Friday, August 6, 2010

What I Won't Miss

Now that's it's been a few months since I returned from Berlin and I've finally settled down somewhat after many, many travels, I'm finally getting around to wrapping up this blog with the finished versions of all the half-written posts I promised! To get the negativity out of the way first, I'll start with the things I will not miss about life in Berlin, then move on to greener pastures.
1. Shelf Toilets

I first saw these little gems on a British TV show called "You Are What You Eat" in which the dictator-like healthy eating expert examines the show participant's poo to assess the healthiness of their diets. She explains that they have to use her bathroom with her "German toilet" which has a convenient little shelf that fall on so that they can be more easily examined. I figured this was pretty much made up for the show or at least extremely rare so imagine my surprise when there actually was one in my Berlin office. It's pretty embarrassing to go to the bathroom in the office and have everyone know you just did number 2 because the toilet is engineered to leave the poo out in the air until it is flushed away, thus causing a widespread and strong odor to suffuse the bathroom. It's even more embarrassing to have this occur when you are a guest in someone else's home, as happened with the friend I stayed with for a few days in Vienna. Now I have seen many theories as to why these toilets were ever invented, including: wanting to examine one's feces (what?!? surely not. except in the case of the British health expert) or some kind of sick desire for Schadenfreude (a German word meaning pleasure derived from the misfortune of others--I think this explanation is really more of an expat joke than anything plausible). The most widely accepted, however, is the prevention of "splashback." I ask you, is that really worth the (sizeable) discomforts that this toilet brings?!? I'm pretty glad that I won't be finding these in my next place of employment in the US.

2. Cigarettes EVERYWHERE
While many people complained when smoking was banned from inside bars and restaurants in New York City, as a non-smoker and someone who absolutely abhors the smell of smoke, I pretty quickly got used to going out without having to spend the evening breathing in other people's cancer sticks. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed the smokehouse that is every bar or club in Berlin. Sometimes it was so bad that I had trouble breathing and/or developed a headache. But most of the time it didn't bother me too much until I woke up the next morning and realized that everything I had been wearing, and my hair, completely stank stank stank of cigarette smoke. Every time I went out. Even just to a friend's house. Yuck.

3. Closed on Sundays
I was shocked to find that all supermarkets, and most other shops, are closed in Germany on Sundays. Berlin is not some small provincial town, it's the freakin capital city for goodness' sake, but even so there is only one supermarket in the whole city that is a) open on Sundays b) open on public holidays and c) open 24 hours. Coming from a city where I can get diner food, fresh-baked bagels and yes, groceries at all hours of the day or night, no matter the day of the week (and that's within walking distance of my house in Brooklyn, never mind the 24hr playground that is Manhattan), this was kind of jarring. It was absolutely the pits to wake up on a Sunday and realize that unless you wanted to go all the way to Friedrichstrasse, you had no groceries until Monday. This threw a wrench in my eating plans many a time, especially the one memorable occasion when we invited all our friends to a balcony barbecue only to realize we had no means of getting the supplies. Thus we ended up carrying all the groceries and a case of beer home from Friedrichstrasse. Good times. Anyway, for a civilized nation to dictate supermarket opening times based on one religion's traditions is to my mind absurd. Wake up and smell the coffee on this one, Deutschland.

4. Rampant Public Nudity
Ok, perhaps 'rampant' is a strong word, and I hate to admit to my discomfort with naked strangers, but there it is. My country was founded by Puritans, etc. So I was a bit taken aback the first time I went into the changing room at my gym and found butt-naked people acting like it weren't no thang. This also occurred at the public pool, where there were no partitions in the showers, so I just had to suck it up and join in the party--but at least I wrapped a towel around myself when I left the shower area. Now I'm fine with seeing someone's tatas or booty when they're quickly changing or whatever, but to have full-frontal assault for the entirety of my changing room experience (please don't bend over please don't bend over aaaaaah did not need to see that!!!) was a bit much. You know that awkward moment when you open a door and someone else is on the other side, trying to open it from that side? Imagine how much this is magnified when the someone on the other side is a grinning, toothless, extremely old women with her large, liver-spotted breasts and other attributes just hangin out for all to see. Wow. Try to get that image out of your head. I know I can't.

5. Bureaucracy and Rules and Feeling Paranoid
There's a lot of freakin rules in Germany. I have problems enough with authority figures as it is, and when they're barking at me in German, and acting like I'm an idiot because I maybe don't understand every single word they say in a language to which I am not native, it really rubs me the wrong way. You all read my post about the police breaking into our party and acting like total assholes. I don't recall if I wrote about the time I got "caught" riding the U-Bahn without a valid ticket (it's called schwarzfahren, or 'riding black'), but I'll recap: I got caught, not without a ticket, but with the wrong kind of ticket, and when I tried to explain that I'm a foreigner and misunderstood they would have none of it. I had to go in to the BVG office. So I woke up early the next morning to tramp through the snow to do so. On the way I figured I had better buy a single ride ticket. Haha, how silly would it be to get caught on the way to paying a fine? But since I was used to my monthly ticket, which doesn't require validation, I forgot to validate my single ticket. Bam! Nailed, by the same bitch-tastic woman who got me the first time. I immediately burst into tears (it was freakin early and cold and this was ridiculous), but she wouldn't even look at me. I waved the ticket from the day before at her. "Don't you remember me? You gave this to me yesterday. I'm on my way to pay it. I have a clearly newly printed single ticket that I simply forgot to validate. Do you really think I would be so stupid as to not have a valid ticket on the same train at the same time as when I got caught yesterday?!?" Her response was to hold out her hand and ask for my ID again. Can we say BITCH? So I had to go in again the next day and talk myself out of the second fine. The result of encounters of this kind was that even though I was doing my absolute best to be legal in Germany (for instance, I actually registered and de-registered like I was supposed to, unlike many of the expats I knew), I still felt extremely paranoid every time I saw a cop or cop car. I would immediately check over what I was doing to make sure nothing could be construed as illegal, but still felt extremely nervous. Cops don't make me react that way in the States. Something about German rules and bureaucracy was just really kind of scary for a foreigner.

6. Lack of Spice
But for something more lighthearted. I've written about this before, but it had to be on this list: there is patently NO spice to be found in German restaurants. Even Asian places make their food to German taste, meaning no spicy for you. Additionally it is near-impossible to find acceptable Mexican food, even in Berlin. Note to Northern Europe: creme fraiche is NOT an ingredient in guacamole. Having said this, I've realized in the months since my departure that I actually miss one of the two Mexican restaurants I found in Berlin. At first I thought of Dolores as a Chipotle substitute, but I ended up liking it sooo much better than Chipotle. Their mole tofu and spicy-hot habaƱero sauce was far superior. How's that for irony?

Stay tuned for the more positive aspects of Berlin life!

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