July 13, 2012

Dispatch from Berlin

Berlin is cold and rainy with spurts of glorious sunshine and four hour sunsets that allow for afternoon escape, evening runs, (and the aspirational wearing of summer espadrilles). It's my third trip to Berlin in 5 years, and at the end of this trip, that'll make 6.5 weeks of getting to know this city. It means my familiarity with it is like no other, except New York, wherein my sense of direction is fairly intuitive, my awareness of landmarks relatively comprehensive, and between Jacob and myself, we have a crew of friends (and family!) here that make it feel relatively like home. Staying in a foreign city long enough to warrant grocery shopping and long-term bike rentals is some kind of blessing -- less a vacation than a way to be sane but reawaken routines.

A lot of people remark that Berlin is a lot like Brooklyn, and in many ways, I couldn't agree more. But, there are a handful of cultural/social/architectural differences I'd note make it, in many ways, a more pleasant place to be:

+ Trains are on time, always
+ You get major discounts for traveling in groups, which encourages people to use public transport
+ In Munich, everyone strictly obeys crosswalk signals. Zero jaywalking. In Berlin, people jaywalk pretty freely, but bikers heed bike lanes, walkers heed walking lanes, and everyone is fairly respectful of the other.

Groceries / Food 
+ Many dairy products are offered in glass containers -- so containers can be brought back, reused and recycled. (The yogurt selection is also outrageous -- some of my favorite flavors here are Mango Vanilla, Roasted Hazelnut and Rhubarb).
+ Stores ask if you want bags instead of automatically giving you triple-plastic-bagged groceries. When you buy loose produce, it goes in paper, not plastic bags.
+ When eating out, tips usually just round out a check by a few euros. On an 18,20 Euro, check, you might leave 20. On a 36,40 Euro check, you might leave 40. Waitresses also come around with money pouches, so if you need to split a check 15 ways, no problem, you can each just pay at the table. No nonsense trying to calculate percentages at the table.
+ There's generally no table water at restaurants unless you specifically request it. Overall water consumption (it appears) is much, much lower than at home. Sparkling water is the default.

Architecture / Living spaces
+ Windows are copious in every German apartment we've lived in. Every window is designed for frequent usage, and can either be propped open from the top or opened like a door. People rarely have screens. Almost nobody has air conditioning because air flow is usually plentiful enough even for warm days. The space we're in now is probably 500 sq feet, but has 4 skylights and 5 door-sized windows. It makes the compromises (and window design) we accept as standards at home seem like a joke sometimes.
+ In many buildings, every resident will share a single key that opens both their individual unit and the front door. People leave their bikes and prams unlocked in the shared lobby. Residents share a common bike pump. There is much more trust between neighbors.

While here, I'm constantly half torn between the constant desire to sight-see (I've still not been to most of the major museums and there are endless restaurants, cafes, music venues and art shows to see), and the pleasantries of knowing -- we're here for a while and will definitely be back. A lot of this trip is also about family -- our second niece Liv, born July 5th, is squirming, smiling and squelching just around the corner at her fifth floor crib in Prenzlauerberg. We stop by for morning or afternoon visits with her, and older sister Isadora, who refuses to walk on two feet and insists on a remarkably agile crab-style dance. We're also spending lots of hours keeping up with work -- we're 6 hours ahead, but the emails still tick in like clockwork. 


We arrived here in Berlin on Monday, but it's nearing our second week of travel in Europe. We spent the majority of our first week between Munich (for the film festival) and the dorf (small village) of Starnberg on the Starnbergersee (Lake Starnberg), where my friend Viki grew up. A gaggle of other friends also arrived in town for our friends nuptials, so we were surrounded by familiarity on one hand, and a majestic city on the other.

A few photos from our first few days, starting with the world's finest raspberries in Munich:

Film Festival signage dominated the city (which has incredibly limited advertising). 

JBK + Scott in the English Garden's surf spot

Surfers rigged the Isar River, which runs through Munich, to kick up a single wave. Surfers line up for runs, and jump in, one at a time.

Munich Film Fest fun: taking a traditional Bavarian log ride down the Isar river with other directors / producers / actors (complete with Hefeweisen, pretzels, mustard, sausage and sparkling lemonade on board). Imagine if we dropped this thing in the East River.