Photo Potpourri – Week 3

This week was pretty quiet – we didn’t do much other than look at more apartments and then crash on the couch afterwards.  But, the weekend brought more excitement, which was in part due to the fabulous weather!  We did a little sightseeing (I’ll post about that later), hung out with new friends, and finally saw one of our favorite bands live.  Here are some of the highlights!

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1. A line of brick marking where the original Berlin Wall once stood near Bernauer Strasse (where the GDR first began building).

2. Recognize this art??  The East Side Gallery is a long stretch of the wall that was left standing and is now a ‘gallery’ of street art and graffiti.  This section is painted to represent Pink Floyd’s The Wall album/film.  Last year we saw Roger Waters perform it live in DC as a sort of stage show/concert with crazy visual effects and it was incredible!

3. On the eastern side of the East Side Gallery there is a large memorial for peace in Korea.  Unfortunately the signs around the memorial were only in Korean & German so I’m not really sure why the memorial was constructed but I assume it has to do with anti-communist sentiments.  The main structures of the memorial are large vertical rectangles covered with silver stuff (thin wire?) with fluffy balls caught in the coils…I really don’t understand it but maybe if I could read the signs it would have made sense! 🙂

4. The abandoned Tempelhof Airport now functions as a gigantic park and is a favorite weekend spot for Berliners.  The entire airport has been left untouched, including the terminals which are open for tours.  The long runways serve as a playground for kids & adults who bike, skateboard, roller skate, and even windsurf!  Thousands of people gather on the grassy areas to BBQ with friends.  It’s a pretty amazing sight to see and experience.

5. The sunset over Tempelhof.  The airport is so large that it’s like being at the beach – all you can see is open space all the way to the horizon.

6. Our first concert in Berlin was one of our favorite bands, Broken Bells.  The two main guys behind the group are also in other popular bands so they don’t tour together very often, so we jumped on the chance to finally see them live!  It was a great show at a great venue that reminded us of our DC favorite, the 9:30 club.

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In the Throes of Apartment Hunting

Finding the perfect apartment in any city can be difficult. It’s nearly impossible to find “the perfect apartment” that we all envision. Where are the spacious but cozy rooms always brightly lit by sunbeams streaming through crystal clear windows that flow into a large kitchen with a gas range and enough space for a breakfast table, easily accessible from the bedroom with a wide closet, across from the bathroom with storage, down the hall from the already equipped washer (I wouldn’t dare to dream of a dryer), situated near a bustling street with cafes and shops, that we dream of?
We got lucky last time: we found an apartment that was perfect despite it’s flaws in a small city that we loved. So maybe we’re a little spoiled, but still, apartment hunting in Berlin is notoriously difficult for new residents. The challenges of renting in Berlin are in part due to the steady population growth since the 90s and also to the very “German-ness” of the system.

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Rents in Berlin are lower than in other major German cities and lower than most other European capitals. However, the influx of new residents over the past few years, especially those from other EU countries and North America, is being blamed for causing a rise in the average rental costs.  Kreuzberg (where we are staying for the next few weeks) used to be the ‘up and coming’ neighborhood. It was a hub for ‘artsy-types’ and low rents but the real Bohemians have since moved on to more Southern neighborhoods after the German equivalent of yuppies started moving in. Someone told us the other day that the flow of people into a Berlin neighborhood goes like this: Artists > Students > Yuppies > Families.
Once the former artists or students start having kids the area is definitely not cool anymore and those seeking a more ‘fringe’ lifestyle must move on. The result is that rents in Berlin are cheap-er than most places but not as cheap as the longtime citizens remember. A 1 bedroom apartment ranges between about 700-850 Euro ($950-1100). Not too bad, right? Except that there are fees out the wazoo! To rent an apartment, most landlords require 3 things: the first month’s rent, 2-3 months of rent as a security deposit, and a realtor’s fee of ~2 monthly rents. Sometimes you might get lucky and find a flat rented out by the owner directly which eliminates the last fee, but that’s somewhat rare. So, in order to begin a new lease (which are typically open-ended) for an apartment that costs 1000 Euro/month you need approximately 6,000 Euro to fork over all at once. That is a potential problem for obvious reasons.

Another issue with renting as a Berlin newcomer are the many applications, references, credit checks, etc. that the landlords generally require. One realtor who I spoke with told me that because Alex has only been working here for a few weeks we would need to pay the entire first year of rent up-front. What. I don’t think that policy is necessarily normal, it could have been specific to that real estate company, but many Berlin landlords are real sticklers about their requirements. Most want you to provide proof of income (in Germany) for the last 3 months, your credit score through a Germany-specific company, a letter from your last landlord stating that you’re all paid up, and of course your passport/visa.  If you have been living in Germany for a while those requirements are fine but as new citizens here we just don’t have those documents available. There is some method to this madness – we have been told that in Germany the laws regarding rentals make it much more difficult to evict tenants than in most other countries. I’m guessing that this is especially true in Berlin because it seems like hardly anyone actually owns their apartment. Which doesn’t make sense to us land-owning-lovin’ Americans, but whatever… The result is that the deposits and fees for rentals are super high, making is less risky for the landlords.
Fine, I get it, but what’s a new expat to do?

What I discovered after some Googling and blog reading is that many new expats start with a long-ish term sublet. Subletting here seems to come with significantly fewer fees and required documents. Plus, having a furnished apartment when you first move is awesome. Sublet rents are about the same as a normal lease, furnished flats cost a little more, but the fees are generally much, much lower.  The norm seems to be a deposit of only one month’s rent and the realtor commissions, if applicable, are lower as well.  So this is the route we are now exploring.
We have a few appointments set up this week to check out some sublets so hopefully something will finally work out! I’m optimistic that as long as we put aside that ideal image in our minds (at least for now) we can find something to suit our needs for the next few months.
In the summer or fall we can restart our search for a long-term apartment with renewed spirits, bank accounts & documents. Who knows, maybe “the perfect apartment” is just around the corner…

Photo Potpourri – Week 2

This week’s potpourri is food themed!  We have been discovering some delicious new foods and revisiting some old European favorites.
These were pretty much the only interesting photos I found on my phone from this past week, so I’m rolling with it. 🙂

Week #2: 14.3.2014 – 21.3.2014

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1. My first ice cream in Berlin!  Schokolade und zimt – aka, chocolate & cinnamon.  It made for a delicious lunch!

2. The Milka section at the nearby supermarket with lots of new flavors!  We will need to resist the temptation to try them all…

3. Mexican food!!  We ate at Santa Maria in Kreuzberg and were delighted to find that the food was pretty much Mexican.  Pictured is my entree: tostadas with beans, chunks of pumpkin & creme fraiche served with onions and something pickled.  Although mine wasn’t particularly Mexican, it was delicious!  Alex had a giant burrito (also tasty) and one of our companions had enchiladas which looked pretty legit.  I would definitely go back for more Mexi-Deutsch food & margaritas.

4. Lambertz Vital Klassik cookies were one of my primary food groups during my semester in Austria so I was ecstatic to find them in Berlin!  They are made with sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, dried fruit, honey & more.  I can’t get enough of them.

5. Ayran (pronounced: eye-rahn) is a traditional Turkish drink made from yogurt, water & salt.  It comes in a small container with a peel-back foil lid that resembles a yogurt container, which is odd but functional.  I’m not really an ayran fan but Alex really likes it and I suspect it is a bit of an acquired taste.  It’s sold at every Turkish restaurant (some make their own) and at most kebab stands.

6. BURGERS!  I swear Berlin has more hamburger joints than America.  It’s crazy!  I met up with Alex for lunch at Ketchup & Majo and thoroughly enjoyed my gigantic burger.  I had the Hawaii burger (pineapple, cheese, the usual ‘Hawaiian style’ stuff) and Alex had the Orient burger (bell pepper, eggplant, some kind of sausage) – both were awesome.

We had a great week with a lot of fabulous eats.  I can’t wait to see what next week brings for our stomaches!

By the Rhine in Mainz

Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day!  Obviously it’s not a big holiday here in Germany but this past weekend we ventured down south to the charming city of Mainz (pronounced: Mine-z) for a combo birthday/St. Patty’s day party.  Alex’s good friend from college has been living in Germany for a few years and is currently living in Mainz, a small city near Frankfurt.  Even though the 7 hour bus ride was excruciating, we had a blast celebrating with him and exploring in Mainz!

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Although Mainz is not in what we might call the “Deep South” of Germany it has a very different look & feel from Berlin.  To be honest, I would probably rather live in a small city like Mainz than in Berlin, but you gotta go where the jobs are!  Outside of the main tourist area Mainz is very suburban.  On our way to the train station we walked through a few large parks that were surrounded by clusters of quaint houses and streets (with hills!) with beautifully reconstructed buildings.  I should mention that Mainz was heavily, heavily bombed during WWII and since then most of the city has been reconstructed to look as it once did, rather than modernized.  I think this contributes to the old-fashioned feel of the city, especially when compared to Berlin.  I really love visiting these smaller cities in Germany – they seem so authentically German.  I have heard from Germans that Berlin isn’t very representative of the country but I suppose the same is true about most big cities in the world.  They tend to have their own unique culture that differs from those in the ‘burbs or countryside.

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Even though it was cold & windy outside we spent most of the day wandering around the city.  Mainz has a pretty awesome city center with lots of shopping opportunities; there are multiple small malls & gallerias with European faves like Zara and H&M.  Alex took advantage of these and got a new “Euro” sweatshirt & jacket – the North Face is nice but it shouts “I’m American!!”
Mainz also has great opportunities for thrift shoppers!  Every weekend there is a huge flea market along the Rhine.  Despite the crappy weather there were probably a hundred booths set up along the river walk selling used clothing, toys, knick-knacks, etc.  In addition to the flea market there is also a large food market surrounding the 1,000 year old cathedral of St. Martin.  We enjoyed some deeeelicious wildflower cheese, sausages & wine from a local vineyard (Mainz is known for its wines).

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After wandering around some more we spent the evening (and very early morning hours) celebrating our friend’s birthday with his local friends.  Yep, we hung out with real Germans for the first time since our move!  They were all super friendly and (luckily) spoke English very well.  It wasn’t much of a St. Patty’s Day party but a few of them did wear green!  We had long conversations about life in Berlin, the Cold War and ‘when will Germany start drinking IPAs?!’  On the topic of food, one of the guests made a Mainz-area favorite party dish – Spundekäs!  It is basically French onion dip with cream cheese and, man oh man, is it amazing!  Especially with traditional soft pretzels.  I am not a huge fan of German food but this is one we will definitely be recreating.

We had a great time in Mainz, despite the weather and long bus rides, and I can’t wait for our next outing in Germany!
Click below to see more photos from our visit to Mainz!  (Sorry ’bout the quality – our iPhones couldn’t overcome the bleak weather!)

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Photo Potpourri – Week 1

Let’s be real: not every picture I snap on my phone deserves it’s own blog post or even Instagram upload.  Nonetheless, some of my favorite photos to look back on are of the little things.  I’m talking about the meals, drinks, funny posters, funny people, etc. that fill the holes in what will someday become a diffuse spiderweb of memories of our time here.  For that reason I am going to try to post a little collection of the misc. photos we take every week!  If you follow me on Instagram or are [un]fortunate enough to receive my Snapchats you may have seen one or two of these before.

Week #1: 6.3.2014 – 13.3.2014

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1. Quote from the Dalai Lama on the wall in Little Tibet where we had dinner on our first night.

2. Random picture of a street in Kreuzberg (the neighborhood we are currently living in).

3. The Fernsehturm aka Berlin TV Tower – it is the 4th tallest freestanding structure in Europe!  There is a restaurant in the ball that rotates!  We will have to go up it sometime.

4. Currywurst!  Essentially a hotdog covered in ketchup mixed with curry powder.  It’s one of the signature street foods in Berlin, so much so that every mayoral candidate is photographed outside a currywurst stand!

5. Yes, that is a real compact disc.  My awesome music loving friend Anna made this mix CD for us!  She also drew the cover and included lists of things to do and not to do in Berlin.  She’s the best.

6. Aloe drink!!!  I used to get one of these deeeeelicious Korean beverages every time we went to the ethnic supermarket in VA.  We were thrilled when we found an Asian food market here in Mitte!  The drink is flavored like aloe with little cubes of coconut floating in it.

That’s all for this week!  Bonus: you can now count to six in German. 🙂

Exploring Charlottenburg

We chose the beautiful neighborhood of Charlottenburg here in Berlin for our first big sightseeing excursion last weekend.  The architecture and feel of Charlottenburg are very different from Kreuzberg (where we have been staying) which made for a really exciting day!  Here’s a little background on this sophisticated neighborhood:

Charlottenburg was established as an independent town in 1705 and became a burough of Berlin in 1920.  It lies on the western edge of the “inner city” and is most famous for Schloss Charlottenburg – known to us English speakers as the Charlottenburg Palace.  The palace was built in 1695 for Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the Queen Consort of Prussia & her husband, Frederick I the King of Prussia.  In 1806 the palace was inhabited for a time by Napoleon while his army lived in the nearby town and with this came an influx of the wealthy Bourgeoisie, causing Charlottenburg’s population increased dramatically and be called “the richest town in Prussia.”  After WWII and during the Cold War, the Kurfürstendamm area of Charlottenburg became the commercial centre of West-Berlin, with many restaurants, bars & shops.
Today, it remains the most popular shopping district in Berlin.  The famous Kurfürstendamm avenue is lined with retail shops – ranging from the luxurious (Hermes, Gucci & Prada) to the European clothing staples like H&M and Disigual.  Some of the other popular sights to see in Charlottenburg are the Town Hall, the Charlottenburg Gate, the beautiful Theater des Westens, as well as many museums.

The main reason why I wanted to visit Charlottenburg was to see how “the other half lived”; by this I mean former West vs. East Berlin.  The moment we came up from the U-Bahn station (Berlin’s metro system) the stark difference between Charlottenburg and the less affluent Kreuzberg was shocking!  The bland box-like buildings that line the streets in Kreuzberg (which was part of West Berlin but lied near the Eastern border) pale in comparison to the bright and ornate white-washed buildings in Charlottenburg.  And, of course, the palace is stunning.

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We decided to save going on a tour of the palace’s interior for another day.  It was just too sunny & warm to be indoors!  So instead we took a long walk around the exterior of the huge building and wandered through the palace grounds.  The gardens were so picturesque – their expansive flower beds were lined with newly planted flowers & topiaries.  Hundreds of people were there (including a bride and groom!) enjoying the sunshine and relaxing by the pond in the back of the gardens.  Paths line the grounds (mental note to go running there someday) and lead to small bridges and more paths.  I couldn’t tell quite how large the grounds were but they seemed gigantic!

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After spending a while wandering around the garden we decided to head over to Kurfürstendamm and see the shops.  Wow.  It’s almost like going to NYC or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.  Adding to the luxurious feel of Charlottenburg are large mirrored modern buildings that are interspersed with the old architecture of the former town.  We walked for what seemed like forever past hundreds of clothing stores and a few of Charlottenburg’s famous shopping malls before giving into our aching feet and hopping on the U-Bahn to go home.

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Although we really enjoyed exploring Charlottenburg I’m not sure that we would want to live there.  It’s a little too “big city” for us – too many cars, too many tourists, etc.  But it will be an awesome place to bring family & friends!  So come visit us and we’ll take you there *hint, hint*.

Here are some more misc. photos from Charlottenburg:

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Willkommen in Berlin!

I guess I should start off by admitting that moving across the world to a city you have never visited, with a language you barely (barely) speak, and where you only know a few people, is pretty crazy.  But, for whatever reason – maybe wanderlust, maybe reckless abandon – it didn’t seem that crazy to me until I was waiting in line to board a plane destined for Germany.

After a long night of travel, a few Oscar nominated movies & three episodes of The Big Bang Theory, we finally landed in Deutschland!  Even though I wanted to enjoy our first cab ride through Berlin and take in the sights of our new city, I was too exhausted to stay awake.  When we finally got to the apartment and hauled all of our luggage up to the third (European ‘second’) floor I collapsed and napped for a few hours.  Alex had to rush off to a meet & greet with his new coworkers who took him out for hamburgers.  He thought they were kidding (“Let’s take the American to get hamburgers…”) but what he found out was that Berliners love burgers!  Which is pretty awesome.
After some more napping and showering, we finally ventured out into the streets of Berlin for the first time.  It was bustling – there were long lines outside of the currywurst & kebab shops (I’ll describe those some other time) and people whizzed by on bikes.  We had dinner in a pleasant restaurant called Little Tibet; which was exciting because it was the first time either of us had tried Tibetan food.  *Side note: We found out that Yelp isn’t very active here and that Foursquare is more popular for restaurant reviews…sad day.  I will continue to leave Yelp reviews for all of my fellow USA expats! 🙂

One big thing that became apparent right away was the difference between experiencing a city as a tourist and as a resident.  Just knowing that we would be hanging around for a while changed how we experienced Berlin for the first time.  We weren’t looking on the buildings, stores & sights as tourists; we were experiencing them as prospective residents.  Now that we have been here for a few days we have started to seek out some of the “touristy” stuff – palaces, monuments, museums, etc.  So far we have just walked by these sights, pausing to take a few photos or Snapchats, and added the landmark to our mental bucket-lists of things to do someday.

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There’s no hurry to see, eat or experience everything Berlin has to offer right away – we’ve got time.