Why I hate and love Berlin
10 tips for newcomers by designer Vadim Grin
Vadim is a product designer at Daily Ride in Berlin. He has previously worked in Montenegro and Ukraine. For more from Vadim check out How to land a job abroad — Tips from a designer in Berlin.
“What a disgusting place!” I thought when I first saw Berlin. The urine stink hit my nose when I slipped out of the subway on Kottbusser Tor station.
Creepy strangers, homeless dudes (or hippies?) and drunk guys here and there made me feel unsafe. Lonely, faceless satellite dishes were eyeing me from every window. Buildings looked like warehouses rather than places to live in, reminding me of the suburbs of my hometown in Ukraine.
“Oh, snap… I shouldn’t have left my warm and pleasant Montenegro.” (Where I was working before I moved to Berlin.)
Thankfully, my first impression was deceptive. But remembering this situation I’ve decided to help prepare everyone who is planning to come here.
1. Think it’s clean? Dream on.
I’m going home and walking downtown late at night. Suddenly, I see… a rat sprinting straight at me furiously!
Imagine how dirty Berlin is if rodents feel free to travel across the city along its citizens! It’s a pity to admit, but I’ve been to the deepest hollows of this continent, and the German capital is the dirtiest European city I’ve seen yet.
Get ready to hold your breath while walking through the subway station. Otherwise, the smell of soured alcohol and feces will pierce through your bones. Sometimes you can literally feel your body getting dirty from the inside. Being unable to do anything with it, I’m left to suffer from disgust and despair until my train delivers me to my Kottbusser Tor station.
I hop off the train, but the journey is not over yet: a couple of blocks separates me from my office. Even in good weather get ready to jump over large puddles mixed of beer and urine.
I speed up, desiring to reach my office, where the air is fresh and clean. One more pile of dog shit on the stairs and my sense of smell is finally safe. To forget about this journey, I roll down the curtains and hide the Kreuzberg area from my view.
Trash. Mess. Bad smells. And there’s nothing you can do. Just get used to it.
*I must note here that this story does not relate to all of Berlin. I am mostly talking here about such areas as Kreuzberg and Mitte. You can find better and cleaner areas as well, like Charlottenburg, Wiesensee, and Prenzlauer-Berg.
2. Get ready to drink beer like water.
Unlike many cities around the world, in Berlin you can drink beer on the street or any public place without being fined. You can buy beer at any time of the day and anywhere: at small stalls, in grocery stores, supermarkets, specialized beer-only stores, and, of course, at cafes and pubs. So if you’re not a beer lover yet, you are going to become one.
My advice here is to start immediately thinking about going to the gym or at least buying and riding a bike to avoid becoming a fat ass.
Also, don’t worry about tipplers. Despite the fact that everybody drinks beer here, most people don’t reach that drunk state of mind where they can’t control themselves and become threats to society.
3. Angels will dance in your mouth.
You will love Berlin for its food.
First, even if it’s midnight, you still have a great chance to get and eat, say, some salad with Thai mango, huge prawns, avocado and bull’s balls.
Second, you can find any kind of food in Berlin. For any taste, religion, health issues and personal preferences. Moreover, each place, no matter what type of cuisine it offers, always has veggie dishes on its menu.
I’d say that 50% of street food places and restaurants offer Asian (Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Thai) cuisine. 30% is Turkish, where you can find all sorts of halal food. 10% of places represents German, Italian and Eastern European cuisine, and finally the last 10% goes to burgers and other American-style fast food.
Here is my personal list of the top 5 food places you should definitely visit if you’re here:
Amberd. A place with Caucasian (Georgian, Armenian) cuisine where you’ll be unable to talk and pay attention to any other thing except food. The taste is just awesome.
Address: Uhlandstraße 67
Berlin Burger International. Best burgers ever.
Address: Pannierstraße 5
Amrit. Indian cuisine. Everything is tasty, and they have low prices. I especially like the bread (Naan).
Address: Oranienstraße 202–203
Goulash. Hungarian place where you can find a better goulash than in Hungary. Friendly hosts and romantic atmosphere.
Address: Chamissopl. 1
Distrikt Coffee. Best place for a brunch with American style pancakes and tasty coffee.
Address: Bergstraße 98
4. There’s a lot of annoying and time wasting bureaucracy.
Want to get a job? Rent an apartment? Cancel a cable TV subscription? No problem, except one: bureaucracy. Whatever you do, you will be required to collect and show papers and references to authorities.
Say, you need to find an apartment.
First, you will need to get a SCHUFA paper (your credit history). Two ways here: you can either request it via regular mail for free (the documents will arrive in a month after you send the letter) or order it in a bank for €15–20 and get it in 15 minutes.
Then you will need to get a reference from your current landlord proving you don’t have any debts and show your income with the last 3 pay slips.
Only when you have supplied your new landlord with all these documents, you might (!) be able to sign a contract for a new apartment. I say ‘might’ because you will have a lot of competitors for any apartment here. Be ready for that.
But this is not the end of the story. You have successfully found an apartment. Now you need to go to Burgeramt (the registration office) to get officially registered. After that, you will get a letter where the German state asks you to fill out some papers with your personal info and bank credentials, send them back via snail mail, and then pay for a TV service. [And I’m not mentioning here that even if you don’t have a telly, and you don’t watch it, you still need to pay for it!]
Sure, all these things can be annoying, so you need to be patient. But for those coming from places with high corruption levels, I can say that you will find these legal processes a positive thing since you don’t need to think about bribes or look for influential acquaintances to deal with problems.
5. Get ready for German pragmatism.
I was surprised when I discovered that nobody’s ordering a drink during lunch. Like, never. They say it’s wasted money since you can always have a cup of coffee or tea at your office or home.
Collecting plastic bottles, taking them to the store and getting some euros back is also a usual story for Berliners. And no, it’s not poverty, it’s rationality.
Why am I mentioning it? Once, I felt uncomfortable ordering a cup of tea in addition to a business lunch. At some moment I noticed how my German friends were looking disapprovingly at me. It’s up to you to decide if you want to follow this rule or not, but now you’re at least prepared for such situations. I suggest to listen to this voice of German pragmatism: it indeed helps save money for you!
6. It’s a city of freedom and tolerance.
Berlin is different from all other European cities and capitals. In Paris, Prague or Kiev you would be firstly impressed by the cultural heritage, the beautiful architecture, etc. In Berlin, there are totally different factors work.
The first thing you feel when you land here is the energy of the multicultural city, which fills you with an atmosphere of freedom and tolerance. If you’re going to take a walk in the city center, you will be surprised how often you hear English compared to German.
Berlin is full of immigrants representing different cultures, from the Far East to the Wild West. 200,000 Turkish people, 30,000 Asians (including 14,000 Vietnamese) and more than 200,000 European newcomers populate German’s capital. So don’t be surprised if you see a small Istanbul or a little Ho Chi Minh here in Berlin.
If you come from a monocultural environment, such a variety of different kinds of cultures and people can be overwhelming at first, but in the long run, it will help you feel confident among other immigrants no matter how different you look.
So be yourself and follow your own rules, but stay tolerant and respectful of other cultures. I like comparing Berlin to good wine: you first need to try it carefully, to peer into its colors, feel its aftertaste. Only then will you fall in love with this city and breathe in its air saturated with freedom.
7. It’s a city for any lifestyle.
Thanks to its multiculturalism and diversity, Berlin is a perfect place to live for any kind of soul.
— Like an atmosphere of hippies, Turkish markets and never-ending parties? Settle in Kreuzberg!
— Looking for a calm, family-friendly zone with green parks and playgrounds? Rent an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg.
— Want a luxury apartment on a street with shining showcases of expensive shops? Charlottenburg is at your service.
— Or maybe you want something balanced? Then Mitte is your choice.
— Running low on money? Take a look at the Neukölln area.
These parts of Berlin are so diverse that when I’m going across different areas during a single walk, I often doubt myself: “Am I still in Berlin?”
8. It’s a technical hub.
Berlin is like Silicon Valley but in Europe. Full of startups. Full of investors. Full of employers and employees. Once you are here, tons of career opportunities will open up for you.
This is great, but be careful if you’re an IT specialist. The thing is everyone knows each other in this industry. Your future employer can be friends with your current or previous employer and ask for feedback about you. So don’t change jobs too often. Also, don’t lie about your experience or positions (even if it’s a small exaggeration of your achievements). If your lie is revealed, you can forget about your positive reputation in Berlin.
9. It’s a city of educational opportunities.
Berlin is the best place to develop yourself as a person and as a specialist.
It’s a city of museums (over 200 of them!), different regular and periodic exhibitions and plenty of professional events (conferences, meetups, roundtables, etc.). If you’re not a fan of lying on the couch, you can spend every weekend making the most of it for yourself and your career.
Top places I personally liked:
1. I’m not a big fan of natural sciences, but Naturkunde Museum in Berlin just made me take a fresh look at them. It’s just an awesome place to learn more about the world we are living in. You will meet the biggest skeleton of a dinosaur known today. But my favorite part is the Microscopy Center, where you get an opportunity to look at different objects and organisms under the microscope.
Address: Invalidenstraße 43
2. Deutsches Technikmuseum is more than just a technology-related museum. It consists of two buildings.
The first one is an interactive educational center (mostly for children) called “Spectrum”. Here four floors of the building are full of hands-on equipment to show you different physical facts and phenomena, mostly about light, sounds, and mechanics.
The second one is an exhibition of transport technology full of real cars, ships, trains and even airplanes from all over the world representing different eras, from ancient times until now.
Address: Trebbinerstraße 9
3. Medical Museum. This one will be interesting and useful not only for young doctors and medical staff but also for anybody related to medicine.
I’ve visited it as I was searching for some information and inspiration (I’m involved in healthcare app development right now). I didn’t find any inspiration, to be honest, but was genuinely impressed with its exhibition.
Address: Chariteplatz 1, D
4. Pergamonmuseum is a nice chance to learn more about ancient art and architecture and Islamic art and culture. More than that, this museum houses such famous objects of historical heritage as Ishtar Gate from Babylon and the Roman market gate of Milet.
Address: Bodestraße 1–3
5. A place where I attended two (but not long) concerts of classical music in one day and one performance with organ music — Konzerthaus Berlin.
10. It’s a city of youth.
It’s going to be a real challenge to find a local person older than 60. Old locals prefer to leave Berlin and have a quiet and peaceful life.
So Berliners are mostly young people. At a glance, at least. And it’s also full of young tourists because Berlin is a center of nightlife, modern electronic music, and art.
As a capital of modern youth, maybe it’s no wonder why Berlin is so full of freedom and inspiration, and at the same time of harshness and dirt.
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