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

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