Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day 25-28: Kreuzberg, Checkpoint Charlie, Tempelhof, Berlin bars

I enjoy being what is called a slow traveler, I have a base in Berlin for a while for the reason of better discovering the location, cutting down on expenses and being in no hurry to cover everything. It also allows me to quite conveniently explore nearby countries and when I come back to Berlin, I don’t run around trying to locate something on a map, I know where I’m going. It feels good calling Berlin home, at least for some time.

Since coming back from Stockholm, I have explored Kreuzberg a little bit, which means I’ve been there at least 5 times, once two times in the same day, I quite enjoy the surroundings there and Oranienstr. which appears to be the main hub for entertainment and drinking and eating. They even have a Madonna bar there, but sadly enough they serve mostly whiskey there (and as you all know I now am a beer fan). Out of the places I’ve been to, I thought Bierhimmel had a pleasant atmosphere. Kreuzberg also has a small joint called Anglio Pizza – well, don’t go there unless you’re really hungry, the pizza wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t fantastic, also smaller than the regular size, so it was a bit of a disappointment for a regular price.

A noticeable trait about Berlin bars and pubs is that they’re almost always cold. Of course it encourages you to drink more, so the reason is pretty clear, but nevertheless when I enter a certain place, I like being warm there and after I’ve made an order, drank it and then only then began to feel the warmth spread through my body.

I have also taken a stroll down the entire Friedrichstr. and stopped by Checkpoint Charlie (with a McDonalds right behind it), a famous landmark that had a group of American tourists stalking the "guard".

In the last week here I have also taken a walk at former Tempelhof airport most famously associated with the Berlin blockade and also boasting a fantastic location, it’s situated almost in the center of Berlin (I could reach it in about 10 minutes with public transportation from my home) and it could have been a good place to visit, except it wasn’t. Nothing to see there except grass and two old airplanes behind a fence, I wonder why they call it a park nowadays and where exactly those investments went – or maybe the money is to be invested, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s pretty boring out there, but very convenient for jogging, cycling and rollerblading. I guess it is sort of cool, jogging down a former runway. Maybe I should do that myself; that or continue to eat peanut butter like the world is about to stop turning.

One of the areas of Berlin I haven’t discovered yet (only very briefly) is Prenzlauer Berg, but I have time on my hands, so one of these days you can spot me in PB snooping around.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Day 22-24: Stockholm and its pretty people

My trip to Stockholm started with an early flight with Ryanair, an airline that I think has the best pilots. Not that my opinion is even remotely close to being expert on the subject, but it however feels like with Ryanair I have the smoothest take offs and landings.

That said, for obvious reasons Ryanair always chooses airports in the middle of nowhere and Sweden is no exception, we landed in Skavsta. Up until the moment when we finally steered over to the arrival gate, it seemed we landed in the woods far away from civilization. Literally just trees and snow, this is probably what real Russia looks like as well (and I come from the non-real Russia). The airport is about 80 minutes away by bus from Stockholm’s central station.

I guess you know you’re in Sweden when you see a pretty female blonde truck driver racing with your airport shuttle bus. Although apparently it’s still not 100% equality even there, I’m sure Sweden is ahead of most countries on the matter.

I did most of my walking around on the first day and some on the second day, covering Gamla Stan, Drottningsgatan (harbor for shopaholics) and the area around the City Hall. I didn’t expect it to be quite so charming. The pastel colors of Gamla Stan looked rather lovely surrounded by snow even though the pictures don’t relay that very well, I think. It also got interesting when it was time for lunch and I was looking around for a place to have a bite at, I ended up buying sushi/rolls at a supermarket and it wasn’t cheap, I have to say.
  • Things I find worth reporting are:
  • prepare yourself for an overload of beautiful people (nowhere else have I seen so many pretty and handsome faces)
  • don’t go there until you’re ready to cash out (although apparently I am about to find out that Olso, Norway is even more expensive)
  • a beer in a bar won’t be cheaper than 5-6EUR (in Berlin it starts at 1.5EUR)
  • most Swedes do have a fashion sense and are pretty showy off about it
  • much to my amazement, they do love their ABBA and go INSANE when they hear it in a nightclub
The highlight of my stay, however, was my Couchsurfing host who is by now one of the most incredible people I have ever met. He is a Dutch guy who lived in Amsterdam for a while but then decided to relocate to Stockholm which seems to be his favorite place on earth. So flying between Olso where he works and Stockholm where he resides is what he does every week (I can only be envious of that, of course.

A few words about him: incredibly generous; showed me around queer places and we tried to look for uh, interesting people to hang out with but in the end had to entertain ourselves which was also the best possible outcome; fantastic sense of humor (I just typed that out as sex of humor… wonder why?!) that coupled with mine allowed us to establish a quick set of running gags and have a blast in each others company.

We explored the queer scene together (I remember Roxy in SoFo and... that other place with 3 dance floors), R cooked pizza for me, we ate tiramisu out of the package, ate smoked reindeer from the fridge in a supermarket, tried some kind of rare Belgian beer that looked like champagne to me (only couple with kriek for me, of course) and had an all around mind-blowing time together. Sunday was a quiet pajama day with lots of Nutella sandwiches and lying around.

It was so good that it made me think we were either family or friends since many years and who knows if couchsurfing will ever be as good again (I guess I’ll find out this one soon though). It’s not out of question that R and I will meet up in Olso if he’s there at the time and later he’ll come visit me in Berlin.

Those were three awesome days and nights and R couldn’t have been a better host and conversation partner to me. Looking forward to seeing what our next meeting will be like. Location is not important.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How to find a place to live in Berlin

Renting a room in Berlin

I have been asked the flatshare question several times for the past month or so, so I figured the best way to do this would be to write the answer down as this might be useful to those about to undertake an apartment search in Berlin.

I decided back in November that I would like to extend my trip to Europe now that I don’t have a desk job anymore and can dispose of a one-year Shengen multi-visa.

Like in most other spheres, one has to do some research before taking action. Initially I only briefly looked at the prices for apartments and rooms and set my limit to 300 EUR per month for a room. Later I lowered that to 200 EUR monthly as everything around 300 EUR turned seemed to be overpriced compared to other offers.

Basically there are two ways to find a room in Berlin:

  • Internet
  • Friends and acquaintances

The latter would seem the easy way out and had I had an enormous amount of friends in Berlin, that would’ve been prone to work. However, having been 3 times in Germany and not once in its capital, I only had one friend in Berlin who I’d met in Russia several years prior to that at a youth parliament. She asked her friends here in Berlin if anything was available and at the time there was nothing, however later when I’d already found the place, she said something came up, so this option is definitely not to rule out. Also, she graciously offered me to spend several nights at their flatshare if I wouldn't find anything before starting the trip.

Internet is as always a source of both useful information and garbage, in the end I’ve found the following sites useful for my apartment search

Craigslist – I would say it’s tourist-oriented (or perhaps even American tourist-oriented). A lot of ads are in English, the prices are generally not low, it’s half vacation rentals and half flatshares. A lot of scams, but you can see them from miles away either in the actual ad or later when you receive a reply or replies and it’s obvious the sender hasn't read your message at all and suggests you pay via a money wire first and then they will send you the keys with UPS.

Couchsurfing – the devoted member that I am, I couldn’t not look there. Long-term stays and rentals are not what CS is about, but I’d say it’s not impossible to find something there, but you better personally contact somebody who you think might be willing to have you stay for some a couple of months than posting in groups.

WG gesucht would seem the be the most popular place to search. It has the most offers, also pretty user-friendly.

Immobilien Scout 24 is highly advertised on most flatshare sites, but I think it’s mostly apartments for one/couple/family, not WGs. Most are not furnished.

WG Company is where I found my flatshare. Extremely basic interface, but the lowest prices, no vacation rentals offers, not tourist-oriented for the most part. Obviously this is the one I’d recommend most.

In general it’s best for you to (also) be able to speak German, but it’s definitely not obligatory, some flatshares actually wish to speak English (mine, for instance), most young people speak English quite well and it’s not unusual to live in an apartment with people from Portugal, Italy, UK, Finland, etc.

I also have to tell you that I keep hearing that it was unusual to find an apartment via the web without having seen or talked to the person and I quite agree, but I was dead set on already having a place to stay upon my arrival, so I just ploughed my way in, I would say. In the course of two or two and a half weeks I sent out approximately 50 inquiries, about 40 of which never even earned me an answer. I did it the Couchsurfing way though, most of them anyway, it wasn’t just a copy-paste message to the entire planet, but it was a little bit personalized and aware of questions or remarks in the WG offer. You don’t have to bare your soul there or come off as pretentiously interested, but a personal touch will definitely receive more attention than a robotic message.

Apartments are divided into 3 categories, namely:

  • Zweck-WG / “flatshare with an aim”
  • “flatshare without an aim”
  • something in between

"Aim" means you all live together to save money and there’s a high chance that it’s the one thing you have in common. Having no aim means it’s either friends living together or people with similar interests who like to cook together, go out and share their lives with each other. Something in between is a mix both and it seems it’s what most flatshares are or become after having been the first option.

In the end I had two flatshares interested in me. I had a skype webcam interview with a group of people in a WG with a view on the TV tower who later chose somebody who wanted to stay for a longer period; and the one where I live right now. I ended up paying only 100EUR a month and yes, that includes all utilities and Internet. I was a bit baffled too, honestly. And they agreed to have me here after only two emails. That had me worried a little bit, because it just didn’t seem real and I even wanted to pre-book a cheap hotel for a couple of days, but it all worked out perfectly in the end. I live in Neukölln near the Ringbahn which means I can be in any other district of the city within minutes. Plus, there’s a direct bus to the central station (less than 30 minutes) and Schönenfeld Airport (less than 40 minutes) and several supermarkets within walking distance. Also, cappuccino starting at 1EUR in nearby bars/cafes. Plus, I quite enjoy my flatmates, on the one hand, they mind their own business, but on the other hand, we can chat and hang out together and all of it is very relaxed and stress-free. I’m quite delighted.

And before I forget:

This German life: the perfect WG

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Day 12-21: Berlin

So what is there to say about Berlin?

Except that it’s probably one of the few indigenously cool places on the planet right now? Time and time again I hear that people compare it New York City and to be honest in my mind NYC was like this this some 20 years ago.

It seems to be The hub for many expats right now, in less than 10 days here I met people from both big cities and villages in Brazil, USA, UK, France, Holland, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Turkey, etc. I have also already had some coincidental meetings with people I sort of knew from hundreds of miles away. At the same time, at a recent party not too close to where I live right now I met two people who live next door to me and to each other.

In a certain sense Berlin might seem akin to many other capitals, there’s something going on every day and every hour, there’s no need to wait for a specific party for two months, you can go out on any day of the week and find not one but several and sometimes too many parties to go to. And yet it’s somehow different. First of all, you don’t need a lot of money to go out – definitely less than where I originally come from and it’s not even remotes resembles a multinational capital, secondly it’s not posh or glamorous in the sense that you are the expensive clothes and shoes that you wear. It seems like it would be considered much cooler to arrive to a party in a bathrobe than a designer dress.

The transportation system is extensive and quite easy to navigate through; signs, maps, ticket machines are to be found everywhere. And I’m saying that although I took the U/S-Bahn in the wrong direction twice last week. But I think it’s almost like a rite of passage with Berlin as I’ve come across many new Berliners who have had the same fun experience of pretending it’s all cool and nothing happened.

The danger of Berlin is that it’s cheap, but with some people that can lead to spending more.

It also has had an incredible and unexpected influence on me, namely I started drinking beer and I’m now planning a Transsiberian trip. Some people who know me well have been or will be surprised, I’m a very outspoken beer-tastes-like-urine person, but I guess not anymore, eh? I still can’t say I reckon that it tastes great, but I think I’m on the path to discover that it’s not so bad after all. Now all of it tastes the same to me, but maybe it’ll repeat the story of soluble coffee. The story when I was only able to drink coffee machine coffee and then I started to work for a soluble coffee manufacturer and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what difference it had from water or a used teabag tea. Later on, I was able to distinguish between Classic, Gold, Gold Mild, Gold Strong, Gold Montego, Gold Decaf, Alta Rica, Espresso. [The two worth drinking are: Nescafe Espresso, it’s ‘premium class coffee’ and Nescafe Gold Decaf.]

Concerning the Transsiberian trip, just read the description on the right and you’ll see what I mean about it being a sudden change of heart. Who knows maybe I'll start to lead a Simple Life in a farmhouse somewhere in Siberia very soon?.. And I'm only half-joking.

But back to the coolest place on Earth. There’s so much to do that I’m afraid I won’t be able to see all of it, but then there’s always the question of whether you have to see everything? Since several months ago it has finally dawned onto me that quality should come first and I more often than not am content with just sitting back and enjoying the ride. I have a feeling it’ll take me some place nice.

It’s nice to have a stroll down the Under den Linden, from the starting with the Bundestag, then taking a peek at the American Embassy, Brandenburg Gate, Russian Embassy, Berliner Dom, Humboldt University, Opera, bears, walk all the way to Alexanderplatz. It’s funny how Russian and American Embassies are guarded by people with seemingly lots of weapons and who look suspiciously at every by-passer and it’s just embassies, really; Germany’s main building Bundestag is guarded by two police cars with several people and they just sort of blend in without leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

I really can’t believe this city had a wall separating it in two parts and that people couldn’t really see each other and that they were blocked from their relatives, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, it just seems so unbelievable and improbable right now and yet it did happen and lasted for several decades! Because some people were playing politics and just didn’t know what to do with themselves. So, this is a place with incredible history and sort of makes you wonder and question things. Berlin also has some of the greatest street artwork that I’ve seen – of course the East Side Gallery is worth a visit, I saw it at night when no one else was around and suggest others do the same, it might be a bit eerie, but you’ll have this experience (mostly) to yourself. This site here offers great pictures from when the Wall was still intact.

I also like wondering off into streets that aren’t exactly part of most guides. Karl-Marx-Allee will give you a feeling of a boring Soviet Moscow residential area, worth a visit.

I’ll be going to Stockholm for an extended weekend tomorrow. On the one hand, I’m quite excited, but on the other hand, who would want to leave Berlin?! Oh well...
Next on: Neukölln, Schönenberg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg.

And before I forget:
How Berlin functions - 1 (Berlin’s Underemployed, Well-Educated Expat Hipsters Lend City a Gritty Verve)
How Berlin functions - 2 (Dunkin' Berliner)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Deutsche Bahn rant

There was a point in my life when I thought that Deutsche Bahn was the most punctual train service. I thought that for a very long time and I think it’s the popular opinion amongst many people.

My opinion has altered due to latest events though. First my train from Cologne to Munich was an hour late. Then Munich-Karlsruhe arrived 15 or 20 minutes later than scheduled (it’s not such a big deal, but not for a supposedly punctual train service). Of course you have to keep in mind the weather has been terrible, but then again Germany always has snow and it’s not a tropical country, so I would suppose that snow is to be expected as well as railway icing.

But the weirdest experience was my recent City Night Line ride from Karlsruhe to Berlin. The train was about 10 minutes late, so that’s in the present situation quite okay.

So I was waiting at the train station and it was only the first time that I noticed that you can actually know where exactly your train car will stop. Each railway has letters assigned to it and there are boards that where you can see next to which letter your train car will stop, so that you won’t have to run 300m with your huge suitcase once the train arrives. Which is exactly what you do in Russia as you almost never can predict how far you’ll have to run. I was thinking how cool it is to be in a civilized place and then the train car arrived.

I had a Ruhesessel ticket with a seat reservation, which means it’s just a more or less comfortable armchair that leans back quite a lot. I entered my train car and there were just compartments. I was puzzled. I went back and forth at least 4 times, just trying to figure out if I had the number of the car right, if it was actually my train, if I was blind, etc.

No, it was all fine, except there was not a one Ruhesessel in sight and of course no Deutsche Bahn employee anywhere in the vicinity. [What's also odd, my seat number was 67 and there was no 67 at all there. There were places 60-66 and then I think 69-75, etc.] I sat down in the next car, there were plenty of Ruhesessels free there, but did I want to be worried at every stop that the train made that somebody would come up to me and tell me it’s their seat? Nope. Eventually, two stops later and an hour on the road, I went to check out if maybe a Ruhesessel miraculously appeared in my assigned train car… and stumbled upon a DB employee at last.

The guy had little interest in talking to me and for the most part was quite impatient and obviously had better things to do than explain the situation to me, so the best I got was this: yes, I had a Ruhesessel train car with seat reservation, yes, it was the correct car number, no, there are no Sessels here because it’s somehow a different train, so I should just take any place I want in this car. I was a bit flummoxed as again, there could’ve been a problem of somebody showing up and telling me where to go as it was their place, but it turned out that somehow there were no reservations for that car at all. Or something.

Anyhow, in the end I shared a compartment with another confused guy, so it was actually a better option than what I paid for, but that thought didn’t help me fall asleep and arrive all fresh and perky to Berlin. Oh well. I might still give DB another chance for long-distance travel at one point.

Local subsidiaries are not great either, though. The S-Bahn in Berlin goes absolutely not according to the schedule and with long delays, much to the discontent of people who are late to work every day because of this as you can’t foresee such things. But the weather is getting better (fingers crossed that it’s not just for two days) and so maybe Berliners will see the end of their commuting nightmare. At some point.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Day 9-11: Karlsruhe is as great as it ever was and arrival in Berlin

What is the best way to start your first day of a new year?

Right. Eat. Even though last night you said you were so stuffed that you would never eat even a single crumble ever again. But the next morning you longingly think of food again. Happens every year and yet it takes you by surprise every time.

My friends kindly took me out for New Year’s Day lunch in a lovely family-owned restaurant 40-50km out of town and the good was delicious. The view on the mountains was mesmerizing and it was nice to see people waking up and slowly flocking to the restaurant to have a bite or two. I’m pretty sure they were all thinking the same thing about never eating again the previous night as well.

The same night I felt like going out to see a movie and although I was not alone in this desire (as the movie theater was full), there was literally not a soul on the streets, I understand January 1 is mostly dedicated to hangover and chilling later on. I saw Tykwer’s Drei at my favorite movie theater. It was a good movie, although I imagine it could still be considered shocking by some people? I mean I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to hear that. At the same time, the audience was quite interesting: older ladies, middle age couples, teenagers and twenty-somethings and yet no one gasped or giggled at quite explicit portrayal of gay sex and the like. It’s a positive change from what I’m accustomed to in Russia. Also, I appreciate the silence during the movie. But was amused to find out that somebody people bring in homemade sandwiches and snacks.

The following day I saw my friends (who were my Gastfamilie twice in Karlsruhe/Waldbronn before, in 2005 and 2007), two amazing people with who I always find a topic to converse about. We first spent some time in their cozy home and then went out for some Italian delight. I introduced them both to the CouchSurfing and I think they might try it at some point, as they are quite interested in cultural exchange and travel, especially one who devotes some of his time to developing relations between Germany and Russia (and a whole lot of other countries). Was fantastic to see them again and it definitely wasn’t the last time.

January 2 marked my first visit to a zoo in my life. It wasn’t the best date as obviously some of the animals don’t find cold weather as fascinating (even the polar bear! who I would’ve gladly taken a peek at), but nevertheless it was a nice stroll around with my friend. I later walked around a bit on my own, Karlsruhe stills charms it, I must say. It now seems a bit smaller than I originally thought, but still it’s a place from where I have some very fond memories. Dear to me are also the people are met there, the former Gastfamilie I just mentioned as well as my friend from school and her husband who were thoroughly welcoming and made my third stay in Karlsruhe great.

Therefore I was sad to leave yet again, but the thought of coming back makes me all warm inside, so it’s definitely a done deal. Also Karlsruhe seems to have more bakeries than any other place I’ve been to so far (I’m just saying that so people get motivated to come here as German bread is the best you’ll find).

Next on:

A Deutsche Bahn adventure that was a bit of a hassle… although it all didn’t matter very soon because… BERLIN!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Day 7-8: Leaving Munich, arriving in Karlsruhe for the 3rd time

How do you know that you’re happy? Me: I’m traveling and I’m simply walking down the street, grinning to myself, enjoying everything that’s going on around even if it’s usually not that interesting to me. That has been happening a lot to me since I set off on the trip 10 days ago.

I do hope this lasts. Obviously that almost entirely depends on me.

On an unrelated note, Deutsche Bahn employees didn’t check my ticket on my night trip from Cologne to Munich, so I wonder if anybody could’ve just gone in and taken a night-long trip. Surely makes for a good adventure.

On December 30 I had a nice 1.5-long walk around Munich once again before departing for Karlsruhe, all of the sights remained just as a beautiful as I remembered them from the first day. It must be a nice place to live. I also had a nice time with my third CS host who has traveled around the globe quite a lot, she also has been a freelancer for a long time, was interesting to discuss this very subjectwith her. Also great English. Although I must say most CS hosts or guests normally speak great English, far above average.

My train left on time and the landscape in front of my eyes was charming all the way to Karlsruhe. Snow and beautiful trees in forests of all kinds make for an awesome picture.

Upon arrival I was greeted by my friend with whom I'd studied briefly here in Karlsruhe and with whom we've kept in touch ever since. She and her husband have a very lovely apartment and are both great to converse with. On our first evening my friend showed me breathtaking pictures from their November vacation in Lanzarote, Spain and I had no choice but to add it to my travel wish list. It looks a lot like Mars - not that I've seen it, but it absolutely fits our/Hollywood image of this planet.

December 31 was of course the last day of the year. In the afternoon we went for a walk, now it needs to be mentioned that I'm not accustomed to this: German (and most EU) stores and supermarkets are closed starting afternoon on December 31 all the way through January 1 and 2. So that's 2.5 days without access to shopping at all! Who could survive that?! But apparently everyone gets by and if you really, really need something, you could splurge on a visit to the train station store or a gas station kiosk. Unbelievable! Around where I live most stores will be open all the way till 8pm or maybe even later on December 31 and will re-open at 11am-1pm the following day.

We walked around for a couple of hours and ended up being tired as if we'd worked extremely hard. The year's end was apparently taking its toll on us. Later on, my friend made a cheese fondue (delicious stuff, I get dizzy just thinking about it) while I was brave enough to make an Olivier. Much to the laughter and hilarity of my friends and family at home. That's a typical Russian salad you eat every New Year's Eve and some people opt for it on all holidays possible, every Russian has eaten dozens of hundreds of kilos in his or her life and it's just too contrite nowadays and yet most people still make it each time. I ate some as well. It's particularly good the next morning.

On New Year's Eve I also got introduced to Wii and have already had some success with tennis, ping pong and rowing. It's actually quite fun, and your arm hurts afterwards as if it were the real thing. We also did a round of Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht just for laughs (it was especially funny to me because I won, ho ho). Board games in general are popular in Germany - I have also played Memory during my two previous stays here.

An hour and a half before 2011 finally started we were joined by the family's friend as well as somebody I knew from being in KA before. A fascinating person, someone I'd like to get to know better. She brought a fresh kind of spirit to the evening and was fun to watch dancing.

At midnight we all congratulated each other, watched some fireworks, dialed a couple of numbers (that's universal) and eventually ended up watching about half an hour of a live concert in Berlin. (Although to the best of my knowledge it was in real time, but no live singing was going on...) It was bad and trashy. I take most of what I said about Russian New Year's program on TV back, this was a low budget show with old and almost forgotten (and unknown to me) singers and bands as well as David Hasselhoff. Yeah, that wasn't great. But thankfully no obligatory speech by head of the state right before the year started.

Nevertheless it was a good way to welcome the new year, especially in such a great company. Here's hoping it's be a year full of fabulous travel.
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