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An A-Z guide of my time in Germany

Getting to know the city of Berlin afresh in my 20s has been a chance to challenge old preconceptions and form new observations which will stay with me for the next stages of life back home.

An A-Z guide of my time in Germany
The sun sets behind the TV Tower in Berlin. Photo:DPA

My love affair with the German language and culture began back in 2009 when I started secondary school. Within a year I was hooked.

Over the past nine years I'd say I've become pretty familiar with the German way of life, having spent considerable amounts of time in different areas of the country.

But after moving to Berlin this summer as a young adult, certain things have struck me about the city and its ‘Germanness’ that I’d never previously noticed or fully appreciated. Here’s an A-Z list of my German summer so far. 

A is for “A city on a swamp”

Berlin – the city where I’ve called my home for the past couple of months.

The city’s history dates back to the 13th century and its name is thought to come from the old Slavic language Polabian meaning “Swamp-city”.

I'd spent several weeks here over the past five years and when I found out I'd be coming back for an internship this summer I was confident I'd find my feet in this rebellious heart of Germany.

B is for “Bikes”

Cyclists heading towards the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz. Photo:DPA

Berlin is built for the bike. The land lies flat and the Germans have a respect for cyclists unlike other places I've been before. 

The attitude towards cyclists is different here to my home country of the UK, where cyclists, swathed in lycra, race along the roads and motorists pay them no respect.

Here it's not about beating the person, or vehicle, next to you, it's about enjoying the fresh air on your way to work, or to the shops, or even on an evening out. It's an opportunity to catch up with friends as you cycle side by side.

C is for “Cash”

My absolute bugbear of Germany – their insistence on keeping the cash economy flowing. 

I'm a millennial so live a cashless existence and the need to seek out an ATM and carry loose change on me at all times is extremely irritating.

Also, I'm fed up of those damn transaction fees!

D is for “Denglisch”

Hearing the amount of Denlisch all around me when I arrived in Berlin wasn't exactly a shock, but wow was I surprised at the hilarity of some of the German-English combinations.

Germans today are using English words and phrases like a crutch to support their speech, to the extent that it seems as if they have selective German amnesia and can only find the English counterpart in their head.

My all time favourite phrases I've heard so far are “Ja, das fand ich echt confusing!” and the insistence of one German podcast host to begin every new German sentence with the English “by the way”.

E is for “East”

A Trabant car with an East German licence plate. Photo:DPA

I'm currently living in Friedrichshain, one of the former Eastern districts of Berlin, I'm working in Prenzlauer Berg – another former Eastern neighbourhood, and I spent the eight months prior to my time here in Russia. It really seems that I cannot escape these former communist countries.

When you spend a considerable amount of time in these areas, especially somewhere like Berlin, where the memories of a concrete barrier between the two cardinal points are still present in society, you can't help comparing one side to the other.

I know from previous preconceptions and my own experiences that we often associate the former Soviet block with a tinge of grey and a culture of secrecy and depression, but there's a charm to these places I discovered for myself over the past year.

F is for “FKK”

The Germans have always enjoyed stripping off and enjoying nature. Photo:DPA

Germans are so much more comfortable with nudity than my fellow Brits. The Freikörperkultur (FKK), or free body culture, is rooted into German society and doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

When three of my British friends came to Berlin for a visit at the beginning of July we made the most of the good weather and headed to Wannsee Lake.

We decided to take our friendship to the next level and headed towards the FKK section to strip off our British prudishness along with our clothes and go for a dip in the nude.

While we lowered the average age of this area of the beach quite dramatically it all felt pretty freeing and normal. Until, however, we were waist-deep in the water and we saw an older woman striding through the water towards us on a mission.

Unsure what was going to happen next we held our breath. The woman very directly told one of my friends that she must go and apply some more sunscreen to her back or else she'd look like a tomato. We all let out a giggle and thanked her for letting us know.

G is for “Green”

Both in the sustainability sense and the literal greenery sense, the Germans value everything “green”. So much of the country's capital is covered in the stuff, and people really do make use of all the parks.

While Germany may not be perfect at recycling and keeping the waste low, it does seem to make more of an effort than other places to keep emissions down and to encourage recycling. 

H is for “History”

Along with my fascination for the German language came an interest in German history.

I would say I'm pretty solid on my 20th century knowledge, but through aimless wandering of the city streets I was able to see the remnants of the country's past: the bullet holes in the walls of former Nazi ministries; the countless graveyards homing the nation's dead; and the grand structures of a time of Prussian prowess.

History here became inescapable and a opaque foundation for today's living.

I is for “Individuality becoming communality”

A group of punks hanging out on Warschauer Straße in Friedrichshain. Photo:DPA

I'm just a short walk away from the world-famous club Berghain, and regularly see the alternative styles which come with the city's punk scene.

But it strikes me that the more edgy and out-there Berliners try to look, the more similar they become to one another.

You can't fit into the group unless you've covered your body in tattoos and piercings and wear the least likely outfit combination – as long as its black and something is leather.

Self-expression is a great thing, but as always a great divergence soon turns into a convergence.

J is for “Just a couple of months”

In a class at a Russian university, I read a piece about how Berlin was a so-to-say “one-night-stand city”, where people come for only a short period of time and then leave again.

So many people you'll come across will be foreigners who are in Berlin either on holiday, on some kind of fellowship or on a study abroad programme. No sooner have you exchanged names and social media handles have they left the city for the next.

But, on the other hand, you'll find those long-term Berlin expats who'll tell you they were only meant to stay a couple of months but it turned into a couple of years or even decades.

K is for “Kiez”

Welcome to the Kiez. Photo:DPA

No respectable Berliner is going to find themselves in the centre of Alexanderplatz or walking along Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate.

The pride and soul of the true city is its different neighbourhoods, or Kiez. Each district prides itself on being different from the next, which in turn strengthens the communal bonds and individuality of each area.

L is for “Lonely”

Partly due to its reputation as a “one-night-stand city” it can be hard to forge true connections. So many Germans now live alone or find it hard to settle in an apartment with others who they'd really call friends.

The growing number of expats moving into the city without prior connections means both an expanding community of new-comers, but equally a dark expanse of isolated individuals not knowing where they quite fit in yet.

But it's just about finding your stride.

M is for “Multicultural”

Berlin is not just home to thousands of expats looking to develop a new startup every second, it's also a hub for many second and third generation immigrants from countries like Turkey, Vietnam and Russia.

Today Berlin is a haven for new-comers and it's the combination of locals, expats, immigrant families, and refugees who are playing a part in shaping and colouring this city.

N is for “New friends”

Making new friendships in the city. Photo:DPA

As so many people arrive in Berlin alone, there are always opportunities to make new connections.

My own example of meeting a new friend in Berlin is a great reminder of how small the world really is. On a scorching evening, I reluctantly dragged myself to a meet-up for a running club. The prospect of a 10k run in 32 degree heat having not run in over a month was enough for me almost to hand in the towel and go sit in a park with an ice-cream instead.

But, you only live once, so I went. Standing at the meeting point waiting for everyone to arrive, I stood aimlessly as regulars greeted each other and shared inside jokes. I noticed a girl of about my age behind me whose American accent stood out to me as she said hi to someone.

I turned around and began chatting to her. Within two minutes I had learnt that she was in Berlin on an internship for the summer on a break from her studies in the US.

We very soon realised that one of her closest university friends was an old friend of mine from school who'd gone to States for his degree. Our next revelation was that she would be spending the next academic term at my university in the UK on an exchange programme.

We continued to chat as we took part in the group warm-up and ran the first few kilometres. With sweat dripping from our faces, we decided to go rogue and let the rest of the group run on as we slowed down to a walk and found a river-side bar to grab a drink and talk for the next three hours.

Every so often one of us would exclaim how crazy it was that we had all these strange connections. By the time it came to head home I had an invite to stay with her if I was ever in the States and we'd exchanged podcast recommendations. We said our goodbyes with a promise to meet up again in Berlin. 

O is for “Odd one out”

Berlin doesn't like to be categorized and put in a box. It holds its middle finger up to the rest of Germany and other established European capitals and does its own thing.

But it wasn't just the second half on the 20th century that made Berlin this way. It's always been the odd one out.

It was the hub for artistic expression and hedonism even back in the 1920s when it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in society.

P is for “Poor but sexy”

In 2004 Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit famously said that the city was “poor but sexy” to attract exciting new startups and creative individuals to Berlin.

In my own experience of the city I would tend to agree. Certain areas often look a little worse for wear; there are so many disused buildings and warehouses in such central locations that nobody seems to care much about.

If this were London or Paris, the city would have taken the land and put it to use long ago and probably charged soaring rents for the properties.

It seems a little strange to imagine that the top economy in Europe has a poor capital. But that's where Berlin's different. It's the rebellious sibling of the other German cities and states. It doesn't want to be home to the financial skyscrapers of Frankfurt or the elegant streets of Munich – it wants to be sexy.

The city flirts with its visitors, tempts them with its cheap prices and anything-goes attitude and, low and behold, 20 years later you're still here.

Q is for “Quiet”

I don't like Sonntagsruhe, there I've said it. Even the shorter opening hours on Sundays in the UK irritate me.

It just seems so illogical to shut everything (ok, except restaurants and cafes, etc.) on Sundays. If I've forgotten to do my grocery shopping on a Saturday it can be quite problematic.

However, I do appreciate the general quietness of the country in general, especially in a big city where you don't expect it.

No matter the day, you can find a quiet spot near the centre and just listen to the songs of the birds and the sway of the trees in the breeze.

R is for “Rebuilding, renovation and reconstruction”

A new construction project next to the East Side Gallery in Berlin. Photo:DPA

I've never seen Berlin free of major construction. I once heard a tour guide here say that whenever a new construction project is going on you should “add on eight years and €50 million to know when it'll really be completed”.

So much of Germany was destroyed during the Second World War, and many parts, especially in the former East, haven't been renovated yet.

But it seems these days that there is a push to try and turn parts of the country back into a reflection of the bygone era of Prussian kings and queens. For example, construction is currently under way to rebuild an old Prussian palace on Museum Island in Berlin.

The building was not half-standing and needing reconstruction – it was bombed by the Allies during WWII and then completely torn down years ago by the East Berlin government.

In its place since then have been the Palace of the Republic, which was the seat of parliament for the German Democratic Republic (GDR). But that was also torn down after the reunification of Germany for supposed asbestos contamination.

S is for “Spree”

Perhaps the Spree is the calming influence over Berlin, which transforms it from a raging capital into a melodious harmony of neighbourhoods.

Along the banks of the river is where you can find solace and peace, or party if that's what you're in to. There are so many places to grab a deckchair, maybe with a new friend, and watch the world go by. Or the numerous 'beach' bars and collective areas where you can imagine you're somewhere a little more exotic.

T is for “Techno”

Festival-goers at a techno set in Thuringia. Photo:DPA

Why does everyone here like techno so much? 

Maybe you just get accustomed to it after several visits to Berghain or too long spent in the city. But where's the Latino pop when you need it?

U is for “Under the influence”

This is city where it's completely fine to be inebriated at any time of the day and as there are no rules against drinking in public people embrace it.

I'm not a big drinker myself and still can't see how people can enjoy a bottle of beer without thinking it tastes like pee (sorry to German society who I've most definitely just offended here). I think I could probably count of one hand the amount of drinks I've had this summer and still have fingers free. 

But you don't have to drink to be intoxicated by the Berliner Luft (the Berlin air). It casts a spell over its residents and visitors, making you do things you'd never thought of doing before.

V is for “Vegan”

Vegan activists in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Photo:DPA

I've been vegan for a couple of years now but this city is definitely the easiest place to find some good cruelty-free food.

It seems the biggest trend of the city to convert to either vegetarianism or veganism – perhaps another act of rebellion against German traditions.

Although it's not uncommon for those Berliner health freaks, who will only shop in Bio supermarkets and are obsessed with clean living throughout the working week, to head to Berghain on a Saturday and come home over 24 hours later, eyes wides, the pupils threatening to pop straight out. Because apparently the weekend doesn't count.

W is for “Why walls won't work”

Berliners celebrate the fall of the Wall in November 1989. Photo:DPA

There's a constant reminder of the separation of Germany as you walk through the city. Plaques providing information about separated Germany, a marked line running on the ground along the former East-West border and the East Side Gallery – a place where street artists present their work on slabs of the former Wall.

Not only is all this a reminder of the Wall, it's also a reminder that walls don't and won't work. A wall inevitably comes down to the joyous cries for unification and togetherness.

X is for “X-berg”

Ok, I needed something to fill the X position so why not Kreuzberg? (Kreuz means 'cross' is German hence the 'X'). Kreuzberg is probably my favourite former Western 'Kiez' in Berlin. The district is known for its large Turkish population and its strong counter-culture. 

It also hosts the Carnival of Cultures every year to celebrate all the diversity in Berlin.

Y is for “Yoga”

Participants take part in a yoga class outside on the abandoned Tempelhof airfield in Berlin. Photo:DPA

At every corner of this city there seems to be another yoga studio. I mean it's probably to go hand-in-hand with the vegan vibes.

My flatmate even has a dedicated yoga area in the apartment for a daily practice and ironically I often can't get to sleep because of the meditation tracks she plays to fall asleep at night. 

Z is for “Zeit zum Leben”

Berlin doesn't give a f•ck. People come here to live and be their true (and perhaps slightly edgier) versions of themselves.

It is “die Zeit zum Leben”, or the time to embrace life.

While it can be lonely, it can also be a great place to forge new connections and write the new chapter of German history, right here, right now.





Member comments

  1. I must say, the title of your article made me curious ….. Really enjoyed reading it Finn! There is always something new that one might not now and sharing your experiences makes the article so much more interesting. Thanks!

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For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.