The many surprises of Berlin

A girl I know, as Dutch as can be, moved to China a few years ago. Her boyfriend was Chinese and I’m sure she had visited him a few times before actually moving her whole life eastwards, but still I can’t even imagine how many struggles she’s had to overcome while trying to build a life on the other side to the world. Compared to that, Germany and the Netherlands are the same country –even the language isn’t that different. Still, in the two months that I’ve been living in Berlin, I noticed that when it comes to cultural and everyday differences, the devil is in the details. So for all the Berliners who have no idea how special they are and for all the non-Berliners who have no idea what it’s like to live in this city: here’s my short overview of all the surprises that came (and still come) with living in Berlin.

image courtesy of Anweber /

The Mailman Mystery

In Holland I’ve lived in several apartment buildings and in these buildings I’ve always received mail. So far there’s no difference with my current situation in Berlin. But. In Holland every apartment building has either one big mailbox (this is the case in smaller buildings) and you just take your own mail out of it, or the mailboxes are on the outside of the building. It took me a while to realise that in Berlin the mailboxes were inside the building and yet somehow someone put the right mail in the right box. Who did this, I wondered. Was there some kind of secret concierge who received all the mail and put it in the right box? Did the mailman ring the doorbell of some selected neighbour and let him or her sort out the mail? It all seemed rather unlikely. I started looking for clues, but was afraid to ask someone and look stupid. Then I noticed this small keyhole next to the front door and the back door. Easy to overlook, and yet a key element in this conundrum. Apparently, German mailmen have a special key that fits this keyhole – some sort of master key that opens all front doors in Berlin. Or at least some of them. Mystery solved, even though I’m still a little amazed by how much trust the mailmen get. Apparently they deserve it.

Our mailbox, high and dry inside the building.

Mystery solved: the magic keyhole

NEVER ignore a red light

I’m not a big rebel and I don’t make a habit of breaking the law. But come on: when you’re trying to cross a street in the middle of the night, no car in sight within kilometres and yet the traffic light is red… Then I feel like kind of an idiot waiting for it to turn green. Admittedly, I feel the same in broad daylight when there’s no car approaching or even when there are some cars approaching but I’m kind of in a hurry and I’m sure I can make it without being run over. Obviously during my visits to Berlin and other places in Germany, I’d already noticed that Germans don’t like ignoring a red traffic light. But it was only until I (accidently) made a native Berlinerin cross the street ‘illegally’ that I realised it actually hurts them when they ignore the light. This girl and I were in the middle of a conversation and I hadn’t even noticed the light was red, but suddenly she was moaning a little and closed her eyes – her whole body was protesting. It was at that moment that I decided that if I ever wanted to become a true Berliner, I had to stop ignoring red lights. And since I did, I noticed it’s really only tourists who don’t wait for the light to turn green. Suddenly I found it silly that they were in such a hurry to cross the street. Why not wait for a few seconds (or minutes, sometimes), look around you and have a laugh about all the colourful people of Berlin passing by?

No need to hurry

A Wegbier (or four) a day…  

The other day I saw a pretty-looking young lady walking a baby stroller while drinking a beer. In Holland people would stare at her, thinking she’s some kind of drunk. In Berlin people look at her because she’s a pretty young lady with a cute little baby, enjoying their walk on a Sunday afternoon. People drinking a bottle of beer on a bridge would be tramps in Holland, but in Berlin they are most likely people who just finished their day of work and who chose to have their Feierabendbier watching the sunset with friends. There’s an obvious (yet very sad) reason for this: in Holland we’re not allowed to drink in public places other than the terraces of cafes and restaurants. In summer the police are a little more lenient and most of the time choose to ignore all the people drinking beer in the parks, but officially it’s verboten at all times. Therefore, the first time friends of mine visit Berlin, they’re always a little hesitant to buy a beer at a Späti (late-night shop) and just start drinking it while walking through the city. It’s usually only then that they see all the other people doing it – even when it’s only noon – and know: the Wegbier is just as much part of the true Berlin experience as Currywurst, Sunday markets and night clubs. And it feels good.

Sunday = the day of rest (yeah, right)

Talking about those Sunday markets and night clubs: Sundays are not the same in Berlin. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the fact that many supermarkets are open 16 hours a day, except on Sundays – when they don’t open at all. Sure, it’s not even that long ago that there were only a few supermarkets in Holland that opened on Sundays. But in the past few years a lot has changed and now most shops in the city centres are open every Sunday – and yes, I did get used to that. Many people in Berlin probably plan ahead. I however have been forced to go to the supermarket in Ostbahnhof, one of the few that do allow people to shop on Sundays, three times already since I forgot to buy all of my weekend groceries on Saturday. Trust me: on Sunday you wouldn’t even want to enter that supermarket when you’re starving to death. So there are two options: you either act like a grown-up and buy some extra food on Saturday OR you’ll go the Berlin way. This means: you party until somewhere around noon on Sunday, sleep the entire day and just order a pizza when you wake up. Or you party a little less, sleep a little shorter, have a large brunch somewhere in the city and visit one of the Sunday markets. Here you can either buy food or hang around until it’s time to have dinner at one of the restaurants in the surrounding area. Personally, I prefer the Berlin way.

Breakfast is served until late in the afternoon, so again: no need to hurry

This is what dinner should look like on a Sunday night

Quite an impressive list, right? And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that you can play table tennis at every street corner. Or the fact that most houses have their own array of garbage containers (separating garbage has never been this easy!). Or the fact that cash money is something sacred in Berlin – while in Holland you can pay by card even in small bars. Things change when you cross a border and I think on top of that Berlin is culturally very different from the rest of Germany. But that’s exactly what makes it so much fun to live in a (albeit slightly) different culture for a while: you get the chance to discover things for the first time. I still have at least 10 months left here to find all the oddities of this new country and city – and I’m hoping the amazement will never cease.