Skip to Content

7 quirky things about living in Berlin

I’m about to fly back to America for the Thanksgiving holiday so thought I’d share some of the funny things I’ve noticed while living in Berlin as an “expat” (but please don’t call me that in public!). These are 7 funny German things I’ve learned about since living in Berlin…

Apartments without numbers

I don’t fully understand why but apartments in Berlin (and Germany, too, I believe) aren’t numbered. Instead, apartments are recognized by their owners’ name. While I can’t tell my friends to just ring the buzzer for Apartment #3, they’ve got to know my name (or the name of whose apartment I’m subletting). It’s much more personal but a lot less useful in my opinion. Still, I kind of like it.

History is everywhere and nowhere at the same time

Berlin…berlin berlin berlin. The city’s name is one I’ve heard, read and seen a million times. History has played a big role in shaping Berlin. There are hundreds of museums in Berlin centered specifically around its long, complex and undeniably interesting history. But at the same time the city is very much forward-looking. While there is a respect and presence of Berlin’s history all over the city, many people here don’t dwell on the past so much but instead look to the future.

Berlin Wall, memorial

The Berlin Wall is memorialized around the city by a brick path

It seems to be some sort of fascination in Germany (or Berlin, specifically) to embed history within the sidewalks. There are embedded plaques in the sidewalks in front of many buildings which display the names of Jewish families who once lived there—a memorial to the Holocaust. These plaques are literally everywhere. My little street in Kreuzberg is filled with them.

Besides the plaques, the route of the Berlin Wall has been completely enshrined in a brick path that snakes through the entire city. Again, the wall once ran down the street in front of my apartment building and everyday I step over what once was a border. I walk past these things everyday and sometimes I think about the past, but mostly I’m thinking of the future. Berlin has so much potential and that’s why I love this town.

Berlin Beer Festival 2011

Don’t ask. This is me at the Berlin Beer Festival over the summer.

Free tissues at the pharmacies

Pharmacies here always give you a free pocket-size pack of tissues with just about every purchase. It’s a nice gesture. Not sure why they do it. But, hey, it’s free so I’ll take it.

Square pillows

For some reason, Germans prefer squares to rectangles when it comes to sleeping—funny, no? Pillows are rather large rectangle shapes rather than those of the more horizontal persuasion. A small little design quirk but maybe there’s something to it.

People follow the rules

Germans are quite notorious for following the rules. It’s a stereotype, yes, but I’ve found that many of my German friends are quite content to follow the rules when it comes to jaywalking. Red light means stop; green means go. I think I’ve shed a bit of my eagerness (Americanism?) and actually enjoy stopping when I’m supposed to stop now myself.

Ampelmännchen, Berlin's Green Man

Ampelmännchen, Berlin’s Green Man

I’ve also noticed some fierce debates about the honor system on Berlin’s public transportation. You see, there are no ticket barriers to get on and off the trains, buses or trams. You’re just supposed to have a ticket (which you can buy on the platforms). Many people—coughcough—don’t always buy a ticket and sometimes ride the train “black” (ie, without a ticket). There are of course people who patrol the trains every now and then and that’s how they keep the system working. But it still amazes me to think that there’s no defensive controlling of the ticketing. Yet the system works.

The German economy isn’t what it seems

With all the talk about financial crises and economies, Germany inevitably comes up. I won’t pretend to know much about the German economy (or the European one for that matter), but I have learned quite a lot since living in Berlin. I’m still trying to figure out more, but one of the strangest things I’ve learned is that Germany doesn’t actually have a national minimum wage. (View a list of countries and their minimum wages on Wikipedia.) As a bleeding-heart liberal, this pretty much infuriates me. I won’t get into it here.

Expat culture is alive and thriving

Regardless of all the funny little German things I’ve learned since living in Berlin, this city is certainly interesting and I hope to stick around. As a foreigner in a foreign city where I knew very little about the culture, language or traditions, I’ve certainly been lucky to get the chance to stay here. One of the most useful resources I had to help with the transition was

The CS forums are one of the best places to find interesting things to do and meet new people. Just about everyday there are people posting events such as whisky taste testings, blackjack games and museum outings. It’s some of the best ways to meet other expats and to find out about what’s happening around town. I’ve also used it to post questions and almost always I get a quick reply and answer.

  1. Becs says:

    The rules remind me of California! It’s funny, west coast only, we always stop and wait for the light to change before crossing. And same with our subway in Los Angeles. We have no barriers, so I like to call buying a ticket “buying insurance” instead. I’ve been stopped and I always have a ticket but it suuuuuuuucks when you don’t. So embarrassing and expensive.

    • Adam says:

      Also, I had no idea Los Angeles even had a subway system! Learn something new every day…

    • Adam says:

      Seriously?! I had no idea LA didn’t have a ticket system for the subway – that’s incredible! I thought it was an “eastern European” kind of thing. Love your way of describing it as “insurance” as well – that makes perfect sense to me.

      • schoschie says:

        It’s not an Eastern Europe thing, by the way. Every German town (east or west) I’ve been too has this “open” system where you’re expected to buy a ticket, but nobody actively checks for it. But you might get caught when there are random checks (and they are not rare, and when you get caught, you have to pay 40 EUR on the spot, and it’s quite embarrassing), so (most) people buy the tickets anyway.

        I’m not quite sure why we don’t have “proper” access control systems but I assume they figured out it’s actually cheaper without them (they are quite complex and costly to put in place). Also, public transport in Germany has a long history, and when these systems were first set up, nobody had access control in mind, so it’s just grown historically. Retrofitting all public transport stations with access control would be just too enormous of an investment, I guess.

  2. Red Hunt says:

    I haven’t explored Germany much, but the square pillows sound scary. I’ll forgive them however, as they have great beer.

  3. TheWorldOrBust says:

    Why does the little walking man image on the street lights look like a Hasidic Jew….

    • Adam says:

      Hahahah I never noticed that. He’s actually quite popular. He’s supposed to look like a loyal socialist worker – comes from East Germany and the Soviet Union…

  4. “History is everywhere and nowhere at the same time”Lovely observation.
    And **** the square pillows. My head may be shaped like that, but the normally-headed shouldn’t be made to suffer!

  5. Rease Kirchner says:

    No numbers on houses is weird. I feel like that would drive me crazy because I would want the point of reference.

    Love the free tissues and honor system though!

    • Adam says:

      Apartments without numbers makes things a bit challenging at times. And the house numbers also always run in a weird direction (weird as in different than those in the USA). Instead of odds on one side and evens on the other, they run consecutively up and then down the street.

    • Adam says:

      Apartments without numbers makes things a bit challenging at times. And the house numbers also always run in a weird direction (weird as in different than those in the USA). Instead of odds on one side and evens on the other, they run consecutively up and then down the street.

      • schoschie says:

        The street numbers running up and down on each side is a specifically Berlin thing that has had me confused quite a bit, too. In other German cities, houses are numbered in one direction; even numbers on one side, odd numbers on the other. This is really a peculiarity of Berlin.

      • Emily Groffman says:

        In Tokyo I remember the buildings were numbered based on construction date. It was impossible to find places without using landmarks for direction. Too bad because the numbers were the only thing I could actually read!

  6. I heard about the aversion to jaywalking, but we didn’t really notice it!  One of the things that surprised me is that there are so many dogs that walk around off-leash. 

    • Adam says:

      true! dogs are everywhere – even in the bars.

      • schoschie says:

        Again, a typically Berlin thing. Lots of dogs. In some buroughs, it’s really a problem because of dumb owners letting their dogs shit all over the place. You have to watch your step all the time. When I lived in Berlin in 1999 (for 6 months), this was seriously irritating. I think it’s gotten a bit better by now.

  7. I remember being fascinated by the plaques around German cities. History felt so tangible!!!

  8. World Nomad says:

    Haha yes I was also amazed to see no people crossing the zebra at red light.

  9. Xoxi says:

    i smiled at the pillow issue :) yeah, the square shape is impractical, so what most people do is just fold them in half horizontally. as to why we don’t have rectangular pillows: no idea, maybe just tradition. traditions don’t always make sense. i happen to have a rect-pillow because i dont like the square ones either.

    the minimun-wage issue is one that has bern fiercefully debated for some time now, and most sane-headed people are in favor of it (at least that’s my impression).

  10. Xoxi says:

    (woah, having a hard time posting comments from my iphone)

    so about the minimum wage: my assumption the only reason this hasnt become law yet is that it is being actively blocked in our parliaments by way of industry lobbyists. although it doesnt really make sense because most industries have trade unions in place and these have successfully fought for good wages quite a long time ago. its mostly the small private companies such as hairdressers who cant afford better wages. well, point is, the issue is very

    • Adam says:

      The minimum wage issue in Germany drives me crazy. I just really don’t see why anyone would think it’s a good idea to NOT have one. Ridiculous.

      • schoschie says:

        Yep. I was having problems typing these comments from an iPhone… what I was going to say – there is lots of awareness of this issue… we’ll see how it turns out. It’s been on the political agenda for quite some time now. I agree that it’s totally necessary.

  11. Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial — travel photo | Travels of Adam - Hipster travel around the world says:

    […] of the first times I was face-to-face with the Holocaust & WWII history in Berlin. Besides the little bits of history you come across in downtown Berlin (and the Holocaust memorials), visiting Sachsenhausen is an […]

Comments are closed.