Observations leaving the US for Germany – The quiet

This is part 3 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the quiet in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part three of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. These posts are being made in more or less real-time, within just a few days of arriving, and so encompass my first impressions of it.  This is my third post, and it’s about what I notice about general volume levels for a big city.

Compared to the US, Berlin is extraordinarily quiet, especially for a big city, and despite all the celebrations and activity that goes on throughout the night. The first thing I noticed is the absolute lack of Muzak, which I love. American commercial establishments, whether they a store or a restaurant, have a pervasive need for some sort of music playing constantly. It is everywhere, and you can’t escape it. Its not the style of music that I find so objectionable (although I do generally absolute despise the type of music being played), but that having the constant drone going on in the background requires everything else to be at a higher volume to overcome it. People talk louder, whether they are discussing things face-to-face or just on their mobile phone. That constant chatter carries much further than the Muzak that they are trying to drown out.

In German culture (or basically any culture outside of the US), if you are at an establishment that isn’t an establishment intended for playing music, doesn’t do so. There isn’t music playing at restaurants, for example, so all the people in the restaurant can speak at a normal volume. The same applies for your mobile phone, you’ll find yourself speaking at a dramatically lower volume because you’re not yelling into the phone to overcome the background noise.  Most of the time, you won’t hear people outside when you are inside somewhere. The people themselves tend to be a bit more considerate of their volume levels (or they’re just used to being quieter), so you’ll hear people yell to a friend down the street during the day, but at night this behavior is rather rare. The end result of this is that you can have a relatively busy street with lots of people walking around at midnight, yet it’s nonetheless relatively quiet.

Cars here are built in a way that they tend to shut off while idling, and because the society is a bit rigid when it comes to following rules, people will wait patiently for lights to change, even with no traffic, and cars will yield consistently to pedestrians. This means that they only honk at each other to get someone’s specific attention, or if someone is violating rules. Overall, the traffic can be quite heavy, yet still remain quiet.

I also learned that they have strict noise regulations here. For example, lawn mowers are only allowed to be used between 9am-5pm, and broadly speaking, you’re forbidden from making noise before 7am and after 8pm, and never on Sundays. There’s actual complaint lines and enforcement of said regulations, so although I find the city to be significantly more active at night than most American cities (many restaurants are open until midnight, and people will be walking around with their children at 11pm in the Summer), it’s also dramatically quieter. I’ve spent most of my life trying to drown out noise when I sleep, I tend towards later hours, and even with earplugs and sealed windows, I’d still consistently get woken up. I’m quite enjoying the silence here.

The lower volumes stretch to other areas as well. I spent some time at a club, and in the US, I’ve consistently worn earplugs at any music venue for the last decade because the volume tends to be loud enough to give me tinnitus. Here, I went to an event with DJs playing techno, and for the first time in many years didn’t feel the need to wear earplugs, and left the event without any adverse side effects. The music was plenty loud enough to hear, but you were able to have a conversation with the people next to you without having to yell at full volume.

A nice, unintended side effect of the lower volumes everywhere is that I find myself speaking at a much lower volume as well. Whether its on the phone or in person, I haven’t had to yell to overcome the background noise since I got here, and it is extraordinarily refreshing. I’m afraid that coming back to the US to visit the constant noise will be even more noticeable, and I’m hoping I’m able to find it tolerable. I’ve only been here a couple days, and I can’t imagine having to deal with the constant noise pollution again.

That’s it for part three of this series of observations of Berlin as an ex-pat. There’s more coming, and it’s not all a panacea. I’ve been trying to limit each of these posts to a single topic, and so haven’t hit on some the other less positive things I’ve noticed. Stay tuned for more observations, I’ve got some thoughts on the people, the graffiti and garbage, and even my impressions of German sex culture.

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Observations leaving the US for Germany – The food

This is part 2 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the food in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 3: The quiet

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part two of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. These posts are being made in more or less real-time, within just a few days of arriving, and so encompass my first impressions of it.  This is my second post, and it’s about what I notice about food.

Going out to eat at a restaurant is just about comparable to US prices, maybe slightly cheaper, but not dramatically so. However, the street food, or casual meals, seems dramatically cheaper. For me, this is most apparent when I go get coffee in the morning. A cup of coffee in the US would cost me about $5 or $6 for an espresso drink, and just a cup of coffee would probably be on the order of $3. This morning, I bought a regular coffee with steamed milk, a latte macchiato, and cinnamon pastry. The total was 4 euros. Now, the coffee was a smaller cup than what I might drink in the US, but for that price, I honestly don’t care. If I go to get a hot dog, or slice of pizza for lunch, I can get the entire meal, with a drink, for around 3 or 4 euros.

When it comes to food that is grocery food, the price difference is far more dramatic. Generally, it costs me less than 20 euros to go shopping. To give you a comparison basis, I bought a half kilo of strawberries (a bit more than a pound) for 1 euro. I drink a soda called Club Mate, which is made in Germany, so may not be a fair comparison. In the US, a 0.5 liter bottle costs $3.99. Here? 1 euro. I bought a 1.5 liter sparkling water here for 0.44 euros. On top of that, I can return the bottles to the store (and I’m expected to), which sounds tedious, but since the store is 3 minute walk from the apartment, isn’t hugely onerous. Doing so gives me about 0.2 euros per bottle. I can go to the store with a bag of empty bottles (both plastic and glass, plastic actually gives me more back) and I can pay for half or more of my groceries with it.

From a taste perspective, another thing I’ve noticed is that the fruits and vegetables are much more flavorful than what I would get in the US. The strawberries I mentioned above are smaller, significantly darker than any strawberries I’ve had in the US, and have a ton more flavor. I also purchased some apricots, and I had the same experience. They were smaller, darker, and much more flavor. I’ve noticed the same effect with tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas as well. I’ve only been here a few days, so I haven’t bought many groceries, and it isn’t true in all areas. For example, cheeses seem to me to be similar, although they are significantly lower cost. Here in Germany, I had a much wider selection of salami and other dried deli meats than I would get in the US, and they are far cheaper. At the local store near me, they had 6 or 7 different types of salami alone, and that doesn’t include any of the soppressata, proscuitto, etc. that are different cuts or preparations of dried meats. Comparing the food that I see, it’s clear that US food is optimized for visual appeal instead of taste. That isn’t to say that the food here doesn’t look good, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with it. The tomatoes don’t look different from a quality perspective (as in overripe, etc.), they’re just smaller and darker with more flavor. When you see it, it becomes obvious that US produce is optimized for visuals.

Restaurant food, while quite similar to US food, does seem to have somewhat smaller portions, although tends to include multiple courses, such as salads or a small desert. The food is different, but I can’t place my finger on exactly why. It’s a bit… simpler in preparation? I can’t put my finger on exactly what is different about it, it comes across more like someone who’s a chef serving you food at home, rather than normal restaurant food. It doesn’t feel as heavy somehow. As I mentioned before, the portions are a bit smaller, and don’t include the fluff that comes with US restaurant food. If I order a burger here, it doesn’t automatically have a side of fries, much less include a salad on top of that. This isn’t entirely true, they have “plates”, but the default isn’t to include all the various sides that you’ll get in the US. Although I’m eating somewhat less than I did in the US, because the food tastes richer, I’m not finding myself as hungry. I feel like a bit like this is a manifestation of the empty calories that are often written about, but I can’t be sure, it could all just be in my mind or a symptom of jet-lag.

Those are my immediate observations on food and cost of living style issues. I’m splitting my observations into multiple posts, I’m planning on writing a bit more about transportation, the people, and the nightlife here.

Check out the next article in the series here, or jump directly to other entries.

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 3: The quiet

Observations leaving the US for Germany – The buildings and streets

This is part 1 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the buildings, streets, and general layout of the city in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 2: The food

Part 3: The quiet

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. Its been a while since I’ve updated this blog, and for that I apologize. As you can imagine, things have been pretty hectic leaving the country I’ve lived in most of my life. I’ve only been in Berlin for a few days at this point, but I wanted to write about some of my observations while they were still fresh in my mind, before they become normalized, and no longer stand out as much as they do.

I landed in Berlin on July 19th, 2018, and have a relative with whom we are staying. He’s been generous enough to give us a bedroom in his very nice home, and given that he travels often for work, we’ve been left to make our way in Berlin by ourselves. We’ve only been here a few days, and the contrast to the US (specifically, Chicago) is striking. Broadly speaking, they have similar populations as cities. Chicago clocks in at 2.7 million people, while Berlin has 3.5 million, however, there’s a large density difference, especially when it comes to the suburbs. The Chicago metropolitan area is much larger, with a population of 9.5 million people, while the Berlin area (more or less the entire county) clocks in at 5 million people. From a practical perspective, in Chicago, I can drive away from the Chicago downtown area for quite a distance and still be surrounded by housing and stores. Its density certainly changes, but I’m not in what I would call “nature” by any stretch of the imagination. I find that this is not true in Europe generally, and not in Berlin specifically. Most of the population is inside the city proper, and it drops out very quickly into what you would consider a rural area when you drive outside the city. This has the advantage of letting you escape the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan area much faster than you would in any American city.

A car isn’t required in Chicago, and in fact, we’d been living comfortably without one for many years in Chicago. To some degree, there seems to be quite a large number of cars here in Berlin, but the makeup and layout of the city makes it work differently. Many apartment buildings have parking in the center or behind the building, with a narrow gate/path from the front. So you have buildings that are very dense, with very little street parking, and very narrow driveways (Eingang und Ausgang) that go through the building frontage to either an interior courtyard or space for cars behind the building. The buildings themselves tend to be shaped as squares or rectangular, with an open interior, and no real alleyways, the buildings are pressed together. Because of the open interiors, all the apartments have windows to an open area, many buildings have a nice garden or common space for the residents in the middle, and it helps enormously by bringing in light to all the units and making sure they have windows to an open area. I’ve often noticed this layout (there’s a similar layout in Helsinki, for example) when I travel, and its once I’ve been quite jealous of for many years.

The other interesting thing is that the building frontage often doesn’t match how the interiors look, in that the buildings are much older than what you’d find in the US, and given that they’re packed together, doing new construction is often quite expensive. Building interiors are updated independently, so in the apartment we’re staying in, the frontage of the building, the hallways and common areas seem quite old, like something out of the 1920s. The apartment we’re staying in looks quite modern and updated, so the contrast can be striking when you open the front door.

Besides the buildings themselves, the way the roads are laid out is quite different. There are major avenues of traffic, where most of the cars drive, with smaller streets that break off from the main ones. The smaller streets are only wide enough for 2 cars, and these then break off further into even smaller streets, what we’d consider an alleyway in Chicago. These smaller streets tend to not be through streets, with barriers preventing you from driving through, and are only wide enough for one car, so for cars to pass each other, one car has to pull over into an empty parking space (which are numerous, because of the driveways that lead to building parking). This results in a dramatically different traffic pattern. If you are driving through the city, you’re more or less required to stay on the major roads until you get near your destination, and only then do you drive on the smaller roads. Because of how they’re laid out, there’s no incentive to, or it’s impossible to try and avoid traffic by taking a different route and winding through the small streets. This sounds horrible for commuters, and I can’t testify to that (I don’t consider Chicago or Los Angeles traffic particularly beneficial to commuters either), but it is nice for pedestrians and walking around. Cars drive slowly on the smaller streets, and are friendly to pedestrian traffic. I can always walk around the barriers, so not having through-traffic doesn’t apply to pedestrians.

A pedestrian path off the main street, running through a building.

Rent here is calculated slightly differently as well. The rent is somewhat cheaper than I expected from a direct price comparison, although broadly speaking, the units are smaller. The price shown is the bare price, and there’s generally a second price listed, which is the all-inclusive price. The units here aren’t metered separately, so the all-inclusive price includes water, power, garbage, etc., and I assume money for the common areas of the building. The security deposits tend to be a bit high, generally costing about 3x the rent, but given that the rent is cheaper, it doesn’t factor in significantly. Once you factor in the utilities included in the rent price, the cost of living becomes dramatically cheaper than what I paid in Chicago, which is considered a “cheap” city to live as far as cost of living. If I compared it to Los Angeles, where I used to live, I could live in a unit twice the size of what I could get in LA at half the cost, and I could do it without looking for a bargain. I could pick the most expensive unit here, and it would still work out that way.

The rooms are also calculated differently, instead of having “bedrooms” being counted, with other rooms being glossed over, here they are just “rooms”. So a 3 room unit is a unit with 3 actual rooms, and it’s up to you how you want to divide it up. The room count generally doesn’t include bathrooms. When you have multiple bathrooms, they’re also not generally full bathrooms (meaning shower and/or tub), but are what we could consider half-baths, with just a toilet and sink. In my opinion, this makes quite a bit more sense. I used to live in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath house. My wife and I lived in the “master” bedroom, which had a “master bath”. We had another full bathroom with a shower, and 2 bedrooms which we used as offices. In the 8 years that we owned the house, the second shower was used probably a handful of times. In our case, it would have been convenient to not have the second full bath, since we used them as offices/workspaces, and the master bath sufficed. Here in Europe, it would have been setup as follows. The master bath would have become a half bath, with just a toilet and a sink, and the shower/tub would have moved into the second full bath (which was located in a common area, so could be used by the all the bedrooms without walking through another bedroom, unlike the master bath). If our house had been laid out that way, we would gained additional usable space in the house itself, which would have been preferred, at the cost of being slightly inconvenienced when we had guests staying at the house (in that I would, as a polite host, have gotten dressed before taking a shower).

Those are my immediate observations on the kinds of homes people live in, and what you can expect from a living situation, as well as a bit about how the streets are laid out. I’m splitting my observations into multiple posts, I’m planning on writing a bit more about food, transportation, the people, and the nightlife here. Check out the next article in the series here, or jump directly to other entries.

Part 2: The food

Part 3: The quiet