I’ve been in Berlin for about a month now, minus a side trip to Rotterdam and a conference in Algiers. Here are some of the notes and observations I’ve made about the city that have stood out to me.
All of these are just noticings – they are interesting to me because I’ve noticed them, become aware of them as different from what I’m used to. That is – these things may be obvious, they may not be a trend, or are otherwise banal :)
I may come back and add to this post over time – including some more pictures!
A Berlin Blockchain Sabbatical
I’ve been starting to get even more involved in blockchain & decentralized web tech, with a particular focus on the Ethereum open source community. Berlin has a ton of community activity, including dedicated coworking co-spaces like Full Node.
For Rachael, tons of arts and culture here as well, so something for both of us.
I’m calling it a sabbatical, although we’ve both been working on a variety of self-directed projects.
We stayed in an AirBnB in Kreuzberg near the Landwehr Canal for the first couple of weeks, in the south / south east of Berlin. We then went to Rotterdam for 5 days because we had to switch apartments anyway and Rachael had found a Paper Art Biennale in Rijswijk. Coming back, our apartment for the rest of the time is in Wedding, in the north west of the city.
I grew up speaking German at home – my parents are actually from Germany, having moved to Vancouver a few years before I was born.
What I mean by imposter is that while I look German and speak it fluently, I don’t know anything about Germany or Berlin. So in many cases, if I start talking to someone in German, they assume that I’m German. But since I don’t have any context of the country or the city, it can lead to confusing conversations.
I’ve taken to either very quickly explaining that we’re visiting from Canada and that Rachael only speaks English, or even to just speak English if I think “playing dumb” will be better for the situation.
I see lots of nose rings — specifically, septum rings on women.
Wide pants on women.
Lots of tattoos, both men & women. Individual arm & leg tattoos as well as sleeves.
Man buns everywhere.
Round glasses on men and women, from small to oversized. Many “mirrored” sun glasses.
More what I think of as “hippie” clothing, even going back to things like tie die on clothing and bags. There are stores like Guru or Chapati that have locally designed in Berlin clothes, manufactured in India or Indonesia which take cloth and patterns from those places with Europeanized cuts.
We got O2 SIM cards for 10EU at MediaMarkt (big box store like Best Buy). Even ended up being 2-for-1 and included a month of service with 1.5GB of data and 300 minutes. The service itself has been mediocre – 3G with spotty instances of LTE. It did mean we could roam to the Netherlands with no extra charges and were included in the plan.
There are QR codes in lots of places. They don’t necessarily do anything interesting other than encode a website.
In one case, a flyer for a local Japanese festival had the QR code link to a Facebook event… for last year’s event.
We initially got 7 day transit passes in Berlin, which cost 30EU each. These work across U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and buses. There are no gates or barriers. The bus driver may glance at your pass, or you might enter a rear door.
I had one ticket check on a U-Bahn, where plainclothes people pull out badges and check everyone.
In Rotterdam, there are chip cards you load with cash. You tag in and tag out of every ride. In city rides seem to be 1.30EU, slightly cheaper for shorter ones. We were even able to take the subway between two cities (Rotterdam to The Hague), which was surprising to us.
Rotterdam has separated bike paths everywhere, which are red pavement. Sidewalks for people, red paths for bikes, and roads for cars.
When we came back from Rotterdam, we got a month long transit pass for Berlin which is 80EU.
Our first apartment was in a U-Bahn parallelogram – it was equally between 4 different U-Bahn stations with a 10 minute walk to each. In retrospect, look for this: you would rather be very close (< 5 minute walk) to any station. Our Wedding apartment is a < 5 minute walk and it’s great.
There are dockless bike shares everywhere. Berlin has some dock bikes, too, but the docks look abandoned.
Mobike and Ofo are the two brands I see the most, with Mobike having the widest distribution. I wasn’t able to get my Mobike signup working, Ofo was 0.80EU for 20 minutes and I hopped on it several times.
Many restaurants have smartphone or tablet ordering. Plus some dedicated order pad hardware.
We see little of this in North America — at the table sever digital ordering. Instead, North America has had Server <> Kitchen digital ordering for a long time.
My theory is this is a leapfrog: restaurants are going from no systems, cash only, to a full system with digital POS integrated with online ordering.
Smaller corner stores are cash only. Market stalls and food trucks are predominantly cash only (maybe 1 in 20 takes some form of electronic payment?). Lots of room for Square to grow in Europe (or be leapfrogged by mobile-to-mobile solutions without credit card readers).
Rotterdam has “PIN” terminals for debit cards only (which doesn’t work with my Vancity card). Only larger stores and museums take credit cards.
We find ourselves with lots of change. I am mostly cashless in Canada (since Canada’s banks have the Interac debit card system which even corner stores have adopted), so am not used to carrying change. And of course, Canada got rid of the penny, and here there are 1 and 2 euro-cent pieces.
We’ve found tipping hard. If you are paying with card, there is no prompt for tipping, so you have to calculate the amount ahead of time. If you are paying with cash, you again either ask for the change you want or leave the tip on the table, with ~10% seeming to be the amount you aim for.
Rachael has been using Duolingo to learn more German. She understands various words already from being around me and my family, and can puzzle out a lot of words if they are written down.
The majority of the people we’ve met who live in Berlin and are originally from elsewhere have not learned German. They work in tech and so their “day job” at the office uses English. Still, it was surprising that a lot of people didn’t feel the urge to learn more German, even after 4 - 5 years here (!!!).
Most people speak some English. English is very much intertwined into lots of signage and phrases everywhere.
We’ve been listening to local radio in the mornings. Commercial top-40 radio announcers are seemingly identical the world over, with the same over-the-top cadences no matter the language.
Lots of Turkish and Turkish signage on cafes and stores in different neighbourhoods.
Meat, cheese, and bread is what Germany is all about. Every neighbourhood has bakeries with fresh buns and bread baked every day. Most of these places will also do sandwiches and a coffee.
Currywurst (a bratwurst with a tomato ketchup + curry spices) is a very Berlin thing.
Doner Kebab – or just doner – is the other item that is very Berlin. Our place in Wedding
It was Spargel (white asparagus) season when we arrived, and many places had Spargel specials. Local strawberries and blueberries are in season now too.
There are lots of general grocery stores, which tend to be smaller and more local than the giant grocery stores that you drive to in North America.
In Berlin, we also went to lots of Turkish grocery stores.
The average coffee is terrible. There are really good independent coffee shops, but they aren’t in every neighbourhood. Whether chain store or independent bakery, your coffee
I asked for cortados in various places. Half of them gave me espresso with sweetened condensed milk, half of them gave me what I think of when I order a cortado in Vancouver. The Cortado wikipedia page does mention that with condensed milk is a thing.
“Coffee to go” is something that is advertised. That is, it is not common to have take out cups rather than to sit down and drink your coffee. I saw one sign
I find the average restaurant / cafe to be not very good compared to Vancouver. I’ve known this for a while, that the “average” meal in Vancouver is very good, but it hits home when you research Google / Foursquare and go to a place here that has 4 - 5 star ratings and have a mediocre meal.
The feature image above is a lunch at MIRIKA, a cafe in Kreuzberg. I had schnitzel and Rachael had spaetzle, both of which are very traditional German cuisines (although neither are local to Berlin) – and it was among the best experiences we had.
We had a super disappointing Indonesian Rijsttafel in Rotterdam. White table cloths and “fancy”, but was 100EU for two of us with one drink each, and it was just average. In Vancouver, there are half a dozen places (at least) with better beef rendang, for $10CAD per person.