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.
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.
There are multiple stages to moving to Berlin. Which ones you trigger first has a lot to do with your goals. If you just want to live here for a while, you can skip many of them. But since a huge, huge part of the benefits of living here come from integrating into the system, you should seriously consider it.
Benefits of living in Berlin as a peripatetic foreigner: housing still much cheaper than London, Paris, New York. Bars don’t have a closing time. Doner kebab for 3 euros.
Benefits of living in Berlin as a person whose hope is to become a citizen or permanent resident: incredible state or “public” healthcare plans much better value than private insurance, state pension, disability and long-term care plans, unemployment insurance, state-subsidized healthcare plan for artists, fantastic rent-control and tenants’ protection, 12-14 months parental leave and four weeks vacation for full-time employees, strong employment protections, the crazy concept of perfect credit as a default state.
I won’t lie to you: integrating into the system is a significant, front-loaded hassle.
But once you’re in, SO MANY of the things in your life that made you miserable in the US will be either gone or easier, cheaper and better. You just can’t imagine how much better things will be until you experience it. Unless you’re Canadian.
Let’s talk about the stage that I see the least discussion of outside of Germany: registration.
To reside in Berlin, rather than visit, you must be registered with your local burgeramt. You can do this without a visa, which is good, because you should do it within two weeks of moving into a new home. Whenever you move, you have to do it again, within two weeks. That’s right, you have register where you live with the German government. Sounds injudicious at best, huh? But it turns out that a) it’s the first stage of a cascade effect of integrating into the system that has many benefits and b) you have to do it. Just stop thinking about it and do it.
How? You go to the burgeramt. It’s like the neighborhood administration center.
Whether you have to go to the one in your neighborhood or any burgeramt in Berlin seems to be in flux; check (gag) Facebook* for the latest status. Whether you can make an appointment online or you have to go and wait for hours also seems to be in flux. Your burgeramt might be in a huge government building, or it might be a little office in a mall. Again, check Facebook. Bring your passport.
You’ll need your passport for everything you do in the beginning. And technically, as a foreigner, you’re supposed to carry your passport at all times.
I had a passport card made when I got my latest passport, and I carry that. But our bank, for example, finds it unacceptable. For registration you’ll need a form called Einzugsbestätigung des Wohnungsgebers from the person who is the primary lease-holder or owner of the place you’re staying. You should prolly bring your lease too.
Registration generates a German Identification number for foreigners, aka Tax Number. You will need this number for most things. Registration starts the clock for so much; you simply can’t truly live here until you do it.
When registering, you MUST record your religious or non-religious status. If you leave the Religion box blank, you will not be subject to the 8-9% Kirchensteuer or Church Tax. (You also won’t be able to get married in a church or take communion. Not kidding. This is all real.) There is also a place on the form to put “VD” or “Verschiedene”, which means godless heathen I guess?
Bring someone who speaks German to every amt you go to. “Everybody” speaks English in Berlin, if they work in a third-wave coffee shop.
Nobody speaks English at any of the -amts, unless you get really lucky. And even if they do speak English, they won’t speak it with you. Why? Because Germans are stern judges about their English skills; they don’t speak it as a first choice unless they speak it really well. Or they may be pissed about you and your kind driving up the rents, or they just don’t like speaking English. I like to ask, “May we speak English?” before I say anything in English. It’s a tip from some blog I read; it gets consistently good results.
Here is the insane part of bureaucracy in Germany: it has a totally different end goal than bureaucracy in the US.
Here, the goal is to provide services to people. That’s it. There’s no catch. The lady at the burgeramt or health insurance company may *seem* rude and obstructive, but she’s just concerned with following the exact process she’s supposed to. Because following the process is seen as an intrinsic, collective good. She doesn’t want to prevent you from getting services. She doesn’t want to make you go away so she can move on to the next person, make a quota of denied claims, or protect her job from your possible lawsuit.
If you show yourself to be unbothered by the fact that there is a process, and willing to follow the correct procedure, you’ll be working together to get what you need in no time. If you say you need this thing, and you didn’t know you did the wrong step first or you should have had an appointment, she will sigh heavily, roll her eyes, possibly actually yell at you, but she will help you. There’s no benefit to her in blocking you- in a social welfare state, it all works better when everybody gets their needs met.
Get off on the right foot by respecting the fact that you’re a guest in their country.
Indicate you respect its rules and its love of rules. Then they’ll consider breaking them for you. What? Yeah, Germans break their systemic rules all the time. They just want to know the reason.
*Facebook is so useful for expats that I had to open an account, after having deleted my US one a while back. The new one is under my legal name and is strictly for useful stuff; I hope to delete it soon.
*Note: I realize the joke of the drawing is in questionable taste. Once I thought of it I had to draw it, and I might have resisted posting it except it came out so well….