Category Archives: travel

lazy about updates

I guess I haven’t posted here in a while, so I should say something.

My apartment is reasonably furnished now, since the fridge arrived a few days ago. I ordered it from amazon.de, which seems to have all manner of appliances, with free delivery. It seemed easier to buy it from there than to go to some store around here and try to get it back to the apartment ourselves.

Chani has joined me here, leaving her Vancouver apartment behind for the time being. She’s going back at the end of December so that she can do her last semester of school in January, but until then she’ll be here working on her software and going to conferences. She’s also doing quite well at German so far.

As for me, I’m quite enjoying having all this study time available. I bought myself a Go board and have been studying some old professional tournament games in order to improve. I’ve also done a lot of work on Swedish lately, and this week has been full of German practice.

I found a 2nd-hand bookstore where every book is €1, with 6 books for €5, so I’ve stocked up my bookshelf a bit. Found some neat sociology and feminism books to work on my academic vocab, and some fantasy novels and a book of funny anecdotes. I also have some plays by Bertolt Brecht, and translated Harold Pinter plays, and a biography of Brecht. Lots to read 🙂

Due to having the grocery store right next door, I’ve been cooking and eating quite well (and cheaply), having avoided going out to restaurants too much. The beer is also super cheap in the grocery store, with a box of 11 x 0.5L Hefeweizens for €6. That’s almost the same price as it would cost to make it myself…far cheaper than Vancouver.

Back to the studying now. I’ll try and update again soon.

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apartment hunting, ugh

I’m searching for apartments still. It’s really quite frustrating, since I hate dealing with bureaucratic nonsense.

One thing I learned is that nobody uses cheques here. Everything is done by electronic bank transfers. Overall, the bank system here is much more modern than the Canadian system. Back home, I had to get part of my RRSP transfered from Royalbank to the Vancity branch across the street from it, but even though both banks were informed of the process by me, it still took them over a month to complete all the necessary paperwork by hand. It’s also really difficult to simply transfer money between two peoples’ bank accounts in Canada unless both people belong to the same bank and the bank offers that service (like Vancity, which I use).

Here in Germany, everyone has a “Girokonto”, which I guess would be the equivalent of a chequing account, but for money transfers instead. With such an account, you can transfer money for free to anyone else in Europe pretty much. You use it to pay your bills, or buy something on amazon.de, etc. Credit cards are slightly different too, since the balance gets auto-deducted from your bank account every month (which obviously causes problems if you don’t have enough in your account to pay it), so it doesn’t really have a separate balance like it does in Canada.

Anyway, back to apartments. I wanted to get a phone to help with the apartment thing, but I needed a bank account to get a phone. To get a bank account, I need an official address, and for that I clearly need an apartment. Luckily I was able to short-cut the process by going to the bank with my friend (with whom I’m currently staying) and getting her to tell them that my address should be the same as hers. After we convinced the bank people that it was ok, then I got my account set up.

Hunting for apartments online is a bit confusing, since there’s a lot of terminology to learn. I think I’ve got it mostly straightened out now. One of the essential terms is “Einbauküche” (“built-in kitchen”), which refers to all of the kitchen furnishings like cupboards and countertops. Without an Einbauküche, you basically just get a sink and a stove, nothing else, since you’re expected to get the kitchen furnished yourself.

Another term is “Provision”, which refers to some sort of “finder’s fee” that you pay to a middle-man. Basically, to get the apartment you pay some ridiculous fee (like 2.38 x the month’s rent), and you never get it back. Why would I want to pay a $1200 ransom to some company for the privilege of “finding” me this apartment? Screw you. Luckily there are plenty of other listings that don’t have a Provision, so I can just ignore those bastards.

Also, the room listings are slightly different. In Canada, a “2 bedroom” apartment will always be 2 bedrooms and a living room, but it seems that most of the listings here are just by the total number of rooms. “2 Zimmer” could mean what I would consider a 1BR apartment (1BR + 1 living room), or it could be designed slightly differently as more of a 2BR + no living room type of thing. Kitchen and bathroom never count as part of the room-count.

So, the next part of the process is to call these various people about apartments, and arrange a viewing appointment (“Besichtigungstermin”), but you’ll almost never be able to set it up on the same day you call. It seems that any appointment, whether business or social, always gets set up in advance in Germany, so if you call someone up and say “hey, how about dinner at 6pm?” they’d automatically assume you mean 6pm tomorrow because who in their right mind would book something on the same day? Unthinkable! 😉

The other thing is that it apparently takes a while for them to accept all of your paperwork. The apartment might be sitting there empty, but it could take a week or two for everything to get approved before you can move in.

I should get back to work on this now. I have one appointment for today, but still need to look some more.

beer fest

We went out to the big beer fest here on Saturday. It was scheduled for Friday to Sunday, but we skipped Friday because it was raining.

The festival was located along a 2.2km stretch of road pretty slightly east of the city center, in the district of Friedrichshain. It was a major road with a large sidewalk and grassy area off to the side, so there was plenty of room to fit various beer tents and lots of seating. Every 150m or so, there’d be a small stage in the grass and some sort of musical act, in front of a huge collection of benches for the beer drinkers. The beer sellers were arranged along both sides of the sidewalk.

The beer was arranged in vague sections, with international beers in one part, and then most of the rest arranged by the German state they were from. Some big name crap beers were present, but most of them seemed like actual good beers, since Germany has a lot of them. Some booths were staffed by knowledgeable people selling their own stuff, although others were being run by “booth babes” in skimpy outfits.

I wasn’t super impressed by the varieties of beer present, since Germany’s microbrew culture doesn’t seem to be the same as Canada’s. Very few were selling varieties of beer outside the normal range of styles. But within the normal categories there was actually quite a bit of variation. For instance, I’ve never really been impressed with any pilsners that I tried in Canada, or the regular ones I’ve tried here either, but I had two different pilsners at the festival that were really fantastic. If I saw them again, I’d buy them instantly…super good.

We tried some dark beers too, and tried to locate some local Berlin beers that we could buy again later. There was a local place from Friedrichshain that I’m definitely going back to. They made a terrific pilsner and a nice bitter dark beer (which seems to be hard to find in Germany….many of the darks are sickeningly sweet here).

About half-way through, we discovered that if we bought a small 200mL mug from the info booth, then we could get that filled at any beer seller for €1,50, so we started doing that. Much cheaper, since many of them were selling 300mL for €2,50, but 200mL seemed just right for the tasting that we wanted to do. We weren’t trying to get slammed there, but we did notice a small number of people who were.

Most people seemed to just be going there to enjoy a couple of good beers and the entertainment. There was lots of different food too, although much of it was traditional German faire, like a dozen different types of sausage and other meat products. I did have a really nice gourmet slice of bread with fancy cheese, tomatoes, and herbs though. I also had some deep-fried Kohlrabi (a vegetable with a crisp apple-like texture, from the broccoli family) with Kräutersoße. mmmmmm. What I thought was really great was that you’d just buy a beer, and wander around drinking it. Yay for sane German drinking regulations 🙂

Actually, I should mention that it’s totally normal to buy a beer and wander down the street with it. Not super common, but still normal. I also commonly see someone enjoying a beer on the subway. My friends showed me a Dutch video the other day where someone was investigating the trend of wandering around town with a beer, claiming that it was just the “cool” thing to do in Berlin (although it’s allowed anywhere in the country, AFAICT).

Anyway, definitely a fun day. My faith in pilsners is restored, and I found a good microbrew to buy more beer from later. And it was nice to see a 2.2km stretch of hundreds of beer sellers and thousands upon thousands of beer-drinkers wandering around freely with their beers, and absolutely no rowdies or troublemakers. Come on Canada, get your act together 😉

cajun food in berlin

I’m still trying out more restaurants here, as my friends introduce them to me. Today we went out for some Cajun food in Kreuzberg. I ordered a dark beer, as usual, but this time I was pleasantly surprised by a nice czech Porter. I’ve found that German dark beer is usually disgustingly sweet, or it’s a dark wheat beer (which I somehow never expect when I don’t specify “wheat”).

Despite some delays due to having so much fun, the tasks for this week are to get a phone, get a bank account, and continue apartment hunting. I’ve been on a decent program of studying lately, and I’d like to increase the amount of studying, but I guess that should probably wait until I’m properly set up with my own place. At least procrastinating is still involving getting some good work done 😉

back in berlin

Home, sweet home. I’m back in Berlin now, staying with my friends again. I’m relaxing for a couple days, and then apartment-hunting starts on Monday. Today we went for cheap Vietnamese food for lunch, which was fantastic, and now it’s study/work time for a while.

Tomorrow we’re heading out to some club in the evening that has a floor consisting of beach sand, which should be interesting. We did some bookstore browsing today, which I suspect will happen more again soon. We also made a house rule amongst ourselves that we’ll be speaking only German here for the duration of my stay, until I find my own apartment. The three of us all speak English, German, and Esperanto, so we sometimes don’t know what to default to. Sticking to German is giving me a good push to get better at my spoken skills.

On the list soon is to play the entire “Beatles Rock Band” game in a day, and then go to a German board game shop where we can play board games all day for €3 each while drinking beers. Interspersed amongst all that will be lots of language study, and plenty of corrections of my German mistakes 😉

In Copenhagen

Currently I’m sitting in the lobby of a hostel in Copenhagen. I flew here from Berlin the other day, and I’ve just wandered around the town a tiny bit. My first impression is that it feels different from all the German cities I’ve been in, although it could be just the current area of town that I’m in. Almost every building is a 4-story apartment building with some commercial stuff at street level. Also, the dominant feature of the city landscape is the bike racks.

Bikes are everywhere. There are a couple major roads nearby that are rather car-focused, but other than that everyone seems to be walking and riding bikes. Some roads have no cars, while the others that have cars will always have a divided bike lane. Not divided with big barriers or something, but just slightly raised from the road level, sort of like a second sidewalk. I realized that I’ve come to think of bike infrastructure as just like pedestrian infrastructure. Who could be opposed to sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians? They seem obvious. The same should be true of bike infrastructure everywhere.

In other news, I’ve decided to head back to Germany. It seems like too much of a hastle to find an apartment in Sweden, since all evidence seems to point to it being rather difficult to find apartments in Malmö, especially on short notice. Instead, I’d rather head back to Berlin and find an apartment there with the help of my German friends, and then I can get back to having a life and doing some serious studying, which I’d much prefer rather than doing more short-term traveling.

My priority right now is language study, especially increasing my German skills. German is a priority, whereas Swedish is more of a hobby. Plus there are so many fun things to do in Berlin, and great people. I’m going to enjoy spending the summer there.

flight to copenhagen booked

I’m currently still in Berlin, hanging out with friends. I just booked a flight for monday to head to Copenhagen, where I’ll be staying in a hostel in the middle of town. Berlin will be tough to leave though, since I’m enjoying it so much. Tonight we’re planning to play some Go and probably Rockband, and then on Sunday I’m going to an Esperanto picnic. I leave on monday afternoon to go to the airport.

Yesterday I was given a taste of why some people call Berlin the “art capitol of the world”. Someone took me on a tour down a nearby street that really was filled with art galleries….as in every single building along the street was an art gallery, except for the occasional cafe in which to sit while discussing art, I suppose. There was this one gallery called “ME”, which was some funny acronym that I’ve forgotten, but also reflected the fact that it was the private collection of some rich dude. I didn’t pay to go in, but one of the things I could see from the lobby was this really cool painting of Michael Jackson riding a horse, in the style of those old grand portraits of kings (of the non-pop variety).

Apparently there are other such streets that are filled with art galleries, in various parts of town, but this one in “Mitte” (the middle area of the city) was supposedly the original.

I also made another trip to the big bookstore downtown, and bought the German translation of the latest Robert Jordan book (actually, the second half of it, because the books are so big that they split them in half as paperbacks here in Germany). I also ordered a German-language book about learning Punjabi, which should be entertaining. I’d like to learn how to work on more than one project at a time without going over the deep end and getting obsessed with only one of them.

Unrelatedly, we’re currently ordering pizza, and I’m learning various German terms for things. Apparently “Peperoni” here means long thin hot peppers, what we might call “chillies” in English. “Paprika” means bell peppers. I’m nervous ordering a pizza with “peperoni” on it, but I trust the Germans here who are insisting that it’ll be ok.

swimming!

I once again met with a local for a bike ride the other day. We went out to a lake in the Köpenick area to the east of town, so that she could show me one of the local lakes. We went down some bike paths in the extensive forest area around there, and emerged next to a lake called “Müggelsee”, which I couldn’t help but associate with Harry Potter. In fact, no wizards were seen all day at Müggelsee.

It’s quite a decent sized lake (although not huge), and has plenty of boats on it, both sail and power. There’s also a sailboat rental place on the Rahnsdorf side of the lake, so I might try that out in October if it’s still moderately warm out. On the opposite side is Friedrichshagen, which has lots of nice cafes and a relaxed atmosphere. The rest of the shoreline is forest with intermittent beaches and a bike path most of the way around.

We went through a tunnel to get under the Spree river, which connects from Müggelsee back towards downtown Berlin. Once across, we went down a nice cycle path until we got around to the beach at Rahmsdorf. It’s quite a nice big beach with soft white sand. There’s a big clothing-optional section too, which was handy for us since we didn’t bring any swimming gear.

The lake is quite shallow along the shore, so we had to walk out a bit before we could swim, but this made the water wonderfully warm. All bike rides should end with a swim, it’s the best :). Days like this make me wish I could stay here in Berlin all summer, but of course there’ll be equally fun things to do in Sweden.

more exploring in Berlin

In the past few days I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out with some new friends. They’re both language and computer geeks, and we’ve been playing lots of German board games, and played some “Rock Band” on the Wii. I’ve ditched my crappy hostel and I’m now staying with my friends, which has been much better.

I’ve also been seeing plenty of the town. I’m not really doing any in-depth touristy things, but mostly just continuing to get familiar with different areas of town. I’ve been trying to navigate through town without using my GPS, mostly paying attention to various landmarks. The street names are becoming a bit more familiar too.

Despite having a bike and enjoying riding through the town, I’ve also been trying to use public transit a bit. I used the bus for the first time today, although it’s usually not necessary because of the extensive U-bahn (subway) and S-bahn (suburban trains) networks. Today I used a bus to get to the Ostbahnhof (east train station), and from there I took the #3 S-bahn out to Köpenik to meet a friend.

It was someone I met previously at a CouchSurfing party, and somehow we ended up talking about birds briefly, so she invited me out to come chat with her grandfather who’s big into birding. Köpenik was quite nice. It’s a suburb not too far away, although not exactly the same sort of thing as suburbs in North America. It’s its own little section of town with walkable shops and whatnot, but also a good S-bahn connection to the city. It only took 20 minutes to get there from the Ostbahnhof, and it took about 15 minutes to get to the Ostbahnhof from the Mitte. I guess I might compare the location to New Westminster in comparison to Vancouver, since you can get to New West in 20 minutes from commercial drive, and commercial drive is about 15mins from downtown.

So I talked about birds and found out that there are a couple of birding clubs around town. I also described Vancouver and the surrounding areas, and the birds there. I had a little help from Elena with a couple of translations (I stumbled a bit when trying to explain canadian environmental regulations, etc), but I understood everything in her translations, so I hope that I’ll be able to produce such things myself soon.

I’ve got some tips now, on where to look for birds. Köpenik is near Berlin’s biggest lake too, so I’ll have to explore the area a bit more. Apparently there’s a nice forest nearby too, with lots of paths, and a nude swimming area at the lake.

Right now I’m on the train back to town, and then I’m going to Kreuzberg tonight to meet someone else who’ll show me around there. Kreuzberg is known as the left-wing area of town, with a big protest on May Day every year. It’s also supposed to have a lot of interesting restaurants, so perhaps the closest Vancouver comparison would be Commercial Drive, but it doesn’t quite match. I’m still just relying on other people’s descriptions of the areas, so I’ll have a better impression of the area after I look around personally tonight.

A friend of mine here suggested that it’d be a good place to live and the transportation is good, and some other people had already suggested it. In fact, Kreuzberg was the only section of Berlin that I already knew by name before I came here, so it’s been under consideration for a while. So far I’m still quite interested in Mitte (because it’s the middle and hence close to everything, although a bit more pricy), and Friedrichshain because of all the cool people and vegan restaurants (slightly cheaper than Mitte too). Lots of possibilities.

I’ll probably stay here until wednesday or thursday, and then head off to Copenhagen. It’s great fun here, and I’d love to stay the whole summer…there are a million other things I’d like to do to, but I don’t want to cut myself short on time in Sweden unfortunately.

board games and language nerds

I met up with some online acquaintances on wednesday and we went for some great Vietnamese food. I met Judith on an online language forum, and her boyfriend Chuck is an iphone app developer and also somewhat of a language nerd. We had lots of fun and they showed me some things around town.

Later in the evening, I went to a floating hostel on the river in east berlin, and partied there with a bunch of people from CouchSurfing. Benny the Irish Polyglot was there again too, so I chatted with him briefly. Actually, I spent most of that evening talking about languages with various people. There was an interesting guy from California who spoke excellent German, and studied linguistics in university. I also met a German woman who just returned from a 1 year trip across Canada.

On thursday I went out for Sri Lankan food in Friedrichshain with Judith and Chuck again. Friedrichshain is just slightly east of the central area of Berlin, and is quite a cool neighbourhood. There are lots of restaurants advertising Vegan options, and lots of great food. Lots of other people with tattoos too, so I appeared to fit right in.

We went to a shop where you can play German board games, which was quite neat. It’s open 6 days a week, and you pay €3 to play all day. They have a selection of 1200 games to choose from, and they also sell beers and other drinks. After playing a game there, we decided it was too hot to play games, and left.

We walked a few blocks away to a shop called “Cupcake”, which was what you’d expect from the name. I was amused at the menu, because it had to explain to the Germans what a cupcake actually was. They also had some vegan options there as well 😉

Next we went back to Judith and Chuck’s place and played more board games there. There was one called “Pandemic” that was quite neat, since it was a cooperative game. All 4 of us played our separate turns, but we all won or lost together. The next was a card game called “Dominion”, which involved building up your deck by upgrading your cards. Each turn you get 5 cards from your own deck, some of which are money and some are actions. You want to eventually be able to afford some of the cards that are worth a lot of game-winning points (although they are not functional in other aspects of the game like the money and action cards are). There was some interesting strategy about keeping track of the composition of your deck and adjusting it so that you were more likely to deal yourself a good hand every turn.

I skipped the hostel and stayed overnight here, and now I’m doing some Swedish study while Judith works. Later we’re going to play some more games 🙂

I’m planning on hanging around until the middle of next week, and then heading off to Copenhagen. I’ve got a possible couchsurfing response from someone in Malmö, so hopefully I can get that sorted out before I get there. I’m looking forward to meeting some people right away, and hopefully I can avoid hostels. Then I just need to find a place to rent for 2 months and I’ll be set 🙂