Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

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STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

30 responses to “9 Fragments About Being German in Berlin”

  1. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve not been to Berlin. I went to Munich a couple of years ago and thought it was brilliant, although I’ve heard their is a huge difference between Bavaria and the rest of Germany.

    From an English perspective it was nice to be somewhere where the streets were clean, transport worked, and you couldn’t buy less than six sausages at a time.

    Because it’s so far south it was bombed less so most of the buildings used for Nazi purposes are still around. I went on a tour to most of them, including Hitler’s favourite cafe in the days before Hindenberg reluctantly made him Chancellor. They couldn’t afford to knock them down so they brilliant navigated around the horrifying Nazi aspect of the buildings by using them for ironic purposes that would really have pissed Hitler off.

    I really liked Germany as a whole, but I guess a week is enough time to appreciate the best aspects without having enough time to discover the less appealing ones… And I loved that there was football on TV on several channels from 8am until late.

    And I’d never get the language…

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Hi James,

      yeah, the sausages are darn good, and public transport is too. But Bavarians cannot be understood 🙂

      The cleanliness is less clean in Berlin, which is a rather shabby city compared to Munich or Wiesbaden. As a student, it helped. You didn’t feel poor, because Berlin was poor. But that’s gone.

      The darn thing is really that the city hasn’t gelled, has holes everywhere, and looks haphazard. Money has destroyed the charm that the bombs didn’t.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I’ve never really heard anyone say anything great about Berlin… I read somewhere that it’s more cosmopolitan, but less friendly…

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          Hehe, my first impulse is to challenge you to a boxing match (as in “I can diss Berlin but you can’t)…the thing is, though, that I had heard great things about the new Berlin…still feel protective…you got some gloves?

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Haha. I’m only going on what I’ve heard. I’ve seen a friend’s holiday video where it looked quite nice.

          I can guarantee that it’s nicer than most of the places I’ve lived.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I’m open to a TNB boxing championship, but only if Apollo Creed agrees to train me and our heights are similar, or the difference is in my favour…

        • Simon Smithson says:

          C’mon, Stallion!

        • James D. Irwin says:

          No Pain! No Pain!

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          TNB Championship? Ha, even though I have pencil arms, I say, bring it on. Three rounds, all the protective gear money can buy, and lots to drink!

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I’d say that I’m pretty much the youngest and skinniest guy at TNB, and I hardly have any stamina.

          It could be a fairly even fight…

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          awesome! we’re so on!

  2. Zara Potts says:

    This piece intrigued me. I love how you articulated what you are experiencing.
    The small changes, the differences in culture are fascinating to me. It’s those small things that set you apart – when I am in the US, the toilets all seem wrong to me. And the ovens are weird to me. And the lightswitches are back to front. It’s funny what we notice.

    I’m glad you brought up the the guilt at loving buildings that housed the Reich. I often think of Germany and wonder how its people have survived that huge collective guilt from the second world war. I think it must be incredibly difficult because, in some ways, the German people have been held up by the rest of the world as the poster children of wickedness, when there are many other countries and cultures that have just as unpalatable histories. It must take such a toll on the collective spirit.

    Have you read ‘The Book Thief?’

    xxx Z

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      You’re right, Zara, it’s the smallest things. Maybe especially so, since so many big things do look the same.

      Yes, I think the guilt has taken a toll, as it probably should. That guilt is real and deserved. It’s fading now, I don’t think that 20-year-olds feel much of that. But the mood is still depressive, small, fearful. So that lives on.

      I haven’t read The Book Thief, but will look for a copy now. Thanks for the tip!

      Much love,


      • Zara Potts says:

        And THANK YOU for the gift!!! Just arrived today! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was. Thank you so much, Stefan. You are such a sweetheart.
        Love to you and S,
        Z x

  3. mutterhals says:

    I was scared shit less the entire time I was in Berlin. It was like one long panic attack. The people scared the fuck out of me, the city was huge, the only thing I could say in German was thank you. But I still had an awesome time, I’ve never felt so completely out of my element before.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Thanks for your comment. Why were you scared? Anything happen, or just a general sense of threat? Why did you feel that people were scary?

      The scariest part for me have always been the corner pubs, with their horrendous music, drab curtains, and their patrons, who don’t seem to have a good time at all, but come every day anyway. I only have to see one of those typical pub windows, and I want to run.

      But the exhilaration is interesting. Seems to have been quite the trip.

      • mutterhals says:

        I think it was mostly the language barrier. I wanted to learn at least a little of the language before I went, but then decided speaking English was probably better than speaking incoherent German.

        I always felt like everyone was annoyed with me for being American, except the Italian tourists, who would freak the fuck out when they found out where I was from. It was my first time out of the country, so I was a basket case to begin with. But the people were actually really accomdating for the most part. I spent a week there and a week in Amsterdam, which was a completely different experience, Amsterdam felt like America to me.

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          Is Amsterdam still pot heaven? I need to know!

          yeah, the language barrier can be scary, and some Germans are quite fond of telling you they don’t understand, or they don’t have what you were looking for, or make fun of your questions. They say “no, we don’t have that,” with that happy grin.

        • mutterhals says:

          Oh Jesus, I almost didn’t leave Amsterdam. I plan on retiring there. The very first place I walked into had rows of jars filled with the best kinds of weed on earth, and I made it my duty to try as many strains as possible.

          I heard they might ban foreigners from coffee shops. I don’t know how likely that is, but I’m glad I made it in time.

        • Stefan Kiesbye says:

          Sounds like you had a blast. Oh, what a place! But barring foreigners? Oh no 🙂

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Stefan, I hope this helps some:


    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Thanks for sending, wish there were more of that here, big hats and such! Dickes B is a pretty rad name.

  5. Irene Zion says:


    I adore this line:
    “only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches.”

    I think you are feeling the same way that I do when I go home to Brooklyn and everything has changed.
    My house looks different. The yard is different. The stores are run not by Italians and Norwegians, but by assorted Arab folks. They even changed the designation of each subway line. I want my BMT back.
    You really can’t go home again, can you?

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Oh Irene, I didn’t know you were from Brooklyn (on the other hand, it makes perfect sense in regard to your online persona).

      And yes, you’re absolutely right. I didn’t even go see my old street and house, didn’t want to see the changes. Home is only somewhere in my memory. Which isn’t exactly sad, but highly disorienting.

      But they still make good pastries…

  6. Haven’t been to Berlin yet. Would love to one of these days. Wonderful, thoughtful work, Stefan.

  7. I was hoping after your last post you’d do others on Germany, and hooray for me you did! Love this Stefan. I’m particularly struck by your description of the new/old architecture and its layered meanings in the “Berlin” segment.

  8. Sirje says:

    Aah. The poop shelf. I wish I could understand why this phenomenon persists. It seems to fall into the same general German hygiene class as do Meditonsin (a homeopathic “remedy” for all what ails you, ostensibly the essence of healing flowers that were blessed by the farts of an ancient and beneficent German butterfly), kidney warmers (a must for scooter owners!), and a deathly fear of wet drafts (see nosebleeds, above).

    Glad you wrote this, I enjoyed it very much. Especially the translations and your observations on language. And the nasty smile “service” people give you when they don’t have something is spot on.

    I, too, find it strange to consider the buildings of Berlin. The street where I live was pretty much bombed to hell; I live in the one building that remained standing on my side of the street, though the other side of the street did pretty well. But I think I know what they were aiming for: there’s a gorgeous Jugendstil residence a few steps away which housed SS offices and was used as an administrative office that granted (or most often perhaps did not grant) permission for Jews to marry, work among Germans, and generally live their lives.

    Down the street is a theater (the Schaubühne) that is a quite important piece of architecture, and was also, for a while, a very famous Kabarett. I realized only recently how I’d somehow just assumed that, though it predated Hitler and had nothing to do with him, that it was just another bit of Berlin that somehow sprang up around the Nazis. Just because it was also here then. Every street here lived the war, every fluffy green tree that I walk beneath saw death and devastation. Some stones I walk on stank once with decay and putrefaction. How many hidden blood stains, tears, sweat and fear? I have no idea. I think about it sometimes, it’s hard not to because of all the ghosts and unhappiness here.

    But the buildings did not vote for Hitler, neither did the trees. I don’t love Berlin but I find some sort of zen acceptance of the horror of it’s past is essential to living a normal, productive life. (If that’s possible; so many expats here seem to enter a kind of suspended creative animation until they finally break free and leave).

  9. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Hello again, Sirje, and thank you for your comment.

    oh yes, the kidney warmers. I always stare at American motorcycle riders and wonder what will happen to their kidneys without them. Has there ever been a medical study about kidney warmers’ longterm effect on riders’ health? And spot on about drafts, of any kind. Never open a window on a bus, or you’ll get lynched by little old ladies.

    What you say about your zen acceptance makes a lot of sense, and as long as the wall was still up, I found the city to be enormously sheltering and nurturing, if somewhat draining too at at times. But this new Berlin, unified and poor, still seems very fractured, unsure of itself and what it wants to be. Or maybe it is what it wants to be, including the sudden open spaces where development has halted or faltered, the bursts of highrises next to not-much-of-anything. Maybe my complaints are like complaining about strip malls in LA.

    I agree that the buildings did not vote for Hitler, but people were forced out of them, others forced themselves into them, and there remain ghosts, still dissatisfied, still without a place to go. On good days, this “acceptance of horror” has something nearly exhilarating, bestowing something like strength on people sensing the past; on others, it feels like the sadness might never leave this place.
    But then, people who manage to live “normal, productive” lives are breathing new life into Berlin — I was, for example astonished by how changed Prenzlauer Berg was, how normal, how wealthy, and — in a good way — how run of the mill.

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