The Mole Diaries: Berlin (Volume 3)

The Mole Diaries: Berlin (Volume 3) Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof by Gertrud K.

This article was written by Katherine Price, published on 1st February 2013 and has been read 6258 times.

Despite studying English Literature at the University of Warwick, Katherine chose to spend a year abroad studying English and German at the Freie Universität in Berlin to improve her language skills and experience the German culture. Here's her advice about finding accommodation, settling in and making the most of your time in Berlin.

Finding accommodation

This is possibly the hardest and most stressful thing you will ever do, especially if your German isn’t that great. There are about 100 applicants per room in Berlin, so you need to be persistent and send out as many e-mails as possible. You’ll have days where someone laughs at you down the phone, or rejects you because you don’t speak perfect German. But just being forced to speak it now will really give you a kick-start for later on, and will improve your confidence massively. You may want to go for student accommodation, but be warned: I don’t know anyone who is happily staying in Berlin student accommodation. Most are far out from the city, and there are horror stories…

Your best bet is WG Gesucht. It’s the only website anyone has any real success with, and it’s packed with offers. Get sending, and call the number if one is given. Put up your own ad, too, and put up a photo so people can see that you’re not just a robot. Speaking of which: watch out for spam. People will contact you with ‘photos’ of the ‘flat’, but claiming that they can’t show you the flat because they’re in the UK for business reasons. Do not believe this and do not transfer any money until you have seen the flat, in the very least on Skype.

Personalise your applications to show you’ve actually read the ad. Tell them what your hobbies are, and don’t lie, because you will be found out. You don’t want to be pretending to be vegan for an entire year. And be specific: make sure you’re both clear how long you’re in Berlin for, and know how much you can afford and where in Berlin you want to live. Within the ring is usually a good starting point.

Relax and take deep breaths, and don’t get stressed. You will find somewhere with patience and perseverance.

Settling in

Congratulations, you’ve found yourself a WG. The biggest hurdle is complete. However, there are other things you’ll want to think about now…

1. You’ll probably want to buy an old phone (usually less than €20) and a pay-as-you-go German SIM card from Media Markt. British numbers will have to add ‘0049’ to the beginning of the number to call/text you.

2.
Open a bank account and transfer your money over. Most people go for Sparkasse as they are absolutely everywhere, and they are very easy to use and will set it all up for you, but you can also go for Berliner Volksbank or Deutsche Bank (good if you already have a Barclays account).

3.
You’ll also have to register as a resident of Berlin at your local Bürgeramt. Find your nearest one on www.berlin.de.

If you’re at University:
1. Matriculate with your University and get all your forms filled out for your home University – for this you’ll need money to pay your fees, proof of health insurance, proof of identity and the energy to fill the forms out and the patience to wait in the queues for hours. Good German practice opportunity alert.

2. Buy a Mensa card from one of the tills. It’s the University cafeteria and at some point you will eat here.

Homesickness

Unfortunately, you will probably get homesick at some point. When I first arrived, the stress of having to find somewhere to live had me in tears several times a day and I stopped eating properly because I was so scared about money running out. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of, everyone gets it, and these days your friends and family are only a Facebook or a Skype away. Make the most of that. Having a cup of tea or watching one of your favourite British TV shows is not cheating, sometimes you need it.

It does get better, your German will improve, you’ll get to know your way around, you’ll settle in and you’ll make new friends. It will happen, just give it time, get out there, and don’t hole yourself up in your room. Get out there and see what Berlin has to offer. Trust me, there’s a lot.

You’ll have your ups and downs: the second month can be a bit of a come-down after the initial excitement, your language improvement will slow down, there will be work to stay in and do, and re-adjusting after going home can be a struggle. Keep going out when you can, perhaps a weekly meal with friends or visit to a museum (still German practice if you get the audio guide auf Deutsch), and make a list of all the places you want to go to. Just make sure you aren’t just sitting at home telling yourself you’re bored. There is no such thing in Berlin. Make something happen. Buy yourself a Berlin guide book – trust me, there’s no way you could ever cover everything in such a book in a year, and it’ll give you the motivation to do something new at every spare opportunity.

Don’t have too many visitors, it’ll ruin your German practice and you’ll get bored of going to all the same places all the time, and don’t go home too often. It’ll only lead to you wasting your year wishing you were home instead of enjoying the amazing city where you are.

Ten tips for picking up German

1. Make German friends.
It may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many Erasmus students spend an entire year without making any native friends. Don’t be scared to start conversations with strangers. Don’t be nervous: just speak as much German as you can. Making mistakes is how you’ll learn. Even better? Live with a German. There is no better way than having someone there at hand to correct you and speak German to every single day.

2. Take a German course.
It’s not fun, but if you want to up your standards and start sounding like a native, then you have to learn your grammar. The passive and conjunctive may not sound like what you want to study, but your grammar will improve without you even noticing. You’ll probably be surprised at how much just one four-hour class a week helps, and they are often free and can count towards your ECTS. The best ones are the pre-semester language courses. These go on every day for a month before your semester, and can be costly, but they are intensive, fun and give you time to settle down in Berlin before you start your course and make new friends. I definitely wish that I’d done one. And, if possible, do your course in German. Modules for Erasmus students in German are offered at most of the Universities here.

3. Challenge yourself.
Use your German at every given opportunity – and make opportunities happen. Sign up for a language tandem partner (your University language centre can do this, but there’s also a much more informal Facebook group specifically for Berliners).

4. Practice.
It’s boring, yes. But the only way you’re going to learn your grammar tables is by sitting down and memorising them, and unfortunately that’s the only way to do it.

5. Use your resources.
Buy a little notebook and write down all your grammar in it to refer to, and note down any new vocabulary you learn. And always carry your dictionary on you for when you don’t have access to a computer.

6. Expose yourself.
Not like that. The more you expose yourself to the language, the better you’ll be, quicker. Watch German TV (Tatort, perhaps?) and a German film once a week, even with subtitles if you have to. Listen to the radio while you’re cooking, and put German music on your iPod (Goethe.de lists the top German songs currently in the charts). Read a book or newspapers in German. There’s even a bar near Warschauer Strasse called Spielwiese which is a bar filled with board games.

7. Keep an eye on the Berlin dialect.
‘Berlinisch’ is a particularly individual accent that you’ll want to familiarise yourself with. ‘Ich’ becomes ‘ick’, ‘gut’ becomes ‘jut’ (pronounced ‘y-oot’), ‘gucken’ sounds like ‘cook-en’… it’s a great dialect, but it can be confusing. I’m not sure if it’s a Berlin thing, but a lot of young people say ‘ciao’ or ‘tschussi’ instead of ‘tschuss’.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask.
There is no shame in admitting you don’t know what someone is saying, and it’s much better than nodding along and pretending when you could be picking up new vocabulary.

9. Change your Facebook language to German.
We both know you’re lying when you say you won’t know what to do or how to change it back. You know where every single option is on that page off by heart. Do it. Do it now.

10. Get out there.
German won’t come to you. Don’t just sit at home complaining that you’re bored. Get out the door and just listen to the conversations around you, or read the adverts on the train. There, you’re practicing without even trying.

Getting around

If you’re a student, you’ve got it lucky. Your University will provide you with a ‘Semesterticket’, which covers all your travel on any form of transport in the entire Berlin region – even to Potsdam.

Great day trips easily reachable from Berlin include Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Bremen and Warsaw by train, and you can also find some great flight deals to Brussels and Copenhagen. Students have the entire month of March off for semester break, whilst teaching assistants usually finish around the end of May, giving you plenty of time to travel around. Do so: make the most of it.

If you’re planning on getting the train a lot, buying a Bahncard 25 is probably a good idea, which will save you a lot on train fares, and is only €40 for a year (but mind you cancel it at the end of the year, as they automatically renew). There’s also the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket, which is great for savings on a group trip. It can cost you less than €10 to get to nearby cities (about €8 per person to go to Leipzig). One thing you should try at least once on your year in Germany is Mitfahrgelegenheit – essentially a carpool website where people put up the details of where they are going to and from, and you can tag along for a small price.

Ten things that you’ll want to pack:

1. Tea
2. Curry (or anything spicy whatsoever)
3. Vaseline (and other cosmetics you rely on)
4. GB-EU plug converters. More than one.
5. Marmite
6. Any medication, as it’s very expensive here
7. Gravy granules
8. Pictures of your friends and family, and things to personalise your room
9. Wellies/good boots for the snow. It snows a lot here.
10. Hats, scarves, gloves, coat, fleece, thermals, leggings… any extra layers, make sure you bring them. When temperatures go down to -14 here, you’ll want them.

The best of Berlin for…

The food and drink connoisseur:

1. Brauhaus Mitte (German)
2. Hofbräuhaus München (German beer hall)
3. Schusterjunge (German)
4. The Lemon Leaf (Vietnamese)
5. Cube Sushi

The history fanatic:

1. Museum island
2. Prussian architecture: Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate, Schloss Charlottenburg and the Siegessäule
3. Nazi Germany: The Topography of Terror, the Holocaust memorial and the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand
4. Divided Berlin: Hohenschönhausen (former Stasi prison), Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer and the East Side Gallery
5. The Reichstag

The night owl:

Bars:
1. Dr Pong
2. Hannibal
3. Weinerei Forum
4. Honolulu at the Michelberger Hotel
5. Süss war Gestern

Clubs:
1. Berghain
2. Watergate
3. Stattbad
4. KaterHolzig
5. Cookies

The shopaholic:

1. Galeries Lafayette
2. The Hackescher Höfe
3. KaDeWe
4. Mauerpark
5. Kurfürstendamm

The Musically-oriented:

1. Deutsche Oper
2. Konzerthaus
3. Berliner Philharmonie
4. Komische Oper
5. Astra Kulturhaus

Those just after a wander and some peace and quiet:

1. Tiergarten
2. Treptower Park
3. Schlachtensee
4. Wannsee
5. Krumme Lanke

Ten most useful words and phrases

1. Danke (schön) – Thank you (very much)
2. Noch ein Bier, bitte – Another beer, please
3. Entschuldigung – Excuse me/I’m sorry (use ‘es tut mir Leid’ only if you’re really apologising for something bad)
4. Anrufen – To telephone someone
5. Egal – I don’t mind
6. Kann ich vorbei komme? – Can I come over?
7. Also – A conjunction, meaning so, therefore… Germans use it in pretty much every other sentence. ‘Ach so’ is different, and an expression of surprise/recognition. You’ll want to use this one a lot, too.
8. WG/Wohngemeinschaft – It’s what you’ll probably be living in, a shared/communal apartment
9. Genau – Exactly. Again, use as much as possible.
10. Doch – An expression of disagreement, whereas ‘Stimmt’ is agreement

Other random things my friends and I wish we had known before we got here

1. Finding a flat is hard, and student accommodation can be a) antisocial and b) absolutely filthy
2. Kaiser’s is far superior to Edeka
3. It’s so cheap here
4. It gets really, really cold (can go down to -20 in the Winter!)
5. If you’re a student, you can buy a MuseumPass for €20 which gets you into all Berlin state museums for a year. There’s a similar card called a ClassicCard which, for €15 a year, gets you into all operas and ballets in Berlin for €10.
6. All shops in Berlin are closed on Sundays. (The only supermarket open on a Sunday in Berlin is the Edeka in Friedrichstraße station)
7. Berlin is the best city ever.

Your year abroad will be the hardest, but also the best, year of your life if you let it, and Berlin is an amazing city to live. Make it count and enjoy it. Say yes to everything, and don’t ever claim to be bored. In this city, there is always something to do.

Our Mole Diaries are insider city guides written by students about their experiences, filled with top tips and recommendations. Please view our 200+ Mole Diaries arranged by language, and if you'd like to contribute, do find out more about becoming a Mole!

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