Diary of an Expat, Part 24
Barcelona, busses, and the 'burbs
So, first as a heads-up note that I am reporting live from scenic Barcelona, Spain. I'll be here all week, which may mean that I don't really soak up enough German culture to be worthy of a blog post next Saturday. I'm also going to be spending my days inside a convention center, so it's probably unlikely that I'll get enough out of Spanish culture to make do.

I probably mentioned back when I traveled to the United States in December that one of the most striking differences between Germany and the US is how you choose to get around. This is something that I also notice when, as frequently happens, my Berlin office hosts guests from my company's foreign bureaus (frequently Boston or Sunnyvale).

Several times in the last few weeks I have explained to Americans that where they are and where they are going are a matter of five or ten minutes on Berlin's superlative public transit system, often along one line (that is, without any transfers). Three quarters of the time, they wind up taking taxis anyway.

I bitched a lot about BART when I lived in San Francisco, but I still used the system every day and on balance it was reliable, fast, and safe — it lost points for being relatively expensive but, hey, it was San Francisco, what can you do?

Americans, I find, have an expanded sense of "place" and what is nearby. Americans will, for instance, drive 10 or 20 minutes to get dinner as a matter of course. Ten or twenty minutes will get you across large stretches of Berlin by the S-Bahn — crossing several food neighborhood clusters — but in general whilst Berliners are liable to spend the same amount of time (or more) getting to the restaurant, it's nearly always by walking, occasionally with some trains put in for good measure.

Web magazine Cracked had an article this week on the "dos" and "don'ts" of public transport, but on balance, while many Americans have ridden or do ride trains and busses, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the public transit culture isn't really engrained there, outside of a very few cities (New York, for example; even in the Bay Area, which has decent multimodal transportation, cars are quite common)

I still haven't quite settled on what the consequences of this are. I think in general Americans and Germans (or at least Berliners) have roughly the same number of places they consider regular haunts and areas that they'd consider suitable for hanging out, Americans are less dense and have a wider geographic dispersal, whereas Germans tend to be neighborhood focused. Trying to get my German friends to leave their corners of Berlin is an issue (and I'm the same way), but they have an intimate knowledge of their area of the city on a block by block basis.

It also tends to create clusters of expertise around popular transportation stops; somebody might live in south-east Berlin, but have a collection of favorite restaurants and places around, say, Savignyplatz or Westkreuz in the western section of the city. There are train routes where it is possible to cross large sections of Berlin extremely quickly, and like jumpgates in old sci-fi stories these create little compartments of experience.

But the speed is key. Berliners don't travel long distances with the same willingness that car-owning Americans do; they don't travel 10 miles to get to a particular store, and they certainly don't indulge in the (in some ways uniquely American) practice of living out in the sticks and commuting in. A thirty minute commute is outrageous for most folks here (I have a 30 minute commute because I walk; if I took the train, including transfers, waiting time and walking it only takes 10 or 15 minutes).

I have the feeling that this impacts the culture in some systematic, fundamental way but I haven't yet concluded what that is :/ Maybe next time, when my dispatch from the front of expatriatedom will include a note on the peculiarity of the siesta — the process where the Spaniards take the German practice of not being open when you want them to be but, instead of making it Sunday, do it every day and spread it out a little each time.

I hear there is a store open, but it's a few miles distant and I don't want to take a cab...
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