Tag Archives: berlin

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 😉

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 😉

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 🙂

day 1 in Berlin

I stayed up pretty late last night since I didn’t arrive in the hostel until almost 1am. It was quite hot overnight too. I’m just getting over some sort of cold, but I think it’s getting better now.

I’m going out to explore Berlin a bit today, and I’m still sending off emails to various people that I’d like to meet while I’m here. Today I’m having lunch with “Benny the Irish Polyglot” who travels the world learning languages. Currently he’s just about finished his 4th month in Berlin learning German, and he’ll be going off to Budapest to learn Hungarian next.

I’ll probably also try to find some bookstores too, and hopefully find some interesting places to meet people and to eat. I need to ask some people about the best websites to use to find apartments too, since I’ll be looking in September in preparation for coming back in October.

Maybe I won’t get all this done today, but I have time. I also want to just sit and relax a little bit, and maybe listen to some Swedish audiobooks.

Just about time for lunch now, I should head out. Tschüss!

the long train ride to berlin

morning in Bratislava

I started out in the morning with my idiot hostel dorm-mates bouncing around doing things at 5am. I thought maybe they were leaving early to catch a train or something, but later they were all sleeping again, so who knows why they were awake. Or maybe they just got back to the hostel at that time after drinking? Probably more likely…I fell asleep before they got back last night.

I eventually managed to get back to sleep until 7am, when my alarm went. I’ve been feeling some sort of cold coming on, but thankfully I felt moderately ok. Even better after a shower, but not 100%.

I packed up my stuff and realized that I had several books that I no longer really needed. I hate throwing books in the garbage, so I was hoping that the hostel would have a bookshelf for exchanging books, so then I could just leave them there for someone else to use. Unfortunately not, so I left them on a random shelf somewhere.

I would rather have brought them to Berlin, because they were all in German and I figured they’d have a better chance of being used there, but they needed to be jettisoned right away. I’m fine with carrying extra weight on my bike, but during a train ride I have to take all 4 bags off my bike and carry them onto the train with me, so several kg of extra books would not be a welcome addition.

Next I checked out and started riding to the train station. My first train was scheduled to leave at 10am, so I left shortly after 8am because I wanted to get some breakfast along the way. Unfortunately, I forgot that it was Sunday, so everything was closed and all good citizens were dutifully off to church.

Most of the way to the train station, I realized that I didn’t have the slightest clue how to get to my hostel in Berlin once I arrived there. I had the address written down, but I’ve learned that addresses can be useless in a city full of twisty German streets that frequently change their name as you go along them in a straight line.

I turned around and rode back to the hostel to use their internet, and got some GPS coords for the hostel. I have no maps for northern Germany in my GPS currently, but having at least a direction and a distance as the crow flies would help. I also wrote down some street directions…and it turned out that one of the streets did indeed change its name as you continue along it in a straight line.

Fully prepared, I again made my way to the train station, and happily found some food stands open there. I had a bad sandwich for breakfast, and some brightly colored carbonated sugar-beverage. I lugged my bike down and up some stairs to get to the right train platform, and eventually found someone who could speak broken German enough to help me find the right train car to put my bike into.

on the train to Puchov

My next destination is a town called Puchov. The train situation today is slightly crazy because of three things: 1) i have to switch several times, 2) there are separate bike tickets and reservation tickets, so I have this huge bundle of ticket-like things and 3) the ticketvendor in bratislava did me a “favour” by giving me some sort of tickets for me personally (not the bike) that say Bratislava -> Deĉin, Deĉin -> Berlin….even though I’m not going through Deĉin. Apparently this saved me €20 and is still somehow legal.

So with that in mind, imagine this scenario. I’m safely aboard the first train, heading for Puchov. The train staff come around to check tickets and I show them my boarding pass thingy with my seat number on it…she shakes her head and rattles off some machine-gun slovak at me. I look at her like a lost puppydog and say “Deutsch? English?”. Once again, the closest thing I can find is one of the other 5 people sitting nearby who speaks broken half-ass German, who tries to explain that they want some other reservation ticket instead of the seating assignment ticket.

So, I give over the whole stack and let them try to sort it out. They eventually find the Bratislava -> Deĉin ticket, say incomprehensible slovakian things while pointing at it, and then eventually shrug and decide that it’s ok to punch it. Phew, didn’t get thrown off the train!

As I was typing this, one of the 5 people seated in the 6-seat booth with me just asked me if I spoke German. I guess he heard earlier when we were trying to sort and the tickets, and was now curious. So I started up a little German conversation with him, and it turns out that a total of 4 of us in this booth can speak German. The one woman who helped me out earlier was just the worst of the bunch…the others are actually pretty decent. Also, one of them said that his sister speaks Esperanto, and lives in Piestany (where I had the Esperanto conference last week, and which we just happened to be passing in the
train).

They were quite amazed that I came from Canada…apparently Canadians have quite a similar rep around here as English-only speakers just like Americans, so they really thought that it was crazy that I was sitting with them speaking in German. Seriously, German has been waaay more useful in Slovakia than English. Definitely a good travel language to have in eastern Europe.

The next thing I’m worried about is getting off at the right stop. These train stations are horribly marked, and the train stops for only a minute or so before moving again. Somehow I have to struggle down the skinny hall with my 4 bulky bags, and find my bike in the other train car and take it off before the train starts moving again. I’m worried, since the bike car doesn’t open from the outside, so I suppose I’ll have to try to go from the inside. Hopefully the train cars connect.

Puchov to Prague

Well, that was quite the exasperating experience. One stop before Puchov was Trenĉin, which is a fairly major stop apparently. When we rolled into the station, it was a mosh-pit of slovakian back-packers. They were lined up 4-deep all along the platform. Honestly, I don’t know how they all got on the train. Since there were clearly nowhere near enough seats for them all, they crammed into the hallways. The place would have been a death-trap if there were a fire.

So, here I am, nervously watching my watch to try and guess when we’ll be at Puchov based on arrival time, and the entire train gets packed full of backpackers. Someone told me that the next stop is Puchov, so I gather all my big bags and start moshing down the hallway. The patient slovakians kindly help guide my bags along the hall as I try not to squish everyone that I squeeze past. I got to the end of the hall, and intended to switch cars to get to the car containing my bike, but it was blocked by a bunch of backpackers so I just waited
until the stop.

At the stop, I threw my bags down outside and frantically tried to get into the locked bike door on the cargo car. After some frantic miscommunication in several languages and some angry facial gestures, I finally found someone who was annoyed enough at me to try to speak English, and they said I should try the other side of the train. I jumped over and around a half dozen people and got through to the other door, and jumped out the other side. Sprinting down the train, I found the baggage people waiting there, wondering where I had been.

So, problem 1 had been solved; the slovakian train had not taken my bike away from me. All bags accounted for, and I’m sitting in the sweltering heat in an exposed train yard. Next problem: the train to Prague is supposed to leave here at 12:13, but it’s already 12:20. I worked the crowd for a minute until I found an English speaker, and he calmly informed me that the Prague train would be there in a few minutes.

By now I’m drenched in sweat, and having trouble carrying my bags while wheeling my bike, but I don’t have time to attach the bags. The train arrived, and a mob of people went out to meet it. The “platform” was a sidewalk sized piece of concrete between tracks, so it wasn’t too easy to get around people. By this time I’d learned to say “Bicykel” or whatever the slovakian word is, so I started calling that out to one of the train staff and they pointed the way.

The guy in charge of bike cargo spoke a few words of English, but he kept apologizing because I had asked him for German first, so he assumed I was German. He slowly and carefully told me about how the tickets worked, and then attached a sticker to my bike so the next guy on shift would know to take it off in Prague.

He then let me know that it’d be ok if I sat in the hallway here on the baggage car, so I’m doing that now. No sense in lugging my bags to some other car for a comfy seat when I can just camp here in the hallway for the next 3 hours or so. This time I’m not getting separated from the bike.

In Prague it should be easier, since I’ve got 2 hours before the next train. I still have to buy another ticket for my bike when I get there, apparently, but hopefully I’ll also have enough time to grab a snack while I’m there. This has certainly taught me the lesson of reserving ahead more, even if I have to beat a ticket out of the monolingual ticket agents. This might have been quite a nice ride if I’d only needed to board the train once, and then sat in a comfy chair the entire way to Berlin, and arrived at dinner time instead of midnight. :/

Prague to Berlin

Arrived in Prague, and immediately went to the ticket office. The staff there were rude and unhelpful. I tried to ascertain whether I could get on a certain train to Berlin with a ticket that didn’t specify that particular train, and they just kinda shrugged their shoulders. I asked if I needed a bike reservation and they eventually said I probably didn’t. I should just show up at the train and ask the conductor. (So I did just that, and it worked out, but it doesn’t make me hate the czech train staff any less. Holy attitude. Fuckers.)

I decided I should get some dinner before getting on the train, since I had plenty of time to wait. I got a nice curry-pasta thing at a place in the station, and tried to get some cold grape juice, but apparently “grep” on the juice menu actually meant grapefruit juice. I gagged it down, since it was cold. I then tried to order a “Caffe Frappe”, which sounded like it had ice in it, but it was more like a room-temperature frothy milkshake. I think the only thing really cold would have been beer, but I didn’t want to get dehydrated.

Got on the train, and found that it had a nice convenient bike room. I stashed my bike and most of my stuff there, so I wouldn’t have to carry the bags around, and then found a free seat close by. Immediately, I heard my two booth-mates speaking English and asked if they were from Canada, which they were! They were quite surprised to hear someone speak English. They’ve been here in Prague for a week already, since one of them is playing in the Ultimate (frisbee) world championships here. He said that apparently a team made up of part of a Vancouver team (“Furious”) and part of a Kelowna team made it to the quarter-finals.

Well, the final train of the day. I should hit Berlin around midnight, and then I get to bike around in the city in the dark searching for my hostel. As luck would have it, this train goes to the *East* train station in Berlin, whereas my hostel is close to the main train station. Oh how I wish I had a map on my GPS that included Berlin.

Ok, I actually found an older map on my laptop, which includes all of Germany but is not routable. I added that to my GPS, so now I have a streetmap for Berlin. I arrived at the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and basically had to ride about 8km across Berlin to get to the west side of town where the hostel is.

I’m just having a cold juice and catching up on the interwebs, and then I’m going to bed. Mission successful!