Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
There is a bit of a thing among Berlin drawing folk, urban sketchers and life drawing people and so on, of “Unterweg” drawings.They’re the drawings you make on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, bus or tram, as you’re underway.
I find that I’m using these opportunities to draw regular people going about their day as a place to practise techniques. I can drop on a half-finished drawing and decide to add dark values, or detail, or a second person, in the most relaxed and experimental way.
You get as far as you get with an unterweg, then the person you’re drawing gets off the train, or you do, or they notice you drawing and you have to stop. Often children gather to watch, and adults murmur, “Schon!”
It’s a wonderful way to pass the time, and try new things.
Between Halloween and the Orange Catastrophe, I never posted most of the things I made in October.
And of course I’ve been making more in November, because handwork is my safe place.
I worked on the beaded crazy quilt mantel scarf for quite a while after Halloween, once I finally got my sewing machine working here.
You need a step-up step-down transformer to operate a US sewing machine in Germany.
However my machine is a computerized one with great automatic thread tensioning and I was terrified that the sheer power of European wall current would fry it. Finally I nerved myself up, plugged in the transformer and it was fine. The transformer gives off a bit of a chemical smell as it heats up, but that kind of thing never bothers me.
I’m still a raging helpless amateur on the sewing machine, anything I sew looks like wombat knitting.
Of course, I’ve spent a lot of time around extraordinary couture seamtresses and costumiéres, and I know I’ll never be even a regular competent sewer. But I don’t care. Using the machine makes me feel powerful and capable and it’s just so magic and fun.
My plan is to take the mantel scarf out before Halloween every year and add more beading, embroidery and quilting.
This hat is one of my “Uplift” projects. I found it in a 75% off bin at Michaels the fall before we left, coming apart, and threw it in the “Halloween Crafts on Arrival” box for the shipping container.
I love to carefully glue crappy things, and fix their carelessly made bits, and then add hours of careful crystal decoration and a vintage jet bead. I had these rooster feathers that precisely matched some scraps of sequin in the sequin trim scrap bag I got at Discount Fabrics for $5 years ago. Isn’t that nuts how they match?
I also spent a lot of time adding Swarovski crystals to a deer skull.
And gold leafing another skull. I used this weird star-patterned variegated gold leaf I got at Idée for super cheap; with my usual fingerpainting leafing technique, it didn’t really show.
After I leafed it I varnished it with acrylic glaze, then rubbed the still-tacky glaze with this pure bronze pigment powder. I bought the jar at the art-school art supply store in college in 1990 ’cause it was in a discount bin; I’ve still barely made a dent in it and I have used it for SO MANY THINGS.
Daria thought the black crystal-decorated skull was a little passé. Like, so gothsterday. Ah well, there’s no pleasing the young.
Creepy, right? And I did the first test of using my machine to add passementerie trim to one of my pillows that for some unknown reason, did not already have trim on it.
I had been feeling bad for this poor, undecorated pillow for years.
Also, I got this incredible animatronic talking vintage radio at Target in the US in September, and carefully brought it home.
However, it needed work; both Daria and I felt that the way the lights flashed around the top was overkill and not so nice.
So I painted the white faux-Bakelite strip black, applied varnish, roughly gold-leafed it with the same cheap variegated leaf, then used the bronze powder on it. And then Daria distressed it with more black paint, because she said it was still too glitzy. She was right, of course.
I probably would have made a lot more stuff in October, but I was really busy baking for Halloween.
And in November I was so stressed before the US election and so gutted afterwards that I lost a lot of creative time. And Leonard Cohen died. What the fucking fuck, 2016.
So even though I’m still reeling with horror about the US election, I’m going to post some pictures of the creative things I did for my favorite holiday.
Seeing other people make beautiful things and follow their passions has been sustaining to me.
I hope seeing my weird stuff feels good to you.
I decorated the house. I can no longer tell what I put up for Halloween and what was already there.
Like this note from my mom from last Halloween, which is basically just part of our kitchen now. And these magnets Daria got me on one of her trips.
I don’t even know where this other eyeball bouquet I made and the creepy hand are in the house now.
So it’s not like I could put them away.
I guess it’s all staying up! Santa hats for all the bats!
I finally found a glass dome big enough for my bridal bouquet of paper and fabric flowers made by amazing artists Anandamayi Arnold and Aimee Baldwin. All I had to do was sand and paint the base, which was some hideous pale oak color, black.
This work of art made by beloved friends displayed in our home was one of the visions I held onto tightly during our whole move and housing search.
Creating a safe space to honor the works made by the cherished creative people I have known and loved is a huge part of who I am and how I am motivated.
Holding onto so many precious, delicate, completely unique things is a lot of work and a lot of stress. I used a lot of acid-free tissue and bubble wrap to get them here.
But without weird object-attachment people like me, there’d be no museums!
(I also made these sparkly creature-frames for Daria‘s new postcards, because I love mass production too!)
Well, she came out exactly as I saw her in my head, and it’s a rare project you can say that about, especially one involving a rubber spider, hair ties, epoxy clay and faux fur.
Fun fact: the boots I used for Elsa were the boots that were on the feet of this Living Dead doll before I, um, cut them off with a hacksaw.
I packed them with epoxy clay to give my Bride more weight and structural stability at her base. And I also used epoxy clay to make a dollar-store zombie hand candleholder more normal.
You know, I just wanted a regular creepy disembodied hand.
I wish it was still the week before Halloween, before the darkness and terror of November 8. I wish I wasn’t so afraid for the US and the world. I wish I could go back in time to when I bought this poster, when it seemed impossible such a creature could win the election. I hope and pray by next Halloween the world will be less insane. I thank you and love you for all that you do.
This November marks my four-year anniversary of complete remission from severe, long-term Major Depressive Disorder.
Photo by Julia Wolf 2015, licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Despite the US election, despite my fear for my loved ones and my horror and grief at injustice and cruelty, I am deeply happy.
It’s not just that we movedtoBerlinandhave a better life. I felt better for several years before we left.
I entered remission in November 2012, thanks to my partner who got me on new health insurance, my mom who found me doctors when I didn’t have the strength, and a doctor who changed my meds fearlessly.
I can’t even understand how happy I am these days.
I’ve been happy much of the time, and deeply content, and gleeful, and terrified, and traumatized, and overwhelmed with grief, and sick with fear, and bursting, bursting with love, the last four years. I’ve spent many, many hours in the pure flow zone of creative work. I’ve been exhausted, A LOT.
What I haven’t been, for a single day, is depressed. If you have depression, you know the difference.
I haven’t had a single day when I wanted to kill myself.
Not a single day when I thought obsessively about killing myself. Not a single day when killing myself seemed like gravity, like something I was fighting every day not to be pulled into.
I haven’t had a Plan for four years. I actually almost don’t remember what it felt like to want to drink Drano or to check the windows of the car for leaks. In the last four years, there has been only one moment when I looked at the headlights of the oncoming train and felt a dizzying pull. It was two or three seconds, during the most frightening part of our move, when things seemed hopeless and like we’d have to go back to the US.
If you have long-term suicidal depression, you probably can’t imagine this.
I lived in the Bay Area for eighteen years. By the time we left, there wasn’t a single street I hadn’t driven down wanting to kill myself. I had calculated the speed I’d need to go off every embankment, through every safety rail. Every tall building and dark water had called to me. But the last two years and four months we lived there, I was indifferent to them. I had no business with them.
I tried to kill myself for the first time when I was thirteen.
Paramedics had to come for my drug overdoses twice before I was twenty-one. Near the end of my years in the Bay, in January of 2012, I was very briefly 5150’d in the ER at the Kaiser Hospital for suicidal impulse. (They were super nice and they put warm blankets around you. Definitely go there if you’re in Oakland and want to harm yourself!)
I’ve been seeing therapists since I was EIGHT YEARS OLD. I have moderate OCD, Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, PTSD and a bunch of other stuff. Oh and I’m a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict sober 27 years.
I’ve been in in-patient treatment for chemical dependency, spent four months in a halfway house, been through the Kaiser Family program co-dependency outpatient program, been through the Kaiser outpatient program for depression, spent five years each with two therapists doing PTSD work and dozens of visits with other therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors.
Most significant of all, I have spent decades in recovery communities and support groups of all kinds, which have been the biggest resource I have to grow and change.
I HATE being mentally ill.
Goats for no reason.
I never wanted to be sick and I have fought all the diseases of the mind I suffer from fucking tooth and nail all my life. I know you have too, if you have them. I know you’re not lazy, not weak and not sorry for yourself. You are incredibly brave.
You are courageous beyond words and stronger than you should ever have had to be.
You are a superhero, in the secret identity of a person who has had to spend thousands of days on the couch with a blanket. I know you don’t want to be on the couch. I know you hate it. I believe you when you say you want to be better and that you have tried everything.
I beg you, get someone to help you try one more thing.
Ponies from last December.
I would never tell you to “fight harder”. I know you’ve been fighting as hard as you possibly can your entire life. What I beg you to do is to beg someone who cares about you to help you with your life and death struggle. I didn’t have the strength, when my crisis hit its peak in summer 2012, to find new doctors.
I was exhausted by the cycle at Kaiser, where they couldn’t offer me one-on-one therapy and wouldn’t take me off the Wellbutrin/Celexa cocktail because I “wasn’t stable enough to risk it”. I was on new insurance, in the summer of 2012, thanks to the company my bf worked for including domestic partners. But I couldn’t go through the nightmare rounds of trying to find a therapist, trying to find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients, navigating the phone trees.
My mom did the phone calls for me, and it saved my life.
I went to a new psychiatrist, who I did not like at all. But he was daring (or close to retirement and just didn’t care); he stopped the Wellbutrin/Celexa cold turkey and switched me to Cymbalta. Which at the time was under patent and cost like $200 bucks a month. Lucky me, I had insurance.
He said it might take longer to kick in than I thought possible. He made me wait, showing up at his office dull-eyed or weeping quietly even though I felt totally creeped out by his old feet in their ugly sandals.
Sometimes he said, wait one more day, then call me if it’s not better. I sustained my sanity during this period by reading the excellent psychiatric medicine website CrazyMeds, where they can help you “Find the Options That Suck Less”. (Sadly, the forums are not currently active as the site owner is very sick and lacks spoons to move the site to a newer host.) Reading about other people’s dogged persistence in finding medicine for their depression helped me hang in. I read about other people who Cymbalta had worked for after longer than they wanted to wait. My mom found me a therapist, and I went back to weekly therapy. For the fourth time? The fifth? Who fucking knows. I hate therapy.
One day the meds kicked in. It was as simple as that.
Drawing on the bus with my students, summer 2016.
I was following the oft-described “Most Effective Treatment for Depression”, combining medication and talk therapy. My therapist was warm but tough, and we did a fair amount of cognitive work.
I have no more information than that. I do know that nowadays I feel like I have a scaffolding of cognitive training that keeps me from destructive thought patterns, but I could never have stopped those patterns long enough to develop new scaffolding without the meds. I’ve been on Cymbalta, same dose, for four years. I”m fine, truly and utterly fine. And being fine is WONDERFUL. I make art, teach drawing, care for my husband and our cats.
Don’t think recovering addicts who take anti-depressants are really sober? Come at me!
I forget to take my meds constantly and always have. I have to put them in a 14-day pill dispenser and keep it on my worktable in front of me. I don’t know about you, but I never forgot to take my drug of choice. And I was a pill-freak, I totally fetishized and obsessed about pills. Here’s a picture of me on some downer pills in 1986*. You can see the difference between me then and me now, right?
The meds are totally neutral to my addictive brain, I’ve never wanted to take more of them or abuse them.
I have never been free of depression symptoms for this long in my entire life. Predictably, once my brain got better, my body fell apart. I had to have surgery for fibroids, I had terrible problems with anemia (even now, even though I’m on the cusp of menopause now), I’ve been through crazy perimenopause symptoms. I hate being hot, and I have had three years of hot flashes.
I got calcium crystals in my ear and developed Benign Positional Disorder, an illness of the inner ear that makes you feel like you have the drunk spins. I had to go on disability from work! I had to have physical therapy for vertigo at the Vertigo Clinic in Oakland! Who even heard of such a thing? Isn’t that fucking ridiculous?
And the whole time, when I would stand up and cups of blood would pour down my legs, when all I could do was lie on the couch and hold on, I was fine. I was grateful, actually, and content. I wasn’t in pain and I was just weak like a Victorian invalid. I could embroider, I could watch Supernatural on Netflix, I could go to my half-time marketing job most of the time. I was making beautiful things like this bead-embroidered corset with every ounce of strength I had. Just not being depressed was such a delicious, rapturous, heavenly feeling, I didn’t care about anything else.
Not being depressed feels exactly like being on heroin when you are depressed.
They told me in treatment in 1989 that I had been self-medicating as best I could for the variety of symptoms I had, since I was thirteen. Now that I’ve been in remission from depression for four years, the longest period since I was seven, I have a glimpse of what life is like for people who don’t have depression.
It doesn’t mean my other symptoms went away. Actually, this summer I had totally insane PTSD symptoms. Nightmares where I kicked my husband awake or kicked myself out of bed fighting off dream attackers. Intrusive flashbacks. Obsessive thoughts. But it didn’t depress me or make me want to die- it just hurt, so I cried.
Life hurts, life is scary, sometimes I cry.
The horrible results of the US election wiped both me and my husband out; we average 14 to 18 hours of sleep in our house. My fatigue problems have cycled back. When I wake up, when I’m strong enough to sit up, I run to the work table or easel and work on art. My head is absolutely full of ideas and visions and creative projects, and I do what I can of them, as I can.
My heart is full of love. I love our life, our home, our city. I cherish my loved ones. I thrill to the cuteness of our cats, to the sound of rain, to the taste of ice cream. I am truly, truly not depressed, and it is amazing. You can get better.
The National Institute of Mental Health. Links to clinical studies, info on ECT– hey, I was desperate enough to try anything, and if you’re reading this, you might be too. Suicide Prevention. Hotlines saved my life so many times. If you don’t like the person you get or they don’t feel safe, hang up and call back to get someone else.
Allie Brosh on depression. Her experience of depression differs from mine, but this powerful and beautiful work of art seems to help many depressives feel understood and to help people understand depression.
* I believe the photographer who took this was named David Selig, a guy who lived in the East Village in the 80s. He took some devastating, beautifully honest photographs of me.
For me, drawing people I encounter or glimpse in a day is a salve for my soul.
It makes me feel connected, and useful. Recording moments with care.
It’s very hard for me to leave the house right now. I really needed to get to my recovery support group, so I told myself I would get Jones Ice Cream on the way.
I was standing outside Jones Ice Cream, waiting for them to open and working on finishing up this drawing. The folks who run the beautiful seasonal and local foods store next to Jones’ gave me a gleaming local apple, “For the art!”.
The bottles by the bin in the drawing are left by people for people who need money to turn in for the pfand, or refund. Everyone does it here; there’s no shame in it.
There is a new flavor at Jones, Apple Crumble. I had it with their Salted Caramel. Which is not as creamy as Bi-Rite’s, more chewy, but stays live on the palate longer.
“It’s as close to perfect as anything could be, right now”, I told them when I finished mine.
I invited total strangers I met on the U-Bahn into my house and made them food. Then we made art together.
It might not seem like a big deal to you, but to me, a skittering omnibus of aggregated phobias, it was a big deal.
I was on the U-Bahn heading to ESDIP to teach my Hand Drawing class when a group of young people caught my eye. They look like cowboys in daguerreotypes from the Old West, I thought.
I kept glancing at them through the crowd. Wearing thick, homespun-looking clothes with worn leather trim on the pockets and cuffs, broad-brimmed black hats, and one gold earring, they were romantic and mysterious.
There were two men and a woman, whose heavy cord waistcoat had an embroidered shawl collar.
Their waistcoats and coats had rows of huge mother-of-pearl and horn buttons, mismatched and full of character. Their thick trousers had vertical double zips where the buttons on a sailor’s pants would be.
They wore pintucked white shirts of what looked like cambric, and scarves of rough loose-woven cotton, and heavy leather boots that had seen the hands of a cobbler.
They had walking sticks that were gnarled and smooth, like roots that had been polished. They seemed relaxed, at ease, comfortable with each other and the East Berlin night. I had to know more.
I wove through the swaying car and approached the oldest, a bearded and tattooed ginger.
I asked, as you do here if you are polite, “May we speak English?” He said yes, and words spilled out of me: “What is the story, you are rocking this amazing look, is it like cowpunk or something, are a you a troupe, what ARE YOU?”
“Oh no”, he said, “We are journeymen. For three years and a day, we must be within not a certain distance of home. We are gardeners and a joiner.” “A joiner?” I asked, amazed. “Like a carpenter?” “Yes”, he said, “We are craftsman on a journey.”
I desperately wanted to paint them. I had my sketchbook with me, and I showed them my U-Bahn sketches of a sleeping Russian teen, of a Turkish guy playing the banjetar. I had my Moo cards in the hot pink carrying case Daria got me and I gave them cards.
I paint people, I said. Would you come to my house and be painted and I’ll make you dinner?
They nodded consideringly, said they would be in touch, and debarked at Schlesisches Tor. I went and taught class and after I told my friend Skye, who was in the class, all about them. “I met these amazing people!” I drew the clothing of the ginger as best I could remember.
Late that night I got an email from the oldest journeyman.
We would like to come tomorrow night, he said in the direct fashion of Germans. I was terrified. I had looked up the journeyman tradition, and got my brain around it a bit, but basically we were talking about homeless strangers coming to my delicate sacred house of precious things. I muscled through the fear and confirmed. I offered to make some simple vegetarian food, which was a good plan as it turned out the fourth of their company is a vegan.
Skye came over for moral support, and brought peppers and onions.
I sauteed peppers and onion with chunks of smoked tofu, baked a dish of refried black beans (ordered from Amazon, totally unobtainium on the street here) with chipotles in adobo and olive oil, and made this no-fuss vegan cornbread.
I substituted full fat coconut milk for the soy milk, olive oil for the canola, white balsamic for the ACV, German “strong” 1050 flour for the all-purpose, and four tablespoons of date syrup for the sugar. It came out really well!
The journeymen arrived and we ate food together. They were intrigued by our weird house and I could hear them muttering, “Ah! Halloween!” as they looked around. I immediately knew that I had been right to push through my paranoid, everyone is out to get you New Yorker mindset and that these were truly good folk.
We talked of lots of things, had some tea, and then retired to the library to paint.
I didn’t have a canvas on hand and wanted to get as much detail as I could in the time we had, so I painted on cold press illustration board for the first time in at least twenty years. Boy howdy, I forgot how easy it is!! I made good progress in the amount of time my strength held out.*
After the painting, we hung out for a while and Ben, one of the journeyman joiners, pulled out a battered plastic Coke bottle. He had recently been in South America, in Brazil, living with indigenous people and weaving and building. He’d brought this bottle of scary indigo fluid back with him, through German customs. (Imagine being that unafraid of your government!). It was jagua, a traditional skin dye or tattoo pigment made from Genipa Americanus, which is an edible fruit.
I painted jagua tattoos on the journeypeople and myself as mementoes of our time together.
I took photos of their clothes so I can continue to work on the details of the painting, and I’ll be posting more about it.
You can learn more about the journeyman tradition here. Although the part about not using transit doesn’t apply to all journeyman groups, obviously.
This whole experience was so mellow and yet so fucking magical I almost can’t describe it.
My Patrons give me courage. It is the support of my Patrons that makes it possible for me to do things like this, and I am so, so very grateful.
*Which was less than three hours. The times in 2005 when I could sit three sitters in a day, or paint for ten hours straight, are long gone. My stamina, health and vitality were decimated by the recession, having to close my art business, losing my house, losing my health insurance, years of major depressive disorder and suicidal impulses, and being briefly homeless.
Here in safe-for-now Germany I am slowly recovering, but my health may be permanently broken. When artists are marginalized to the point where their survival is touch-and-go, they are damaged. You can support me and other artists on Patreon for as little as a dollar a month, and we will be fucking grateful.
Scotty the Blue Bunny in Berlin by Suzanne Forbes Nov 1 2016
When you arrive here from the US, you will need money.
You may have gotten some euros in advance- that’s a good idea! Because we just had our first prospective relo whose credit union debit card does not work anywhere, at any bank or ATM, in Berlin. He sent us money via Paypal and i took out cash for him, but obviously that’s not optimal. You will want a way to access your bank account.
Step one: get a debit card from your bank that has a chip, and make sure it works. Because atms here are almost all chip-and-pin based.
So to withdraw money, you will most certainly need a chip-enabled card. You can use a standard American debit card or credit card that works on the Maestro/Cirrus credit card network to buy goods at large grocery stores like Kaiser, at hotels and a few touristy places. But practically no place here that you’ll encounter in your daily life takes American plastic. You need cash or a German bank account and German girokarte (debit card). BTW, they hate VISA also, Mastercard is preferred.
Ah yes, you have a pocket computer to tell you everything. But your pocket computer, it may not work here.
Arriving at the airport, you should have your travel instructions printed out on paper. In case your phone died inexplicably and your charger doesn’t work, inexplicably, or you lost the adaptor for the charger. Or your roaming plan isn’t enabled for some reason. Or the wifi at the airport isn’t working.
Networks and sim cards and all that are weird. There is plentiful free and unsecured wifi, but you will need a charged phone to hunt for it. Regarding power, it might be easier to order the wall plug charger or power supply for your computer/devices from Amazon in the US and bring it with you. Things like flat irons, ironing irons, and hair dryers you can buy cheaply at Rossman, the sundries/drugstore. Like ten euros and made to a far more robust standard than US ones.
Your laptop, if it’s fairly new, will work fine if you have an adaptor or power supply with an EU plug.
Modern computers are made to operate dual-current, as are modern phones. Check to be sure though, cause that German current in the wall will fry your stuff within an hour. As in, you may plug something in, see it turn on, think everything is fine, and find it burned out an hour later. Like my awesome new Halloween lights 🙁
For any important or valuable electrical thing that’s *not* a modern phone/computer, you’ll need a Step-Up/Step-Down transformer. Again, though they are heavy, you might want to buy one to bring along. You can buy one here at a store like MediaMarkt, but what if you arrive on some German holiday weekend when everything’s closed for five days? Or on a Sunday?
Stores aren’t open on Sunday, fool! And you can order it from Amazon.de, but they only deliver things sometimes. (See my post on Things I Hate About Germany for more on the unreliable postal systems).
Prescriptions for medicine: don’t bother to bring them!
Your US health insurance is worthless here. And you may not yet have secured one of the various European or UK insurances that are currently valid for Germany (constantly in flux, check Facebook). Those are really crisis coverage anyway.
So if you don’t have German health insurance, you can go to a doctor and for a like 35 euro visit they will write you what is called a “private” prescription. This is a prescription you can take to any Apoteke and use to get your medicine, which will be ridiculously, hilariously cheap even without insurance. You just hand the pharmacist your prescription and they hand you the box of meds- no waiting to “fill” it or count pills.
US doctors’ prescriptions are worthless here.
Also: there are Apotekes, where you get serious medicine, and there are drugstores like Rossman, where you get things like cough drops and makeup and toothpaste. Toothpaste and such is a little or a lot cheaper than in the US. Lots of medicines you can buy over the counter/off the shelf in the US you have to buy from a pharmacist (likely with face tats and earplugs) here. You just tell them your symptoms and they give you the right medicine. But that includes, huge surprise to Americans, ibuprofen. It comes in tiny packs of ten, costs a euro a pill, and they ask you if you familiar with this drug. So bring lots of Advil!
How do I go places?
I find it very helpful to think of Berlin within the RIng (equivalent to Manhattan and most of Brooklyn or the 7×7) as a clock face. The various transit vectors can be treated as clock hands. To use the transit system, you need a ticket, which is good for two hours in one direction. You MUST validate the ticket in the yellow validating machine next to the ticket sales machine before you start your trip. After two hours the ticket is just a piece of paper- it’s not reloadable.
Your ticket works interchangeably in the entire U-Bahn, S-Bahn, bus and tram systems; you only validate it once, at the beginning. There are also “kurzstrecke” tickets, cheaper tickets for a three-stop journey.
An easy way to start is to buy the 4-fahren deal, which is 4 tickets for 9 euros.
The subway, or U-Bahn, is a city-wide snarl of spiky vectors. It is open til midnight, which is to say the last train through each station leaves some time after midnight and generally before one. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s open all night. It runs both above and below ground. It is supported and interwoven with a kind of light rail system called the S-Bahn, which both runs through the city and forms the ring that defines the central city. The S-Bahn runs both above and below ground as well. Then there are buses, loads of nice clean constantly running buses, and in the East, the lovely clean speedy trams.
There are always at least two ways to get anywhere in Berlin, and often four or five.
Transit is fast and plentiful. Subways come every few minutes. There is an U-Bahn stop within a few blocks everywhere. In short, it is a real city, with real mass transit. And that includes taxis! You can hail a cab in many neighborhoods, just like you would in New York. Or you can grab one at the cab stand at the S-Bahn or a hotel. Or use some fucking app, I’m sure. If you call a cab on the phone, they have to come. And it’s fast.
If you flag a moving cab in the street, and you know you are going less than two kilometers, you can tell the driver you want a “kurzstrecke” or short trip. Then instead of running the meter, the driver drops the flag for a flat fee of five euros. It’s a great deal, especially since you only need to tip the common courtesy 10% or tip-the-change of Berlin. I like the cab drivers, though YMMV.
You can eat and drink whatever you want on the transit system, though technically it is forbidden, and get food from donuts to beer to noodles on the platforms. Speaking of food…
What can I eat?
By having our first vegan relo prospect we really experienced the difference between East and West Berlin. In the West, where we live, everything is easy and convenient and available for the lifestyle of a typical middle-class foodie urban American of the 1990s or Oughts. That is, you can get most kinds of food and excellent cheese at the supermarket, there are plenty of fancy shops for fancy European foods, teas, coffees, perfumes etc., and there are shopping malls that sell anything you would buy in the US.
There are nice organic grocery stores like Alnatura and BIO COMPANY everywhere of course, including West Berlin, but they are very expensive, almost ridiculously so compared to the discount supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. And of course, all supermarkets are closed on Sunday, unless it is one of the designated Shopping Sundays! (There are actually also a couple supermarkets, at the big train stations, that are 24-7.)
At KaDeWe you can get pastries from the Berlin concession of the Parisian pâtisserie Lenôtre, and every other imaginable traditional European delicacy you’d get at Fauchon or Harrods. But not much vegan, let alone gluten-free or paleo. You have to go to the hip part of Schöneberg to get a green smoothie, an artisan chocolate with fennel pollen, or kale. And even at a trendy Charlottenburg juice bar like What do you fancy love?, the guacamole bagels had hidden cream cheese, unmentioned, on them.
If you are a person who wants to go out and get NY or San Francisco style trendy food, you had better land in the East.
In the Eastside neighborhoods that are full of expats, like Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, you can get your third-wave coffee and your vegan cookie without much trouble. Same in Kreuzberg and, increasing daily, Neukölln. These neighborhoods also stay up later. But after midnight, if you want food you should have a plan. You will generally find only döner shops and spätis (like bodegas) open in most areas. Also, understand this: in much of Europe, closing times are not the sacred compact they are in the US. Restaurants close early, or aren’t open when the website says they are, or close because they ran out of something.
Don’t ever make a big plan around a destination restaurant meetup without someone who lives nearby walking over and actually checking they’re open. Our French bakery downstairs closes whenever they feel like it, at a different time every single day. And don’t run up on a place that’s closing and expect them to make an exception or help you at the last minute like one would in the US. They will laugh in your face. They’re not here for you!
Why are they so mean?!?
They’re not mean, they’re just not…wrapping everything in padding. The ameliorating, softening language of highly educated Americans is a huge time-waster to Germans. They simply don’t see a need to be anything but direct. Don’t waste their time with pleasantries and you will get along fine.