Nicolas Bouliane

What the travel guides omit Posted on

It’s hard to find the perfect middle ground between faithfully describing my experience in Berlin and keeping my articles fun-sized. If I had my way, each post would have dozens of footnotes and several more paragraphs. For the sake of brevity, I usually keep a good part of the experience to myself.

Yet, beyond the monuments and the restaurants, the small cultural differences are the greatest part of this trip. Since May, I have been compiling a list of small cultural differences between Canada and Germany, because they go unmentioned in travel guides. Here is what I have so far.

American fast food is a mystery to Europeans. I have absolutely no complaints about German street food. Berlin’s 3 euro döner kebap and currywurst mit pommes are a drunk wanderer’s best friend. However, if you just want a Costco hot dog and a pogo, your are out of luck. Cheese curds don’t even exist, so you can forget about poutine.

American fast food is a luxury. I ate three course meals for half the cost of a McDonalds trio and there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet a few minutes from work that’s about the same price as a Subway footlong. If you find yourself in Berlin, don’t waste your money on American restaurant chains. Get yourself a nice 3€ kebab or 4€ pizza instead.

The metro system is huge. The Berlin U-Bahn alone has 170 stations and 151 kilometers of railway, and the S-Bahn adds 166 stations covering over 300 kilometers. Once you become familiar with the BVG’s gigantic network, it will truly get you anywhere in a jiffy. Step up your game, Montreal.

The metro system is weird. There are no turnstiles on the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn. You either purchase and validate a ticket or tempt fate by riding without one. Hopefully, you won’t get caught in the same car as a Kontrolleur, because the fine for riding without a ticket was recently bumped to 60 euros (here’s how to pay a BVG fine). If you are lucky, you can book it as soon as the doors open or give the controller your foreign ID and a bogus German address. Vice has written a quite nice article on Schwarzfahren, the practice of riding public transit for free.

Beer everywhere! Not only is beer absurdly cheap (as low as 0.60€!), but it’s also perfectly acceptable to drink it in the street, in a park or in public transit. It’s really refreshing to enjoy a cold brewski anywhere you want. It is customary to leave the bottle next to trash cans so others can return them and make a few cents.

Fun happens outside. My favourite part of Europe is what I call the “terrace culture”. Unless it’s their only option, people rarely gather between four walls. You will be hard-pressed to find a restaurant without a terrace, and rain or shine, people will use them. Europeans will seize every opportunity to be outdoors. I suspect the previous point has something to do with it.

The party never stops. Clubs don’t close at 3AM in Berlin, so it’s not unusual to go for breakfast on your way home. You can leave home at 2AM and find a party that’s just getting started.

Cinemas are a testament to German efficiency. When you buy a ticket in a German cinema, you have a seat number printed on it. You can pick your seats in advance and make sure the whole group sits together. It’s brilliant!

Dogs unleashed. Berliners seem to have a far stronger bond with their dogs. Even in the U-Bahn and in the busiest areas of the city, you will often see unleashed dogs walking by their owners. It’s fairly unusual to see unleashed dogs outside of parks in America.

Everything is paid in cash. Surprisingly enough, most transactions in Berlin are paid in cash. While I could spend a month without seeing a five dollar bill in Montreal, I could hardly survive a day without paper money here.

Bielefeld does not exist. There is a running gag that the city never existed, and that its existence was merely made up. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel made a reference to it.

Everyone is from Stuttgart. The city attracts students, workers and travellers from all over the globe, yet it seems like every other Berliner I meet comes from Stuttgart, a city 630 kilometres south-east of Berlin.

Berlin shuts down on Sundays. If you find yourself with an empty fridge on a Sunday morning, you will end up in a restaurant, because even grocery stores are closed. Grab a book, buy a few cold beers from a späti and head to Mauerpark. That’s the best way to spend your Sundays in Berlin anyway.

Twist caps are a rarity. While a bottle opener is little more than a novelty item in America, it’s a must-have for any young European, as the old continent yet has to grasp the concept of twist caps.

Europeans roll ‘em. A vast majority of young Europeans roll their own cigarettes, something we seldom do in Canada. People will pull out a filter, a rolling paper and a bit of tobacco, then expertly roll their cigarette in the middle of a crowded bar. It is still legal to smoke in bars and clubs in Berlin.

Bathrooms and water are rarely free. If you need to pee while on the move, get ready to shell out fifty cents to a euro. Drinking fountains are a rare sight, but the ubiquitous spätis have plenty of cheap drinks to quench your thirst. If you are in a restaurant, ask for tap water if you don’t want to see a bottle of water on your bill.

Metrification is not half-assed. Us Canadians still use feet and inches a lot, despite having switched to metric 4 decades ago. Europeans measure in meters and grams, formally or informally.

The allergies will break you. I never suffered as much from my allergies as I did in Europe. This seems to be the case for many other travellers, so make sure you come prepared.