Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Berlin Travel Notes

Spent the last week in Berlin.  A few thoughts about the city:

  • As expected, Berlin was pleasantly un-crowded.  Traffic, even in downtown and highly commercial areas, was remarkably light.  The U-Bahn metro was never jam packed, and it was usually possibly for our group of four to sit together on the trains.  We never experienced a problem finding a table for dinner.  
  • Technologically, Berlin seems a bit behind Washington and New York.  After reading the Economist write that Scandinavian cities are living in thetechnological future, I was hoping to find Berlin in a similarly advanced state.  In fact, it felt more retro than futuristic.  Few restaurants accepted credit cards; the taxis did not have GPS; and smart phones and tablets and electronics were less noticeable than in the U.S.  At one point, I spent over half an hour in a busy commercial neighborhood looking (unsuccessfully) for an ATM that would dispense cash to a non-German card.  On the whole, I can’t recall any instances of technology that struck me as more advanced than what I would find in DC. 
  • The two English-language bookstores that I visited—Shakespeare & Sons and St. George’s—were well curated and had ver nice ambiences.  
  • The crosswalk “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” figurines wear fedora hats. 
  • The food was not great.  Our group kept settling for Italian meals, which were a mixed bag.  This was probably not a great decision, and we probably should have taken advantage of the many Asian (particularly Vietnamese and Thai) options.  The two German restaurants that we tried were disappointing.  I did enjoy the currywurst more than expected; some of the currywurst stands make their own ketchup and mayonnaise.  We also found excellent sausages at street markets. 
  •  I was surprised by the lack of ethnic minorities.  Granted, we lodged in the gentrified neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, but the other neighborhoods that I saw were not particularly diverse either.  Even at crowded metro transfer points—normally a good melting pot—the population was strikingly white.
  • Berlin enjoys terrific social capital.  It was a bit remarkable to arrive in a country, not speak a word of the language, and yet never have to worry about getting ripped off.  Taxis to and from the airport cost less than we had been told.  Headphones were given out for free at museums with no mechanism for tracking or keeping people from making off with them.  There are no turnstiles at metro stops; the authorities simply rely on social capital and occasional patrolling of metro cars to police the system.  We did not see a metro patrol our entire trip, but we nevertheless paid for and stamped our tickets.  
  • Most striking of all was the friendliness and good nature of the Berliners we encountered.  Despite our total lack of German language ability, we did not have a single unpleasant encounter with a Berlin worker.  They were uniformly polite, friendly and helpful.  No one seemed depressed or even upset to be at work.  Such an experience would be unimaginable in France or even in the U.S.  I can’t help but wonder if high employment has something to do with this.  Is it possible that the high employment rate allows people to more readily quit jobs that make them unhappy and find a more adequate replacement?  


  1. Excellent write up. A few thoughts:

    TC had similar experience with the food: http://tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com/?cat=194

    The differences between the Berlin and NYC subway systems is interesting, with regard to fare evasion, I mean. Google tells me that Berlin has a higher rate of fare evasion (4% v. 1% in NYC), but that seems like a small difference given the much stiffer fines in NYC (now $500 v. less than $100 in Berlin) and the use of turnstiles. I wonder what NYC's fare evasion rate would be with a Berlin-style system. Then again, NYC trains are probably far too crowded to rely on patrolling officers as a primary form of enforcement.

    Did you find the technological differences relaxing/charming or more frustrating?

  2. I didn't find the technological differences relaxing or charming, but they weren't particularly frustrating. In general, I think I would enjoy a more technologically advanced place. I didn't really have much occasion to check out whether restaurants and cafes had wifi, but I didn't get the feeling that a ton of them did.

  3. Planning a vacation is a joyful experience whether it's with your family, friends or even if you're travelling alone