too, so better plan your weekend shopping. I’ve heard rumors that there is one Sunday a month where stores are open, but no one can tell me when it actually is. A few locals knowingly inform me that this shopping Sunday is, in fact, a myth to tease Americans.
And even when shops are open, their hours are perplexing to an American used to malls that open at the crack of dawn and close later than bars. Our local pet shop, for example, is open from 11 to 2, then 3 to 5. And don’t think that hour break is for lunch. My wife recently visited at noon and they were proudly “zum Mittagessen” (out to lunch).
Shops and more shops
Don’t let these “restrictions” on shopping lead you to think that Berlin is some anti-retail socialist paradise. Quite the opposite. The city is teeming with shops of all sorts, from cheap dollar-store places to the highest-end clothing, and everything in-between. My favorite? Nearly every block has a “Blumen” (flower) shop, adding wonderful splashes of color across the city. This is probably what American cities looked like many decades ago, with thousands of independent shops dotting the streets. The hollowing out of American urban retail, which started with suburban flight and was finished by Amazon and Walmart, seems to have spared Berlin (so far).
Over the next few months I’ll share more about our apartment hunt, finding a job in Berlin, and more.
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