Berlin Reflections

Bergmannkiez Kreuzberg – Tagesspiegel

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 that shines 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…

Kreuzberg Apartment Building

Kreuzberg

At first, I was looking for an apartment 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 entertaining video below describes nearby places and Kreuzberg streets I experience every day.

One interesting street – Bergmannkiez – is a favorite a few blocks from my apartment. The buildings, shops, and restaurants are fabulous. During warm weather everyone sits outside, but over the past week I’ve noticed deserted tables, despite woolly blankets draped over each chair.

Facades in Bergmannkiez Kreuzberg

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 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 Google Maps!

Bergmannkiez

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 really don’t have to. Occasionally some kind soul may take mercy on you and translate – generally you’re on your own. Menus and food labels are the most confusing. Learning German is essential for anyone who wants to live long-term in Berlin. It’s a difficult language.

Flower Shop Zossener Straße Kreuzberg

I’ve visited Germany several times, including Frankfurt, Munich, Düsseldorf, Wiesbaden, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Cologne, and smaller towns along the Rhine River like Rüdesheim. Those trips were before I began a travel journal / blog and I was traveling for shorter periods of time with other people. My clouded memories are mostly of traveling companions, not the places we visited. Short term travel is more for enjoying yourself, not focusing on the deeper aspects of a country’s culture and history.

Aerial View of Kreuzberg – Wikipedia

I wrongly imagined more English would be spoken in Berlin. It seems in cities like Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Istanbul, and Budapest it was easier to communicate, but I’m not complaining – well, maybe a little :o(

More Kreuzberg Apartment Buildings – GPSmyCity

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.

Huh???

Immigration

Germany is the second most popular destination for migrations – after the US – and Berlin is a diverse city of immigrants. Kreuzberg has a large Turkish population. At times it feels like you’re on a street in Istanbul.
These days, 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, allowing extended tourist travel (more than three months).

Street Art Kreuzberg – commons.wikimedia.org

Germany encourages immigration of “highly skilled professionals” and “scientists”. There’s 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.

Bergmannkiez Building

While traveling on public transportation, I’ve seen and heard immigrants from all over the world – Africa, Mideast, 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, maybe indicating they’ve experienced deep trauma and tragedy in their lives. They’ve been helpful and kind – more than most Germans.

Bergmannkiez – welt.de

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 peephole to see four policemen and quickly opened the door. 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 building closes slowing on a heavy hinge, so anyone determined to get inside could wait outside and sneak through – especially at night. I find that slightly unnerving 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.

Bergmannkiez Market

Economy

The economy is bustling and Germans are avid consumers and into their professions and making money – you don’t find many loose ends. Berlin is full of high-tech. Almost every other car is a sparkling Mercedes. So far, I haven’t noticed any homeless encampments. A few drug addicts and panhandlers roam the streets and subway.

Blog Only Apartments Kreuzberg

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 way too expensive for a long visit and I’m not a fan of hostels. The apartment suits my purpose 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 are not overly friendly – holiday markets merrymakers being the exception.

Street Art Kreuzberg – Urban Presents

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.

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“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.”

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It’s called the 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.

Angela Merkel – thepressproject.gr

Politics

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.

Kreuzberg Church

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.

River Spree Kreuzberg – Adobe Stock 81684539 1000

I’ve posted several blogs about live performances. There’s variety and high quality, and I’m getting my fill of theatre and first-class classical and jazz. People in the jazz clubs are fun and friendly – blog post to follow. During the last month 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+.

Back View from My Apartment

Food

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 usually fully booked.

dean & david – karriere

Menus aren’t 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 friendly and comfortable.

Bergmannkiez – Photography ProdJo

Weather

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. 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 outdoor Christmas Markets where you can buy hot drinks to keep warm.

Berlin Kreuzberg Map

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 any 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.

Typical Kreuzberg Street – Sound Vinyl Store

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 good. Before leaving Berlin, one way or another, I’m getting a photo in front of the Brandenburg Gate!

More later…