Berlin from A to Z

Berlin is a huge, incredibly diverse city. As part of my continued efforts to somehow encapsulate this city and make it more accessible to those who are maybe less familiar with it (not that I'm any sort of expert), I present to you: Berlin from A to Z. For each letter, I have chosen a word, place, or thing that somehow relates to life here in Berlin. 


Truly a charming square with old-world charm. 

A is for Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz is sort of the central square in Berlin. It's a major crossing point for the various public transportation lines in Berlin, so if you're trying to get from end of the city to the other, chances are you will cut through Alexanderplatz during your journey. It's also the site of Berlin's famous Fernsehturm, the iconic TV tower that so many associate with Berlin's skyline (if the city can be said to have one at all). Many tourists treat Alexanderplatz as a top sight in Berlin, but most locals agree that the whole area is ugly, dull, crowded and thoroughly lacking in charm. Viewing Alexanderplatz as representative of what Berlin is like is sort of like viewing Times Square as authentic New York -- the tourists may love it, but locals just shake their heads and try to get out of there as soon as possible. 


B is for Berghain 

Berlin has long had a reputation for having an unrivaled clubbing scene, and Berghain is viewed by many as the grandaddy of all Berlin clubs. The club is legendary for its fickle admission policies; the internet is full of advice on how to get into the club, such as making sure you know who is DJing that night, or trying not to speak English. Like anything in Berlin that becomes known to more than 10 people, there is constantly a debate as to whether it's really still "cool" anymore. True lovers of techno will probably recommend you go to some other random club you've probably never heard of, but as the lines outside can attest, Berghain is still seen as one of the city's top clubs, and not just by tourists. 


C is for Currywurst

Currywurst is one of two "fast food" type dishes for which Berlin is known. Currywurst is usually a sausage that is cut up into bite-sized pieces, then doused in a curry-ketchup sauce and sprinkled with curry powder. The spiciness of this dish can vary, and there are plenty of places in Berlin (as well as the rest of Germany) that proudly claim they are home to the spiciest Currywurst. You can find Currywurst all over Germany, but Berlin is where it originated. 


D is for Döner

Döner is the second fast-food for which Berlin is known. For Americans, a Döner is similar to a Gyro -- it's a pita bread that is usually filled with lettuce, onion, tomatoes, some sort of meat shaved off a spit (often lamb but not always), and covered in a sauce, often yogurt-based. Döner is a byproduct of the large number of Turkish immigrants living in Berlin (as well as the rest of Germany). It is the drunk food of choice for hungry Berliners on a Saturday at 2 a.m., and short-term visitors to Berlin frequently report experiencing symptoms of Döner withdrawal upon returning home.


E is for Ex-Pats

Berlin is a popular destination for ex-pats from all over the world looking to move somewhere new, exciting and happening. Regardless of where you're from, there is almost certainly an already thriving ex-pat community for you to join upon moving here. Don't want to learn German? No problem -- chances are you can build enough of a community around you with other ex-pats that you'll never have to leave that bubble if you don't want to. In my opinion this is equal parts wonderful and terrible. 


F is for Flughafen

Germany has a well-deserved reputation for being extremely efficient, responsible and good at carefully planning its projects. When something deviates from this standard, it becomes a source of national shame and will be tirelessly mocked in the media. Perhaps the prime example of this is Berlin's efforts to build a new airport (Flughafen). The project was originally supposed to be completed in 2010 at a reasonable budget, but since then costs have ballooned and the opening date has repeatedly been pushed back. Currently, it is projected to open around 2017, billions of dollars over budget. How very un-German!


"Enjoy these green surroundings. Soon they won't be like this anymore!" (seen in Kreuzberg)

G is for Gentrifizierung

This is one of Berliners' favorite things to complain about. This is a city that has long had a reputation for being a bit run-down, unclean and seedy -- and for being effortlessly cool despite (or because of) these traits. But of course, as more and more people are drawn to Berlin, lured by the cheap rents and urban lifestyle, the makeup and aesthetic of neighborhoods change while prices go up, leaving many Berliners to bemoan the gentrification that is stripping the city of its character and driving out "true Berliners" who can no longer afford to live in these areas. It's a familiar narrative for anyone that has ever lived in a larger city, and it plays out most often in Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, two of the city's hippest areas. 


H is for Hipsters

But despite the threats of gentrification, Berlin remains undeniably cool and provides a fertile breeding ground for all manner of hipster. Tattoos, beards, oversize glasses, weird music, bizarre clubs, cafes full of Macbooks... any hipster stereotype you can conceive of is on display constantly in this city, particularly in areas like Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Neukölln.


I is for International

In general, Germany is a much more ethnically homogeneous society than the U.S. But in Berlin, this perception is completely turned on its head. There is a restaurant somewhere in this city for any type of ethnic food you could think of, and there is nothing uncommon about walking through a neighborhood and hearing several languages other than German being spoken. And this is not just referring to tourists -- some 3.5 million immigrants call this city home. 


J is for Jut, as in, Alles jute!

The manner of German that is spoken in Germany tends to vary by which city you are in. Berliners are no exception, and one of the hallmarks of proper Berlinisch is the shifting of a hard "G" to a soft "J". So, instead of wishing someone well with an "Alles gute!", a  Berliner would wish you "Alles jute!" Or, if they wanted to express their happiness about something, they might say "Sehr jut!" rather than "Sehr gut!" ("Very good!") Less cute examples of Berlinisch include their tendency to say "Ick" instead of the softer, proper "Ich" (the German word for I). 


K is for Kiez

As I already talked about in a previous post, one common way that Berliners break up their city into individual areas is by Kiez. A Kiez is an unofficial designation (they don't exist according to any city-established guidelines) and is basically just a community or neighborhood. A proper Kiez would contain local stores, bars, restaurants, etc. -- it's not just a place where people go home to, it's a place where they live out their whole days. The word is used in other parts of Germany, but for most people it has a specific association with Berlin. 


L is for Luft (Berliner)

Berliners are a diverse people who consume many different kinds of alcohol, but one type particularly beloved by locals is Berliner Luft (which literally translates to "Berlin Air"). It's a peppermint liqueur that goes down oh-so-easy, and it's common for Berliners to kick off a night (or keep it going) with a round of Luft.  Or at least the Berliners I seem to hang out with.


M is for Miete

Similar to the topic of gentrification, Berliners love to talk about the Miete (rent price). Specifically, they love talking about how much more expensive rent is today than it was 5 to 10 years ago, and how all these people moving to Berlin with no idea of what a fair price to pay is are ruining it for the true Berliners when they agree to pay these unfairly high prices. Thanks a lot, guys. But in reality, these complaints are not unfounded, and the city is constantly grappling with efforts to keep skyrocketing rent prices under control. 


N is for Nollendorfplatz

So for some reason I had a really hard time finding the right term for N to represent. Based on the suggestion of a friend, I went with Nollendorfplatz, a square/U-Bahn station in the Schöneberg area of Berlin. Nollendorfplatz is known as being the center of LGBT culture in Berlin. Many of the best-known LGBT bars and clubs are located in this area. So if that's your scene, don't miss out on a visit to Nolli. 


O is for Ossi

Viewed as a pejorative by some and worn as a badge of honor by others, Ossi is a way of referring to people who grew up in the former East Germany. Though of course the wall has fallen and Germany is once more a unified country, there are undeniable cultural, social, and economic differences between those who grew up in the West and those who grew up in the East. Whether or not the word is offensive depends greatly on how it's being used (it's not generally viewed as a word worth getting upset over, as far as I can tell, but it's also not always used nicely). 


P is for Pfannkuchen

So there's the classic apocryphal story of John F. Kennedy coming to Berlin and proclaiming, "Ich bin ein Berliner", which supposedly was a hilarious gaffe because a Berliner is a jelly-filled pastry, and thus JFK basically went to a foreign land and proclaimed himself a doughnut in front a crowd of thousands. Except, what many non-Germans don't realize is that a Berliner (the pastry) is not called a Berliner in Berlin -- it's actually called a Pfannkuchen. This is particularly confusing to Americans because Pfannkuchen literally means pancake, but our conception of pancakes is completely different. I could make this even more confusing and tell you that Berliner/Pfannkuchen go by like five different names depending where in Germany you are, but... I'll stop there. Don't go to Berlin and order a Berliner, do go to Berlin and order a Pfannkuchen. 


Q is for Queueing 

This one is slightly more specific to the expat experience, although Germans will experience it too. Berlin is a big, populous city whose bureaucratic offices are woefully understaffed. That means completing necessary bureaucratic steps, like registering you address or applying for your visa, become major tests of your patience. For the Bürgeramt (where you register your address), many people show up an hour early to ensure they are able to get a number. For the Ausländerbehörde (where you get your visa), some people show up two to three hours early. Sure, you can try to make an appointment, but don't be surprised to see they're booked three months out. Looks like you'll be queuing with the rest of the huddled, yearning masses!


R is for Ringbahn

The Ringbahn is the name for the two S-Bahn lines that ride a loop around the inner city within Berlin. It's an extremely efficient way to get from one end of the city to the other (and Berlin is quite large, so the ability to quickly move from east to west or north to south is quite critical for most residents). The Ring is also often used as a way of determining the most desirable places to live in the city. Inside the ring = central, cool, easily accessible. Outside the ring = middle of nowhere, snoozeville, a day's journey from anywhere. Obviously the latter is hyperbole, but in general people have a strong preference for inside the Ring when looking for housing (for the record, I live outside it and get along just fine). 


S is for Späti

Germany is still a fairly traditional land when it comes to working hours. Most grocery stores only keep standard hours, opening around 8 a.m. and closing between 8 and 10 p.m., depending where you live. No normal stores are open on Sundays, except on special occasions. There is a little more flexibility in a city the size of Berlin,  where for example many grocery stores stay open as late as 11 p.m. or midnight, but still, options for after-hours or Sunday shopping are limited. The answer to this? The Spätkauf store, or Späti for short. Spätis exist in other cities in Berlin, but they are an essential part of the Berlin experience. Going out clubbing at 1 a.m and want to pick up a beer on the way? Stop by your friendly neighborhood Späti and down the beer during your trip to the club. Done with clubbing and just need to rehydrate? Stop by a Späti on your way home and grab a bottle of water or a Schorle for the Heimweg. Forgot to buy juice for your breakfast on Sunday and in a pinch? Just run downstairs to the corner Späti and grab a bottle. Spätis are always there when you need them, and Berliners love them for this. 


T is for Techno

This is one of the things Berlin is most famous for, though I personally don't have much experience with it. Berlin's techno scene is legendary, and the number of clubs catering to this type of music seems limitless. I think this is one reason the clubbing scene in Berlin might appear very casual (with regards to dress code) than the scenes in other places. Going to a techno club is about investing yourself in the music, which means your priorities should be to dress to dance for a very long time. Leave your high heels at home  and pick a pair of sneakers instead. 


U is for Unter den Linden

Among Berlin's major boulevards, Unter den Linden is probably the most significant, at least for tourists. The name references the Linden trees that line the central median. Starting just after the Berliner Dom, the street is peppered with notable sights, such as the main Humboldt University building or the Staatsoper. It ends at the Brandenburg Gate, obviously one of Berlin's top sights. 


V is for Volksparks 

There are many factors that contribute to Berlin being an overall enjoyable place to live, but one of my favorite is the abundance of Volksparks, bits of green space set aside for people to enjoy as they may. They are many across Berlin (as well as other types of parks), each with its own unique offerings. For example, Volkspark Friedrichshain has a beautiful fairytale fountain, while Volkspark Humboldthain features WWII-era anti-aircraft towers from which you can now get an elevated look over the city.  


W is for Warschauer Strasse

There are many different places to go partying or clubbing in Berlin, and every part of the city has something to offer in this regard. But, one area that is consistently viewed as being a hub of going out in Berlin is Warschauer Strasse, located in the south of Friedrichshain toward the Spree. Many well-known bars and clubs are located in the area (including Berghain, mentioned earlier in this post), and it also serves as a sort of gateway into Kreuzberg and the legion of bars and clubs to be found there. Chances are no true Berliner would claim Warschauer Strasse is where the best partying in Berlin is to be found, but few parts of the city can rival it in name recognition.


X is for Xberg

There are many abbreviations and shortened forms Berliners use to refers to parts of the city -- Schlesisches Tor becomes "Schlesi" or Friedrichshain becomes Fhain. One shortening that might confuse non-German speakers is that of Kreuzberg to Xberg. But, it makes sense when you realize that "Kreuz" is the German word for "Cross". So it's similar to abbreviating Cross Country to XC, for example. 


Y is for Youth

Sure, people of all ages live in Berlin. But there's no denying that this is a city particularly appealing to twenty- and thirtysomethings. Berlin has a revered tradition of staying out clubbing until mid-morning the next day, fueled by a transportation network that runs continuously throughout the night. There are seemingly limitless hip, urban, art-oriented spaces for people to explore their creativity, from coffee shops and yoga studios to entire communities, and the city has a burgeoning tech and start-up scene. Sure, none of this is exclusively for young people, but you can understand why this city has a certain appeal for people under 35. 


Z is for Zugezogener 

Berlin is a city of transplants. These people may live here for five, ten, fifteen years -- but that does not necessarily mean they get to call themselves "Berliners", at least in the eyes of the Germans who have actually lived their entire lives in this city. So, instead of earning the title of Berliner, a person in this position, at least early on in their stay, might be referred to as "Zugezogener." This is a word that simply refers to someone who has moved to a city from somewhere else. You can agree that Alexanderplatz is disgusting, complain about the increasing price of rent and use abbreviations for public transportation stops like a pro, but that doesn't make you a Berliner -- you are still just a Zugezogener. Accept it and embrace it.