Berlin for Beginners : Tipps for newcomers adjusting to Berlin life

For those who have just recently moved to Berlin, it can be a bit tricky to overcome the culture shock experienced in day-to-day life. An experienced tourist shares her experience adjusting to the city - and how others can avoid her mistakes.

Alison Haywood
Zigaretten selbst drehen heißt nicht, dass man ein Hipster ist, sondern sparsam.
Zigaretten selbst drehen heißt nicht, dass man ein Hipster ist, sondern sparsam.Foto: dpa

As an American student living in Berlin, I certainly had my share of culture shock in day-to-day life when I first moved here. I anticipated the big cultural differences – paying with euro, eating different food, and of course, speaking German. The little things, however, in my day-to-day life often caught me off-guard, and were in some ways the most difficult to adjust to. After a four-month semester abroad in fall 2012 and a three-month internship program this summer, I now like to think of myself as a veteran tourist in Berlin, when not actually a Berliner. Therefore I’d like to share some sage wisdom for newcomers to avoid looking like an idiot (or a tourist) and adjust to life in Berlin.


1. Learn how to use a hand-held shower head

As an exchange student recently moved into an old DDR-style flat in Prenzlauer Berg, one of my biggest challenges was to figure out how to shower with one hand. The “shower” was simply a hose attached to the bathtub faucet, with no hook or anything to hang it on. I tried many things – holding the shower head like a phone between my shoulder and ear, setting it on the floor, and even sitting on the floor of the bathtub laying it on my knees. If I dropped it or turned it the wrong way, I was greeted by a spray of water up my nose, on the wall or all over the floor. The best way I figured out to avoid a flood was to turn the water off multiple times throughout the shower, military-style.

2. Jaywalk like a pro

Yes, there’s an art to crossing the street when the light is still red. In comparison to America, the traffic lights in Berlin turn red long before the pedestrian light turns green. If you notice that the cars approaching the intersection are already slowing down, it’s generally a safe bet to cross even before the pedestrian light turns green. Make sure to look first, though – the drivers know this too, and aren’t afraid to run red lights.

3. Roll your own cigarettes

Self-made cigarettes are not a sign of lower economic status or of being a hipster here, but thriftiness. The German austerity frowns upon unnecessarily paying more for the same product, and even men in business suits can be seen on their lunch breaks with a little bag of tobacco and papers at a sidewalk café.

4. Learn the difference between banned and ‘banned'

Lots of things in Berlin are technically illegal but widely tolerated. For instance, one time a BVG worker on the U-Bahn woke me up for the purpose of yelling at me to put my feet on the floor. Right next to me sat a friend with a beer in his hand, directly in front of the window sticker forbidding just that. The controller didn’t say anything to him. Typical that the Germans would be more worried about the cleanliness of the U-Bahn benches than a little harmless public intoxication. Several other activities fall under the category ‘illegal, but allowed:’ Smoking marijuana in public, walking your dog without a leash, and riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the street are on the list.

5. Open a beer bottle with a lighter

Or your cell phone. Or another bottle. Having a bottle opener in Berlin is a sign of weakness – or of a tourist. There are a multitude of objects that can be repurposed for the sake of enjoying Berlin’s favourite beverage, and the more creative you are, the cooler you are. I’ve even seen students open bottles with their back teeth – a neat party trick that’s hard to top.

Alison Haywood, 21, is studying Journalism and German in Tacoma, WA. She has lived in Berlin since June and is a scholarship recipient at the International Journalism College of the Freie Universität.

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