(Editor’s note: ‘Ich Bein ein Berliner’ was updated 8 July with additional information.)
Ask any German and they’ll tell you that Berlin is quite unlike other German cities. It has a history, culture and demographic composition all its own. And whilst Germans certainly aren’t widely known for their warm, friendly, polite nature, Berliners have a particular reputation as being especially – should we say? – direct.
And we’re not just talking the native-born Germans here. Oh no! The Berlin sass infects all of us soon enough. I myself have been known to yell at people for standing gormlessly in the cycle lane, or trying to cram themselves on to the U-Bahn before I’ve had a chance to get out.
The local dialect, fondly known as “Berliner Schnauze” (Berlin snout), encompasses far more than just a clipped accent. Berliners are stereotypically straight to the point, unapologetically matter-of-fact, and completely unafraid to reprimand total strangers for their indiscretions. And for newcomers, this could quite easily come off as downright rude.
Direct but welcoming (in their own way)
Don’t expect a Berliner to jump up and offer you a seat on the U-Bahn when you’re pregnant, carrying a child, or walking with crutches. Unlike my fellow Brits who are accustomed to standing around looking pathetic until someone offers to help them, Berliners assume that if you need something, you’ll ask.
And if a Berliner needs you to do something – move your bag from a seat, or stand to the side so they can pass – expect them to tell you exactly what they want.
But although they might initially seem cold, I’ve actually found Berliners to be very welcoming (in their own way). Despite the fact that it’s taken me an unforgivable amount of time to learn German (an ongoing project), I’ve found Berliners to be pretty patient with me, either happily switching to English, or willing to struggle through as I attempt a conversation in broken German.
As an immigrant to Germany, I can honestly say I’ve never really been treated like an outsider, and only ever felt welcome here (though I should probably check my white privilege here, as some expats have pointed out that this isn’t always the same for everyone).
“Everything is forbidden except that which is permitted”
The stereotype of Germans as rule followers (and enforcers) certainly holds true in Berlin. To be a good Berliner you must remember to wait patiently at a predestination crossing until the Ampelmann tells you it’s ok to cross. “But it’s 3am and there are no cars in sight!” Nope, it doesn’t matter, “Warte!!”
Also make sure to recycle correctly, show up to appointments on time, lock your bike in the allocated space, and keep the noise down during the Ruhezeit.
Failure to follow the rules may result in a chorus of disapproving tuts and snarky remarks, or even a passive aggressive note. Typed, highlighted and laminated for good measure.
But there’s one area where Berliners flagrantly disobey the rules, and that’s when it comes to their four-legged friends. Berliners love their dogs! And despite city wide leash laws having come into force in 2016, Berlin’s K9 population is largely still roaming free.
Luckily, German dogs are, as one might expect, remarkably well behaved. Trotting faithfully beside their owners, sitting obediently before crossing the street, waiting patiently outside supermarkets for their owners to return. Their humans, however, are less obedient when it comes to picking up after them! Spend a day walking around the city and you’ll realise exactly why Berliners expect visitors to take off their shoes before stepping into their homes. Yuck!
There’s also a similar story when it comes to parenting. (Side note: I know it’s not generally considered acceptable to compare kids to dogs but I’m a mum and can therefore say that the comparison between a toddler and a disobedient puppy often rings true). Unlike in the United Kingdom where it’s not uncommon to see 2-year-olds tethered to their parents with
something resembling a dog lead “reigns,” Berlin’s kids are well and truly off leash!
In Berlin, free range parenting rules. So much so that the vibe at the playground can occasionally get a little “lord of the flies.” Save for the occasional imported helicopter parent, children are generally free to roam the non-bubble wrapped Berlin playgrounds by themselves, whilst mum or dad sit with the other parents on the designated benches.
Kids quickly learn how to fling themselves from seemingly death defying heights without fracturing any bones (most of the time), and how to figure out their own issues and quarrels amongst themselves. If you spend a lot of time at the playground, you’ll notice how quickly your kids will pick up “Spielplatz Deutsch,” a language that is equal parts assertive, direct, and essential for self preservation. “Das ist MEIIIINS!” “Nein! ICH bin dran!” “Mannoooo!”
I for one have embraced German style parenting. My little “darling” runs riot with the rest of the grubby, fearless, self reliant horde at the playground. And after several years fighting his own battles, he can certainly hold his own. And what’s more, it’s given him an almost profound respect for order in times of chaos. I absolutely expect him to grow up able to speak his mind, and reprimand complete strangers like the best of them!
Unexpectedly Multi-Kulti Metropolis
One of the things that’s particularly appealing about Berlin for immigrant families such as my own is just how diverse and multicultural the city is. Your fellow Berliners will hardly bat an eyelid when you explain that your German isn’t great. And no matter where you come from, there’s a good chance that there’s a few of your fellow countrymen already living in Berlin and ready to help you settle in and find your way.
Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey, and also has large immigrant populations from across other Europen countries, the United States and Vietnam. In recent years, the city has also become host to a large number of refugees fleeing violence in their home countries. As a result, Syrian nationals are now one of the largest groups of Ausländer in the city.
If you’re new to the city and your German is a little rusty (or even non existent), you’ll be glad to know that there are fantastic online communities ready to help you find your way, in a whole host of languages. Berlin’s expat social media groups are huge, very active, and are so helpful that many of my German born friends use them just as often as I do.
Find your tribe
Some of the biggest English speaking groups can be found on Facebook, and since moving here in 2014, I’ve basically treated them like my google for how to get by and where to find things in Berlin.
Here’s a few places where you might want to ask questions, get recommendations, ask around about available apartments, pick up some second hand furniture, and just generally meet a few friends who have recently tread the path you’re currently on.
There are hundreds more, for pretty much any topic you can think of – pet sitting, knitting, sports, book clubs, artists, vegan dating groups – so have a look and see if you can find your tribe.
About the author:
Laura Kaye is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work focuses on social and development issues, parenting and family life.
Originally from the Wirral in the United Kingdom, she is a serial expat now happily living in Berlin, Germany.
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