Berliner Basics

Posted on Sunday, Nov 18, 2018

Have you ever arrived at a new organization or job that you’ve researched the past six or so months, and caught up in your own excitement, forgot everything else that comes with it (for example where to actually park)?
Well, that’s kind of what happened to me in Berlin, a city that contains so much, but yet at the same time, manages to be very connected with itself. Having studied in Mannheim already in Southern Germany, my perceived self-confidence regarding living in Germany swiftly took its first blow not yet five minutes after disembarking my train from South Germany. Upon asking a fellow pedestrian where I could find a certain bus stop in German, I was quickly bombarded with the (in)famous Berliner dialect, which is very different from the already near-incomprehensible dialect found in Mannheim that I come to love over time. After zoning out trying to comprehend the sentence, the man once again responded in perfect English, “Oh, you want to take this one instead.” Nevertheless, it took me two weeks to fully get use to the Berliner dialect.
Another thing that snuck past my complacency-disguised-as-confidence was my situation with the public transportation system. Being a student, you usually receive a semester ticket from the university (as in Mannheim), however as an intern, you are expected to settle your public transportation ticket yourself. “I’ll just buy the discounted “Schülerticket” for students, if that’s how it works in Mannheim, then it probably works like that here too,” I thought to myself. I was wrong. A few days later when the ticket checking team pulled out their badges immediately after the subway doors closed (yes, they are undercover), I happily presented my student ticket with my student ID just as I did many times before in Mannheim. “This ticket is for Schüler (students up until high school), not Studenten (university students),” he says, preparing his ticket machine. After receiving a stern explanation that these two terms are not mutual as in Mannheim, I was gifted a sixty euro fine and finally guidance to the right ticket to buy. Luckily, the lady behind the desk (from south Germany nonetheless) at the customer service center laughed off the fee and only charged me the difference between the two tickets.
The final thing that hit me from broadside was the existence of the “Späti/Spätkauf,” corner stores which stay open through late hours and on Sundays. In Mannheim, we aren’t blessed by these wonderful stores that somehow manage to skirt the strict worker laws of Germany, leading to many places except restaurants and bars to shut their doors, including the almighty grocery store, a common Sunday stop for many Americans. Because of this, I usually had to do all my weekend and early week shopping in on Saturday to avoid the dreaded fate of having no food on a Sunday. However, as I was coming back Sunday morning from a weekend trip to the coastal town of Stralsund, I grimly remembered that I forgot to shop for Sunday before leaving two days before. As I walked back to my apartment defeated and searching on Google Maps for restaurants that weren’t expensive nor Döner, a lit sign of one of the bigger Spätis filled me with hope, leading to me being able to buy groceries and spare the cost of a full service restaurant.
So, to put it shortly, there are three things that even a well immersed person planning on living in Berlin should know:
  1. Despite the rough and intimidating Berlin accent, many Berliners can and will be happy to speak English with you.
  2. Berlin’s public transportation firm (BVG) has many different ticket options (all with different rules and conditions), therefor it’s recommended to go to a customer service booth and get advice on which ticket to buy before risking a fine and having to rebuy the correct ticket.
  3. Spätis and other small businesses are more likely to be open on Sunday than not, meaning that you won’t have to panic shop Saturday night for basics like butter and bread (although it might be a good idea to make sure you have the items you can only find at a proper grocery store).
Who knows, maybe I’ll end up learning a fourth thing unknowingly.

Nicholas Petricka
Institut für Europäische Politik
Berlin, Germany | fall 2018