Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Find Something You Love and Let It Kill You!" - Expression in the Streets of Berlin

"Find something you Love and let it Kill you!" ... "EMO!"

So many outspoken people here, each with their own unique voice. It makes my heart smile.
We went to three apartment showings today, two in western Kreuzberg, and one in northern Neukölln. This got us out to see some parts of the city we haven't been to yet. It's hard to sacrifice so much time when we both have lots of work to do back at home, but of course it's absolutely imperative that we find an apartment before the middle of March. And it's really an education every time we travel around Berlin. It seems like we learn something around every corner.

At 3 we went to an apartment showing at this really giant, depressing apartment block right out of the 70s, probably, in a strange neighborhood that was obviously in the process of being redeveloped. This building seemed to be one of the eyesores still standing among the brand new office buildings and condo highrises. The property agent never showed up to the appointment, so we didn't even have to bother seeing the place after all. The one thing we'd miss out on by not getting this flat would be the view (although honestly, the windows were too high for any tenant shorter than 9 ft tall to enjoy it), but it was good enough to see it this once, all the while laughing alongside another couple with whom we bonded over a death-defying ride in the cramped and poorly built elevator...

Then we walked around a bit, and had lunch at a great little pizza place on a busy corner of Mehringdamm. I can't find the name of the pizza place now, because Google Maps doesn't list it, and Street View shows an image from 2008 when the location was a laundromat. An example of the fast changing face of Berlin! Then we saw another apartment near the Tempelhofer canal that was nice, but too dark for our taste. So we headed off to the final showing of the day in Neukölln, a district which is often described as up-and-coming, albeit quickly with rents raising every few months.

When we came up out of the U-Bahn station, we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a standoff between a big crowd of demonstrators and a phalanx of riot police. It wasn't violent, but it was loud, with the crowd alternating between jeers at the police and cheers or chants. Our limited German made it impossible to figure out exactly what they were protesting at the time. However, most of the group was waving flags for the Piratenpartei, a leftist political party that has representation in a few local districts. Looking it up later online, I found some information (through the unreliable filter of Google Translate) indicating that the confrontation was between a small group of right wing demonstrators (whom we never saw because of the size of the crowd), and a much larger group of leftist counter-demonstrators, led by the Piratenpartei. Our best guess then is that the police were there to prevent violence between the two sides.

Without time to see an up-close exhibition of Berlin politics, nor the desire to fuel something that we weren't sure we wanted to encourage, we headed down the street to the apartment showing. This is a really hot neighborhood, so there were at least 20 other people there to see the same place, thus there was a competitive vibe. One woman didn't even look at the apartment, just headed straight for the property agent to be the first to grab an application. And everyone else followed suit, scribbling furiously while hunched over the kitchen counter or whatever surface they could find. Kind of funny, considering that the property guy is really chill and prefers applications by email anyway (we've met him before at previous showings).

On our way back to the U-Bahn after the showing, we again found ourselves in the midst of an off-shoot of the protest. This time a group of youth were blocking part of the street through which the police were trying to move a caravan of vehicles. An interesting observation was that, as one would expect, many people were taking video and pictures of the police action. However, the police also had an officer carrying a large professional video camera, filming everything from right behind the backs of the front line. It was an interesting scene. The police seemed to be letting it the roadblock be for a few minutes, but then they formed up and pushed the group back. For an instant, a bit of chaos broke out as a bunch of teen boys ran from the police formation. They came straight at us (and a bunch of other passers-by; the street was really crowded with people getting off work, shopping, etc.) and we had to dart out of the way. It wasn't all that frightening, though, and actually made us want to live there, if that area is indeed full of action.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You Are Leaving the American Sector

We headed out this afternoon to view an apartment in a great little corner of the city near Checkpoint Charlie. We haven't really done much of the touristy Berlin stuff yet, being so focused on life and work, but we took a few minutes to walk past the checkpoint (we'll return again to visit the museums and exhibits nearby). We were also just observing the fabric of life in this city. Here are some pics from our walk...

Like in every other major city I've been to, I saw a man hunched over and sleeping in the midst of the tourists and commuters. I also saw these "normal" people pass him by, even stepping over him just to get to their train.

You have to fit the Starbucks in somewhere.

Museum on the left, historic landmark in the middle, McDonald's on the right.

"You Are Leaving the American Sector". I was very frightened.

"You Are Entering the American Sector. Carrying Weapons Off Duty Forbidden. Obey Traffic Rules."

"The Last Kremlin Flag"

There was (were?) more than one of these...

"Checkpoint Curry". Heheh.

A tunnel between the U6 and U2 platforms

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Being Here

Today we hit Friedrichshain to check out an apartment, spent some time walking around the neighborhood, and then ended up at Alexanderplatz for a bit. Here are some highlights, in bullet pointed glory. Because bullet points are glorious.

• Rode the U5 for the first time.

• Viewed a really pretty apartment in Friedrichshain (it was a bit high-priced because everything was upgraded. And it faced a courtyard, which sucks. But it had new floors and nice light.)

• Stood there and pretended to understand German while the rental agent talked forever about all the features of the apartment. We really, really didn't. Shhh...

• Walked around some side streets of the neighborhood, checking out the kinda-hip, kinda-too-middle-class vibe.

• Discovered an entirely new wing of the underground Alexanderplatz bahnhof, and it has a Rossmann. Convenience, you are named Alex.

• Successfully bought a new iPhone charger cord because ours have either A) been chewed in half by Flash, or B) gotten so old that they are now, as the Germans say (literally, we've found), kaput.

• Enjoyed a magical moment, embracing and looking out on Alexanderplatz and the Berlin TV tower from the giant, top floor windows of the Saturn store. The sun was streaming in, hundreds of people were filling the platz below us, and the yellow trams were gliding through the center of it all. We felt the full beauty of being here, living in Europe.

• Tasted our first currywurst, the famous street food here. It's a fried sausage, cut up in bits, and covered in ketchup and curry powder. Sounds nasty, tastes good.

• Went into the LPG Biomarkt near our house for the first time. It's like the Whole Foods of Germany, and yes, it's so freaking expensive that you have to be one very posh hippie to ever shop there. Where I grew up, hippies didn't have money, see.

• Drank beer (Fact: daily consumption of beer is required by law for all residents of Berlin).

That beautiful moment above Alexanderplatz

The trams glide through and people just step out of the way

Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower)

Wha?? The "South Beach Cafe"?? Here??

Tranquil Freidrichshain

Must... climb...

Half of Berlin seems to be under construction

More construction... this would be the view from our bedroom at this place

Shannon goofing off again. What you can't see is the crowd of German house hunters 10 feet away.

She's at it again!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Wohnungssuche: Apartment Hunting!

We've turned our full attention to finding a Wohnung (apartment) in Berlin so that we won't be homeless come mid-March when our sublet comes to an end. Because I don't think camping in the Tiergarten in winter would be that fun. Character-building, sure, but not fun. Also the polizei might not like that.

So, there are a lot of quirks to the apartment hunt here in Berlin, and we're just getting acclimated to them.

First off, Craigslist isn't used much here - it does exist, but looks like it's mostly used for advertising vacation rentals to tourists. The most popular site is Immobilien Scout 24, and there are a few others. It's a pretty good search engine, much swankier than Craigslist, and has been relatively easy to use.

We applied for an apartment in this colorful building.
Second thing that is important to know is that many German apartments come without a kitchen. People install their own kitchens, or sometimes buy the existing one from the departing tenant. So, if you don't want to spend thousands of Euros buying cabinets and a stove and all that, you must remember to check Einbauküche (fitted kitchen) on your search terms.

Many rental agencies charge fat commissions on top of your first month's rent and security deposit, so another must is to check Provisionsfrei (free of commission) and steer clear of any listings that don't say that explicitly. From what I've seen, the commission can be twice the monthly rent, or more! That's hefty.

Another quirk is that some of the units with attractively low rents are only that low because they are subsidized housing, something called Wohnberechtigungsschein or WBS. I'm not sure how one qualifies for that, but it does appear to be income based and is some kind of government program. We're undoubtedly too new to the country to get that yet. So our searches also include checking nicht erforderlich (not required) for WBS.

All of that narrows down our choices significantly, but on top of that we're only looking in certain neighborhoods. Some parts of Berlin are too posh, or too quiet, or too remote, so we're looking at the denser central districts for the most part. We're trying not be overly picky, because above all we'd like to have a place that's not too expensive so we'll have money for travel. But, we're also here to get inspired and to feel connected to new experiences outside our door, so we're trying to find a place that is in the thick of something, if that makes sense.

Fortunately, rents in Berlin aren't insane. We're definitely going to be paying less than we were in LA, although we may sacrifice some space.

So far we've gone out and seen a few listings. One was for a very odd little flat in the southern part of Kreuzberg, near a bunch of Turkish shops, food stands, and some seedy casinos, but then peppered with posher shopping centers as well. Interesting neighborhood. We arrived at the apartment building a few minutes late, and the rental agent had already shown it to the people who were on time. Fortunately there were a few other late arrivals so we weren't completely scorned. But, the agent did seem a little flustered at first that she had to truck up five flights of stairs again. So, she didn't bother to speak to us in English, talking past us for the first five minutes, only to the German natives. Luckily there was an English-speaking girl who translated a few things for us, though she seemed a bit annoyed! Once we were upstairs, the agent became friendlier and did talk to us a bit.

A lovely flat lies behind this gate!
But, the apartment itself was... umm. Well, ok, it had a good sized kitchen with all the fittings, and a decent bath. The floors were hardwood, and the living room was very spacious. But someone had painted the walls with a giant heart monitor line in bright orange and yellow. So, this unit literally had a heartbeat. A huge, inexplicable heart beat. And the landlord had apparently decided it was perfectly fine to keep it in place for the next tenant to deal with. We thought it was pretty funny. Perhaps an obsessive heart surgeon had lived there previously, cackling in delight at the absolute, timeless perfection of his gargantuan painted heartbeat.

Next we went to check out the bedroom, and... well... it was basically a closet. You could fit a bed in there but it would actually touch either wall. You'd have to wedge it in. Lastly, the living room was very dark, with only one small north-facing window. We have to live and work in the same space, so light is important for our mental health, to say the least. We politely accepted an application but left knowing we wouldn't fill it out.

However, it was a great learning experience. Every thing we've read has warned us that house hunting in Berlin is a long and difficult process, and that you have to be prepared for lots of rejection. Landlords commonly want to see proof of income, which is standard enough, but they also want a credit report from the German agency known as SCHUFA. Being brand new to the country, we have no credit history at all, so our SCHUFA reports will be blank. They don't import your credit history from your home country. We'll have to hope we find a landlord that isn't difficult about this. Additionally, we have to provide proof that we don't owe back-rent to our previous landlords. We weren't expecting to have to prove that, so we're working on getting that now.

Today we went to three showings! One at 10:00am back in Kreuzberg, and two in Neükolln in the afternoon with the same listing agent. The first one was another decent apartment, with nice floors and windows and a great location, but it was on the ground floor facing a courtyard, overshadowed by the tall building on the other side. Again, it was just too dark for our needs. That didn't matter to the other 20 potential renters, packed into the small flat, all fighting over counter space to fill our their applications on the spot. We were actually relieved that we didn't like the apartment, so we didn't have to compete.

The second apartment was sort of in a distant neighborhood that we didn't feel very at home in. The apartment was in the process of being renovated and the agent said they would be putting in new floors and a large refrigerator. Oddly, they wouldn't be installing a bathroom mirror or light fixtures...

The third apartment checked a lot of our boxes. It faced a busy street (lots to look at while working at home!) and was near a U-bahn station, which, although not necessarily rare, is very convenient. There were two main grocery stores on the block and the sidewalks were filled with people of all kinds. The flat was quite beautiful, mainly because of its numerous large west-facing windows that sort of encircled a balcony. It wasn't actually that large of a flat, but because of the way the rooms flowed together (the bedroom actually has a window facing the balcony as well as two facing the boulevard) it felt just spacious enough.

There wasn't that much competition, only one nice girl who also took an application. We aren't fond of competition, as alluded to above, but we came home and immediately filled out our application and send it in with all of the documents we have. We have no idea if or when they will respond, but in the mean time we have another two listings to check out tomorrow!

The living room of the third flat :)
The bedroom - look how bright!
A tiny fridge hides in one of those cabinets...

We're not attached to this place... I promise...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Quick Walk and a Few Snapshots

I had about 20 minutes to return the 24-70 lens I rented over the weekend, but it would have been a shame not to take any shots on the walk to the store. We were rushed- but got there right on time! Here are some of the photos:

I love the graffiti around Berlin. And I'm thrilled that it follows us into our apartment building!

From the hip. We currently live next to an elementary school. <3

Oh yeah

"Okay, we have like two seconds to get to the store!"