Berlin is one of the (admittedly few) European cities that, for me, has “long-term potential.” By that I mean I find it to be one of the more liveable cities on the continent, in the sense that it’s not too crowded, things work properly, and you can make a decent living. I’m not saying it’s perfect; every place has its struggles and hardships. But Berlin, for the most part, fares very well.
What makes this city really great to explore is its variety of districts, all exhibiting Berlin’s characteristic creative and counter-cultural vibes yet each with a distinct personality. I live in Schöneberg, which is directly on the border of one of the most popular boroughs called Kreuzberg (Kreuzberg in a few words: good nightlife, graffiti, Turkish influence). The Hertie School of Governance is in Mitte, the most central and probably the most posh area of town. Then there’s Prenzlauer Berg, which is a bit more residential and affluent than other parts of town and where you can find numerous restaurants and some great bars. There is also Friedrichschain, sometimes called “the new Kreuzberg,” as it has recently begun to gentrify. Friedrichschain is gritty yet fashionable and is home to tons of great cafes, bars, clubs, and restaurants. As Berlin is a pretty big city — population roughly 3.5 million — there is no shortage of things to see or do and you can’t really go wrong in any of these neighborhoods or the many others that I have not even mentioned. Because public transit is so vast and reliable (I’m really dreading going back to Toronto’s TTC…), you’re relatively well-connected to all the neighborhoods no matter where you are.
In Prenzlauer Berg, there is a particular bar called Weinerei which — get this — operates on a “pay what you think you owe” basis. An initial 2 euro deposit gets you your wine glass. Then you serve yourself from the various bottles of red and white wine on the bar. At the end of the night you, quite literally, put whatever amount of money you feel you owe in a big clear bowl on the table.The only downfall: the place closes at midnight. It’s not really fair to complain, though, as I doubt this would continue being a successful business model were it open into the late hours of the night. Weinerei and its hipster charm make it a popular place, amongst Hertie School students as well. Check it out, if only for the experience of such a unique establishment, if you ever find yourself in Berlin.
Also for future visitors, an unrelated but important word of warning: grocery shopping here represents German efficiency at its finest. After two and a half months, I have yet to master it! “Speed” and “agility” are adjectives I had no idea I’d one day use to describe such a routine, even mundane, task. It doesn’t matter which grocery chain you’re shopping in, the check-out clerks swipe the items at the speed of light… which is great, right? You don’t have to wait forever. But then your purchases begin piling up FAST in the teeny, tiny area beyond the swiping spot (I’m used to having a bit more space). What inevitably happens to me is that I simultaneously attempt to dig cash out of my wallet with one hand and hurriedly and sloppily stuff whatever I bought into my bags as quickly as possible with the other hand, to make room for the next customer, trying not to drop or break anything in the process, with this whole circus occurring under the watchful eye and strained patience of not just the clerk but also the next customers. Apparently in some stores they monitor their check-out clerks’ scanning speed per minute! Grocery shopping is not only a balancing act but a test of your ability to stay cool under pressure. Although I won’t miss the anxiety that comes with this when I’m back in Toronto, I will really miss fantastically short wait-times.
There is one thing at home that I do prefer (this might be the only thing…): no-smoking laws are enforced across the board. From what I understand, smoking indoors is technically illegal in Germany also, according to EU legislation, but here it’s more of a compliance issue on the part of certain bars or locales.
It seems like in German there is a word for everything because you can put words together so easily. My favorite example is “durchmachen” (durch = through, machen = to do). This compound word translates, I believe, to something like “to go through” or “to endure.” It depends on the context, but it is used in a variety of ways: to endure a divorce, to go through a difficult phase, to stay up all night into the next day, etc. Such a handy word.
My last observation is a cultural one. I’ve noticed that Germans are quite direct and to the point. Often they will give you a short and simple “yes” or “no” in response to a question. “Did you like that movie?”… “No.” It makes me laugh, but to be honest it’s refreshing to hear people say what they mean or to choose a side. It does not make them impolite; I have not encountered any rude Germans (although, as in any country, I’m sure at least a few of them exist somewhere out there). It’s just that they are efficient… so it’s no wonder that expression is more direct!