Again, these are not that serious, just little things we noticed that were so very different than in the States. Also? I’d like to prepare you for the fact that this will not be nearly as entertaining as the first 8.5, because I am not nearly as entertaining as Ryan. [Note from Ryan: “Whatever.”]
So, all that said: Here we go on the last 8.5 things we learned during our last 8.5 months in Berlin…
1. Mail is inexpensive and quite efficient.
When we lived stateside, we had to stop at the post office on a daily basis to mail out orders. If there were more than five people in line (at least in any Chicago post office), you could automatically assume that it would be, at the very least, a half-hour wait. Also, it was very typical for there to only be 1-2 open windows. That’s not to say they were understaffed – if anything, they were overstaffed for the amount of actual work being done – you could always hear the rest of the employees socializing/laughing behind the scenes. Lastly, it’s been our experience with the USPS that the high price you pay to ship something is in no way relative to the service you receive. To clarify: As you may or may not know, the USPS is one of the world’s worst postal systems, and statistically, Chicago is the worst in the States.
Fast-forward to our life in Berlin. Not only is postage inexpensive – sending mail is a breeze. Our Deutsche Post center was in a nearby shopping mall. Oftentimes, there was a line of 15+ people, but it never took more than ten or so minutes to get to the front of the line and be called up to a window. There were always enough employees, all working extremely efficiently, and we were always surprised by how little we were asked to pay for what we were sending. Deutsche Post is also affiliated with DHL, so when we had larger packages to send, we could easily ship via DHL from the post office.
If we were waiting for something to be shipped to us from within Germany, it would usually only take one day to receive it via DHL. That kind of service is unheard of in the U.S. Granted, Germany is much smaller than the States, but the postal workers actually seem to care about the work they’re doing, and seem to take pride in it. And it shows. And…if you heard giggling in a Deutsche Post office in Berlin, it was probably me – giddy with excitement that I didn’t have to sacrifice my entire afternoon, waiting in line to mail something.
2. Everyone smokes.
You might hate this one, but this is our blog, and our opinion. À chacun son vice! 🙂 I’m so used to being looked down upon in the States because I smoke. I’ve always been aware of my surroundings, and if I am ever near anyone that isn’t smoking, I always make an effort to blow my smoke in the other direction, so as not to affect them. It seems that in Germany, though, nearly everyone smokes.
I would snicker every time I saw an elderly gentleman or lady light up in front of me, while walking down the street. Parents smoke while pushing their babies in strollers. There are always ashtrays on every outdoor table at every café. It’s just a way of life here. We’ve seen more people smoke in Germany than anywhere else in the world we’ve visited. As smokers, this is the first place we’ve felt completely at home with this vice of ours. Not once in the past year and a half have I had someone tell me that I needed to quit, that it was bad for my health (Duh!), or obnoxiously “cough” in disapproval. What a breath of fresh air (pun intended)!
3. There are just too many babies.
Granted, we lived in a neighborhood named Prenzlauer Berg, sometimes known as “Pregnant Hill.” It’s a known fact that there is a shortage of German-born babies, and the main reason why the government hands out money to baby-makers. In German, this money is known as “Kindergeld.” (Literal translation: kid money.) Push out a baby, get paid. By the government. That’s right.
So, it’s not uncommon to see a very pregnant woman pushing a stroller-wagon filled with twin toddlers and triplet whatever-they’re-called-before-they’re-considered-toddlers. (If you can’t already tell, I’m not a kid person – I don’t want them, I don’t like them, I can’t stand the sounds they make, and I’m not embarrassed to express my feelings on this subject, both verbally and with facial expressions.)
Why did we live in this neighborhood if we have such dislike for mini-humans, you ask? Above all the constant screaming and the parents ignoring their screaming babies, we loved the convenience of the neighborhood – all our friends lived close by, and everything we needed was in walking distance. If it wasn’t close by, we had a plethora of public transportation to choose from, right outside our front door. Fortunately for us, there weren’t any young families in our building, which was a selling point.
4. 99% of the dogs are ridiculously well-behaved.
I’ve been told that if your dog is, or is going to grow to be above a certain size/weight, it must be trained. Also, it’s required to keep your dog on a leash with a muzzle when outdoors. Louis is now almost ten years old. He weighs a whopping seven pounds (3,5 kg). From the very start, he’s lived an extremely spoiled life; and only when he was 5-1/2 years old did I send him to boot camp for training. It was clearly too late to start, but better late than never, amiright? (By the way, I take 100% responsibility for his misbehavior, as it’s always the owner’s fault when a dog does something wrong.)
When we moved to Berlin, one of the very first things I noticed was how impressively well-trained the dogs were. We’d see a guy riding his bike on the street in the bike lane, with his dog running at a matching speed on the sidewalk, always aware of where its owner was. Or, we’d see someone walk up to the door of a store and whisper something to their dog, at which point the dog would stop, lay down, and wait patiently until its owner re-emerged.
We took daily walks with our uncontrollable, leashed monster, and would often cross paths with an elderly man who would gently place a package of rolling tobacco into his dog’s mouth, to carry home. The dog couldn’t be happier that it had this very important job to do, wagging his tail, leading the way home. I could not have been more jealous.
5. Following (most of) the rules seems to be the norm.
There are many stories about this on the interwebs, but it’s not really something you “get” until you experience it in real life. I’ve lived in major cities in the U.S., including Chicago and New York, where jaywalking is the norm. Because really – who has the patience to wait for the walk signal when there aren’t any cars to be seen? The Germans do – that’s who. When the little red man is lit up, with his little red arms outstretched, everyone stops and waits for the light to change to the little green walking man before crossing the street. There could be zero motorists on the road, yet nobody seems to have a problem with stopping and following the rules.
Of course, there’s the occasional rebel who doesn’t wait for the little green man, who is inevitably met on the other side of the street with looks of disapproval. By the end of our stay in Berlin, we found ourselves happily waiting with the rest of the sheep, for that little green man to let us know we could safely cross the street.
6. City street construction is incredibly efficient and green.
There are massive differences between how this is handled in the States vs. Berlin (and probably other parts of Germany, but at this point we hadn’t experienced life elsewhere). First, let me begin by explaining that Berlin is a city built on sand. Literally. There’s sand everywhere. It’s used to fill the spaces between the cobblestone sidewalks and streets, and it makes it really easy for the city employees to quietly and efficiently fix problems that lie under the cobblestones.
There was a pipe that ran the entire length of our block (a main street), that needed to be replaced. The complete job, from one end to the other, took a total of three men and three days. How is this possible, you ask? All they needed to do was remove the stones that made up the sidewalks, dig up the sand, replace the portion of the pipe, fill the sand back in, and one guy would replace the stones as the others started working on the next section.
These guys are city employees, not private companies, so they have no need to turn a three-day job into a three-month job. This is why it’s not the norm to see potholes in the streets, nor is it necessary to submit a claim to the city to pay for damages to your car caused by potholes. (Ahem, Chicago: I’m pointing my finger at you.)
7. Air conditioning is an unnecessary luxury.
Admittedly, before moving to Berlin, we were spoiled Americans when it came to air conditioning. Granted, the majority of modern construction in the states is shoddy at best, and it’s not really fair to compare it to the solid construction of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century in Berlin. All the walls are solid brick and/or concrete, and without ductwork. The thick concrete walls do a great job of keeping the apartments cool in the summer.
All that’s necessary is to open the windows to allow the cross-breeze to travel through, and to have some window coverings to keep out the sun’s heat. In the very beginning, I was certain that I would suffer without air conditioning; but after experiencing life without, I realize it’s actually just another unnecessary luxury.
8. Snail mail, phone, fax, and Facebook.
These are the four forms of communication favored by all the Germans we’ve encountered. First and foremost, I need to explain that Germans love their paperwork. I’m not talking about, “…just shoot me an email with the paperwork attached and I’ll fill it out and send it back right quick.” I’m talking about, “First you need to call the office to make sure we’re open and here, physically come into the office, grab a number, wait to pick up the paperwork, then snail mail or fax it back to us because we’re stuck in the 20th century.”
Email is rarely replied to, and often takes weeks to be acknowledged, if at all. If you do happen to get a reply by email, it often says something along the lines of, “I’m sending you this email to tell you to call me on the phone because I need to verbally give you the fax number or address for where you need to send your paperwork.” On the other hand, send someone a message on Facebook, and you’ll most likely receive a reply within seconds. Damn you, Facebook, you devil.
[Note from Ryan: The people in the below photo are no doubt talking about an unanswered E-mail, and whether they will answer it by fax or snail-mail. Later, they’ll discuss it on Facebook. Bonus combo from the babies thread: Our friend Justin from The Lotus and The Artichoke likes to joke that parents must control their strollers (prams) with mobile phones as well.]
8.5. If it’s free, it’s for me.
Walking down the streets of Berlin, especially at the end of the month, you’ll most likely run into a pile of “junk” that someone left outside when they moved out of their flat. Walk by an hour later, and it’ll all be gone.
Before we left Berlin, we sold and donated everything we could, and all the little extras were left in a box in the lobby of our building, labeled “GRATIS!” (and all of its synonyms and translations). We could have easily placed the box out on the street, and ended up with the same results, but it was much more fun to watch the contents of the box quickly disappear, knowing that people from any of the eight other apartments in our building wanted the extra little junk we didn’t want to just throw away.
There was also a donation bin in the trash area of our courtyard, where we threw a dozen or so pairs of shoes that we couldn’t take with us. It was funny to spy on the garbage man as he came to collect the garbage, spot the shoes, pull them out of the bin, try them on, and take them with him like it was Christmas day. People love free shit. After all, if it’s free, it’s for me, y’heard?
And that’s a wrap. As noted in the first post of 8.5 things we learned, we love Germany and all it has to offer. These are merely quirks – good or bad – that we learned along the way. You might not feel that way; but hey, it’s our blog and our pages of rants, praises, love, and hate.