Category Archives: Berlin

He Who Wants The World To Remain As It Is Doesn’t Want It To Remain At All

In East Berlin there’s a mile-long section of the wall that’s been preserved as a space for artists. I usually snap a few photos whenever I bike past it, since it’s changing so often. Here’s a few of the pieces I’ve seen from May til now:




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Why Finding An Apartment In Berlin Is So Hard

So the reason I haven’t posted on this contraption the last few weeks is because all my free time and spare mental capacity has been tied up in my search for an apartment.

Now that I finally got one sorted out, I’m tallying the damage.

I can’t count the hours I’ve spent, but my gmail account tells me I sent 28 ‘I’m interested’ mails and inspected 12 apartments in the last three weeks.

There are a few reasons finding an apartment took me so much time and effort.

1. Language
‘Hello, I’m calling about your apartment. Do you speak English?’
‘No English?’
‘None at all?’
‘… OK, I guess goodbye then’

2. Competition
Many of the apartment viewings are set up like open houses. The landlord sets a time and whoever’s interested shows up. Every one of these i went to had at least eight people checking out the apartment, and sometimes as many as 20. It’s really discouraging to write your name on a ‘I’m interested’ list with 14 other names on it.

3. Furniture
In a market with so many students and people moving around, I’m amazed at how hard it is to find furnished apartments. Most flats rented through agents don’t have anything,not even a sink or basic kitchen counters.

If they do have furniture, you have to buy it from the current renter. One of the apartments I saw was €460 per month, but the renter wanted €6,000 cash for the kitchen, appliances and the couch.

4. Fakes
All the apartment listing websites are lousy with scams. It’s always some variation on ‘I’m not living in Berlin at the moment, but my incredible apartment can be yours if you transfer the deposit to my bank account.’

Some of them are hilariously blatant, like the ad whose pictures still had the watermark from ‘’ still on them. Another crafty lister literally took a picture of a two-page Dwell Magazine spread, and you could still see the fold between the pages.

Still, others were pretty convincing. Pictures of realistically cluttered apartments, nice but not silly-central parts of town, etc. I think I fell for three of them.

After awhile, I could tell the fakes by the longness and kindness of the replies to my letters of interest. For real apartments, typical replies looked like they were written by Cormac McCarthy: ‘The apartment is free. Come tomorrow 6pm’ and signed Mr or Mrs (I’m endlessly amazed at the German slowness to use first names. It’s like living in an episode of Mad Men!).

The fake ones were like ‘Berlin is lovely in the summertime! I miss my beautiful home and garden…’ and went on to specify all kinds of information (‘the washing machine works fine not too loud’) that no one would ever need to know on a first inquiry.


So that’s why it took me awhile. I’m still nervous about having to furnish a whole apartment by myself, but at least when I move out, I can apparently charge the next renter a few thousand euros for my trouble.


Filed under Berlin, Personal

No Wonder It’s On Sale

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Reluctant Nester Seeks Decorating Advice

This is my new apartment:

When I get it, it will be completely unfurnished. I, a 29-year-old man with two master’s degrees, am a mewling infant in the face of the challenge of decorating an apartment. I have literally been losing sleep the last week thinking about the process (what do I buy first?!) and implementation (I don’t wanna carry a sofa up the stairs!) of turning two empty rooms into a comfortable living space.

The furniture problem I’m attempting to solve by limiting my options. I’ll buy the beds at IKEA, but everything else I want to get from thrift stores. Berlin apartments are huge and sporadically abandoned, which creates a thriving market for used furniture. It seems like a waste of my new city to get everything all shiny and unpronounceable.

The problems I’m left with are how much furniture to buy and how to arrange it all. ‘Room layout’ is a term I had never come across before I googled ‘furniture where to put’ last night, and there’s apparently not only a science to it, but an art.

If left to my own devices, I’d buy a single bed and a yogurt spoon and call it a day. But I’m trying to take this seriously. Anyone who has any tips (or used furniture!), lemme have it.


Filed under Berlin, Personal

So Far, German Healthcare is Fast, Efficient and Gay

After 6 weeks of paperwork and procrastination, I finally got my health care sorted out enough to see a real live doctor this week.

I have a recurring running injury in my hip that never really got fixed when I was in Denmark. Danish doctors are generally laissez-faire to the point of neglect, and my last conversation with my GP consisted of:

Doctor: We got the results of your x-ray. There’s nothing abnormal with your hip.
Me: OK, but it hurts when I go running.
Doctor: Well, there’s nothing wrong with it on the x-ray.
Me: Well in that case I should probably see a specialist, right?
Doctor: But there’s nothing wrong with it.
Me: But it hurts.
Doctor: I don’t see that on the x-ray.

Seeing a doctor in Germany so far has been a completely different experience. I was worried about finding someone who speaks English, but my health insurance (there are private ones and public ones here, and I’m on the public one) has a list of doctors online that you can search by language.

When I arrived at his office, I was told that I had to pay €10 for the appointment. It’s the first time I’ve paid for health care in five years, and I got a bit nervous that I was re-entering the ‘health care should be governed by the same mechanism by which we buy jogging shoes!’ economy that makes healthcare in the U.S. such an cornmaze gangrape to interact with.

I later looked this up online, and it turns out that there are a few nominal fees built into the German system, basically to keep people from seeing the doctor all the time for specious shit. Everything else has been free since then.

My doctor is in his early 30s, fluent in English, gay as Christmas and, most distressingly, cute as hell. His office is right next to work, and now I see him at my gym. We nod at each other but don’t vocalize. Once you’ve discussed the consistency of your bowel movements with someone, you can’t backtrack to flirting.

Anyway, he basically wouldn’t let me leave his office until he ordered every possible test and made sure I was telling him all the relevant information about my hip. He also asked me if there was anything else bothering me, physically or mentally. None of my doctors in Denmark ever asked me that.

So yeah, viva Germany. My hip hurts less now that I’m not the only person who cares about getting it fixed.

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Outward Bound

I think it’s a little weird that I’ve been at my new job for two months, and I haven’t ‘officially’ told my coworkers that I’m gay.

It’s not that I think they would care. It just legitimately hasn’t come up. Without a partner to drop into the conversation (‘me and my boyfriend went to Potsdam this weekend’), it’s really difficult to mention your homosexuality without seeming like you’re making a Major Announcement.

I was wishing all week that my boss would ask me what I got up to in London, so I could mention ‘I went to Gay Pride’ (possibly adding ‘and it was fabulous!’ just to make it crystal clear). But it didn’t come up argh.

So now I’m left with two choices: Either wait for an opportunity to present itself organically (‘I’m leaving work early today; I need to buy poppers before the dungeon closes’), or pedantically announce it to my colleagues directly.


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Way to Dictator!

I bought a book called ‘The Way to Dictatorship’ at a flea market last weekend. My German’s still clunky, but it’s apparently an exhibition that ran in a museum in Berlin in the early 1980s. It collects art, photos and propaganda from 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power and the opposition was being stomped invisible.

The book is like 400 pages long and weighs as much as a Dutch bicycle, so I hope to be posting a few photos at a time for the next few weeks. I might even translate some captions.

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I Can Tell I’ve Lived in Europe Too Long

because I find myself increasingly sitting knee-over-knee, rather than figure-four. Sometimes I fold my hands on my upper knee! Socialism!

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Signs of a Struggle

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If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put A Perimeter Around It

My friend Michael also says that anything involving Jewish culture in Germany is heavily guarded. Violence or extreme vandalism of a synagogue or Jewish historical site in Germany would be disastrous. This makes sense, but in a city where you don’t see all that many cops, three of them together makes a pretty visible statement.

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Within the Space of One Lifetime

‘Midway through the 20th century, in the 1950s, an elderly citizen of Berlin could have told you about the sleepy 19th century provincial city of his childhood, the imperial Berlin of his youth, the starving Berlin of 1915, the wild and roaring Berlin of the mid-1920s, the Nazi Berlin of his children, the ravaged Berlin of 1945 and the reconstructed, divided Berlin of his grandchildren. All one and the same city, all within the space of one lifetime.’

— Geert Mak, ‘In Europe’

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Filed under Berlin, Books

The Damien Hurst Cake

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The Early Bird

This Sunday I got up at 7 am, had some quark and blueberries, watched a BBC World show on the euro crisis, then went dancing at a gay nightclub.

Berghain is legendary for its marathon Saturday nights. You hear people say things like ‘there still a queue outside at 6 am!’ and ‘It’s still going at noon on Sunday!’ I arrived at 8 am, and sure enough, it was still at least at half capacity. ‘Is this pepper spray?’ the bouncer asked me, feeling through my bag. ‘It’s sunscreen,’ I said. ‘I’m going to the park after this.’ He waved me through.

Inside, the crowd was actually more mixed than you find at more normal clubbing hours. Hipsters in their 20s, gay-banker types, even some women and ethnic minorities. Had they really all been up since the day before? I’m sure there were pharmaceuticals involved in a significant portion of the stamina on display, but overall, the crowd didn’t seem any more wasted than, say, 3 am.

There was a lounge outside where people were drinking coffee and relaxing, before coming back in and dancing. The dance floor had huge steel shutters that did a good job of blocking out the light, but when the music reached a crescendo, they opened them all and let the light in. The crowd loved it.

I danced for a bit, chatted to some Germans and some tourists, and wandered back out into the sunshine at 11 am. I stood past the exit, watching people squint out the door and into waiting cabs. And I started applying sunscreen.

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Where is the Netflix of the Banking Industry?

I opened a German bank account today. My account contract is 59 pages long and only available in German.

I get 0% interest on my current (i.e. checking) account and 1% on my savings account if I have more than €5,000 in it. If I have less than that, I get 0.5%. The inflation rate in Germany is 2.6%

Most banks in Germany charge a monthly fee of up to €12 just to have an account. Mine doesn’t, but only if I deposit €1,200 per month, every month, into it. I’m not allowed to have a credit card until I’ve been in my current job for six months.

It also comes with the following fees:

  • Having a credit card: €30.00 per year
  • Failing to approve my monthly balance statement within 24 hours: €2.50
  • Withdrawing money from a non-German bank account: €6.00
  • Using my credit card outside of Germany: €3.00 or 1% of the purchase, whichever is higher.
  • Transferring money to the US: €30
  • Overdraft: 18% of the amount over

Those are just the ones I remember. The overall fee structure is so complicated that my account manager had a handwritten cheat-sheet for herself so she could tell me what I owed. After I asked questions related to my specific circumstances (I travel, I shop online, etc), she got exasperated: ‘You can’t expect me to know what all the fees are!’ she said.

This bank was recommended to me by my coworkers as offering some of the best conditions in Germany. If this is one of the good ones, I can’t imagine what the others are like.

Whatever country I live in, I’m struck by the sheer magnitude of the ethical problems built into the banking sector. Banks provide an incredibly limited range of services, all through existing infrastructure, with business practices and customer relations straight out of the used-car-salesman playbook.

It’s not like the bank puts a bunch of my bank notes in a big vault somewhere. They invest my money and make interest. The bank-customer relationship is one of mutualism, not parasitism. I give them capital, they give me security. So why am I constantly charged for routine services?

I don’t know much about the particulars of the banking sector in Germany, but I feel like there must be something preventing new entrants into the market. A bank that charged no fees for routine services and gave interest rates comparable to inflation would still make money investing its customers’ deposits. So why aren’t there a bunch of lean, service-oriented banks?

Free-marketeers are always making the argument that without competition, access to goods and services would come to resemble to DMV. It’s worth pointing out that without regulation, the private sector could come to resemble the banks.


Filed under Berlin, Personal

The Soviets Out-Monument The Germans

Brian Ladd’s book has a nice description of the difficulty the West Berlin government had finding heroes after World War II. Most of the legitimate resistance to the Nazis was undertaken by communists, and the French, British and US weren’t exactly keen on building a bunch of statues to fallen Stalinists in the 1950s. 

The only other option was the dudes who tried to kill Hitler in 1944. They were good guys, right? Standing up to power and shit. 

It turns out the dudes who tried to assassinate Hitler were basically pissed off because he wasn’t a good enough Nazi. They were as into Aryan purity and national conquest as Hitler was, they just thought he was doing it wrong. 

The Soviets, on the other hand, had no such challenges. East Berlin is full of monuments to communist resisters. A lot of these were cleared, and streets renamed, after 1989, but surprisingly much remains. Stalin Allee has been renamed, but to Karl Marx Allee. 

The photo above is the statue commemorating the Soviet defeat of Nazism. It depicts a Russian soldier, holding a sword, cradling a toddler, stomping on a swastika. You can blame the Soviets for many things, but muddled symbolism isn’t among them. 

There’s a whole site, near the Spree, with a bunch of monuments. It’s actually quite moving, and when I visited there was a tour group of Russian World War II veterans. 

The US has a great reverence for its World War II veterans, and our guys went through a lot between Normandy and Berlin. But maaaaan, the way from Stalingrad to Berlin was a lot worse.

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This Would Never Happen in America

I spent two hours today buying groceries. It’s not that I had to buy something elaborate or hard to come by. It’s just that I hadn’t bought food since Sunday, so I had to stock up. Plus, I wanted to make a few big meals so I could have leftovers for lunch at work the next few days.

First I went to Lidl, the Ryanair of German grocery stores. For some reason the cheap grocery stores here no longer provide baskets, so you’re left with the choice of either pushing a shopping cart or carrying your groceries like some kind of Denny’s waitress.

This was actually my first time in Lidl here, and it’s every bit as dire as people make it out to be. There are barely any fresh fruit or vegetables, the lights flicker like an airplane bathroom and there always seemed to be a baby crying somewhere in the distance. The prices weren’t even that good. I bought bratwurst and a few cans of beans and put them in my backpack, along with my laptop and some dirty tupperware.

Teetering, I headed for the proper grocery store. Five years in Europe has taught me that the best way to get both value and selection is run through your shopping list first at the cheap grocery store, then fill in the exotics at the upscale grocery store.

After Lidl, I walked into Kaiser’s like an East Berliner crossing over to the west for the first time in 1989. The choice! The ambience! The baskets!

Between the two trips, the commute, waiting in line and struggling with two bags and a cinder-block backpack on the way home, it was a full two hours from the time I left work til the time I arrived home. Dinner wasn’t on the table til 9.30.

The American in me wants to bitch about this, like somehow I’m entitled to pick up my groceries once every 10 days in my station wagon, the bagboy attending to my every whim.

Life takes more effort in Europe than it does in the States. You  have a tiny apartment without a freezer and a Liechtenstein of counter space. You climb four flights of stairs to get there. You can hear your neighbors’ every musical obsession, telephone argument and orgasm.

This is the cost of living in a place people want to live. You share a little more than you do in the States. You work a little harder to hit the reset button every day. Days like this are probably when I should miss the US the most, but instead they remind me why I’m here.


Filed under Berlin, Personal, Serious

Pool Meets Boy

On Saturday I went to a noon-to-midnight dance party at Stattbad. The DJs set up in the deep end of a drained swimming pool, and people danced in the slope to the shallow end.

There was a giant projector screen playing loops of bird flocks on the walls and ceilings. Giant inflatable tentacles reached into the air above the empty pool. There was a pillow fight at one point, and an inflatable liferaft was punched into the air above the crowd.

‘This is so fucking Berlin!’ I overheard heard at least five people say at various points and in various languages throughout the night.

I realize this makes me an unforgivable tourist, but I kept having the same thought. Days like Saturday are why I moved here.

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Heavy Metal Bands in Poor English-Speaking Countries Have The Best Names

Rainborn and Facebreaker are blatantly the result of Germans playing noun-verb Madlibs. And someone needs to brief the German people that you can’t just put the phrase ‘of death’ after anything and make it sound hardcore (I’m looking at you, Singstars of Death).

But anyway, yeah, disfigure that prostitute! Fuck the commerce! We take Visa and PayPal!


Filed under Berlin, Music

Bike Commuters Are Objectively Better Than You

This screed against car commuting is basically why I’ll never go back to living in a country where I can’t bike to work every day.

I only realized this after I left the states and stopped car-muting, of course, but time spent in transit in Seattle always just felt like time subtracted from my day. Even if I was listening to the radio, I wasn’t doing something in the same way as working, or reading, or being social.

Commuting in London, on public transport, was slightly better. At least on a train you’re not in control, you’re not operating any machinery more consequential than an iPod. You can read the newspaper if it’s not to crowded, or gawk at the walk-of-shamers as you rattle to work.

It was only when I moved to Denmark and biked out of necessity (poverty!) that I fell in love with it. It requires enough skill that you feel like you’re engaged in an actual activity, rather than the vacuum-like absence of one, but not so much that you can’t enjoy a smartypants podcast.

Biking in Berlin’s not as Cadillac-comfortable as it is in Copenhagen, and the distances are longer. But It’s significantly faster than public transport, and you find pockets of the city you never would have otherwise.

Drivers act, as in every car-based urban economy, like children being informed that they can’t have their birthday every day of the year. I get honked at with a regularity that I can only describe as German. Car commuters shout at me for committing acts that don’t affect them.

This all just makes me feel more smug (which, admittedly, has to be an official synonym for ‘bike commuter’ at this point, right?). I’m in the middle of doing something, while they’re waiting for their day to start.

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Immigrants Shouldn’t Be Required to Learn English

Here’s the president again:

Those who are here illegally, they have a responsibility as well.  So they broke the law, and that means they’ve got to pay their taxes, they’ve got to pay a fine, they’ve got to learn English.

And here’s The National Journal:

For years, in good economic times and bad, polls have consistently found that most Americans believe immigrants who are in the United States illegally should be provided a pathway to legal status if they take steps such as paying a fine or learning English.

Is this really necessary? If someone is able to get a job, make friends and generally build a life for themselves, what’s the point in legally requiring them to pass an English test? There are a million small and huge incentives to learn the language of the country where you live, all of which are significantly stronger than laws regulating this.

I’m currently an immigrant living in a country where I don’t speak the language.* I was hired for my communications skills in English, and I can basically get by without German — as long as I never try to explain anything out of the ordinary or interact with anyone over 45. I know people at work who have gone like this for years. If you work at an English-speaking organization and are married to another non-German speaker, where exactly are you supposed to find 10 hours a week for two years for language lessons and practice? For people with families, it’s basically impossible.

If immigrants in the States are able to get by without English, who are they harming? Despite the rhetoric of Sun Belt bigots, you’re not going to walk into the bank tomorrow and find that the person behind the counter can’t communicate in English.

Children raised and schooled in America failing to learn English is not now a problem, nor was it 100 years ago when basic education was far less accessible. Adults who don’t find the time to learn a difficult foreign language between working full-time and raising a family aren’t harming anyone. The US has better things to spend its money on than harassing and deporting middle-aged, undereducated manual labourers on the basis of their extracurricular educational attainment.

*I’m learning it as fast as I can, but dude, German grammar. This could be awhile.


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