Appearance vs Reality: A Quick Guide to a Young Student’s Impressions of the Great Bear City

Berlin: Appearence vs Reality
Photos: Irina Stelea

Before Arriving

I arrived to Berlin on a late February morning, along with other fellow students from Bard College supposed to spend a semester abroad at ECLA of Bard. As any good student would, I heartily researched my new home before arriving there. Speaking with many who had either previously lived or traveled there, I developed a sense of confidence that only a lack of first-hand experience can bring about. Below is comprehensive list of the most common pieces of advice and/or stereotypes others shared with me about Berlin.


1. DO NOT stand on the bike lane. Bikers WILL run you over.

Consequence of not heeding this advice: While trying to figure out where I was in the city, I inadvertently wandered onto the infamous bike lane. Before I could correct my mistake, an elderly woman overtook me. After she swiftly passed me, she paused to reprimand me loudly in German (and yes, being yelled in German is scarier than in English for the simple fact that I do not understand German).

2. Do not cross the street if it is not your turn. People WILL correct you.

Reality: People do often wait for their turn to cross the street. If you do cross the street when it is not your turn, people glare at you. I have only seen people jaywalking in the touristy parts of the city.

3. Berliners are rude: you MUST learn to fire back.

Meaningless Stereotype: There are rude people everywhere. However, I find Berliners quite helpful and friendly.

4. Night Life is crazy.

True: Though I have not experienced it myself, every suspicion seems to confirm this claim.

5. Berlin is primarily a cash-based society.

True: Most places only take cash. Coming from New York City, where I rarely carried cash with me, this was certainly something that took some time getting used to.

Regardless of these half-truths, everyone seems to hold Berlin in positive regard, eager to share their opinions. And since I have lived here for the past one and a half months, I acquired my own unique list that I would like to pass on to any potential Berlin resident. I hope you read the following with good humor and grave suspicion.

Immediate Quirky Impressions/Reactions

  1. Unlike the standard rectangular pillows that I have used either in the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, Berlin is almost exclusively populated with oddly shaped square pillows. Although I have seen these pillows in the U.S., I have never used them.
  2. To my surprise public transportation is run on the honor system. Tram, bus, and train passengers are compelled to purchase a ticket purely out of respect for the law. I have only encountered a public transportation worker asking for tickets once; fortunately, all people had their tickets with them.
  3. People are allowed to walk around with alcoholic beverages in their hands. Interesting.
  4. Germans smoke as many cigarettes as the amount of air they inhale daily. There are cigarette vending machines everywhere around the city. I have even seen a lot of pre-teens smoking cigarettes.

The City in its Entirety

Graffiti and other forms of street art are the most tangibly distinguishable thing about Berlin. Whether the neighborhood is considered ‘high’ or ‘low-end’, nearly every surface is personalized with tags. I have seen more street art and graffiti in my short time here than I have in my entire life. Initially, I tried to absorb all the graffiti; however, since there is so much of it everywhere, I soon gave up as they receded into the general scenery of the city. Though, unlike graffiti, street art never gets old. I am still excited when I come upon a side of building, totally engulfed in enticing images.

Not to be overshadowed, Berlin boasts a home to nearly every artistic form. And in keeping with its emphasis and support of the various artistic communities, the city has a perceptibly laid-back, welcoming feel. The streets are littered with cafés and restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalk. Modest drinking is an integral part of a Berlin life, and with beer often being cheaper than water, drinking is a tradition many people find hard to abstain from.

Berlin is a truly unique metropolis that bears the quality of smaller, less complicated city. And as such, unlike the breakneck pace of the States, Berliners value their periods of rest nearly as much as their moments of productivity. Sundays are sleepy and quiet, with very few stores open.


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