5 days in Berlin

IMG_20130227_124125It’s a bright morning in Berlin. I’ve spent the night in a single room apartment on the 9th floor of a 18-storey tower block in east Germany. All around are tower blocks of a similar size and nature. The outside of the building has brightly coloured red and yellow facades, but I get the impression these were added much more recently to make the building more attractive.

The ornate fountain outside is dry and falling apart. That probably was part of the original design.

For one person living alone, it’s a nice flat. Bright and airy, with pretty much space for all you’d need. You could even have guests stay the night if they didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. But then you remember, this was probably built a long time ago in the days of the Soviets, and it wouldn’t have been one person living here back then, but probably a whole family.

The whole building is quite loud, not with the sound of music or televisions, but the hard floors in the corridors and apartments and thin walls means you hear people walking about all the time. Double glazed windows don’t keep the sound of the traffic out, either. But you’d get used to that.

The apartment has a view over the city and the dominating telecoms tower, and in a strange way the sound of the trains going by is almost comforting, it reminds me of the sound of the planes back home by London City Airport.

It’s a very short walk from the train station, when you know where you are going, and there is a Lidl supermarket right next door to the supermarket, making it well provided for — and actually better served than my own Docklands flat. It’s also a short walk from Alexanderplatz, which is a kind of city centre.

When I visit a city, I like to try and understand it. What does it mean to live here? What do the people feel? Antwerp was a difficult city for me, I didn’t feel like I ever really did understand what it meant to be from Antwerp. Berlin is obviously a city of so many different personalities and nationality that you can’t define just one characteristic.

Obviously, it was once a city divided and while the dividing wall is long gone, there are distinct differences in architecture between the sides. There are the memorials and museums, and painful memories for a lot of people. But there is also excitement and innovation and a bright technology scene, as well as the techno clubs that seem to come from nowhere at night in areas you thought were quiet during the day.

It’s a cop out to just call it a city of contradictions, contrasts and complexities — despite the alliteration. Berlin isn’t a place I can summarise so easily just yet, it needs more return visits, and I think I can confidently add it to the list of European cities I could live in — along with Paris, Lisbon, and Barcelona.

A chilly city suits a troubled soul

Landing in Berlin, it was almost as if I had never left London.

London had been grey and cold when I left, and Berlin’s airport looked just the same. Even the snow could have been explained if you’d told me we’d taken off from London and circled for 90 minutes — during which time it had snowed.

But from the air I’d seen towns and half frozen lakes, instead of the sprawling English home counties and the city I call home.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think all airports do look the same — from my limited experience, I have found airports in places like Scandinavia and Switzerland to have very different personalities to those of Italy and Spain. In a very generalised way about the characteristics of those nations, perhaps.

Berlin airport was confusing, there was no obvious place to go at first for taxis and being a stranger in a strange land I didn’t know what the procedure or etiquette was. Outside there seemed to be plenty of taxis, and some unmarked cars that may or may not have been taxis, and a guy who seemed to maybe be trying to get people into taxis, but it didn’t seem very efficient, or very German.

Instead, I wandered around inside the airport looking for an information desk. There they told me what area to go for taxis, and the leaflet that said not to go anywhere else.

Clearly, there are phrases I need to learn in every language. Things like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” (je suis désolé, je ne comprendes pas), “I would like a taxi”, or “I don’t remember, I was very drunk”. The only drawback is when you can ask questions in another language, you need to be able to understand the answers. It was very well for me in Paris to be able to ask “Where is…?” but if you don’t understand when someone answers, you just simple stupidly, and walk away none the wiser.

I’m here for MongoDB Berlin on Monday and Tuesday, then I have Wednesday to myself to explore the city and learn a little about Berlin, before returning home on Thursday. Since my hotel reservation is only until Wednesday, I am staying one night in an apartment I found on Airbnb. Since Lisbon, and the charming Portuguese family I lived with, I have learned to search for whole apartments. Though I did enjoy in Lisbon being fed, being shown around the city, and taken out for Gelato, so maybe there is something to be said for just booking a room.

I hope to update several more times while I’m in Berlin!