I’m approaching two months in Berlin and there’s still more to see and learn. Each city has personality, and Berlin is uniquely difficult to describe. I’m not a fast-moving tourist, so moving at a slower pace helps shine a different light on things. It’s a complex city with a young population and immense history and nuances – nothing is quite what it seems.
At first, I was looking for an apartment rental in Mitte – known as Berlin’s “historical heart”. I ended up in less-touristy Kreuzberg formerly part of West Berlin and an area of great urban energy and diversity. 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. Emily Bland’s video below describes Berlin places and Kreuzberg streets I experience every day.
One interesting street in Kreuzberg – Bergmannkiez – is a favorite a few blocks from my apartment. The buildings, shops, and restaurants are fabulous. During warm weather everyone sits outside, but with cooler weather over the past week I’ve noticed deserted tables, despite wool blankets draped over chairs.
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 a bit blank. Someone explained that since Kreuzberg is such a huge neighborhood, it’s impossible to give directions without a street and cross street. I learned to identify my flat location by the nearby underground station called Gneisenaustraße – still can’t pronounce it. I also learned to never leave my apartment without a fully charged phone and Offline Google Maps!
Language and Communication
Few speak English in Berlin. Many know it but chose not to speak it because, depending on their circle of acquaintances, they may not have to. Occasionally, someone takes mercy on you and translates – generally you’re on your own. Menus and food labels are the most confusing. Learning German is essential for anyone living long-term in Berlin.
I’ve visited Germany several times, including Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Düsseldorf, Wiesbaden, Stuttgart, Cologne, Munich, Rüdesheim and other small towns along the Rhine River. Those trips were before I began a travel journal / blog and I was traveling for shorter periods of time with other people. Clouded memories are mostly of my traveling companions, not the places visited. Short term travel is more for enjoying yourself, not focusing on the deeper aspects of a country’s culture and history.
I wrongly imagined more English would be spoken in Berlin. To me, it seems like communication in cities like Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Istanbul, and Budapest was easier, but I’m not complaining – well, maybe a little :o(…
Communication or the lack thereof can be more of an issue when traveling solo. I like the challenge, but unless you actively seek other Americans – that defeats the purpose of foreign travel for me – you must learn to adapt and survive in unknown and sometimes unfriendly environments. It’s exciting and at the end of each day there’s a feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment.
Germany is the second most popular destination for migrations – after the US – and Berlin is a diverse city of immigrants. Kreuzberg has a large Syrian and Turkish population. At times, it feels like you’re on a street in Istanbul.
German immigration is complicated. I did cursory research on the process and decided it wasn’t for me. Schengen visa requirements will change in 2021, and I’m still contemplating what that will mean for my future travels.
Germany encourages immigration of “scientists” and very “highly skilled professionals”. There’s no market for unskilled workers. I’ve heard the process of applying for residency and 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. Clearly, you need local contacts who can help with the paperwork and daunting legal requirements.
While traveling on public transportation, I’ve seen and heard immigrants from Europe and all over the world – Africa, Mideast, Asia, South America. They often stick together and speak their own languages, not German or English. Outwardly, they seem content and settled although some have sad-looking faces, maybe from deep trauma and tragedy experienced in their lives. They’ve been helpful and kind – more than most Germans.
Early one morning I was awakened by a buzzing door bell. Since I don’t know that many people in Berlin and wasn’t expecting a visitor, I ignored it. A few minutes later, I couldn’t ignore loud knocking on my door. I looked through the peephole to see four policemen and quickly opened. They were polite, asked several questions, and looked at 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 slowly on a heavy hinge, so anyone determined to get in could wait outside and sneak through – especially at night. I find that slightly unnerving and usually wait to make sure the door has closed and latched completely behind me. Even with a flashlight and interior hallway lighting, the stairway to my flat is dark and slightly creepy.
Berlin’s economy is bustling, and Germans are avid consumers who are into their professions and making / spending money. Berlin is full of high-tech. Almost every other car is a Mercedes. So far, I haven’t noticed homeless encampments. A few drug addicts and panhandlers roam the streets and subway.
Of course the Berlin apartment I rented is not quite as wonderful as the photos… That’s the chance you take when renting in a foreign country. I’ve experienced “apartment reality versus advertisement” before. However, hotels are expensive for a long visit and I’m not a fan of hostels. The apartment suits my purposes and is warm and private. Except for one loud all-night party, it’s been mostly quiet. I’m prepared for late-night holiday festivities and have ear plugs. Maybe one of the neighbors will invite me to join a party, although most Germans aren’t overly friendly – with the exception of exuberant merrymakers at the holiday markets.
Short-term rentals for less than three months are not allowed. In 2016, Berlin implemented some of the world’s strictest laws for vacation rentals. The consequences for illegal rentals are severe.
“With few exceptions, Berlin made short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb and Wimdu illegal, with fines of up to 100,000 euros (about $123,000) for hosts who violate the law.”
There’s a strict misappropriation prohibition law (Zweckentfremdungsverbots-Gesetz), and the German government enforces it. Compared to New York, San Francisco, London, or even Munich, rental prices are reasonable.
I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening with German politics. There are changes in the air with Angela Merkel’s recent resignation as leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Some of her policies are unpopular. One of three people is considered her likely successor as CDU party Chair in December – Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Jens Spahn, and Friedrich Merz.
Music and Arts
Music and arts are the major jackpot in Berlin with extremely talented artists and everything you could imagine or desire! I like art galleries but am not great at touring museums, and after a few hours find them overwhelming. I still have many to visit in Berlin.
I’ve posted several blogs about fantastic live performances. There’s variety and high quality, and I’m getting my fill of theatre and first-class classical music and jazz. People in the jazz clubs are fun and friendly – blog post to follow. During my last month here, I’ll focus on museums, Christmas markets, and more music – enough to keep me occupied. Ballet and opera performances are of interest, but tickets are pricey – $100+.
Not a foodie, I still appreciate a good meal. Some restaurants are disappointing, but I’ve found a few I like and keep returning to them. Kreuzberg choices are endless, but it can be somewhat uncomfortable dining alone on weekends when most busy restaurants are brimming and usually fully booked.
Menus aren’t in English – and in some restaurants, asking for an English menu is painful… When I’m really hungry, my favorite “go to” restaurant is a comfortable little place called dean & david where they serve fresh food and make incredible salads! The atmosphere is friendly and the crowd colorfully eclectic.
Weather during October and the first half of November was heavenly. It’s turning cold now and gets dark by 4 pm, but I came prepared with warm clothes. The shops and stores are super-heated so if you’re shopping for longer than a few minutes it’s almost unbearable, and you start taking off layers. The cooler temperatures will be good for outdoor 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 in Dubrovnik, so booked a small apartment for January 2019. By December 29, I’ll have exhausted my 90 day Schengen visa limit and can’t re-enter Schengen countries until April 2019. Hopefully, the weather in Dubrovnik will be a little warmer than Berlin. Haven’t decided which non-Schengen countries to visit after Croatia. I’m considering Albania, Cyprus, and Romania.
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 as are the parks, canals, and rivers. I’m not into selfies, and it’s complicated getting your picture taken when traveling solo. It’s easy finding someone to take the photo, but the result is rarely flattering. Before leaving Berlin, one way or another, I’m getting a photo in front of the Brandenburg Gate!