7 books which will help you get to know Berlin

IMG_0767 (1)Alongside relishing delicious tapas, sunbathing, and swimming in the sea, I spent our two-week summer holiday in Andalusia last year reading “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving. Reading relevant books for the location is something I like to do – Henry James in Italy, Jan Morris in the Middle East, Alice Walker in the US – providing a more nuanced dimension to fact-filled travel guides.

I did this, too, when I first came to Berlin as a student – sniffing out obscure, vaguely relevant works in the glorious Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz. Though after 6 years here, my location-focused intellectual pursuits have been waylaid by work, family life and lots of other good, unrelated books I’ve been keen to read, I still believe books – both fiction and memoir – represent one of the best ways to understand the spirit of Berlin. Here are my top seven recommendations spanning genre and historical period – mostly available in translation – to help you get to know Berlin. 

1. “Die Poggenpuhls” / Theodor Fontane

Set in 1888 in what is referred to as the Kaiserreich, “Die Poggenpuhls” depicts an impoverished Prussian aristocratic family struggling by in Berlin. The father has died, the two brothers are away with the army, leaving the mother and three sisters in a pokey, rented apartment just on the edge of an acceptable part of town, desperately keeping up appearances despite the financial constraints. The novel shows the shifting of power and wider societal change at a crucial point in German history. Continue reading

Frühling: five top tips for visiting Berlin this season

I left our apartment for a run on Saturday morning and noticed it immediately: the air was softer, the sun warmer, more people were on the street. In the park round the corner, trees wore tiny green buds, a whisper of the bountiful green to come. In the sheltered spots, daffodils were about to bloom. Yes, the day before Easter, almost at the very end of March, winter was over and spring had arrived.

There is always that moment in Berlin, when you know that though the temperature might drop below 10C again, the harshness of winter has gone for a good for months at least. Exactly when it happens is unpredictable – mid-March is a wonderful treat, mid-April a longer slog. But when it does, you know it. The light changes, the smell of the city freshens, it’s inhabitants crawl out from their hibernation inside apartments and cafes and flood the streets.

Volkspark Friedrischshain last April

Volkspark Friedrischshain last April

In spring and summer Berlin is at its best for visitors. The combination of weighty history, visible on almost every street you walk down, plus superb pavement and park-life, becomes so much more accessible for the casual tourist. Gone are the beleaguered looks of people marching head down to the wind, battling with their umbrellas. Instead, crowds stroll, marvel, repose, taking in everything the city has to offer. 

Our repeated advice to visiting friends is to leave time to lounge in Berlin’s many and varied places – to pause and watch the world and his dog go by whilst sipping on a top notch cappuccino. But the worst you can do is pay for overpriced coffee of dubious quality in a tourist trap. So if you’re planning a visit in the next few months, a few insider tips.

1. Cafes

La Tazza (Prenzlauerberg): Serving the strongest coffee I’ve ever drunk in Berlin, in a low-key, not hipster overrun atmosphere.

The Barn (Mitte): The focus here is on quality coffee, so a great recommendation if that’s your thing, but mind the many young men and women in skinny jeans, tapping away on their Macbooks.  Continue reading

“Friendly Service” and Zero-Euro-Jobs

Who’s left holding the (grocery) bag?

One definition of culture shock: The first time an American goes through the checkout lane at a German grocery store. The first shock is seeing the cashier/checker comfortably seated rather than standing. The second comes as the purchased items come zipping across the laser scanner — and you, the customer, discover that you are also the bagger (Einpacker). And you are under pressure from the person behind you when the checker starts scanning his/her groceries, barely a split second after you have paid. (The third shock comes if you don’t have your own bag.)

German entrepreneur Martin Lettenmeier wants to change that. At least the bagging part. He has founded a company in Fürstenfeldbruck, Bavaria with a typically “German” name: Friendly Service. (He probably chose the English name because the concept barely exists in German.) Based on his experience in the USA, Lettenmeier wants to spread the idea of the friendly grocery bagger in Germany. (“Profis stehen den Kunden beim Einpacken bei.”) Continue reading

American small talk vs German no talk

Germans don’t do small talk. (Well, sometimes they do – but they rarely admit it.) Most German-speakers will tell you that their language is too serious and precise to be wasted on small talk or chitchat, especially with strangers. Anyone who has lived in Berlin for any length of time knows that Berliners in particular aren’t prone to idle chatter – even if they know you fairly well.

So I was amused to read an article on German stereotypes and “Chatiness” in the latest issue of The Atlantic Times (Dec. 2009). Jabeen Bhatti writes of her astonishment when – in a single day in Berlin – she experienced several strangers chatting with her, something “as rare as seeing a white Rhino.”

In the US, such banter among perfect strangers is nothing unusual. Continue reading

The Streets of Berlin: Cyclists versus pedestrians

Sign 1

This sign means the sidewalk is shared by pedestrians and cyclists. It screams: “Pedestrians, watch out for your lives!” Photo: Hyde Flippo.

I don’t think there’s a German over the age of five or six who doesn’t know how to ride a bike. Seeing an 80-year-old German lady zipping along on her bike is nothing unusual in Germany.

I have witnessed rush hour in the small town of Burghausen, Bavaria, which means swarms of bicycles, not cars, going to and from the Wacker chemical plant. In much larger Berlin and other German cities, the bike is also a popular mode of transportation. An estimated 400,000 bikes stream across Berlin on an average day. If we compare the USA and Germany, travel to work or school makes up only 11% of all bike trips in the US, compared to 28% in Germany. Shopping trips account for only 5% of all bike trips in the US, versus 20% in Germany. (McGill Univ. (TRAM) – “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany”)

So you might think that cyclists have a special place in the hearts and minds of most Germans. Well, they do, but it’s usually a negative place. The average German motorist despises cyclists (and vice versa). Although Germans often maintain that most people are both motorists and cyclists who should not hate each other, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Once a cyclist gets in a car, a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation takes place as the driver grasps the steering wheel and heads out to do battle with people on bicycles. And there are a lot of them in the average German municipality, large or small.

But that’s a topic we’ll save for another day. Continue reading