I’m approaching two months in Berlin and there’s much more to see and learn. Each city has its own personality, and Berlin is uniquely difficult to describe. I’m not a fast-moving tourist, so that shines a different light on everything. It’s a complex city with tremendous history and nuances and it takes time to explore.
At first, I was looking for an apartment in the Mitte District – known as Berlin’s “historical heart”. I ended up in non-touristy Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg was part of West Berlin and is an area of great diversity and energy. It’s south of the River Spree and was once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. Today it’s a haven for artists. The video link below describes nearby places and Kreuzberg streets I experience every day.
One fun, interesting main street – Bergmannkiez – is a few blocks from my apartment. The buildings, shops, and restaurants along Bergmannkiez are fabulous. During warm weather everyone sits outside, but over the past week I’ve observed deserted tables, despite woolly blankets carefully draped over each chair.
My first week was a semi-catastrophe. I got lost often. When I found someone who spoke English and asked for directions back to Kreuzberg, first they corrected my pronunciation and then their eyes went blank. Someone finally told me how huge Kreuzberg was and that it’s impossible to give directions without a specific street and cross street. I quickly learned to identify my flat by the nearby underground station called Gneisenaustraße – still can’t pronounce it properly. I also learned to never leave my apartment without a fully charged phone and Google Maps!
Language and Communication
Few people speak English in Berlin. Many know it but chose not to speak it because, depending on their circle of acquaintances, they really don’t have to. Occasionally some kind soul will take mercy on you and translate – generally you’re on your own. Menus and food labels are the most confusing. Learning German is necessary for anyone who wants to live long-term in Berlin. It’s a difficult language.
I’ve visited Germany several times, including Frankfurt, Munich, Düsseldorf, Wiesbaden, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Cologne, and smaller towns along the Rhine River. During those trips I was traveling for a shorter period of time with other people. My clouded memories are more of interactions with traveling companions and not the places visited.
Those trips were before I began a travel journal / blog. I wrongly imagined English would be spoken widely in Berlin. It seems to me that even in cities like Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Istanbul, and Budapest it was easier to communicate, but I’m not complaining – well, maybe a little :o)…
Communication or the lack there of can become more of an issue when traveling solo. I like the challenge but unless you seek other Americans – that defeats the purpose of travel for me – you must learn to adapt and survive in an unknown and sometimes unfriendly environment. It’s exciting and at the end of each day there’s a feeling of accomplishment.
Germany is the second most popular destination for migrations – after the US – and Berlin is a diverse city of many immigrants. Kreuzberg has a large Turkish population and some side streets could be in Istanbul. While traveling on public transportation, I’ve seen and heard immigrants from everywhere – Africa, Mideast, Australia, Asia, South America, and other European countries. They often stick together and speak their own languages, not German or English. They seem content and settled although some have sad-looking faces indicating they may have experienced deep trauma and tragedy in their lives. They have been helpful and kind – more so than many Germans.
Germany encourages immigration of “highly skilled professionals” and “scientists”. There is no market for unskilled workers. I’ve heard the process of obtaining a permanent visa is daunting, with application reviews backed up for six months or more. I’m not sure what people do while waiting for their immigration review, but they must prove financial independence and learn German before obtaining a permanent visa.
Early one morning I was awakened by a buzzing door bell. My apartment building is huge, and since I don’t know that many people in Berlin and wasn’t expecting a visitor, I ignored it. A few minutes later there was loud knocking on my door. I looked through the peep-hole to see four policemen and quickly opened the door. They were polite, asked several questions, and requested my passport. They showed me photos of a Syrian couple they were looking for – not sure what crime they committed and didn’t ask. I didn’t recognize them.
The massive front door to the apartment building closes slowing on a heavy hinge, so anyone determined to enter the building could wait outside and manage to sneak through. I find that slightly scary and usually wait to make sure the door has closed completely behind me. Even with the lights on, the stairway to my flat is dark and slightly creepy.
These days, German immigration is complicated and difficult. I did cursory research on the process and decided it wasn’t for me. When Schengen visa requirements change in 2021 extended travel is possible and will meet my needs for future trips.
The economy here is bustling and Germans are into their professions and making money – you don’t find many loose ends. Every other car in Berlin is a sparkling Mercedes. Berlin is full of high-tech. So far, I haven’t noticed any encampments or homeless people living in the streets. There are some alcohol or drug addicts.
Of course the Berlin apartment I rented is not quite as wonderful as the photos… That’s the chance you take when renting a foreign apartment. However, hotels are way too expensive for a long visit and I’m not a fan of hostels. The apartment suits my purpose and is warm, private, and cozy. Except for one loud all-night party, it’s been quiet. I’m preparing for holiday festivities and have ear plugs ready.
As a tourist, it’s not possible to rent an apartment in Berlin for less than three months. The German government enforces the rule. Compared to New York, San Francisco, London, or even Munich, rental rates are reasonable.
I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening with German politics. I know there are many changes in the air, with Angela Merkel’s recent resignation as leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union. Her refugee policy has long been unpopular.
Music and Arts
Music and arts are the major jackpot in Berlin with everything you could imagine or desire! I’m not great at museums and after a few hours find them overwhelming, so I still have many to visit in Berlin, and the list is growing.
I’ve posted several blogs about live performances attended. There’s great variety and quality. I’m ecstatic and getting my fill of theatre and classical and jazz music. During the last month I’ll focus on museums, Christmas markets, and more music – enough to keep me occupied. Ballet and opera are of interest but pricey ($100+ per performance).
Not a foodie, I still appreciate a good meal. Some Berlin restaurants are disappointing, but I’ve found a few I like and keep returning to them. The choices around Kreuzberg are endless, but it can be somewhat uncomfortable dining alone on weekends when most restaurants are busy and fully booked.
The menus are never in English – and in some restaurants, asking for an English menu is downright painful… When I’m really hungry, my favorite “go to” restaurant is a little place called dean & david where they serve fresh food and make incredible salads! The atmosphere is always friendly and comfortable.
Weather during October and the first half of November was heavenly. It’s turning cold now, but I came prepared. The shops and stores are super-heated so if you’re shopping for longer than a few minutes it’s almost unbearable inside and you start taking off layers. The cooler temperatures will be good for the Christmas Markets where you can buy hot drinks to keep warm.
Next Stop Dubrovnik
My next stop is Dubrovnik Croatia – a non-Schengen country. Although I traveled around Croatia for several months a few years ago I didn’t get enough time there and booked a small apartment for January. By December 29, I’ll have exhausted my 90 day Schengen visa limit and can’t re-enter any Schengen countries until April 2019. Hopefully the weather in Dubrovnik will be a little warmer than Berlin. Haven’t decided which non-Schengen country to visit after Croatia, maybe Albania.
There are tons of stories about my Berlin experiences and the challenging time here, but this post contains enough rambling. I haven’t taken many photos. Berlin isn’t known for its beauty, although some older buildings and streets are exquisite. I’m not into selfies and it’s complicated getting your picture taken when traveling solo. Before I leave, I’m focused on getting a photo in front of the Brandenburg Gate!