I lived in Berlin from 2002 to 2005 and during those three years I resided in four neighborhoods including Prenzlauerberg, Kreuzberg, Schoeneberg and Friedrichshain. This was my first time living outside my own country and hence I discovered what I missed and appreciated from “back home”. I currently live in Thailand and I have now taken stock of the things I miss about living in Berlin. I have detailed them here and they are in no particular order:
Berlin has virtually every type of public transportation there is, from subways to elevated trains, from streetcars to buses. Firstly, the city’s transportation network is easy to use and convenient. Each subway station has a city map, transit map and even a phone to call for advice on the best route to get where you’re going. The trains run into the wee hours of the morning and after that, there is a well-organized night bus system. In addition, time schedules for all streetcars and buses are posted at every bus and streetcar stop, respectively.
Secondly, Berlin’s transportation network is laid out well, connecting its passengers with virtually every corner of the city and all three airports. Not only do the subways take you to the outskirts of Berlin, like to Wannsee, but they are also well connected to the main train stations, making a day trip to Wittenburg or a longer getaway to anywhere in Europe not only possible, but very convenient.
Finally, Berlin’s transportation in all its forms is the perfect place to people watch, especially on the night buses when interestingly clad party-goers stumble in. You’ll notice that Berliners are reciprocating in their own style: they’ll look at you through the reflection of their window. The art of people watching on Berlin’s public transportation is so action-packed that a successful musical, called “Linie 1” (Line 1) has even been made about it.
Sometimes, you may be lucky to hear very talented musicians playing in the subway stations, serenading you as you transfer from one station to the next. A couple warnings: if you happen to glance at someone’s copy of a Berliner Zeitung they’re reading, they might put it away in disdain; and do not let your phone ring during the silent morning rush hour unless you are prepared for evil looks for disturbing the stillness. When visiting Berlin, be sure not to rent a car or take taxis everywhere as you may be depriving yourself of some great travel moments.
With three publicly funded opera houses it is easy to attend an opera performance, for the price of a movie ticket, almost every night.
The Komische Oper, located in the former East, features a beautifully elaborate hall. Every opera, regardless of its original language, is performed in German. I therefore, only frequented this opera house for the German operas, which I must say, were of the highest quality.
The Deutsche Oper, located in the former West and housed in one of the ugliest modern buildings I’ve seen, often featured more international singers and producers. The productions here frankly always hit or miss but no one can argue that it isn’t the most convenient of all Berlin’s opera houses with its very own subway station on the U2 that lets you out practically at the front door.
The Staatsoper Unter den Linden, located in the former East, was my absolute favorite of the three. The house is gorgeous and the productions were consistently good. During my 3-year stint in Berlin, I never missed a production!
Historical Sites around Every Corner
It shocked me the first time I went outside to get some fresh air during intermission at a performance at the Staatsoper, only to discover that the square right next door had been made famous by Hitler when he burned a huge pile of books, whose words went against his own doctrine. But, this was Berlin, a city full of well-known history around every corner.
Berlin is a place where your high school history textbook comes alive with numerous WWII monuments, pieces of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Potzdamerplatz, the Gedankskirche and buildings still riddled with bullet holes. Hitler’s bunker is only feet from the Brandenburg Gate, which has become the symbol of Berlin.
In addition, Berlin’s Olympic Stadium is where African American Jesse Owens famously dominated the field during the 1936 “Nazi Olympics”, JFK gave his popular “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in this city, and the Reichstag has an interesting background. Berlin is an excellent place to simply walk and observe. Consider taking a walking tour. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn.
Only a short ride outside of the city will land you at the famous House of the Wannsee Conference, where Hitler and his most trusted men made the decision of the Final Solution, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in neighboring Oranienburg, or the door upon which Martin Luther made famous by nailing his 95 grievances against the Catholic Church in nearby Wittenburg.
It is almost impossible to escape significant historical moments in Berlin and its surrounding area.
Weihnachtsmaerkte (Christmas Markets)
I’m not a big fan of Christmas, mostly due to the societal consumerist pressures, but the German Christmas markets bring a village feel even to a big city like Berlin. Artisans set up stands in Alexanderplatz, for example, where they sell their handmade wooden Christmas tree ornaments, baked goods or hand-carved clocks.
Although I never once purchased any gifts from Christmas markets, I enjoyed visiting them just the same, walking through and admiring the craftsmanship. My favorite way to shake off the cold was to drink Gluehwein, a mulled red wine with spices and orange served nice and hot.
The markets brought me back to a time before shopping malls and all the pushing and muzak and crankiness that goes with them. Perhaps I would be a bigger fan of Christmas back home if they had Gluehwein in the malls. 😉
Berlin is home to several major film festivals, including the famous Berlinale, but also on the list are the Horror Film Festival and the LGBT Film Festival. These international events exposed me to films from all over the world and made going to the theater a spectacular event, especially if the director and/or some of the actors/actresses were in attendance. Once on the subway I recognized Alex Borstein from her skits on Mad TV on her way to a premier.
Berlin isn’t the first city that comes to mind when considering tasty cuisine, especially as a vegan, yet I find myself missing two things. the first is big soft pretzels that seemed to be the street food of choice (other than the obvious, ever-present German sausages) and were available outside subway stations, in big squares and even out front of the Staatsoper during intermissions. I always got mine salted and with mustard, except when at the opera because I knew that it was inevitable that some of that bright yellow condiment would make its way onto my opera-going outfit.
The second food that I miss from Berlin is falafel. You might be surprised that falafel made my list, but due to the large number of immigrants, mostly Turks, falafel was abundant. Most Berliners agree that although Turkish falafel is more readily available, being sold at virtually every corner in some neighborhoods, the Lebanese falafel tastes much better. This is no doubt because the falafel is not a Turkish meal, a fact I only discovered after traveling to Turkey. The best falafel in the city can be found at a little place called Dada Falafel on Linienstrasse near the corner of Oranienburgerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse in the Mitte neighborhood.
Although the public parks in Berlin are often littered with cigarette butts rendering that romantic picnic you wanted to have gross, stepping into one the Berlin’s many patches of green is a quick way to escape the fast pace of the city. People watching in Treptower Park, Lustgarten and Tiergarten is a great way to spend a summer afternoon. One of the most bizarre scenes I have ever witnessed took place in such a park:
One day I stepped into Tiergarten to enjoy the nice weather, only to find that many others were doing the same. I observed a large Turkish family, whose women were all dressed in black from head to toe, celebrating the summer with a BBQ and only meters away was a group of Germans playing volleyball…oh and did I mention that they were completely naked?! The sheer dichotomy of such a sight was shocking to say the least, as my eyes darted back and forth between a world of black and a world of very white.
I look forward to going back to Berlin for a visit some day, enjoying the Ampelmännchen, Hertha soccer fans wearing blue garb and grocery shoppers carrying Kaiser cloth shopping bags. I also look forward to going to Zosch on Wednesday nights to hear New Orleans marching band music. If I closed my eyes, I felt like I was walking down Canal Street in the heart of New Orleans. Ahhh Berlin! Where you never know what you might find!