Culture and Customs

Since Kennedy declared his solidarity with Berlin by asserting he was a jelly doughnut ("Ich bin ein Berliner") instead of a citizen of the city ("Ich bin Berliner"), there has been a lot of debate about what Berliners are like.

Certainly, like the inhabitants of many big towns, they are witty but direct to the point of rudeness. At first they can come across as rather despondent and, but on better acquaintance you'll start to enjoy the sense of humour. Hitler loathed the city. Apart from the fact that they voted heavily against the Nazis and in favour of the Social Democrats and Communists in the Thirties, he believed they were anarchic. You are less likely to be rebuked for walking across an empty street on a red light than anywhere else in Germany. And you'll notice soon that Berliners have an irreverant name for all the public monuments - the memorial to the last Kaiser, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church on Ku'damm, with its famous unrepaired, war-damaged tower, is dubbed The Hollow Tooth, and the imperial victory column with its golden angel is Golden Elsie. Since re-unification service standards are improving rapidly.

It's a very literate population - you'll be surprised at how many people are reading novels on the U-Bahn (the underground train) - and most people speak varying amounts of English, particularly in the service industries. Older people in the east of the city speak less English since they learned Russian at school as their first language. And the accent ranges from clear Hochdeutsch, the standard form, through to the thick local accent, again particularly in the east.

Probably the best favour you can do yourself is to learn a few simple German phrases. People are always pleased that you've made an effort (and are likely to answer you in English).

German English
Ja, bitte. Yes, please.
Nein, danke. No, thank you.
Guten Morgen. Good morning.
Guten Tag. Good day.
Guten Abend. Good evening.
Aufwiedersehen/Tschüß. Goodbye.
Ich möchte bezahlen. I'd like to pay.
Quittung Receipt / Bill
Wo ist...? Where is...?

When asking directions and using German place names, notice that "w" is pronounced "v", "v" is pronounced "f", "z" is pronounced "tz". the letter "ß" stands for double "s" and is pronounced accordingly.

Finding your way around is relatively easy - the underground system is clearly marked (and safe), the bus stops display the bus timetables, and the house numbers to be found in any particular part of a street are indicated on a sign under the street signs at most junctions. The city is criss-crossed with bicycle lanes, usually a different colour stripe on the pavements, and you should avoid walking on these since Berlin cyclists behave as though no-one ever would. Similarly, if you're not familiar with a city with trams look carefully before you cross the tracks - they can't swerve.

If you're driving, take care to remember that in Germany you give way to the right unless you're on a major road. You won't find many roundabouts, and you're advised to slow down over cobbles - they're picturesque but lethal. Petrol stations are not so easy to find in the east of the city - they're often off the road and out of sight, so don't get caught out. Pay attention when parking, and don't if there's a sign that could conceivably be interpreted as a discouragement (for example, fire vehicle access through the arches of older residential buildings) - the police tow offending vehicles away and there's a hefty fine.

The police are civil and helpful (olive uniform, green and white vans). Emergency services can be contacted by phone under the number 110 (police, ambulance and fire). Letter boxes are yellow, and have 2 slots - the one on the right is labelled Berlin, the one on the left is is for all other deliveries. Public phone boxes are to be found everywhere - they work, but you usually need a phonecard, available for € 5.00 and upwards from most street kiosks. Automatic street toilets have recently been introduced - instructions in English, and you need a 50 Cent piece. Cafes are also obliged to let you use their facilities, but it's tactful to ask, and perhaps to offer 20 Cents afterwards.

Be prepared for queues in some food supermarkets. Measurements are metric (Kilos, Litres etc.) so you might want to familiarise yourself with the conversion. The leather clad grey-uniformed men at the entrances to many shops are the Wache - a private security service.

On the streets you'll notice a few differences. The pillars displaying posters are the "Litfasssäule" - a famous feature of Berlin. The men dressed in black corduroy trousers with a double zip, waistcoats and sometimes wide-brimmed black hats are itinerant carpenters and joiners. You'll see buskers everywhere, even on the U-Bahn, and also people selling magazines for the homeless .- the patter they give explains that they keep 50 Cents of the €1.00 cover price for themselves, the rest goes for shelters, and this is usually true. Sadly you'll also encounter beggars, and also, on the Public Transport System, ticket inspectors. These usually are plain-clothes, announce their presence after the doors are closed and are entitled to see your ticket, or, if you are not in possession of a valid ticket, ask you to step off at the next stop to identify yourself. All German citizens have an ID card and you'd be wise to always carry some form of personal identification on your person.

Indoors occasional surprises await. For UK visitors the lack of plugs for sinks and wash basins is explained by the existance everywhere of mixer taps. Many outside doors to flats need to be locked to remain closed - worth checking if you don't want to chase a cat into the street. Sash windows are absent - the newer ones open both inwards and tip. In other words, you probably haven't broken it.

Church services for most denominations and religions are held throughout the city, and some English language services are advertised, particularly on the U-Bahn .

Need just the facts? Go to City Facts.

© 2002-2003 Berlin Travel Service - A1 Design All rights reserved.