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Being a Local in Berlin


A while ago, I wrote about why traveling to other places can be so much more exciting than one’s own hometown.

Today’s subject of my random thinking session after I had finally finished my French revision was what makes the difference between living in a country compared to just visiting it for a few days.

When you become a local somewhere you notice that the carefree days of being an explorer of the world slowly come to an end. Your daily life consists of many single fragments that usually don’t appear as such in the life of someone who only drops by for a visit.

For me, being a local here in Berlin is made up of living in a part of town that tour guides probably leave out on purpose because there is really not much to see here and the only travellers who ever get here are a couple of Canadian au pairs from Ontario who accidentally took the absolutely wrong bus.

My neighbors and I don’t know each other but living in the same building makes for some (weird) encounters. It includes me leaving my flat with a puzzled look at the box of bio-vegetables delivered to my neighbor in the early morning and left standing there at the door all day until she gets home. I find it a bit strange because as a student on a government scholarship I cannot yet understand how someone has the spare money to have bio food delivered (!). My neighbor in turn must think of me as a weirdo for not yet having grasped the importance of ecologically friendly food. Neighbor etiquette in Germany includes taking the mail for the others in the building if they are not at home. On the other hand, I also get to pick up my mail from the others, having it handed over to me by people in a fluffy bathrobe or no clothes at all above the waist in the case of men.

Having lived here for so long now, part of my daily routine consists of sorting my trash into plastic, paper, glass, bio remains and “other waste”. Shall I dare to throw a bag into the wrong container while one of the elderly neighbors is around, I am in for an angry lecture on the importance of recycling. Last time the lady was so serious about it, she actually made me get the bag out of the wrong container again and throw it into the right one. I am not even sure how many travellers to Germany know we have a recycling system and if they do, how many of them actually care about sticking to it.

Me feeling like a local includes not making a noise on Sunday so that no one’s peace is disturbed. With the newly gained energy, I can then dedicate myself to handling bureaucratic matters, a process I probably wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. The bad mood and hopelessness of the employees is contagious but with time one learns to give a non-sarcastic answer to the question: “And your relatives let you live with them for free or what?”, when applying for government-funded housing. After that I can finish my day by buying groceries at the Turkish store near me, realizing that I have been on a  halal diet for months now without being Muslim because I am too tired to make it to the next hypermarket. Eating out is sinfully expensive and unlike tourists, most Germans do it for special occasions only.

And finally there is customer service! The longer you live here, the more likely you are to realize that the only person who can help you is yourself in about 50% of the cases. Being a local sometimes means getting a customer service where an electrician comes to your house who will tell you that you have no hot water because the fuses burned out. He will tell you that he does not have any of the fuses you need with him and that he does not know where to buy them because they are so outdated so you better go search yourself. At the end of the day he will still charge you 150€ for the visit because you called him after all.

This is not to say that everything is bad here. There are always good days and bad days, good people and not so good people. It seems to be all about the little details of life that a regular visitor probably doesn’t even think of. I can’t help but smile whenever people who are visiting tell me in excitement how much they would like to live here. 🙂


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