1. All Berliners wear black coats. Occasionally I’ve spotted a brown or grey coat thrown in, and I did think I saw a deep red one once, but I think it was probably just the light. I am a fan of colour. Not in a crazy way; I just think it brightens up the day. When I arrived in Berlin at the end of September I was wearing my bright purple coat. When it got to about November I moved into my slightly warmer bright blue coat with a rather jazzy lining. Waiting on train or U-Bahn platforms, I did feel rather conspicuous among the sea of black, but I pretended not to notice the (disapproving or just bemused?) stares. I thought they didn’t bother me. However, at the beginning of February something odd happened, something out of character: on an impulse I bought a long black coat. I know. Perhaps it was the effect of too much time among Germans. Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, who was staying at the time and has a penchant for wearing coats resembling duvets. Perhaps it was simply brain freeze, given it felt about -20 degrees on the day in question. Who knows? But I reluctantly have to admit that I am secretly rather glad I did. Berlin winters are hard. And long.
2. Germans stare. A lot. It’s normal to look up at someone when they sit down opposite you on the bus, but that embarrassed, quickly-look-away reaction that British people have when said passenger realises you are looking is not to be found here. Sometimes I’ve looked up and entered into the staring competition, but I never do very well; it just feels too uncomfortable. Children do it too, which is almost more unnerving – they obviously haven’t been taught “it’s rude to stare”.
3. Rush hour is easy. Give me Alexanderplatz at 6pm over Tottenham Court Road any day. Berliners often lament about how busy their public transport system is, but if you’ve ever experienced Victoria Station on a strike day, or stood under somebody’s armpit on the Circle Line, or had to watch three Tubes drive past before it’s worth even considering trying to squeeze yourself in, then it’s hard to drum up much sympathy. I do admit that the below photo was not taken on Berlin’s busiest stretch of the public transport network, but this is a fairly full carriage on my typical “rush hour” train home:
4. In winter, children wear snowsuits, regardless of whether or not there is snow. I’m still not really sure why. There must be some really logical explanation (we are talking Germans after all), but I am yet to work it out. Surely it must be a pain when you’re having to constantly change nappies or take them to the toilet? I’ll admit that it does look really cute when you walk along the street and see a rainbow of tightly packed-up children waddling about as best as they are able in their super insulation suits, (now that I think about it, children can dress as brightly as they like; the general rule seems to be ‘the brighter, the better’ – I wonder when one has to make the transition into the world of black….) but it seems a bit over the top. I’ve witnessed brightly coloured bundles on the U-Bahn identifiable as a mini-human only by the tiny bright pink face sticking out that looks like it would do anything to be wearing about three layers less. Maybe by next winter I’ll have worked this one out.
5. Supermarkets don’t do discounts. I always found it extremely satisfying if I was passing a Tescos just before closing time to be able to grab a couple of “expiring today” products for under a pound. Even more satisfying if it happened to be an M&S. Food items here have a price. And unless it is the deal of the week, in which case it may have a few cents knocked off, it is always that price. Goodbye to late-night “let’s quickly pop in and have a look just in case ” food wins.
6. Berlin doesn’t have a city centre. Well obviously it does geographically, but its geographical centre doesn’t really mean anything. The phrase “going into town” doesn’t really work. Berlin is all about the “Kiez”. Every Berliner lives in a Kiez (there are 23 in Berlin), every Kiez has a different culture and atmosphere, and every Berliner believes that their Kiez is the best. “Kiez” can be translated as neighbourhood, but use it outside of Berlin and you will get funny looks.
Tip: from a visitor’s point of view, Mitte is probably the most “central” area, as this is where most of Berlin’s famous Tourist landmarks are – Checkpoint Charlie, Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral, Brandenburg Gate, to name but a few. However, you’re unlikely to find Berliners hanging out here in their spare time