Diary of an Expat, Part 1
Planes, Trains, Shopping
If you know somebody who is moving abroad, and follow their Facebook posts, it will go something like this:

September 26 @ 16:30: Just landed at Orly. The weather is beautiful outside!
September 26 @ 18;00: Checked into my hotel. Off to see the sights now!
September 27 @ 20:00: Spent the entire day walking around Paris. What a wonderful city.
September 28 @ 13:00: Lunch at an authentic French cafe was delish! The French really know how to live life!
October 3 @ 8:00: Yet another gorgeous morning in the most beautiful city in the world!
October 4 @ 19:00: Shopping finished! Got to check out all these really quaint shops
October 9 @ 21:00: Language is really coming along! Had an amazing conversation with my landlord today! They've got such a unique perspective!
October 14 @ 14:00: A pleasant stroll through along Paris' famous boulevards makes any day complete!
October 25 @ 21:00: So many things to get used to here.


And so on.

People do not keep diaries so much anymore, because blogs exist, but if they had a private diary it would look like this:

September 26: Landed at Orly and went to hotel. I think the taxi might've stiffed me, but who cares? This is really exciting!
September 27: Wow, Paris is going to be a lot of fun. My feet are killing me. Note: must get good walking shoes!
October 1: Got lost again, was ignored when I asked for directions.
October 4: ... Is it... is it possible to miss Wal-Mart? I just want to buy some shampoo :( Where can I find some shampoo?
October 9: Landlord shut the hell up. I am AN American I did not CREATE the American government stop asking me "why your country want to make so many death in Iraq" I didn't kill anybody and I did not "vote for the Bush over and over" no matter how hard you gesticulate
October 14: why does paris have so many f**king streets?
October 25: found philadelphia cream cheese at corner store ate entire tin while sobbing


Anyway, so I live in Berlin now.

As of this writing, I have been in Berlin for one week. Some of this I have spent working; some of it I have spent "out and about." On the whole, I like Berlin, but there are times when the whole thing is so overwhelming I want to bash my head into a wall until it breaks (the wall, that is. Well. No, either one would work).

I am going to try to keep a clear-eyed record of what it is like to be an expatriate. I have moved to Berlin from Denver and San Francisco before that, and I will be living here for an indefinite period of time. I moved because of work, and I did not choose Berlin (I didn't veto it, either, it's just where the job was). So I am your average American, trying to get used to life in a new city whilst also balancing a new and stressful job. There is your background.

Now. Here is what is on my mind, on this lovely Saturday afternoon.

BERLIN is a city that has a lot going for it. It's quiet, for one — not that it lacks for activity, but it does lack for raucousness. You feel safe on most streets, especially in downtown and the area a kilometer or so around it in all directions. It is also a city that gives a great sense of dynamism — in Mitte, the downtown area, there is construction on nearly every block, with concrete dust and cranes everywhere. But it's not all steel girders and mortar; Berlin is an intensely green city, with parks on nearly every street and trees absolutely everywhere. You have a lot of room to rebuild and add parks when your city experiences "urban renewal a la Flying Fortress."

It is not a city without its flaws. There are trash cans at regular intervals, but it nonetheless feels like a dirty city — not "hypodermic needles" dirty, but "could use a good scrubbing" dirty. A good scrubbing would, however, remove the graffiti that adorns every exposed surface of Berlin (my favorite so far is one I saw scrawled on a windowframe: "No! You not having a Warkman!" It's passionate, though it is not clear to me whether they are for or against the "Warkman" and the having thereof). The development here is schizophrenic; I looked at a nicely furnished, lovely apartment right across from a vacant lot with some old industrial equipment lying in it. Again, it's never something you'd feel uncomfortable about, but it is definitely a city that lacks polish. "Gritty," I think is what you hip youth of today would call it.

Also, I'm pretty sure that street numbers on opposing sides of the street are not related. [Street name] 3 will be on one side, faced with [Street name] 40. Walk one door up and you're at [Street name] 4, facing [Street name] 38. That could just be me being easily lost, but I've seen it a couple of times and it compounds my already notoriously poor sense of direction.

SHOPPING IN BERLIN is also schizophrenic. There are no (? Few, at least) stores like Target or Wal-Mart that cater to everything in one place. Have a disparate shopping list, like "I need some socks, some blank DVDs, some fresh fruit, some hairbands and some aspirin"? Budget time to visit four or five different stores. In particular, I had a killer headache and wanted some analgesic of some fashion. Two grocery stores came up dry, as did what was plainly labelled as a "drug store" — my poor language skills probably didn't help; I asked the clerk, in fractured German, "Please, have you the small objects for where my head is not right?" and she handed me a comb. Combs, conditioner and condoms you can get at a self-proclaimed "Drogeriemarkt"; aspirin, an actual drug, is to be found at an Apotheke instead.

Also, nothing is open on Sundays. This is an unwelcome surprise for an American; any Ami worth his or her salt can go to a Wal-Mart 15 (no more than 30) minutes from their house and buy a big-screen TV at 3 in the morning, if they so desire. The German who desires bread or eggs and has the ill fortune to do so on a Sunday morning is Scheiße aus Glück. Unless they go to a train station (!) because train stations are allowed to be open on Sundays and therefore a supermarket attached to a train station (!!) is open on Sundays as well.

Because Berliners are less keen on buying things than Americans are, Berlin shopkeepers are also less keen on selling them. Therefore you will find cafés, for example. that are closed during the morning rush hour, or restaurants that shut down for lunch on the grounds that the owner is, like you, hungry and, also like you, taking a break from work. Deutsche Bank, in a fit of pique, at one point considered opening for a few hours on Saturday; this noble experiment has evidently ceased.

However, when you can find a store selling what you want, and it is open, you will discover the hidden secret of Berlin, which is that everything is insanely cheap. You will go to a store, fill up a basket full of organic fruits and meat (good here), fresh bread (even better here), chocolate (amazing here), orange juice, etc., get to the counter, and be told "Bitte, €10." Then you hand this over and scramble to bag your groceries with the bag that you brought with you from outside (you did do that, right? Right?)

Woe betide the person who does not have a bag with them. Angry looks will ensue; fortunately, I knew this going in.

To get to the shops, you will probably walk. If you do not, you will take the PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN BERLIN, and coming from San Francisco — a city with decent mass transit — Berlin kicks San Francisco's ass so fucking hard San Francisco probably thinks it's 1906 again. Then, Berlin stomps on San Francisco until San Francisco begs for mercy, shoves San Francisco into the trunk of a car, and drives that car into the Bay.

By which I mean German mass transit is pretty crazy. The trains run on time, I think, but it's hard to tell because they run every 5 or 10 minutes so who cares if they're not? If you are poor, like me, and cannot afford a monthly pass you buy a daily pass, which for €6.30, or about $9, lets you ride the subway as much as you want. Also the above-ground trains. Also the busses. Also the ferries, and also the trams. There are no turnstiles, you just get on, which means there are no long queues and little stress. It is gorgeous.

The U-Bahn (die Untergrundbahn, or metro) and I get along very well. My temporary housing is next to an U-Bahn stop, and from there I can get pretty much anywhere quickly and efficiently. The doors do not open automatically, you have to do that yourself, and this also means that you can open the doors before the train has come to a stop. If they tried a system like that in the United States, every two-bit ambulance chaser would be stroking their dicks so hard they caught fire, and this would no doubt cause global warming, which Berliners dislike strongly.

Myself and Madame S-Bahn (die Stadtschnellbahn, or rapid-city-transport) get on much less well. Twice, now, I have been on S-Bahn trains that came to a halt at a station, and then began going in the opposite direction, back the way they had come. I do not know enough German to understand the explanation for this. Was there something frightening up ahead? Are they on strike? Are these radical hipster trains, desperate for the U-Bahn's underground scene? I do not know.

Today, I got on a S-Bahn train that was supposed to be (and declared itself to be) one line, but then sat in the station for 10 minutes, changed its mind, and went off on a different route instead. I presume this is not actually random — there is nothing that warms a Berliner's heart like a sense of order, so I cannot believe it is not on purpose. But there is some aspect to S-Bahn travel that I do not understand, exactly, and I am going to avoid taking it as much as I can.

Also, the fare machine allowed me to put in €4 of my €6.30, today, then petulantly told me that it was out of order and did not return my money.

And now my rambling has gone on long enough. Join me next time, when I talk about apartment-hunting, the German state, and maybe a little bit about Berliners themselves. If you have any questions, feel free to E-mail me or leave them in the comments, and I will answer them next Saturday when I post the next weekly installment of what I was going to call "An American in Paris," then "An American in Berlin," then "An American with crippling social anxiety in a city where ordering an espresso is a grotesque misadventure" before settling on "Diary of an expat," which is also an in-joke that literally two people will maybe get.
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