Tales of a New Yorker in Berlin

Rosenthaler Platz
Waiting for the U-bahn subway train at Rosenthaler Platz

For a New Yorker, Berlin might not seem too different from home, save the generally cheaper prices of food and transport (although the currency change might throw you off) and German language. However due to the rapid modernization and increasing cosmopolitanism of Berlin, the English language seems to be spoken in more populated and more so for the touristy areas in the region. And when it comes to Berlin, everywhere you find yourself seems to be somehow very populated and touristy.

The aftermath of World War II in Germany, especially Berlin, presented an opportunity for recreation and the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the city. The public transportation in Berlin puts New York subways to shame: the U-bahn and S-bahn metro systems are efficient, clean, well-maintained and, here’s a shocker, the trains are actually on time according to the schedule posted. Perhaps due to cultural values or residual subtle effects of the war, Berliners appear to be very disciplined with promptness and efficiency. Boarding a plane took no more than fifteen minutes. Much to our discredit, the English-speaking German tour guides in the museums were scowling at our five-minute tardiness.

What is most fascinating about Berlin, however, is its vivid contrast between the old and the new. You see pre-war buildings scattered around the city, immersed amongst the more modern and technologically current buildings. Various metro stations around the city, like Berlin Hauptbahnhof (railway central station), are so architecturally modern that it’s easy to forget the lingering history and its implications in the city. The Berlin Wall still stands in some areas, a reminder and subtle shadow of the previous division between West and East Berlin.

Regardless of the subtle references to Berlin’s past, its history has been reiterated to the world and the German people, as opposed to having been forgotten. While the latter seems like a preferable option, especially with the many traumatic experiences and aftershocks of wartime Germany, Berlin has been able to contain its historical significance while embracing a new identity for the present and imminent future.

But at times, Berlin seems to be at times quite similar to New York. There were Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts scattered every few blocks or so, standing alongside various German versions of chain coffee shops. To name one, Balzac Coffee could be found on many corners in the bustling city. Currywurst, pretzels, and beer are the cheap and authentic ways to keep your stomach full. Jaywalking is actually taken seriously and observed consistently in Berlin. Even when there is a red pedestrian light and no cars are heading your way, you should wait with the other Berliners for the green light. Failure to observe the rules could result in a light but painful monetary fine!

Whenever you see trolley (tram) tracks on the street, you have to keep in mind that there might be a trolley coming. They move swiftly and quietly throughout the city. Therefore, looking both ways before crossing any roads is absolutely necessary. The signs for the metro stations, both for the U-bahn and S-bahn, are visually clear from a far distance and unlike in many other countries, they seam to miraculously lead you in the right direction.

Subtle cultural and language differences aside, the New York City lover will find him/herself comfortable in the city of Berlin. With bustling streets, bright lights, and a bouncing nightlife culture, spending just a week in Berlin over spring break was not enough for me to fully experience its wonders. But, for now, it’ll do just fine.

Story and Photo by Caroline Osse

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