As you may already know, we just wrapped up a 17-month stint in Berlin, Germany. It clearly makes no sense that I’m doing a list of eight-point-fives when this list should be seventeens. Thing is, I wrote the first seven, and it was already over 2,000 words. I’m hella verbose. So, I cut myself off there and changed this title from “17 Things We Learned During 17 Months in Berlin” to the new title above. Halfsies!
While I had visited Berlin a few times before we moved here, I never really knew the city until I lived here – as is usually the case. But, even after one and a half years here, I still don’t really know the city. It’s a big one, and with that comes the comfort of a neighborhood that has everything you need, friends that live close by, etc. on down the road. We were expats – not slow travelers – while we were in Berlin, and I’d like to think that we didn’t do as much exploring as we normally would, or should, due to the headaches of starting a business in a foreign country, and all the red tape and bullshit that goes along with it.
Anyway, I might be a bit sad that we didn’t explore a bit more, but what can you do? We can always come back. Our lives have changed, our work has changed, we’re transitioning into the lives of slow travelers, and regret is a worthless endeavor.
And with that, I thought I’d give you a list post of 8.5 things I learned during our first 8.5 months in Berlin. It’s obviously not complete. It also generalizes certain points, so don’t get all, “Oh. My. God. I can’t believe he said that about Germans,” on me. Got it?
1. The stereotype of the “Angry German” is a lie.
We were fortunate enough to already have (German) friends before we moved here. After we arrived, they liked to wax on about the stereotype lovingly called “Berlin Friendliness.” It means the opposite: Germans are rude. Berliners don’t care. Service sucks. You’ll never get a smile. People don’t give a shit about you. And on down the line…
It’s all bullshit. This is a big city, and while it is unique, it’s certainly a “big city” in the sense of what you’d think about a big city. People are busy. People have shit to do. Tourists are everywhere. Yada, yada. But, “angry Germans?” I don’t think so. You’re always going to encounter a few jerks along the way. However, we can easily say that 99% of our interactions with people here – on the street, in government offices, in bars, wherever – have been lovely. If you have a good attitude, and keep it that way, you’ll most likely end up with friendly conversation; or at the very least, a smile. Language doesn’t matter. Location doesn’t matter. Attitude matters.
We like Berliners and we can only, mostly, say wonderful things about them and how they’ve helped us have a positive experience here.
2. This is the most international city I think I’ve ever visited.
We’re from Chicago. We’ve traveled all over the world, and lived in a wide variety of places – from New York City to Paris. And I don’t think I’ve ever been to such an “international” city. Every day, the languages we hear run the gamut: Polish, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese. And I’m not talking tourists. I’m talking people who live here. Maybe it’s because this is an artsy city. Maybe it’s because the city is “cheap” by Western European standards. Maybe it’s because there are no jobs in Southern Europe, so everyone wants to come here. Whatever the case may be, I constantly feel like I’m at Epcot Center.
I, however, am not the biggest fan of this, but not for the reasons you’d think. I love being able to speak multiple languages and I love that people come here for opportunities. Frankly, though, we moved to Germany to be in Germany – not to be at Epcot Center. But, we cannot hate on that, because we ourselves are foreigners who came here. And with that, it’s easy to avoid English speakers and such, if you want the “German” experience. So, we do. We went out of our way not to hang out with other Anglophone expats, and we only speak German outside the house.
It is what it is. I’m not hating, but I do think you’ll understand when I say Paris might have decent pizza, but you don’t go there for it. Right?
3. German cuisine in Berlin is nearly extinct, and not that great.
A few years ago when some friends and I came to visit a friend in Berlin, we asked where we could get some German food. His reply: “Um. What? I have no idea. I don’t know where any German restaurants are. And if we find one, it’ll be expensive.”
It’s not that dire, but great (or even good), traditional German food is lacking in this city. We love all of the international options, but when I want to stick my face into a schnitzel and some spätzle and sausages and all of that, the options outside of fast food are slim. Tourist areas have these sit-down restaurants, but we won’t even get into that.
Fortunately, there’s a decent, very old German Gaststätte (kind of an old, traditional restaurant) around the corner from us. While it’s fairly pricy compared to every other restaurant in our neighborhood, it’s pretty good and we go there from time to time to get our fix. The good news about this is that it forced me to cook German cuisine now and then, which is always nice to have. Because…
4. Groceries are cheap as hell.
I have no idea where you come from. As I said before, we’re city folk. We’re used to groceries eating up quite a bit of the budget, with quick trips to Dominick’s in Chicago turning into $60 bags of nothing. We were absolutely shocked when we moved here and found out how inexpensive groceries are. Sure, fancy brands and bio-organic-made-by-virgin-angels foods will cost you an arm and a leg. But the basics? Nearly laughable. I cannot get enough joy and amazement at how efficient it is to shop for groceries in Berlin.
5. Germans have no concept of spice.
I know I’m writing a lot about food. But, if you know anything about me, you’ll know that I love cooking and I love eating, and that food is easily one of my favorite hobbies.
We like to joke that Hungary sells Germany all of its old, expired paprika from the back of the warehouse. Outside of some S&P, it seems that it’s about the only thing people here like on their food. Paprika is literally on everything, and it almost always tastes like that jar you found in the back of your spice cabinet, which was inherited from your mother and still retains a label from 1978. It’s old, it’s stale, and it tastes like sawdust. But it does add color to your food! Dark, brownish-orange color. Alas, it’s still color.
This is part of the aforementioned cuisine problem we have here, but it is what it is. Now, I make up for it by going completely ape-shit with spices when I cook. I have a feeling that, after leaving Germany, everything for the rest of my days will taste bland because of how crazy I go with spices in the kitchen here.
6. Learn the language or dig your own grave.
Once again, it’s about knowing who we are. It’s no secret that I’m a big-time language junkie. Ang, not so much. But, both of us made a pact to learn the language. And we’re certainly not fluent, we can easily get everything done, sell crap in the classifieds section, send emails, take calls, and have decent child-like conversations with most people here.
The funny thing is that you don’t need one word of German to live in Berlin. You can easily spend your entire life here, without learning anything. You might have some trouble at the government offices; but outside of that, forget about it. Plenty of expats don’t bother. If you live somewhere as a long-term expat and you don’t at least make a concerted effort to learn the language, I have a few choice words for you:
You are lazy. You are disrespectful to both yourself and the people who surround you. You are not worthy. You shouldn’t be here. You don’t deserve to live halfway across the world and brag to your friends back home about how awesome it is to live in Berlin. You, sir or ma’am, can suck it.
And I really mean what I just said. I’m never shy about my feelings when it comes to culture and language, and I do believe that, if you’re not willing to learn the language, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, the natives in your expat land, your friends, and every person who comes to your new country from your old one. You’re setting a bad example, and it makes me want to give you a good smack.
Take a class. Read a book. Listen to one of the 18,000 free courses you can get online. Talk to natives. Stop speaking English (or whatever it is you speak natively).
If you’re in this position and you don’t think you can do it, then you need to start reading Fluent in 3 Months (and the Language Hacking Guide). Now. Read it all, and heed Benny’s advice. I am multi-lingual, and was before I ever found his site. And I agree with about 99% of everything he says. Or, you could always take it from my better half here, who claims she sucks at languages, but has learned German and speaks it with me every single day of the year. Now, she’s randomly learning French from me when she’s bored. For the hell of it.
7. Do not become an expat so you can travel.
Traveling and being an expat. Those two things are like 80th cousins, thrice removed. Do not move to Berlin or wherever and expect that you’ll be jaunting across Europe every weekend, since you already know that flights, while painfully uncomfortable, are incredibly cheap. You will not. Being an actual expat – living long-term in a new country – means that you have to rent a flat, probably buy furniture, register with authorities, get a job or start a business, pay bills, and do all the things you did back when you lived in Your Home City. But in German and in Germany (in our case).
We are quite well-traveled, and we moved to Berlin with the above idea. “Yeah sure, we’ll totally go to Paris for the weekend, and Barcelona to catch a football match.” Bullshit. Granted, we were starting a business here, so things were completely insane for the first ¾ of our lives in Berlin. And that’s our fault. (Learn from your mistakes!)
Just keep in mind that when you start a new life in a new country, you’re adding all of the responsibilities of your old life in a new place. I speak exclusively to expats, here, because slow travel and location independence – what we’re on, now – are completely different. Those ideals have a truly different set of responsibilities and priorities.
So, before you decide to move to a new country, please think hard about why you’re doing it and what you want to get out of it. If you want to learn the culture, the language, and become part of your new land, then focus on that. Or it will focus for you.
If you want to travel all the time and get away and be free and not buy furniture and do all the things that you always read about on the internet: Get your shit straight first. By that, I mean, get your job or however you make money into focus, and understand that your priorities more than just “moving to another country.”
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. It’s all about what you want. And what I’m telling you here is that you should try to know what you want and plan your international life around that. We wanted to be expats. Nothing wrong with that. After we got here, our priorities changed and our business changed; and eventually, our lives changed and we made the shift to location independence.
But I’d be lying if I said we didn’t think we’d travel a hell of a lot when we got here.
8. Berliners go to church religiously…just not the “church” you have in mind.
Café culture is huge here. Berlin is very laid back compared to most of Germany, and café culture is a large part of that. We love it, because one of our favorite things to do in life is to sit in a café, and watch the people and the day go by.
However, we slowly noticed something afoot on Sundays. See, 99% of all stores and businesses are closed on Sunday. It’s a law that has to do with the power of the church and a bunch of history that doesn’t matter right now. It’s such a big deal, though, that a few times a year, the law states that retail stores can be open on a Sunday. So, every now and then, you’ll see ads for Sunday openings. Big shit.
Anyway, we started to notice that cafés are packed on Sundays. I mean, overly packed. I’m talking, picnic tables halfway down the block, with a café extending its real estate as much as possible. And no one cares. Because everyone wants to be sitting outside at that café, every Sunday, without fail.
It’s such a big deal here, that we started calling Sundays at cafés, “German Church.” Walking the dog to start the day, time to point out that the Germans have made it to service. Weather’s extremely nice, time to point out that the Germans are keeping with due diligence and getting the best seat in the house with which to while away the day.
And we totally love every minute of German Church.
8.5 Having an elevator is the Holy Grail of apartment living.
We’re totally lazy. I, for one, do not want to walk up to the fourth floor, five times a day. I especially do not want to do that when “four” actually means “five” to an American. Five flights is not my idea of fun. Not that often. So, we looked for an apartment with an elevator. They retro-fit buildings here with clear, Plexiglas elevators literally attached to the side. I dig it, because it gives us lazy folk a modern convenience without ruining a lot of historic property. Our elevator may be the smallest and slowest elevator in the history of man, but it gets us from Point A to Point B without breaking a sweat.
The reason we think this is funny is because a non-scientific calculation tells me that 99.9% of all people who’ve ever come to visit our apartment have ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaahed’ in repetition about how schön and wunderbar it is that we have an elevator. No hate, just the facts, ma’am.
We love Germany and have very much enjoyed our time here. That goes without saying. I mean, we really do love it. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with a few of the quirks we found along the way. And with that 2500-word insanity, I leave you. 8.5 down, 8.5 to go. Stay tuned for part two… You can now read the second half in Part 2: 8.5 Things We Learned During Our Last 8.5 Months in Berlin.
Do you have any thoughts, comments, love, or hate to share? Hit the comments and let us know what’s on your mind.