The ways Berlin surprised me

I’m writing this from the hip café located a block from my current flat. There are many such cafés and bars up and down this street, ten times more than in Montreal, which I’ve always considered a pretty hip place. I’m having a croissant and an americano and in many ways, this very moment was probably the dream of the 18 year old version of myself. I wanted to be cool and with it, an expat and a writer. I probably wanted to be a bit disillusioned, with some heartbreaks and failures under my belt. Of course, I’m pretty sure I also wanted to own a giant apartment with French doors overlooking a canal and be well known. Hm. I think I still want that. That and a prince of a husband. I’m at a tricky time in my life where I’m not sure if I can still wish for things. Wishing and dreaming seems to be the prerogative of people in their teens and twenties. Can I still dream of fairytales in my thirties or must I look around me and say: well, this is how I ended up. Maybe it’s a combination of both, and maybe my current task in life is to master the art of letting reality slap me in the face and then turn around and dream all the same. Then get slapped in the face all over again until it doesn’t sting so much and I can find a place where acceptance and fantasy coexist. I have a suspicion that the ability to dream and hope is as important as the actual accomplishment of goals.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks desperately trying to churn out a “year in review” blog post and ending up with scribbles which I wouldn’t impose on anyone. They were downright depressing, to be honest. Since I’m currently unable to frame my state in such a way as to let the light shine through, I’ll wait for the dust to settle around me and dedicate this post, not to 2017, or even to 2018, but to fun little things I’ve learned about Germany and Berlin. Small daily life things that you’ll only read in a travel blog.

What stereotypes do you associate with Germany? I’m going to go on a limb here and assume that you first think of efficiency and adherence to rules and order. This is what I had in mind and the context in which Berlin life surprised me so much. I must preface this by saying, as so many do, that Berlin is not Germany. It’s a cosmopolitan anomaly, full of of misfits and wanderers. Its former wall and divisive Cold War history make it one of the strangest and most unique cities in the Western world. That being said, let’s go back to those preconceived ideas about the Germans. Lesson 1: bureaucracy. Bureaucracy here is painfully inefficient and annoying. Probably not nearly as bad as France or Italy and nowhere in the ballpark of former Soviet states or African countries, but by North American standards, it’s annoying. The idea that paperwork flows in an elegant dance, like a shiny VW assembly line is absolutely false. To add insult to injury, the German government LOVES paperwork and permits. You need a permit for absolutely everything here. For one thing, you need a permit to even exist in Germany. It’s called an Anmeldung, a kind of official registration of your presence which is much harder to achieve than you might think. But while they love making you get permits for things, they couldn’t care less about maintaining order in the streets. Ok, here I’m specifically talking about Berlin. So much of how traffic functions here wouldn’t fly in Montreal. In fact, if Berlin started issuing tickets the way Montreal does, its financial troubles would be solved in no time. Here are some examples: you can park absolutely anywhere: on a sidewalk, next to a sidewalk, sideways, backwards, DOUBLE PARKED, right on the corner blocking wheelchair access and visibility for pedestrians crossing, in front of a driveway, etc. The use of blinkers is even more optional than back home and U-turns are all the rage. Oh and bicycles are everywhere: sidewalks, streets, against traffic, whatever. It doesn’t help that the bike paths can suddenly end without warning and then you just have to figure it out. When traffic lights go down, no cops come and direct the cars. There’s trash everywhere. Oh, on the topic of inefficiency, did you know that there are no apartment numbers here? You need to find a person’s name on a buzzer (often scribbled on a paper with scotch tape) and then they have to tell you how to find their apartment. This takes some getting used to because German buildings generally include several entrances: a front house, a side house, a back house behind the courtyard, perhaps a second courtyard. Like many other idiosyncrasies, the chaotic nature of Berlin apartment buildings is also rather charming.

Much of what I’ve discovered here is extremely positive. Food is cheap. Service is better than in much of Europe (I’m looking at you, France.) Data plans are much cheaper than back home. And I must say my experience with people has been overall very pleasant. It’s true that Berliners have the reputation of being very rude, and they definitely can be, especially on transit. Honestly, I haven’t met any native Berliners yet, I have met a lot of Germans, though. I made a conscious effort not to isolate myself in an expat bubble, because what would be the point of coming all the way to Germany just to recreate my life as it was in Montreal? I wanted to make German friends and in fact, I’ve found it easier to befriend Germans than expats. As of yet, I haven’t come across any kind of culture shock. I’ve heard some foreigners say Germans have an intimidating habit of looking you right in the eye, but I do that anyway, so I honestly haven’t noticed. I’ve found my German acquaintances humorous, easy going and very easy to talk to. To my surprise, people are very patient with my broken German and almost no one switches to English once I’ve established contact in their language. I would describe Germans as sturdy and genuine. One little thing that I love and that we don’t have at home is that it is mandatory to say hello when passing someone in a hallway. Even the little children in my building all say hello.

On a societal level, I appreciate that people seem to take politics seriously (Canadians are often very politically apathetic) and that as a general rule, Germans tend to think long term and not only of instant gratification. Of course, I’m generalizing, but the trend is noticeable. There are a lot of immigrants here and, though integration doesn’t always happen perfectly, it seems to work overall.

I’m not in love with Berlin like I have been with Barcelona, Seville, or even Cologne. The air doesn’t smell sweet, the architecture doesn’t make your heart sing, the vegetation doesn’t intoxicate you. It’s kind of grey and unending. There are too many English speakers, too many smokers and too many people wearing black. The art scene hasn’t gripped me yet. But I’ve made my pact with this city. I’m setting myself up to live here for the next several months, generate income, seek out projects and perfect my German. In exchange, Berlin has agreed to slowly dance away the winter and, with its subtle escalation toward the light of spring, seduce me as best it can.