berlin, germany - anonymous' reflections after years there in their 20s

posted by anonymous on 11/22/13.


How much time have you spent in Germany?

In total I have spent roughly four years in Germany. One exchange year in a lovely university town called Tübingen and three years in Berlin, where I live today.

Which best describes how old you are/were while in Germany?

When I did my exchange year I had freshly turned 21 and when I moved to Berlin in 2010 I was 23.

What brought you to Germany? Where were you before?

There are many reasons I could get into as to why I chose to move to Berlin. An honest answer is always best so I will divide this into two parts: the straight-forward answer and the deeper one.

Straight-forward: When I was 18 and began my history degree in North Carolina and there was a requirement to study a language for four semesters. Being American (and of course not bilingual) I was a tad bit nervous about this, constantly remembering my struggles "studying" Spanish in high school. But things took a turn when I started dating a girl from Switzerland, who was studying at my university. When the time came to make a choice, she suggested German. At this point I was still a smartass 19 year-old and with my Jewish-American background found this to be a funny suggestion. So in a strange way, because I found it funny to tell my Jewish grandmother and mom that I would be studying German (Jewish families in New York will still not buy Volkswagens!), I began my path. My ex tutored me a bit (helped my accent SO much), my professors saw how good I was doing, so I did an exchange year in Tübingen and when I returned I made German Studies a second major. Graduating is what it is, a shock. There was nothing North Carolina had to offer and after a very hard summer, I got an internship opportunity in Berlin, said yes, sold everything and moved.

Deeper answer: When I was 10 my family moved from New York to North Carolina. I hated it. I never felt accepted and as I got older this only increased. This doesn't mean I didn't have friends and was an outcast, but southern culture, mentality, religion and the plastic suburban life really took its toll. It would be many years before I realized it isn't only these things, but also the total lack of diversity down south. Studying German opened the world to me in ways that sometimes are truly indescribable (mostly to those friends who stayed in NC). After my exchange year, I knew North Carolina would not be my home for much longer, but to be honest, I didn't know Berlin would become that home. Sometimes things just fall into place, because I have never felt more at home than I do now.

Describe your impressions and thoughts on Berlin.

I am not sure if those reading this are aware of the massive hype of Berlin, but I will confirm: it is amazing. Diversity (though that is always relative), low crime, all forms of language, late nights, culture, art, and above all the feeling of truly being free. Freedom was my first impression I got from Berlin in my first year. I don't fear the police, there is no career stress, no rush, no one judges you for your lifestyle, it is affordable to live here and thus money isn't everyone's drive. Berlin is dirty, grungy, gray, cold, there is constant construction, people are rude, there are crazy people everywhere. Something I always say to tourists (I am a tour guide) is that Berlin is not Germany. It was a strange island-oddity for almost half a century and because of that Berlin and Berliners "evolved" different from Germans elsewhere. There is a great quote from Anneliese Bödecker that does a better description than myself (written clear over half a century ago, yet still applies): "Die Berliner sind unfreundlich und rücksichtslos, ruppig und rechthaberisch, Berlin ist abstoßend, laut, dreckig und grau, Baustellen und verstopfte Straßen, wo man geht und steht – aber mir tun alle Menschen leid, die nicht hier leben können!" - "The Berliners are unfriendly and inconsiderate, gruff and self-opinionated, Berlin is repulsive, loud, dirty and grey, construction works and blocked streets where you stop and go. But I feel sorry for those people who cannot live here!"

This doesn't mean it is a paradise and all of the positives tend to trick many young people into moving here. There is a strange duality to this place, almost as if it is cut off from the rest of the world. So many English speakers move here without speaking a word of German or knowing anything about Germany because of the aforementioned virtues, but it has its problems. The bureaucracy here is terrible (they still rely on paper for everything!), not just because it is still in Germany, but because it has that Berlin chaos sprinkled on top. Public transportation can be terribly unreliable, a housing crisis is occurring at the moment, so prices are rising and many struggle to find a place to live; the winters are very hard (93 sun-hours for all of winter last year) and German is not the easiest language to learn. Regardless, I dare you to find an expat or in many cases a Berliner, who would say they don't love Berlin. Even on those hard days (when it is already dark at 4 and dropping to -15C), I would never say "I can't live here anymore."

How does Berlin compare to other cities in Germany you've lived in (and/or other cities you've lived in period)?

As I already alluded to, Berlin is nothing like other German cities. My best description (as I have said hundreds of times on my tours) is such: Berlin sustained 90% destruction during WWII, then it was divided into four separate sectors until 1949. After this it became two cities with a constant foreign military presence as it was the heart of the Cold War. Then in 1961 a wall was put around West Berlin and it would solidify its identity for the next 28 years until 1989. The government wouldn't be reunified until 1990, the government itself wouldn't move back to Berlin until the early 2000s and this is where we are today. This city is only now healing its wounds from the past 60+ years and amazingly enough, it has given it a character many people are attracted to.

Other German cities are a bit more orderly, clean and filled with (surprise!) mostly Germans (Berlin by the way is also called little Istanbul). When I studied in Tübingen in the South I was amazed at how efficiently they separated trash, how well the buses ran, how stingy everyone was with money, how gorgeous the city was (untouched by the war) and how calm it was. An even better example is the case of Munich and Berlin, as they are polar opposites. Munich is the most expensive city in Germany (Berlin the poorest), it is in the South (Berlin in the North), it is green, efficient, the people love speaking perfect Hochdeutsch (High German or standard German), it is clean and the Germans there would fit many of the stereotypes foreigners have about them. Obviously Berlin is just not these things.

Compared to any other city, there is no comparison. Some people say Berlin today is somewhat like NYC in the 80s (minus the gangs, murders and crack heads). Perhaps it is, but Berlin is altogether hard to compare to other cities.

What are Germans like? In what ways are they different than people in other places you've lived?

Well I need to state again that Berlin is really different, but I will generalize Germans as best as possible. Germans are very well traveled, many are well educated and don't have the same financial woes as the rest of the Western world. Berlin, though, is the poorest city in Germany, so what I just said it obviously contradictory, but it is poor because of its history, not because of Germany.

Back to Germans, they always tend to put up a front or a facade that seems rude and tough and, well, it is, but it is paper thin. The best way to break through this is A) talk to them when he or she is drunk B) be witty. The latter is really important. I have my own theory about this. The German language comes in many forms (dialects) and is obviously known for being long, but also eloquent in its descriptions. So long sentences, very flexible grammatical structures, expressive words means...they don't have patience and in everyday speech have things shortened. From my experience in speaking German it is best to get whatever it is you want to say out, as quickly as possible.

Because of this speed they have an amazing wit about them (more so Berlin) that I am still envious of today. So all-in-all if you make a quick joke (NO small talk, they hate it) you will find a smiling face and an openness you would never have expected from someone, who a moment ago looked as if they wanted to spit on you.

Being American, this can be a HUGE challenge. I am used to everyone being friendly automatically, smiles all around, "excuse me" and "thank you" for no reason. The key, as a North American I will say (Canada is the same way) is to not lose that. Stay friendly and patient, don't let their rude gestures and comments get to you. You will always come out on top and, more importantly, break through their mean facade. Once again, I am generalizing, as not all Germans are like this, but take it as a rule of thumb. In the case of people my age (26), Germans are crazy when they go out and this took some training to get used to. In Berlin an evening worth talking about would start around 11 at night and end 10 am the next day (or carry through and go out again). Drinking is very popular here as is vodka in Berlin (Jägermeister is actually popular too surprisingly enough). Oddly enough, I have found many Germans who don't really drink to get drunk. Every German drinks alcohol, but not all regularly get drunk (but when they do, they DO). When Germans (not just Berliners) get drunk they are really friendly, loud, talk a lot, are energized and want to keep drinking.

Trying to make this sounds eloquent is actually quite exhausting, so here is a quick list of things about Germans:

They love buying BIO (organic...everything). They have lots of very successful grocery stores devoted to just selling BIO products.

Germans eat a lot of fruits and vegetables (though those in the South gorge on fatty crap). From north to south though one stereotype sticks: Germans love apples.

Germany is a cash country. Berlin especially. Be ready to go to the ATM.

Order on public transportation is appreciated. No loud talking, no feet on the seats, things like this. People will say something to you.

Germans love busting out their winter gear the second it goes below 20 degrees, especially the women. Many times you will see a German woman from behind (mainly is larger cities) and think, "Woah, now there is a piece of ass. Lemme see that face!" Then it turns out that woman is 50+ and well, not so hot as from behind. Older women have long lovely hair, good figures and "young" clothes too, sooo....lots of butterfaces.

Crossing on red is OK in Berlin, but leave the shit behind if you are anywhere else in Germany. Germans are stuck in a mentality of "this is done this way." It doesn't mean there are standardized methods for everything, just that when a German does something he or she believes it is the best way.

For example, I was cleaning my bathroom in a place I had recently just moved into and my new roomie came in, looked at what I was doing (cleaning) and said, "What are you doing!?" I responded "cleaning the bathroom." He ran through why it was strange how I was cleaning. All I could think to do was stare at him with eyes that said "I am 25, you know I know how to clean a bathroom."

Germans are great with money. I don't know how, but damn. They magically always have money for a vacation at the end of the semester.

Was making friends and meeting people in Germany easy or difficult?

Meeting people in Berlin is relatively easy, but as we are discussing Germans here, this is a bit different. Germans are not easy to befriend. In a way, it is almost as if they are testing you or awaiting something that they like in you before they would want to be "friends." I don't mean that when you first meet a German they literally say "Ok, so what do you have to offer me," but it is a culture (see the language bit above) of no bullshit and why spend time with someone you don't like. Now, once time is put in, Germans are the best friends to have in the world, someone you can always rely on and have a great time with. Coming from America, I found this a bit hard at first. I met lots of people, but there always seemed to be this strange barrier in between, which doesn't exist in the States. In the States though, a lot of friendship are very superficial. You meet plenty of people, have them on facebook, have their numbers, but a real friend (applies to anywhere in the world) takes time...and alcohol.

The first German "crew" I had in Berlin is now long gone, minus my best friend. The next was the same, minus a friend and then after a while I was just in more situations with more Germans and you find your skin. This also took time, finding how I was comfortable in situations with only Germans and German language. My experience in the states, at this point, is mainly reduced to university and you meet dozens of "friends", who are long gone. Here once I started working, started university, that is where I met the friends I have today. To answer "What did I do to meet people", well, I did what everyone does to meet people, did social things. So in this regard it isn't very different.

How as your race, nationality, gender, accent, etc. affected how you are treated or how people react to meeting you in Germany?

Well my race doesn't really place a role, since I am just a white dude. My gender never played a role, because I don't think that matters much here. My accent has had a funny evolution. When I returned to Germany three years ago, I was really intimidated by how quickly Berliners spoke, so a lot of the time I wouldn't say much at my internship, because I was concentrating so much on what in the hell people were saying! Naturally this made Germans look at me as a simple foreigner and in some cases as stupid. There are only two options here: 1) think you are stupid because you can't speak 2) WORK ON SPEAKING. Now the latter is really the only real option and that is a long road. My accent, for reasons unknown, had a slight French accent for a while, so Germans would think I was French in the beginning and laugh when discovering I was American. Nowadays my accent is pretty damn good (though NOT perfect), so it happens so often that Germans will either not ask where I am from, assuming I am German (though it will come out that I am American eventually in the conversation) or ask and then be impressed, which is of course a great feeling, though a little old at this point.

Being American is not really anything special here, but being American and speaking German is. Understand what this really is: they assume Americans cannot speak any other language or at a minimum without an accent (a very true stereotype), so they are impressed that I got above the bare minimum that many Europeans are already at. A slight achievement, kind of. An example of an annoying situation happened just last week. After a seminar I take, which is in English, an Israeli, a German, a Frenchwoman and myself were talking English outside. When we began to walk I was next to the German, so I naturally switched to German, asking, "What was your name again?" Her response was, "Sarah. Do you speak good German or something?" The translation doesn't come across as it should, but it was basically like a challenge as if to say "Why are we bothering speaking German? I speak perfect English and assumingly you cannot speak good German." So, that's annoying, but who has time for assholes anyways.

All in all, Germans don't care that you are American at all. They like Americans. But the language adds a different layer.

How did the language barrier affect you (if it all)?

It is always a barrier. German is not my mother tongue and I was only really immersed in it when I moved here three years ago. I learn every day. I find plenty of instances, where I don't know a word. It can be harder to hit on girls at a bar or talk when you are really drunk. It can be embarrassing in social situations if you just don't understand. But the best thing to do is be honest. Don't nod your head and pretend. Don't just go along. If you don't understand, say it. Find the word you didn't get and ask to clarify it. Anybody would be helpful in that situation. If you aren't honest, then people will just get annoyed with you (been there!).

What sort of work/school do you do in Germany? What is the work (or academic) culture in Germany like compared to what it was like where you lived before?

At the moment my life is particularly busy. I study my masters here, am a tour guide and have a student job at an institute as well. Since being a tour guide will likely not aid in a better understanding of German culture, I will speak more about school and the office life.

University in German is really cheap, but also very disorganized (for an American). Any German reading this would not understand the statement, but departments don't talk to each other, so if there are any problems regarding course credit then you better prepare yourself for some confusion. Besides the intense bureaucracy, what is nice is that it is completely up to the student. The professor has no interest in keeping track of you and your progress as a student. If you don't go to class, most professors don't care, because in the end it is just hurting you. Extending a BA and MA a couple of semesters is also very common and not uncalled for if you need more time for research. Also German universities are based on a module system, which once more in comparison to the more flexible American system is terribly complicated and, in my opinion, a bit misguided, but Germans won't change their ways any time soon.

As for office life, well, I hate office life anyways, but in Germany it is even worse. The formalities here are absolutely a horror and I mean this just within the language, not one's actions. I find it such a pleasure whenever I get to speak English, because I can be in my own skin again, but once German comes back into play I have to concentrate very hard. Luckily in my office I am using the informal with my bosses (at their request), but you still have to formulate emails correctly and so on. When I had my internship it was terrible and I mostly just stood back and learned. Ah, one thing to add as well, when speaking to professors at university it is the same deal, formal, formal, formal. I am a very informal person, so this is very difficult for me. Also shows the importance of learning not just German to communicate to people in bars and on the street, but in all situations!

Do you have any stories/observations to share about dating, relationships, gender norms, or sex in Germany?

Germans are pretty open with sex, once they are open to you. Women are not particularly restrictive in bed, which is great and communication is what they look for. A German woman or man would directly ask you "What do you like" "What do you want" or even "Show me how you want it." The key thing is communication and this reflects back into their relationships in general. So many relationships I have seen are amazingly functional because the two partners are always open and talking. Once during my exchange year in my student apartment, I was eating dinner when my roommate and her boyfriend came in to start cooking. They were talking, blah blah, and he did some little thing (can barely remember what it was), but it annoyed the girlfriend, so she sort of raised her voice and said "Can you stop that?!" I awaited some intense awkwardness and a fight, but instead he stopped what he was doing, turned to her and said "Honey, you know if I am doing something that annoys you, I want to stop. You just have to say it." Then they kissed and continued cooking. This is kind of communication, that is both sickening (so unhuman!) and amazing at the same time.

What do you miss that's not in Germany? (Could be tangible things or social or cultural differences or anything else)?

Since this is a very international city it is hard to say I miss anything cultural, but one thing I really wish the Germans would do, is just be more open. My humor is very direct and offensive and I know Germans find it funny, but just not at first. It kind of puts them off, as if I am failing that first test. This annoys me, because when I meet a new person I am first optimistic, not pessimistic and not looking for things to immediately critique. A little more openness never hurt anyone. It could be that I just need to find my skin in the language and that takes some time. I also miss white cheddar cheese popcorn, but this isn't a deal breaker for me.

Would you recommend Germany as a place to live, travel to, or neither?

I don't really think I can say whether or not I recommend someone to live in Germany. If the stuff above sounds interesting then perhaps, but everyone is different. To travel Germany is awesome! The history is just everywhere! In just Berlin alone you have five eras of history: Prussia, Weimar, National Socialist, GDR/FRG, and modern. Abandoned sites are scattered throughout the country and are an awesome summer activity, street art is big here, theater, music of all kinds. It is a shame more Americans don't travel throughout Germany (Munich and Berlin does NOT mean you "saw" Germany!). Baden-Württemberg is gorgeous and even the run-down Ruhrgebiet has its charm. Every corner offers something special and particular due to Germany's scattered roots. Not to mention the great train system, the Autobahn (renting a car is easy) and easy flights. Definitely a place to travel.

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