I: The Big Move

When I was eight years old my parents decided to move to a new house. I was well prepared for this. I had watched Toy Story, I had all my belongings boxed up and labelled. I used a big, thick black marker to write “FRAGILE” on the side of each box because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my Barbie dolls and stuffed animals. I kept one toy out, a plush dog I slept with every night named Cinders who was to me what Woody was to Andy. I was all set and ready to go when, on the day of the move, my parents dropped me off at my grandparents in the morning and didn’t pick me up until later that night. By then the movers were long gone and I never even got to see my little brother’s Buzz Lightyear action figure rocketing along the streets beside us or falling with style into the sunroof of my car.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I felt utterly betrayed by my parents, convinced they had excluded me on purpose to suit some nefarious end. I moped for hours, all the fun of moving suddenly stripped away, replaced with the arduous task of unpacking. As I’ve gotten older I’ve managed to move past this traumatic event. I can understand that maybe my parents didn’t want their high energy and slightly rambunctious eight year old distracting them, telling the movers what to do, and generally getting underfoot. After all, moving is never easy; it can be highly stressful packing up your life to start again somewhere new, worrying if you’ve forgotten anything or didn’t pack something well enough, fearing that your new neighbours will be noisy or unfriendly, that the heating won’t work, a water pipe will burst, you’ll find mice or wasps, the van will get lost, and so forth and so on. These are all the ordinary worries of moving to a new house. Now imagine all the hassle of moving to a new city. How about a new country?

Likely because I missed my first move all those years ago, I honestly spent less time thinking about living in Germany than I did making sure my stuffed animals had enough airholes in the boxes packed so carefully by my eight year old self. I was coming off half a year of independent travel and figured that moving to Berlin would actually be easier than charting my own route through South America or watching my bank account take a rapid plunge in London. I moved here with a backpack full of summer clothes and a hostel booked for the few days I thought it would take to get an apartment in the city.

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Berlin skyline at dusk

I actually got unreasonably lucky. A friend of a friend I had met in South America was heading out of town for a month and needed someone to sublet her furnished apartment last minute. I was able to move in quickly, solving the immediate problem of where to live within a week. I know others who have not been so fortunate. Accommodation is a major issue in Berlin. In fact, only last year they banned Air BnB because it was encouraging renters to raise their prices beyond the levels Berliners could afford so that they could make a quick profit on short-term sublets. The result was that only holiday goers were able to find housing in Berlin, while those of us living here long-term were left with small apartments in undesirable areas of the city.

Although it is still difficult to find a place, there are many resources out there for would-be renters. Most people are looking for/offering a Wohngemeinschaft or WG, which is your standard shared accommodation with a flatmate. While I was searching for more permanent accommodation I used http://www.wg-gesucht.de and http://www.immobilienscout24.de. There are also a number of groups on Facebook, particularly for short-term sublets, such as Berlin Housing, Flats in Berlin, Apartments/Roommates in Berlin and the aptly named Short-term Accommodation Berlin. Of course with all of these, you should be wary of scam artists and others trying to take advantage, but there are many legitimate advertisements as well. It helps being both cautious and flexible – in my first four months in Berlin, I lived in three separate apartments. Two I was able to get through connections, one I found online. To appeal to a potential flatmate, my best advice is to be honest about your expectations. If you’re a nightowl who loves playing loud music, don’t reply to the ad written by the quiet professional. If you like to buy your own groceries, a flatmate who prefers communal living may not be ideal for you. Be honest with yourself and with others, try to be open and accepting, don’t let your emails be generic and be prepared to send our dozens before you get a nibble back. Everyone I know has eventually found a place to live but the quality definitely depends on how diligent you are and how well you are able to persevere through disappointment.

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Aerial view of Lustgarten from the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) in Mitte

The second thing to consider when renting in Berlin is the neighbourhood. I haven’t lived in enough areas of the city to give you a comprehensive overview of them all, but a general rule of thumb is that former East Berlin usually has lower rents than former West Berlin. The great exception to this is Mitte in the centre of the city. Throughout the 1990s, Mitte was at the heart of the blossoming art scene in former East Berlin. However, the area was rapidly gentrified during the 2000s. Today, it is where you can find most of Berlin’s tourist sites: The Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, the TV Tower, the location of Hitler’s former headquarters, Checkpoint Charlie, all of them are in Mitte. Consequently, it’s a fantastic neighbourhood to visit as a tourist, but an expensive one for residents. Most people I know prefer Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain, the current alternative capitals of Berlin. Kreuzberg in the former West is a bit more trendy, filled with hipster bars and pop-up shops, while Friedrichshain in the former East is more grungy, where many of Berlin’s most famous techno clubs can be found and in which the underground music and art scene thrive. For more information on Berlin’s districts, you can check out the city’s tourist website or I found a pretty handy breakdown on the blog, Travels of Adam.

Because of the way Berlin was divided following the Second World War and particularly during the Cold War years, each neighbourhood can sometimes feel like its own mini-city, with everything you need only a short bike ride away. However, to really appreciate the diversity of Berlin, I think it’s important to take the time to venture beyond your own neighbourhood. Dance the night away in Friedrichshain, feel like royalty at the Charlottenburg Palace, find a cool new outfit at the Mauer Park flea market in Prenzlauer Berg, or grab a kite, skateboard or, heck, why not your old Buzz Lightyear action figure to explore Berlin’s abandoned airport at Tempelhofer Feld in Neukölln. To infinity and beyond!

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Berlin City Map, illustrated by Vesa Sammalisto

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