Diary of an Expat, Part 89
In praise of Deutsche Bahn
We're now entering what I would describe as "prime ice cream season," which is not as it happens a season that has much to do with the weather. Berlin is not unseasonably cold this year, but it is definitely on the cooler side, which doesn't seem to impact ice cream consumption much at all.

Next week will be another "ex-expat" diary, because I'm spending essentially all of the week (Monday morning to Saturday morning) in New York City — the famous 'windy city by the bay' of so much lore. I've been there only once before. I hope it's okay.

One thing that I will do out there is apply for global entry, the DHS program that allows you to skip the Horrible Immigration Lines that are designed to punish people who want to enter the country. I think they expect you to be a stand-up citizen for that. Which I am... and since I've kept in regular contact with my American friends and family, all they have to do is ask the NSA to turn over their tapes ;)

Having an American I needed to shepherd around has, I have to admit, made some of the differences rather more apparent. I'm coming up on two years living abroad, and I'll admit I don't honestly think of myself as terribly American. I sometimes refer to myself as American, but mostly in a self-deprecating way, when I'm referring to things Americans are notoriously bad at — like work-life balance, or pastry.

I would say I consider myself more of a Berliner, which is somewhat separate from considering myself German. I've said before in these environs that realistically it means I'm somewhat stateless. This is the lot of an expat, which I don't really mind that much. I know that this seems weird, but then, nationality is a strange thing for most people to be proud or ashamed of: you're born with it, it's not something you get to exert strong ownership of.

When you move to a new city, on purpose, and choose to assimilate, or to learn from them, and to integrate yourself into that fabric, I think it gives you a stronger case for self-identity. So. Ich bin ein Berliner, or somesuch.

I say this following the Fourth of July, which came and went without my really noticing it. I used to be quite fond of the Fourth and I advise Americans to be, because it's a good way of reflecting on the best parts of the country — a legacy of demanding freedom, an enduring sense of tradition, community cohesiveness, and a penchant for barbecue and exploding things.

In Berlin, we're not so good at barbecue (some people will argue, but, we're just not, alas), but on the plus side we blow things up all the time. If there's something Berliners are not capable of celebrating with fireworks I don't know what it is. Santa Claus doesn't visit here because the last time he did the reindeer thought they were being flakked.

Anyway, something else we're good at, and the US would do well to adopt. Deutsche Bahn does a thing called the Bahn Card. There are levels of it. One level is the 25, one is the 50. Bahn Card 25 lets you take a flat 25% of all Deutsche Bahn fares, even the discounted ones. BC50 lets you take 50% off all nondiscounted fares, so if you plan travel in advance (discounted fares tend to be the ones near departure time when they're trying to fill up the train) they're a good buy.

There's even a 100% card that is just unlimited travel on the Deutsche Bahn system, which is amazing, but it's expensive as hell so whatever, I don't use it. But commodifying public transit is smart, and a good idea. We're opening up new direct rail links this year, which should make things even easier. The canonical "it's shorter to take the train" use case are cities that are 4 hours away or less by train. When you include time to the airport, flight time, time to collect baggage, at 4 hours it's faster to fly. Frankfurt falls into that class here. Prague also.

It makes it fantastically easier to impulse travel.

One of the more ironic things is that of course the United States does have an extremely good rail system. A fantastic amount of freight in the United States is shipped by rail (in Europe it tends to be more... well... you know...), far more than over here. Unfortunately the system is superannuated and therefore not terribly good for high speed rail...

Over here we tend to eschew wooden ties and the rails are electrically welded and designed for high-speed runs; ICE does Berlin to Hamburg in an hour and a half, which is a good 170 km/h. You don't feel it. That's quite nice. So mostly what you guys need to do is get the rail re-laid, which I'm aware is a hard sell.

Something you can do more easily is another thing the Bahn Card gets you, which is discounted access to Deutsche Bahn's bike rental system.

Now, I'm not going to blow smoke too far up DB's ass on this one, because the bikes are serviceable and well-made, but definitely not, like, Tour quality unless you're doped out of your mind. So. I guess they are Tour quality — but I'm happier with my Gazelle as a daily ride.

On the other hand, €15 a day gets you unlimited use of the bike, which puts the city entirely in your pocket. When my guest was here we biked between 20 and 40 kilometers a day, which is not a vast amount but is enough to get you pretty much anywhere you want to go. It is far and away the best way to get around most cities, I venture to say, and especially Berlin.

The genius of Call-a-Bike, though, is for shorter trips. The setup is designed so that you do not have to return your bike to the station you checked it out from; you can check it into any station. You tap your membership card, or swipe your credit card, choose the bike you want to unlock, and pull the locking pin from it. When you're ready to check it back in you replace the locking pin and push one button. It is easy, painless, and beautiful.

It's something like eight cents a minute; if you have a yearly pass through Bahn Card the first thirty minutes are free. That means that you get into the train station and rather than waiting for another train or hailing a cab, you get on a bike, bike for fifteen minutes, and put it in the rack that's right next to your apartment. It means that when you're in a new city and you see something two kilometer up the road, you can rent a bike, find yourself in a new part of town, and check the bike in for a pittance — or nothing at all.

New York is limping towards adopting this; my understanding is that the Citi program works similarly. It's absolutely fantastic and I am willing to say now, having seen how well it works, that my opinion of German cities is directly correlated to how easily accessible these bikes are.

Ah, who am I kidding; my opinion of any city whatsoever :p So wait for my debrief when I visit Denver in August :D
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