Friday, June 29, 2012

Bike of the Week: Number 05

We found this week's "Bike of the Week"...

Looking dapper

...lurking on a street corner in Alt-Treptow trying to look cool.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Ok so I was bored and had nothing better to do with my time than come up with a list of interesting things about Germany based on the letters of its name; G, E, R, M, A, N, & Y. I did however learn some more about Germany and I hope you do too! Here goes…

G stands for Green

Germany is a very green country.  Although it has one of the highest populations in Europe, 89% of the population lives in and around its cities. That leaves 31% of the country that is still forests and woodlands. With a varying landscape of low and high mountain ranges, lakelands and forests, Germany has a lot of natural spaces to explore. 

E stands for Einstein

Federal archive, image 102-10447 CC-BY-SA

One of the most famous Germans, Albert Einstein, was born in Ulm on the 14th March 1879. Some of the strangest facts I have found about him include the following: 
  • His mother thought that he was a deformed baby when he was born because his head was so large! 
  • As a boy he became interested in science because of a compass his father gave to him. 
  • He failed his university entrance exam!
  • After his death, his brain was stolen and kept in a jar by the pathologist who conducted the autopsy! 

R stands for Rhine

The Rhine is Europe’s most important river and the longest river in Germany with 865 km of the river running through the country.  It starts in Switzerland then passes the border between Austria and Liechtenstein, through France, Germany and finally empties into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Eighty percent of its ship-carrying waters pass through Germany. There are more castles along the Rhine River than in any other river valley worldwide. Also, without this important river, German wine probably wouldn’t exist. Is that a good or a bad thing?

M stands for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Author - Niteshift (from

I like the way this sounds but it’s a bit tricky to say after a few German beers. Apart from sounding like a surname of a German steam-punk villan, it is actually one of the federal states and one of Germany’s leading tourist destinations. It is located in the northeast of Germany and touches the Baltic Sea.  Its capital city is Schwerin and other major cities include Rostock and Greifswald. It is home to two of the oldest universities in Europe, 2,000 castles, the Rostocker Bratwurst (a type of sausage) and its largest brewery produces a beer called Lübzer Pils

A stands for Altbier

Author - Eigenes Werk (from

Altbier literally means “old beer” and is a German ale brewed using a pre-lager brewing process involving top-fermenting yeast. Altbier is brewed in Düsseldorf and the Rhinelands in the northwest of Germany. The first brewery to use the name “Alt” was Schumacher which opened in 1838. It is copper in colour, cool-fermented and cold-conditioned with an aromatic “hopiness” and a creamy head.   

N stands for North Sea

Author - Mogens Engelund (from

The North Sea coast of Germany is very flat and has a series of offshore islands. Several of the islands are inhabited but, in gereral, cars are not allowed. Bikes and horse-drawn carriages are the main form of transport. These islands are all popular holiday destinations where holiday-makers take advantage of the clean air, white beaches and rolling sand dunes. In the area is the “Wadden Sea National Park” which is a protected ecosystem and has been declared an UNESCO biosphere reserve. 

Y stands for the letter “Y”

The “Y” is called ypsilon in German and derives from the letter “J”. There are not many words starting with a ypsilon in the German language! Of the few “y” words used, most of them are imported from other languages such as “yacht” or “yale”.  

I hope you enjoyed learning some interesting facts about Germany. I know i did.
Comments and corrections are welcome!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Kreuzberg in Pictures: Episode Two

In this section of Explorer Berlin we share photos we took from our travels around Kreuzberg. Here are a couple more photos of the wonderful things to see here. There is a theme this week, Alternative places to have a drink!

Do you live in or have you visited Kreuzberg? 
What do you think of this part of Berlin? 
Comments are welcome. 

The "Kjosk Bus Bar" on Skalitzerstrasse.
Update: I was informed by @jeroenvanmarle via twitter shortly after posting this blog that the Kjosk Bus Bar is no longer there and, low and behold, I went past this afternoon and it had disappeared! It might crop up somewhere else in the city hopefully. Thanks for the info Jeroen.   

A "Boat Bar" on the Spree.
A pleasure boat on the canal. I'm pretty sure it has a bar too!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bike of the Week: Number 04

And this week's winner...

Lonely Mongoose

...looked kind of lonely so we made friends with it!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Things we miss about living in Spain.

Ok, so it's nothing to do with Berlin but we just got back from a visit to Spain and realised that there were a few things that we both miss. Before making the move to Berlin I lived there for 6 years and it's only after going back to visit that I noticed there are some things I maybe took for granted when I was living there. It probably says a lot about me that most of the things I miss are food related (don't worry friends in Spain, I miss you too!) so enjoy the photos and try not to drool on your keyboard!

Patatas Bravas ("brave" potatoes)

Patatas Bravas are fried potatoes with a warm tomato-based sauce poured on top. The strength and quality of the sauce varies from "very boring tomato" to "amazingly hot and spicy".

Café con Leche (coffee with milk)

Although you can find many coffee shops in Berlin, the coffee just isn't the same as a nice strong Spanish coffee. 

Café con Hielo (iced coffee)

For coffee lovers in Madrid during the hot seasons, cafe con hielo is a must. It is just unbearable drinking hot coffee in the constant dry summer heat of the city. Hot black coffee is normally served in a cup with another glass of ice that you pour the coffee into. I don't like black coffee however, so I order "coffee with milk, with ice" to much confusion of the waiters.

Sandwich Mixto con Huevo (mixed sandwich with a fried egg)

It's probably a blessing that I haven't found this breakfast-time treat in Berlin yet as most of the time there is normally about a pound of butter covering this Spanish take on the cheese and ham toastie.
The cut out hole in the bread (so your egg doesn't get squashed) is a fancy touch.

The Menu Del Día (menu of the day)

The "menu of the day" is pretty much a standard for Spaniards. Most Spanish bars and restaurants offer wholesome home-cooked Spanish food at lunch-time. The menu typically comes with a choice of first and second courses, a free drink and dessert or coffee. To be honest it is normally way too much for me to eat at lunchtime (leads to a very unproductive afternoon in the office) but I did used to treat myself every once in a while. 

Tinto De Verano ("Summer wine") 

As the name suggests, this drink is perfect to quench your thirst on a terrace in the summer months. It is a typical drink for a Menu Del Día too. The mixture of red wine and sparkling tonic water is very refreshing. 

Servilletas (serviettes or napkins)

This is an honorary mention as servilletas are one of the things I DON'T miss about living in Spain. Every bar has them and they always remind me of school toilet paper. With a completely non-absorbent flimsy plastic coating, they are completely and utterly inadequate for the task they were designed for!


All in all, my visit to Spain was a nice trip down memory lane but I don't think I am that desperate that I have to replace these things. However, a good German substitute for summer wine is a cold German beer and the bravas salsa is kind of similar to currywurst sauce.

I'm definitely excited to discover the international culinary delights Berlin has to offer. Where do I start??? Any suggestions anyone?


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Reichstag

The main entrance of the Reichstag
We couldn’t start a section on architecture without writing about The Reichstag building, the second most visited attraction in Berlin and current home to the German Parliament or Bundestag. Original construction of this emblematic neo-renaissance building finished in 1894. Designed by architect, Paul Wallot, it has been a silent witness to German history over the years and suffered severely, like so many other Berlin buildings, from the bombardments of the Second World War.

View of Berlin from the roof terrace
The reconstructed building work lead by Norman Foster in the 90’s renovated the old and damaged building by adding editions, including the famous glass roof dome. Who wouldn’t want to stand in a place where so many major events of history have happened, and where personalities as diverse as Hitler and Michael Jackson have stood? (Jacko performed a concert there in 1988) In all, The Reichstag is well worth a closer look.

The famous roof dome
We visited The Reichstag building on a sunny but windy afternoon in May. It was very interesting to be in this building for a while to enjoy its architecture, as well as to take in the great views of the city from the roof dome terrace. After the Second World War the building stood unused and empty with only a partial renovation in the 60’s. It wasn’t until 1990 when the second full renovation by Norman Foster’s team started. It was re-opened in 1999 when The Reichstag became a functional building once again and the famous glass dome took its place as an iconic modern feature of the city's skyline. An interesting note is that the conceptual artist, Christo, wrapped the whole building in plastic in 1994 before renovation was completely finished. I would have liked to have been one of the millions of visitors to see that!

The rotating blind
In my opinion Norman Foster did a great job balancing the new against the old. The modern additions don’t distract from the personality of the original building but they do bring it into the 21st century with the addition of energy-saving design elements, making the whole building more environmentally friendly. The new design reduces the annual CO2 emissions by more than 6,000 tons and parts of the building actually absorb energy and reuse it. The glass dome has many energy saving features. The glass panels, for example, absorbs the heat from outside and the huge rotating blind attached to the middle column rotates in line with the direction of the sun, maintaining a comfortable interior temperature by stopping direct sunlight heating up the glass room too much. The circular hole in the very top of the dome helps the hot air escape and amazingly, when rain or snow enter, the dome doesn't flood! Instead the water is recycled and reused.

The hole in the center of the dome
As a visitor, you follow the circular pathways around the edge of the dome that gradually take you up to the top and back. The details of the design and some of the sights seen of the city are highlighted by the very complete free audio guide, which automatically narrates your trip as you wander up and around the dome. All in all, a visit to the dome makes a very interesting morning or afternoon trip in Berlin.

It’s true that Germans are famous for being very organised but we got a glimpse of just how seriously they take organisation at the end of the tour as we were hearded to the exit. Navigating the automatic main doors was a little tricky as there is a double door system, kind of like an airlock, as the outside door could not be opened until the inside door was closed and the space between full of escaping tourists. There was much confusion as people kept standing in the way of the closing door! We assume this systems is for energy saving reasons so 10 points there for good design! We were also told off for standing on the wrong part of the pavement and for lingering around a few seconds too long on the out-of-bounds pathway to snap the last photo before leaving!

Reichstag tours are free but by appointment only so it is essential to book ahead. If you are only planning a short trip to Berlin make sure you book with at least a week’s notice so you can choose the right date and time for you.

You can pre-book a visit through The Reichstag website.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Bike of the Week: Number 03

"Bike of the Week"number drei

We like it's retro charm!


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The rows of columns
A trip to Berlin would not be complete if you didn’t head over to West Berlin and visit The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is located near the Bandenburg Gate and is an impressive monument. It consists of 2,711 seven-foot-long grey concrete columns of varying heights organised in rows and placed on uneven ground.

The controversial memorial was designed by Jewish-American architect, Peter Eisenman. It took about two years to construct and was officially opened in May 2005. If you take a close look at it’s abstract design, you’ll see that the columns are slightly skewed and irregular. I heard a theory that the columns represent crooked gravestones and you may get a feeling of oppression or entrapment as you walk down the narrow maze of paths. I don’t think that the architect has ever publicly disclosed the exact significance of the design but part of its simplistic elegance, for me, is the fact that it makes you stand back and think.
Captured by the sun

When I was standing there observing the monument I got the impression that the columns could represent individuality, as each column is slightly different to the next. What do you think they could represent?

Within the complex there is a very interesting underground museum that contains photographs, biographies of some of the victims and general information about the holocaust. You can pick up an optional audio guide in English for a few euros and it takes about 75 minutes to listen as you walk round.

There is one room in particular within the center that drew my attention. This low-lit room holds some snippets of letters, postcards and some prose that victims wrote to their loved ones at the time of their capture, their transport away from their homes or whilst in the concentration camps themselves. While reading I was reminded that they were all just normal people who must have gone through hell at the hands of the Nazis. It is incredible to believe that this actually happened at all.

"It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say." 
~Primo Levi 

Potsdamer Platz overlooks the memorial

Back in 2003 I visited the sites of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in Poland, which was an emotional, solemn, but educational experience. This type of tourism might not be at the top of your “trips to take in 2012” list but I think that a visit to the Holocaust Memorial is a must for anyone visiting Berlin. These great atrocities against humanity happened not that long ago and we need to be reminded about it every once in a while so that mass-murder and discrimination of this scale will never happen again.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is free to walk around any day of the week and the free museum is open year round between 10:00 and 20:00 in the summer and until 19:00 in the winter.

For more information visit their website.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Kreuzberg in Pictures: Episode One

Kreuzberg in West Berlin is one of the most well-known areas of Berlin. It is rich in counter-culture, road-side cafes and restaurant as well as street art. It went from being one of the poorest West Berlin neighbourhoods during the late 70's to the hip cultural center it now is.

Kreuzberg houses many of the immigrants in Berlin (including us!) and has a well established Turkish community and a load of punks! There are many things to do and see here especially in the summer months when a walk down one of the canals and a cool beer on a terrace is a must!

In this section of Explorer Berlin we will be sharing photos we took around Kreuzberg every few weeks. Here are a couple of photos to get started. We hope you enjoy them.

Do you live in or have you visited Kreuzberg? 
What do you think of this part of Berlin? 
Comments are welcome. 

Line 1 of the U-Bahn which goes right through the center of Kreuzberg. 
Swans on the canal.
Night time factories on the Spree.

Six things to do before moving to Berlin to live and work as a freelancer!

Being a freelancer is great because you are your own boss but it can also be complicated to move to a different country and find work. Here is a list of six things that, in hindsight, would have helped us out!

Do your Market research

This may seem obvious but we made the mistake of arriving and assuming that German companies wanted to hire us even though we didn’t speak German. Just because you are a successful freelancer in your own country, it doesn’t mean that this will necessarily be the case in Berlin. Do some research into your field and Berlin. Is there a healthy industry? Do you need to speak German to do your job? Do you need any German qualifications or licences before-hand? It’s a good idea to do as much research as possible and even contact other people who have moved to Berlin. You can do this by searching for internet forums related to your profession to see what others are talking about. If you make contacts before you arrive, it will help you smooth the transition. Some great English language forums about all things in Berlin can be found on ExBerliner and ToyTown.

Make friends with a German!

This has to be the most useful advise we can give you. If you don’t speak a word of German when you arrive, you will be at a huge disadvantage when you have to sort out all your paperwork (and there is a lot to fill in!). In general, Germans speak marvellous English but if you turn up at a government office and expect everyone to just communicate in English, you will be surprised at the reluctance of the officials there to utter even one word. Going through the bureaucratic process with your German friend by your side will make things a lot smoother and less stressful. There are many language exchange evenings in Berlin (a good page to start your search) so head along to one of those as soon as you arrive and start making friends! If you don’t know any Germans, make an effort to learn a few key phrases and niceties beforehand. Even trying to apologise for not speaking German, in German, will get you that little bit further!

Make plans for health insurance.

Health care insurance contributions are obligatory here in Germany and your employer normally pays on your behalf whilst deducting it from your salary every month. However, if you are a freelancer, public health care insurance is your responsibility and it can be very expensive. A cheaper option is to opt for private health care insurance. There are some international insurance policies that cover you in Germany and they can be cheaper than German companies. Find an English-speaking insurance brooker (Optimum Captial helped us out) to find you the best deals but be prepared to pay at least 150-200 euros a month in health care.

Find a short-term place to live before you arrive.

If you are lucky enough to know people that you can stay with when you arrive then well done! If you are not, then read on. Finding a permenant place to live in Berlin these days is extremely difficult if you are not already settled here due to the high rate of immigration. Many landlords expect you to provide a list of papers as evidence that you are responsible enough and rich enough to live in their house. If you are new to Berlin, chances are you will probably not have any of these papers yet! Most places also ask to see a job contract too and for freelancers this can prove difficult! Make sure you plan ahead and also arrive with enough money to support yourself for at least a month or two. Consider short-term subletting, couch-surfing or flat shares before finding your own place. A good place to start a sublet search is WG-Gesucht. It has a lot of options for customising your search and there is an option to translate the page and its contents into English. 

Learn German!

In day-to-day activities, you can “get by” speaking English in Berlin. However, depending on your field, if you want to be considered as an employable freelance worker in Berlin, learning German will help you a lot. It will also help you thorough the initial paperwork process as mentioned above. For me, German seems like a very difficult language to learn, and I haven’t put aside enough time to practice although I should. I speak Spanish fluently which is causing problems inside my brain as it pops out as my default language when I speak to Germans. At least I’m trying! So, do as in point one and make friends with a German and get them to help you practice! Also, there are many online resources and mobile apps that can help you with the basics. We'll leave them up to you to find.

Find out what paperwork you need to complete when you arrive (and in which order!)

Depending on your situation you will need to fill in and apply for a number of things before being allowed to work. For instance one of the first papers you need to get is the residence certificate. You need this paper before you can rent a flat or open a bank account, for example. However, you need to have a rental contract before being able to get the residence certificate! We solved this paradox (eventually) by finding a temporary place to live and getting a sublet contract. Always ask the person you want to sublet from if they can actually give you a contract before you decide to sublet as many people sublet ‘illegally’ and will be reluctant to give you written proof. You will also need to register as a freelancer and apply for a tax number (which you have to wait two weeks for).  Check out this useful guide to Freelancing in Germany for more info. 

Good Luck!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bike of the Week: Number 02

Today's "Bike of the Week"

Many Berliner bikers take the family with them!

Child-Friendly Bikers

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Six Unexpected Surprises Waiting For You In Your New Life In Berlin

Welcome to our first post in the "curiosities" section! Although we have done a little bit of research into some of the topics, this section is by no means completely factually accurate, rather a place to vent about all the weird and wonderful cultural differences we have experienced in Berlin. Here goes!

Below you will find just a few of the interesting cultural differences we picked up on in our first few weeks here in Berlin.  

A completely empty flat

Germans tend to take all their belongings with them when they move house so many a time a flat will be on the market unfurnished. Now, an unfurnished flat for me still comes with at least a fitted kitchen and light fittings. Think again! Expect an empty shell. Absolutely no furniture, no light-fittings, no bed or even a fitted kitchen in many cases. We even saw a “kitchen” with nothing, I repeat, nothing in it. Not even a sink! So, be prepared.

Unabashed public nudity

Nude sunbathing, at least topless, is normal for many Berliners (not in the winter of course) and it only takes a little bit of spring sun to get them completely out of their clothes and relaxing in the park. In fact there are some parks that are specifically allocated for this very past-time. The Tiergarten park is one such place. So, get your kit off and head to Tiergarten! (maybe do that the other way round) 

Crazy tramp-like people drinking on the streets (that may just be in Kreuzberg!)

I don’t think this is an experience that every newbie has in Berlin but, for us, it was one of our first and cherished memories. We didn’t walk around the neighbourhood much at night after that. Well, it’s not just crazy people who drink on the streets in Berlin. It is fairly common for normal people too as it is not illegal. The thing we like is that there are many shops in Kreuzberg that have benches outside. So, if you are looking for that bar terrace atmosphere without paying bar prices, these places are a great alternative. You are allowed to drink almost anywhere public even on public transport (although the laws may have changed recently) so crack open a beer and wander the streets!

The "Pfand"

Recycling of glass and plastic bottles.

Germans take their recycling very seriously. There is a huge culture of recycling especially of glass and plastic bottles. If you look carefully on the bottles there is sometimes a recycling label which tells you how much the “pfand” is. The pfand is a deposit you pay for the actual vessel aside from buying the contents. Beer bottles, for example, normally cost you 8 cents extra and some plastic bottles fetch 25 cents or even a euro. So don’t be fooled by the displayed price as the phan is normally added on when you pay. Some containers are “pfandfrei” which means you don’t pay extra but you can still recycle them.

This deposit can be claimed back when you return the bottle to a recycling-point. Most supermarkets have them, they are the plastic spinny and crunchy-sounding, hungry-looking bottle-eaters. Usually placed in a dark corner that takes you two hours to find. Beware, it can get confusing! I have had machines spit bottle back out at me in disgust! Some recycling machines don’t like glass and some are snobby and only accept containers bought at the specific supermarket (Lidl for example is one such snob).

Once you feed the machine what it wants you get a little ticket that can be used at the checkout that is then deducted from your next purchase or exchanged for cash (if you’re desperate). A note or caution, don’t go to a recycling machine with just one bottle in a busy supermarket. There is normally a queue of 50 Germans with 100 containers each. Germans WILL laugh at you for trying to skip the queue to get your 8 cents back! I still don’t fully understand the system but it is fun to see the machines eat your bottles! Where the bottles go from there….noone knows!

Credit card refusal!

This is one thing that really stumped us when we first arrived in Berlin. We didn’t have much direct cash available to us so we were planning on paying for food on credit card the first few weeks. Oooops, that didn’t go as planned. There are very few shops, bars and supermarkets that actually accept credit card payments (Kaisers and some Edeka supermarkets are the exceptions we've found). Most places only accept cash or German bank cards which are only useful inside Germany. Even German credit cards are no use in this situation. So, cash only it is then. Better get recycling those bottles for the pennies!

Corner shop beer

I love beer! There is no lack of it in Berlin either. As we mentioned in a previous point, drinking on the street is common so there are many places to buy cold beer. Every corner shop has at least 3 fridges filled with loads of different kinds of German beer (amongst some imported beers) and there are some cheap but tasty beers to try out too. Mainly, what we love about buying beer in the corner shop is that you can walk out onto the street with a freshly opened cold beer because no Berlin corner shop is complete without a bottle opener tied to the counter by a piece of string. Many shopkeeps will gladly offer to open your beer for you as you leave. Also, if you arrive with an empty bottle, your beer is a little cheaper, a reward for helping the shop with their recycling!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Boat Party Language Exchange

The party's just getting started at sunset.
Over the last few months we’ve been calling Berlin our home and an important part of discovering the city has been to go out, meet people and make new friends.

We found out about a few different language exchanges in Berlin and in April we decided to check out The Boat Party, which takes place every Wednesday evening.

The Boat Party is a great place to meet new people and network, especially if you are new to the city. 

We’ve been along to the Boat Party Language Exchange, hosted every week by Charles Clawson, four times now and every time there is a new crowd of people to talk to. I’ve been to many language exchanges before and this one is certainly unique for me in the fact that it takes place on a boat!

The Eastern Comfort is a boat-hostel that is permanently moored on the river Spree overlooking the Oberbaumbrüke. It is in a great location and easy to reach via Warschauerstrasse U-Bahn, tram and S-Bahn stations. Also, right outside is the start of the famous East-Side Gallery, an open-air art gallery with murals and art painted onto a strip of the original Berlin Wall that stretches all the way to the Ostbahnhof (The main East Berlin train station).

Sunset on the Spree.
The evenings kicks-off at 19:30 with a few snacks and some light chatter. Most people arrive a little later at around 20:00 when the night starts to take full swing. There is normally a very international crowd and I have had the pleasure to talk to Germans, Spaniards, Italians, Polish, Russians, Israelis, Australians, Kiwis and Americans so far!

I’ve enjoyed speaking Spanish and English but haven’t had much luck with German yet as counting from 1 to 11 and blurting out the few words of the German I already know is no proper base for a conversation!

The Oberbaumbrüke
Live music accompanies the event each week and there is normally a different band or artist to get the party atmosphere pumped up. The chatter doesn’t die down until at least 12pm which is when the bar closes, I think (I’ve either been too drunk to notice the time or left a little earlier due to lack of beer funds!).

All in all, I recommend the Boat Party to Berlin "newbies" as a great place to safely meet new and interesting people in Berlin. Have you already been? What did you think of the event?

The next Boat Party is taking place this Wednesday evening the 6th June, 2012 and costs 2 euros to attend (one euro to get in and another to pay for the band). During the summer there is also a BBQ (let's hope it's not still raining!) if you get hungry.

You can check out the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy website for updates about The Boat Party and other English language events in Berlin.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Bike of the Week: Number 01

Here is our first "Bike of the Week" 
Very pretty but maybe a little tricky to ride!

Flower Power