Berlin, three months

I moved to Berlin in late April. I quite like it overall.

Where deciding where to move next after London, I initially had pencilled in Melbourne, though half of my motivation was to get my English accent to be very confusing by mixing Canadian, English, and Australian. But ultimately I’d decided that after Toronto, Vancouver, and London, Melbourne would be more of the very nice, very anglosaxon same, and jumped a tiny bit further out of comfort zone.

So then: Berlin is smaller, not as intense, more relaxed. No one’s in a rush. There’s fewer crowds. The subways run every 5 minutes in rush hour and aren’t packed.

It definitely helps that it’s summer and I don’t have to work yet. I am reminded of my first summer in Toronto: warm, parks, railway corridor, a TV tower.

And no, I don’t listen to techno.

Over the last three months, my German has improved from virtually nonexistent to catastrophic. My reading is not terrible, my vocabulary is terrible, and I don’t know how I’ll ever understand anyone without asking them to slow down and enunciate. But I’m improving. And it’s been kind of fun learning, too: I can triangulate between my understanding of English (definite articles, some vowels, the more basic of vocabulary) and Polish (declension/conjugation, more technical vocabulary) to get German better than I could with just one of them.

The housing is far better than London, both in terms of an average flat and in how much you get for money, even accounting for local salary levels. We have more than double the amount of space, in a higher-quality building, similarly located, for about the same price in terms of purchasing-power as in London. About the only problem is lack of a balcony, though that’s unusual for Berlin.

Cycling and walking is very nice. Car drivers actually yield while turning! Streets are wider, and there is much less jaywalking, but it still feels safer.

As with any nice city, there’s nice greenspace, canals, a decently nice river. The air even within the Ringbahn feels much cleaner than inner London’s. Tempelhofer Feld is legitimately great, Tiergarten could do without the big street through it but has nice quiet parts, and smaller parks like like Treptower are nice as well.

With one exception: there are so many people smoking cigarettes. On restaurant patios, on coffee shop sidewalks, at crowded outdoor concerts. The amount of smokers was an unpleasant surprise in London, after I had moved from Vancouver. Unfortunately Berlin has even more smokers, taking enjoyment out of summer sidewalk patios as you’re wondering who around you will light up and when. Only in parks can you hope to get far away not to have to smell anyone smoking.

I initially felt that there is a lot of bureaucracy, and there is, some with long lines to stand in. But upon reflection, it’s not wholly different from the bureaucracy required in the UK for EU arrivals, so I guess that’s the price of admission for living abroad.

It’s always amusing when stereotypes come true. Germany has designated glass recycling bins for white/clear, brown, and green glass jars and bottles. I had been mockingly asking what to do with glass in other colours, until I noticed virtually all glass sold is one of those colours. (If you do happen to have a different colour jar, it goes into green, apparently.) To ensure that public order is not disrupted too much, throwing glass into the bins is only permitted between 7:00 and 13:00 and 15:00 and 20:00, and not at all on Sundays and holidays.

There is also a deposit system for glass drink bottles under which bottles are returned to manufacturers intact and are cleaned and reused, on the idea that cleaning uses much less energy than remelting. I have nothing to mock about that, it is a great system. Buying beer in cans is very rare, and instead of cardboard boxes of cans one gets a crate of bottles (then returns both for deposit to be reused, naturally).

Culture around alcohol is yet more relaxed. Stopping by a convenience store for a bottle of beer and (calmly!) drinking it in a park or by the water is normal. Walking down the street with an open bottle doesn’t raise eyebrows (at least in the summer). It sometimes looks like everyone’s carrying a bottle but no one is drunk.

There is a large party scene, particularly in postindustrial and post-Wall no-man’s-lands. Sometimes I feel bad about moving here without intending to participate in it, it makes me feel like an old person, or worse, a gentrifier. But it seems that there’s also a large amount of people happy with just having a nice, quiet life. Hopefully I can participate in that.

On a related note, the ice cream is pretty great, at 1.20 EUR for a tasty scoop it makes for a very nice break. I also noted a lot of parents with children at the ice cream shops, though to be fair, my comparison is with London where I didn’t live in an area with a lot of children.

The former border between east and west Berlin is still visible, particularly in infrastructure or lack thereof. Subways were first built in what later became west Berlin, but the Wall didn’t help matters; the west built more subways and ripped up streetcars, while the east maintained the streetcar network. The issue isn’t that either one or the other is substantially better, it’s just that they’re not connected terribly well. East of Alexanderplatz (so at least a third of the city), the only subway connections are with U5, which then ends at Alexanderplatz, and between two streetcar lines and the end of U1. It doesn’t help that the river is wider in the east, making bridges less frequent. The only saving grace is the S-Bahn, which was used by the east and mostly abandoned but only mothballed by the west, and was relatively easy to bring back to life – but a lot of destinations in west central Berlin still take pretty long to get to from the east.

I’m not super keen on the architecture. Vancouver and London had more of styles I’m interested in, smaller-scale modernism and good brutalism and international style. It can feel like all of Berlin is either Gründerzeit apartment blocks, or Plattenbau, or Alexanderplatz. Don’t get me wrong, Gründerzeit blocks are very nice to live in (at least on the higher floors, bottom floors can be a bit dark), but not my favourite style architecturally.

Most shops – anything bigger than a convenience store and not serving prepared food – are closed on Sunday. It’s been an adaptation, but not a greatly difficult one, and I don’t mind it. It’s kind of nice to have to do something more pleasant than shopping on Sunday.

Another curiosity: German multi-family houses do not have flat/apartment numbers. Instead, mail is delivered according to names posted on mailboxes, and packages are delivered according to names posted on door phone buttons. (Real-life spam is the only exception, sadly.) Where required, for example in leases, flats are specified descriptively: “side building, 3rd floor, flat to the right”.

The airport situation has been amusing when it hasn’t been annoying. As a brief recap, Berlin had decided to replace its two main airports, the ex-western Tegel (hemmed in, cannot be expanded) and ex-eastern Schönefeld (one runway, fairly unmodern, but alright location) with a single expanded airport just south of Schönefeld. Unfortunately, the beautiful and innovative terminal building turned out to have been designed insufficiently and constructed badly, didn’t pass the fire inspection, and the opening was postponed at the last minute. This was in 2012, the new airport is still not open in 2016, indications are it won’t open until 2018 at the earliest, and thought has been given to knocking down the terminal and rebuilding from scratch; at least the runways seem to be in good condition.

The side result is that current airports, which had assumed they would close down in 2012, are currently over-capacity and services you would assume would be available from a major European capital cannot be serviced. Particularly impacting me is no flights to Gdańsk (~400 km, 600 km by reasonable road) where I have family, no direct flights to Toronto, and to make the latter worse, no Icelandair flights, leaving me relying on cheap airlines and their bad baggage policies.

Of course it’s only a frustration, but still. I’ve been half-jokingly plotting a move to a small, quiet German town with train service to Frankfurt or Munich or Hamburg airports once I get old and hit 30.

I don’t know what the long-term plan is – that might depend on how German I feel, or how I feel being a long-term non-German in Berlin. But if nothing else, it should be a nice couple of years here.