It seems we have come at exactly the right time because someone here told us that the week before we came it had been storming and raining so much that there was flooding. However, we arrived to sunshine, warmth and green things growing everywhere.
Berlin is an amazing city. I feel odd calling it that because it is not like any other city that I have been in. For one thing, it’s huge. There are actual FORESTS within the city. And these aren’t like national parks or reserves or anything; they are just patches of forest (with lakes!) that the city seems to have grown around.
Though the city is huge and spread out, it still feels cohesive thanks to the excellent transportation system here. When I first saw the transportation map, it looked massive and confusing. How will I ever decipher it and get around town? I thought. But after a few minutes of closer inspection, it was easy to figure out. Not only that, but everything is timely and efficient. Trains, buses and trams arrive every few minutes and are available 24 hours a day. Plus, all the stations are clearly and correctly labeled. What with all the transportation options, walking can be kept to a minimal.
But for those who like to tire themselves out manually, Berlin is also big on biking. Special bike lanes are everywhere. They even have special traffic signals just for bikes. Speaking of traffic signals: the signals for stop and walk are, respectively, a little red man wearing a hat holding both arms straight out, and the same hatted man, this time in green, striding purposefully with his arm up. I’m a big fan.
There is still a difference between East and West Berlin that goes beyond the cardinal nomenclature. In some parts of East Berlin, the areas have a developing feel: the trees are not as tall or big, the buildings more square and utilitarian. You can tell In a glance if you are in East Berlin in some neighborhoods, such as Marzhan, which is where we first stayed. However, other East Berlin neighborhoods are closing the charm gap quickly, like Prenzlauer Berg.
In general though, Berlin has wide, spacious, clean streets. In fact, most everything is clean here: buses, trains, restrooms, even cheapie hotels. I heart Berlin so much.
People here are not exuberantly friendly, but they are extremely helpful. Several times all we had to do was look confused/lost and someone would stop and ask if we needed help. However, we may be getting the hang of this traveling thing (or just look like we are): In one week, we have been stopped four times and asked for directions. Even more surprising, sometimes the inquiries are directed at me first. (Yes, even when they are speaking in German.)
Because it is July, it is the height of the tourist season, so tourists seem to equal the denizens in number. But I don’t get the sense that the locals begrudge sharing their city. Maybe it’s because Berliners are so diverse themselves. So far, of the people who now call Berlin home, we’ve met people originally from Brazil, India, Iran, Romania, Portugal and yes, even a Midwesterner from good ol’ U.S.of A.
Most people here speak some English. Odd language side note: I find myself still speaking Spanish here, like saying “permiso” when squeezing by people and “gracias.” My theory: I hear German; my mind recognizes a foreign language; ergo, the words that come out of mouth are Spanish, as my mind also recognizes that as a foreign language. German = foreign language = Spanish.
One time I managed to stop myself and say, “Thank you” instead to an older man. “In Deutsch (in German)!” he said.
The food is as diverse as the people. Every genre is represented (oddly, sushi and Vietnamese food are often paired). Of special note is the Turkish food. It’s like Mexican food in Los Angeles: everywhere. I especially like the Turkish pizza mit salat (with salad). Bread akin to a pita but the size of a large tortilla is smeared with a beef paste. It is heated up and then red cabbage, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, sometimes a variety of other greens and a yogurt sauce are placed on it. The entire thing is rolled up like a rug and then wrapped in aluminum foil. It’s tasty, filling and usually only 2 euros.
I tried the infamous currywust the first day we were here. It was basically a hot dog with curry powder and ketchup on it. Not bad and so simple it made me wonder why I hadn’t done this myself before.
Bjorn had told me that the bread would be awesome in Berlin. He wasn’t kidding. The breads are hearty, healthy and wonderfully cheap. Most of the loaves I’ve seen retail for under 3 euros. Some loaves are as cheap as 55 cents. The same goes for cheese — it’s cheaper here than in the U.S. Actually, supermarket prices here seem cheaper on the whole than the U.S.
Berliners also seem to be way into another “B”: breakfast. Only here it is called “fruhstuck.” Many cafes and restaurants here offer a “fruhstuck” buffet. As I, too, am a big fan of eating as soon as I wake up (only with my sleeping schedule that meal is usually termed “lunch”), I think I shall do quite well here.