5 Things I Got Used To In Berlin

5 Apr 2021

Kottbusser Tor Subway Station

I moved to Berlin 5 years ago. I've never visited it before but knew a bit about it. I heard there was a huge wall one day and people were divided by it. There should still be a tall TV tower, the Brandenburg Gate, and a bunch of clubs and bars that locals like to visit. "Poor but sexy" I've also heard but had no idea what does it mean.

In those first days, I've learned many new things about Berlin. Some of them were good, some not so. The latter ones even made me doubt my decision to move here at first, but after 5 years I can say it was an overstatement. Most of those things don't affect me, and some I even learned to enjoy. So here they are, the 5 things I got used to in Berlin.

Large Panel Buildings

I grew up in a small Siberian town. It mostly consists of one- or two-store houses made of bricks or wood. The dozen or so panel buildings that are there, are 5 stores high max. I first saw 9-, 12- and 16-store panel buildings in Krasnoyarsk, 20+ store buildings in Sankt Petersburg, and found them ugly and depersonalized. Unfortunately, they are the inescapable reality of every large Russian city.

It was disappointing to see them back again in Berlin, and not even on the outskirts, but right in the center, at Alexanderplatz. An acquaintance of mine once made a picture there and commented it "Just like at Prosvet"1. Well, hard to argue with that. On the other hand, panel buildings are just one part of Berlin. There are a lot of Altbau and Neubau around, and you don't need to be a Rockefeller to find a place that you'd like.

Dirty Subway

Berlin has a relatively cheap and reliable subway system, but some of its stations and even whole lines are dirty and unpleasant. When a couple of friends from London came to visit us that was the first thing they noticed. Pankstrasse, Schönleinstrasse, Zoo are one of the dirtiest stations in my opinion. And, of course, Kotti. When I was there for the first time I thought it would be torture to commute there every day. Luckily one can use a bike to go around the whole city without much of a hassle. Nowadays I use the subway mostly to get home from a bar, in which case I don't care much about cleanliness anyway :)

Homeless People

In contrast to Russia police in Germany don't spend much time kicking homeless people out of sight. At least that's my impression because you can see them everywhere: in playgrounds and parks, under bridges and in subway stations. Some offer you a newspaper to buy, others just enjoy themselves. Rarely there's a mix of mental illness and homelessness that makes a person shout nasty stuff in German, English, Russian, Polish, or any other language (Berlin is an expat city after all). I felt awkward at first, but I've never had any issues with homeless people nor I've heard any bad stories about them, so eventually, I stopped noticing.

TV Tax

Shortly after I received a tax ID I found out about the so-called "TV Tax". It is a quarterly payment (about 18.5 euros per month per household) that almost everyone in Germany has to pay to fund public radio and television. I was outraged then. Why should I pay if I don't even have a TV? I never gave a dime to Russian state TV channels2; why all of a sudden do I have to pay German ones? Who came up with such a stupid tax?

Today I still don't have a TV, but I enjoy German television: ZDF Magazine Royale, Heute Show, Noch Nicht Schicht, Extra 3, Die Europa Saga, Die Deutschland Saga, Terra X, etc. I have a warm feeling of my money spent right whenever I see an episode of satirical show mocking Angela Merkel, CDU/CSU, and other politicians outright, without resorting to subtle hints and allusions.3 Yet I'd prefer to have a voluntary subscription instead of a tax.


Previously I ate shawarma only while bar-hopping. At 4 a.m. most of the restaurants were closed, and the open ones usually served shawarma made out of cheap meat, veggies, and a lot of mayo. I considered it bad food, but ate nevertheless because being only drunk is a bit better than both drunk and hungry.

Berlin has a lot of places offering shawarma or kebap. Most of them look cheap, some even dirty. I avoided them for a long time, but then I and my colleagues went for lunch to one of those cheap-looking places, and I was surprised to find the food there good. Turns out they used yogurt instead of mayo, a lot of tasty spices, and more vegetables. Since then I've discovered a couple of nice places on my own and removed shawarma from the list of unhealthy food. I still think most of the shawarma restaurants are ugly, but hey, don't judge a book by its cover ;)

The same could be said about Berlin in general.

  1. Prospekt Prosveshcheniya in Sankt Petersburg, one of those streets made completely out of large panel buildings

  2. Oh, the irony! Of course, I paid, though it never showed anywhere in payslips.

  3. A late-night show host Ivan Urgant gives a teeny-tiny glimpse of a reference to the newly discovered Putin's Palace