Archive for the ‘Moving to Berlin’ Category

What is it about being in a new environment that makes daily life vivid? Zombie-like, we typically move through our daily lives on auto-pilot until we are suddenly immersed in a fresh new place. Even taking a shower and brushing one’s teeth can be exciting if you don’t recognize the toothpaste brand or can’t figure out how to control the shower.

Berliner Bathroom

Arriving in Berlin one year ago, I felt like a kid. Going to the grocery store was an adventure and opening a bank account was a triumph to be celebrated. We arrived with one suitcase and one backpack each, easily fitting into our funky furnished apartment in Prenzlauer Berg.

My Prenzlauer Berg desk

After purchasing a tv, dvd player, printer, and bicycles, we felt completely satisfied with our material goods, ready to experience Berlin and our new life without the burden of maintaining a car or a house. How liberating to own almost nothing.

Joyful day!

Although surrounded by spoken and written German, we managed to maintain an English bubble for much of our day. High-speed internet access gave us the New York Times, the Daily Show, Facebook, email and other sundry delights and temptations, keeping us up to date with news about the USA and our friends. The miracle of Skype meant that regular contact with family and friends was easy and free.


Through my involvement in the Booker Tea book group and the Berlin International Women’s Club, we’ve gotten to know many interesting people living in Berlin and made some good friends. Both of these organizations use English as the primary language, again reinforcing the English bubble. Even our friendly neighbors speak embarrassingly good English. German was reserved for reading the newspaper, watching the news on tv and ordering food at a restaurant. Overheard conversations on the U-bahn were a puzzle where every third word or so was comprehensible.

Korean tourists

Each day of living in Berlin was filled with astonishing new sights and sounds, secret courtyards, wonderful museums, and huge parks to explore new open-air markets to uncover. The people on the street, in the U-bahn, on the tram, in the restaurant, looked exotic and interesting. The Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper ran a story every day about the anniversary of some historical event or important person’s birth or death. The 80th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s visit to Berlin was celebrated with a Chaplin film festival at a nearby independent movie theater. How cool is Berlin? Let me count the ways.

Which way is up?

And then somewhere along the way the thrill was gone and living in Berlin felt normal and routine. A trip to the grocery store became a trip to the grocery store and not a treasure hunt in some strange land filled with exotic products. Giving strangers directions on the street no longer raised the blood pressure. Wednesday became Schnitzeltag, with the waitress smiling and greeting us as regulars. Using the extensive public transit system was easy. Gone was the frisson while walking out the door.


And gradually the German conversations on the train became comprehensible, newspaper articles readable without the dictionary, public announcements understandable, exchanging niceties easy, news on the television useful, and babysitting German-speaking neighbor kids doable. One foot may be planted in the English bubble, but the other foot was stepping out onto the German-speaking world.

Astroturf in Berlin?

The original plan was to stay in Berlin for at least one year, and perhaps through end of June 2012, when our house in Boulder would become available. At the end of 2011 we realized that we just weren’t ready to leave Berlin–that we needed another circle ‘round the sun.

Let me lend you a hand, comrade!

During this coming year, I want to recapture some of that childlike wonder from a year ago, starting each day pretending that I am a seven year old. Moving to Kreuzberg will offer new places to explore. Dedicated study will deepen my German language skills. Involvement in the Berlin International Women’s Club will give me responsibility and community. Travel will expand my mind map of the world.

Another year in Berlin? Wunderbar!



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I’ve been dreading the process of getting our Aufenthaltserlaubnisse, the residency permit we need to be able to stay in Germany beyond the three-month tourist limit. We’ve been preparing for six months, researching and obtaining German health insurance, reading and rereading the documentation requirements, tracking down birth and marriage certificates, and completing the four page form. Once we had our finalized, signed lease, we were ready to go.

This morning we left the apartment with our online-assigned appointment number and a large envelope full of documentation. I imagined us being drawn into some sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare as we headed over to nearby Wedding, a less touristy, more working class, part of town.


View out the tram window

Then we transferred to the Ubahn

Cross the street to the Ubahn

Inside the Ubahn

Taking your bike on the Ubahn--love the retro backpack!

From the UBahn station, we had a bit of a walk, passing through a huge Bayer Corporation complex. Colorful apartment buildings across the Spree canal brightened the otherwise bleak landscape and gray day.

Colorful apartment buildings brighten the day a bit.

At last we arrived at the Landsamt für Bürger- und Ordnungsangelegenheit.

Here we go!

Depending upon your country of origin, you are directed to a specific location within the large complex. Turkey has an entire floor in one of the buildings and people from Viet Nam merit their own dedicated area. We ‘mericans were thrown in with a bunch of other countries.

Lots of Countries

There we are!

Everyone in the waiting room kept an eye on the electronic board, waiting for their appointment number to appear.

Is our number up yet?

The waiting room was filled with a diverse mix of people.

People from all over the world.

I wondered what this sign meant on one of the stalls in the women’s restroom.

What does this sign mean?

Oh, I get it!

Another approach

I decided to use the Western model.

Our number popped up shortly after noon, our appointment hour. I’m happy to report that my fears were completely unjustified. After Frau Schmidt carefully examined our forms and paperwork, she efficiently processed our Aufenthalftserlaubnisse!


Richard ist auch ein Berliner!

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Over a year ago we started talking about moving abroad. Our kids are fully functional, independent adults, thankfully. Sadly, we buried our dads within a four-month intense period of sorrow in late 2008 and early 2009. After fifteen years of joyful life, our dog Jack left the planet. No one else depended upon us—we were free to….do something completely different.

Eagerly, I started purging our house, preparing for the next, yet unformed, chapter. Peeling through 18 years of stuff, we garage-saled, freecycled, took to Goodwill, took to The Bookworm, gave to friends, and eventually threw away several heaps of books, clothes, furniture, luggage, dishes, shoes, backpacks, baskets, sporting goods, camping stuff, bikes, pots and pans, electronics, old cell phones, cameras, jewelry, you name it. We shredded documents, organized files, dumped all but 400 of our slides, had the slides  scanned along with 5000 pre-digital photos.

Our perfect renter was interested in using some of our furniture and we negotiated using one of the basement bedrooms for storage, allowing us to keep some stuff. But we own way less than we owned at the end of 2009. For the first time in 35 years of marriage, we no longer own a car.

Berlin became our destination of choice for a variety of reasons (see Poor but Sexy post). A scouting trip in October 2010 confirmed the choice and neighborhood–Prenzlauer Berg! Online we found a sublet that has worked out as our home for a year. Since our arrival in late March, we’ve feathered our nest, with two trips to IKEA and several to MediMax (think Best Buy). We’ve opened a bank account, registered with the authorities, and met some neighbors. On our bikes, we’ve explored the city and tried out numerous restaurants. It is like being students again, without the homework.

Now it is time to switch gears a bit, shifting from tourists playing house to residents of Berlin. Applying for our Aufenthaltserlaubnis, a residency permit we’ll need because of our extended stay in Berlin, is the next step. Because we’re not applying for a work permit and we have German health insurance already in place, this should be relatively straightforward. Should be, but this is Germany and everything is in German. They have a different word for everything! (borrowed from Steve Martin)

Mysterious Hof

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Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s openly gay mayor, famously called Berlin “poor but sexy.” I know what he means, in that the city is famous, infamous, haunted, with lots of places where the dots have yet to reconnect. The populace is young, energetic, and heterogeneous. We met a flower seller from Viet Nam, a kabob restauranteur from Turkey, and heard Russian, French, British English, in addition to heavily accented German throughout the city.

When I tell people of our plans to move to Berlin for a year, the response is almost always, “Why Berlin?” Other than a week-long visit to the divided city as a university student in 1975, I didn’t really have much experience with Berlin. However, as we begin planning for our life post-working (aka retirement), we want to challenge ourselves, do something new, and stretch in new directions. After living in the Boulder bubble in the same house for almost 18 years, we need a change of venue and mindset.

A visit to Madrid in the spring reminded us how much fun and energy there is in a big city. But, alas, our Spanish is painfully lacking. A glass wall separated us from the wonderful, lively people we saw in the plazas and on the streets. Choosing a German-speaking city enables us to dredge up our German language skills from the mid-1970’s. The lower rents in Berlin make it an affordable choice. Berlin’s history–a city of Prussian militarism, bureaucratically directed genocide, divided and reunited–make it a fascinating place to explore.

The Wall

From the late 1950’s until 1989, Berlin was a divided city, the ‘western’ portion of the city an island in the midst of East Germany. Although the wall fell over two decades ago, the remnants are evident. The hyperdevelopment of Pottsdammer Platz, a no man’s land during the Cold War, and the still standing apartment blocks that typify the communist regime, all are evidence that Berlin defines the cusp of what were the Western and Eastern blocks of Europe–the Iron Curtain.

A fascination for and nostalgia of the former East (östalgie) is apparent in Berlin today. What we know as The Wall in the West was officially referred to as the “antifascist protective rampart” in the East. Citizens in the east could speak of “the border” or “border security,” but it was strictly forbidden to use the word “wall” (mauer). East Germany was a repressive, closed, paranoid society (see ‘The Lives of Others”). Nonetheless, the DDR museum is a popular tourist stop in Berlin today.

At the DDR museum, you can learn about collective potty training, the obsession with nude sunbathing (a form of rebellion), and walk through a typical East Berlin apartment.

Diorama of Nude Beach Volleyball at the DDR Museum

Near the Brandenburger Gate, we met up with a tour group going on a Trabi Safari, driving brightly painted Trabants around Berlin. Trabants were the ‘beloved’ two cylinder cars built in the east, and families would wait for ten years to buy their Trabi. Little rattletraps that they are, they are kind of cute.

Trabi Safari

Another example of östalgie  (nostalgia for the former East) is Ampelmann. In the former East, traffic signals letting pedestrians know when to walk across the street or to stop were in the shape of a jaunty little guy, much cuter than the boring signals common in the West. After unification, the Ampelmänner were almost lost until a grassroots campaign successfully saved this icon. Now there are gift shops devoted to the beloved cult figure. Inexplicably, Ampelmänner can now be found directing pedestrian crosswalk traffic throughout Berlin, in the former West as well as the former East. Wouldn’t it be better to have him appear only in the former East as a last vestige and reminder that this crosswalk was once in commie-land?

Ampelmann says Stop

Ampelmann says Go

I overheard an interesting conversation between a German father and his very young son as they were perusing the postcards at the Ampelmann store. Looking at postcards of The Wall, the son asked about this and the father explained about divided Germany. This led to a discussion about how Russia used to be the Soviet Union and the fact that there was a war. I thought, boy, this is the beginning of a very long father and son discussion. There’s a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. (William Faulkner)

Berlin near Alexanderplatz 1949

Berlin was the capital of Nazi Germany and seat of Hitler’s government. Remnants of the Nazi past exist throughout the city, including the Olympic Stadium, built to host the 1936 Olympics. Much to Hitler’s chagrin, Jesse Owens, a black American athlete, won four gold medals at these games. Hitler’s bunker has been destroyed and memorials have been erected to the victims of Nazism.

The Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate is vast and moving. In a nearby information center there is a darkened room where the names of the victims, the years of their birth and death are projected onto the walls while a solemn voice reads their short biographies. It takes almost seven years to commemorate all known victims in this fashion.

Holocaust Memorial

The Jewish Museum building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is shaped like a lightning bolt and is supposed to be a deconstructed star of David. The building is provocative and ‘a powerful metaphor for the troubled history of the Jewish people.’ The museum hosts many interactive exhibits documenting the 2000 year history of Jews in Europe. How can one people be persecuted? Let me count the ways.

Jewish Museum

Interestingly, the Jewish community in Berlin is now growing again and synagogues are being revived. There’s always a policeman stationed in front of anything related to Jewish history or culture, I suppose to prevent skinhead violence.

Berlin may be sexy but poor, a city with a past and lots of historical baggage, but it also is full of young people, artists, and immigrants. Living in this big, foreign city will be exciting and not easy. But we’re not looking for easy. Stay tuned.

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