9 Ways I Have to Adjust My American Routine to Living in Berlin

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Credit: Submitted by Dean Sameshima

While I spend most of my time living in Washington D.C., my partner lives in Berlin, the seat of Germany’s government and the heart of its nightlife culture. We’ve been lucky finding low-priced airfare that makes it convenient to visit every few months, sometimes for months at a time. Buying a ticket, though, is usually the easiest part of the trip.

Changing habits depending on what country I’m in requires athlete-level discipline, but switching from established habits that work fine at home in order to better suit a temporary relocation is a Herculean task. Factor in that my partner and I share a tiny studio when I’m in Berlin, and things get tricky.

Here are the best and (rimshot, please) wurst ways that my intermittent Berlin routine differs from home.

1. I can actually rely on public transit.

In Berlin, your options are fast, cheap and frequent, regardless of the time. Sure, I can call a taxi share like FREE NOW—which, contrary to its name, isn’t free or immediate—but why would I when the public option is so good? As an American who’s accustomed to hearing her train rattle by while waiting in line to pay her fare, stuck behind three people who have forgotten how to use a turnstile, I can confidently say that we need to adopt Berlin’s way of boarding trains.  It’s completely changed how I zip around the city, whether it’s for work or fun.

2. Language becomes a difficult dance.

Many native Berliners prefer that English speakers stick with the language they know. But I enjoy learning new languages and practicing, and doing so is part of my life back home. I’ve always embraced the philosophy that a new language is like opening a new window—it’s refreshing and makes it easier to see what’s around you. Here, though, even when I’m confident that I’m saying exactly what I mean to convey, people tend to respond in English. It’s a difficult dance, figuring out whether the other person prefers that I speak English or attempt German, that I’ve yet to master. Some older German acquaintances tell me that it’s acceptable to carry on conversing in broken German, but I’m not yet comfortable breaking that barrier.

Credit: Courtesy of Dean Sameshima

3. I always carry a converter.

Even if you’ve never traveled abroad, the sight of electric converters at electronics stores may be familiar. It’s basically an American plug attachment, and it allows American electronics to power up without voltage issues. They tend to be left in the wall sockets of hotel lobbies, coffee shops, bars, restaurants or generally anywhere inconvenient for you to return to. My partner and I have left several converters across the city. It’s now part of my locking-up-the-house checklist: Wallet? Phone? Laptop? Converter?

4. Mornings are better because no one cares what I look like.

While the stereotypical Berliner uniform certainly remains the slightly funereal, all black everything vibe, the only time what you wear really matters is if you’re trying to get into an exclusive club. Otherwise, people style themselves in however they fancy (including in birthday suits, which aren’t uncommon in the parks). Sartorial choices seem bolder here, more suited for a runway than the more likely back alley cigarette. I’ve seen more body modifications on single individuals than I’ve seen in entire crowds back in Washington. While I might fit in certain crowds more seamlessly if I changed my look, there’s no pressure. No one comments that I look “tired” or “sleepy” when I don’t wear makeup or my hair is ratty. This relieves so much anxiety and it frees up my morning toward things I value more, like reading the news or going for a walk.

Credit: Submitted by Dean Sameshima

5. I cook and eat differently with such a small kitchen.

My partner’s kitchen—which is pretty typical for Berlin—didn’t come with what most Americans would probably consider basics, like ceiling light fixtures. The kitchen has two square feet of counter space that isn’t occupied by a two-burner electric cooktop, and a sink that can barely fit one frying pan in it, so we don’t even have space for a dish drying rack. The lack of space makes cooking together virtually impossible—so we don’t. He cooks, and I clean up. Sometimes we’ll partner on tasks but most of the time we end up burdening one another more than we help. Even though I come to Berlin to enjoy those mundane, household moments as a couple, sometimes I just have to accept that the space we have leaves literally no room for me to help.

The lack of space has also turned us into mealtime minimalists. We’ll share the same plate to eat most nights, unless it’s something messy. We even share a knife; we just have separate forks. Weird? No denying it. But it means there’s less to wash, reducing the number of dishes and utensils we have to leave propped against the backsplash to dry (remember: no dish rack). It’s quite different than what I’m used to in Washington—my kitchen is small but there’s at least room for a dish rack (and what a difference it makes). The situation here in Germany has made me more efficient and thoughtful with what I use back in DC—and made me grateful to have any counter space at all.

6. The time zone difference kills my social life.

When I’m in Berlin, I work remotely and keep my regular 7 am to 3 pm work day, which translates to 1 pm – 9 pm local time. But I still wake up around 8 am, hours before I need to be productive. Sometimes I’ll go to a museum or gallery; other mornings, I’ll walk around an unfamiliar neighborhood, grabbing a pastry or a drink. My mornings are calm and free of obligations, other than grocery shopping. But I’m busy most evenings, still working when my partner leaves the office and heads for beers with friends. You’d think it balances out, but Berlin is an all-night city, not an all-day city. Before noon in certain neighborhoods, I struggle to do something more interesting than window shopping and admiring pigeons. Since everyone is either sleeping off a hangover or working, I can’t even find strangers to chat with, let alone a friend. Loved ones back home prefer that I not call them at 3 am their time (which I guess is fair?).

We have plenty of time to get drinks after I finish my work day, but my partner and I get annoyed that, unless we race there the instant I clock out, most restaurants are closing their kitchens by the time we arrive. When friends invite us for post-work drinks, I can’t join for hours, which means everyone has been hitting the sauce for a long time before I can even order. It definitely limits my ability to make plans, which is something I never deal with back home.

Credit: Submitted by Dean Sameshima

7. Solid internet is hard to come by—but I don’t always hate it.

It’s so hard to get internet set up here that even my partner, the network engineer, doesn’t have an internet connection at home. Despite many calls to the internet provider, no one hooked him up, and eventually he gave up. He now buys weekly hotspot passes, with spotty-at-best connections that make dial-up competitive. Going to a coffee shop isn’t a guarantee of a reliable connection, as I can confirm through experience and through friends who study here and singlehandedly provide financial support to their neighborhood coffee joint. Why is it like this? I’d do the research, but my internet is out right now.

Can there really be a takeaway about how crappy internet here impacts my home routine? I feel zero gratitude when I need to work, but otherwise, the lack of internet is rather therapeutic. I’m not scrolling endlessly on social media apps since the pretty pictures take eons to load. My partner and I rarely look at our phones when we’re together, even in quiet moments of waiting or relaxing. Since there’s a grand push for privacy here, few friends pull out their phones to take photos or tweet off a slightly scandalous thought. Doesn’t that sound like a much better way to spend time together?

8. I have to hit the ATM weekly.

Unlike other European cities I’ve visited, Berlin has a vendetta against credit cards. It stems back to the desire for absolute privacy, which extends to preventing a financial firm from knowing where you shop. Many restaurants will only take cash, although some will begrudgingly dust off an old card reader if that’s really your only option. Unlike my card-fueled life in America, here in Berlin I have to remember to bring cash everywhere, hit up ATMs when I’m feeling depleted, and always get the smallest bills possible.

Credit: Submitted by Dean Sameshima

9. I have to visit several stores to grocery shop.

I love grocery shopping. No matter if I’m at an Aldi or a Whole Foods, in the States I’ll gleefully stroll the aisles. However in Germany, I actively avoid the grocer if I can help it—my local friends’ most effusive complaints center on the terrible grocery stores here. The selection isn’t good unless you trek out to a far-from-central neighborhood and, while farmers market products are always high quality, another major complaint is the limited variety of decent snacks. There are plenty of specialized shops where you can find excellent quality, but that means multiple stops for one grocery trip, which just isn’t convenient. Did I mention that many places are closed on Sundays? If you forget groceries on Saturday, you’ll be stuck with the random leftover ingredients in your fridge until after work on Monday.

There are some things that improve my life here that I can’t take back to Washington, and other things I’ll cheerfully leave behind (goodbye, Netto! Hello, Trader Joe’s!). But everyone’s experience is different, for any number of reasons. Truly I don’t think my partner and I would change much at all about the life Berlin has given us.

Except WiFi. Deeeeefinitely WiFi.