Getting the Cold Shoulder in Berlin

5 min read

I liked Berlin when my friend and I arrived in the sprawling German capital a week ago. Our hostel was in Friedrichshain, where our cab driver told us – in heavily German-accented English – is a “good area with lots of clubs. If you come to Berlin to party, you are in the right place!” In fact, the hostel is directly across the street from a club, as well as the S-Bahn – one of the two main railways in Berlin. Not only that, the infamous Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin for nearly 30 years until 1989, was just a five-minute walk away.

The East Side Gallery of what remains of the Berlin Wall displays the work of artists from across the world.

Hungarian Santa Claus Berlin

Ran across a Santa Claus from Budapest at the Berlin Wall. When we told him we are from America he said, “Amereecah! I love Amereecah! Caleeforneeya. New Yorkh! Flooreeda! Hahahaha!” He was amusing, but a little much.

Pork knuckle dinner Berlin

For dinner one evening, I tried the popular German dish of picked pork knuckle at Zum Alten Tor, served with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. The pork was tender and fatty, sauerkraut sour and potatoes were standard. It was good, but I don’t need to have it again.

In search of breakfast one morning – I hadn’t seen an egg in almost two weeks; plenty of beef, pork and pastries though – we stumbled into the Kreuzberg neighborhood. A gritty enclave which, in appearance, reminds me of Queens, New York with the train rattling on rails up above, graffiti-painted apartment buildings and restaurants serving up cuisine from different nations. Sadly, we didn’t consume any eggs that day. December 26th is a holiday in Germany and as we discovered, many businesses closed up shop.

On a 2.5 hour walking tour our second day in Berlin – on the coldest day we experienced on our trip so far; Z worried her frozen pinky toes would die and fall off – we consumed what our New Zealander turned Berliner guide, Stephanie, told us amounted to “800 years of German history in one afternoon.”

After the walking tour we sought warmth at the charming Christmas market, or Gendarmenmarkt, in a beautiful square between two impressive cathedrals.

The next day, in search of an eggy breakfast once again, we ventured to the adorable Café im Literaturhaus near Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm). If Kruezberg is Queens, Ku’damm, Berlin’s glitzy shopping avenue – like a Champs-Élysées sister – is the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Boutiques, shops, restaurants and cafes line the over two-mile long destination, along with seasonal Christmas pop-up stands shilling roasted chestnuts, crepes, Glühwein and sausage wursts, among other goodies. People packed the shops and the “queues” for dressing rooms and cash registers wound through doors and around corners.

On the train ride to Ku’daam we witnessed an old couple go off on young Arab woman because the old woman tripped over the woman’s foot.

View from U-Bahn Berlin

Brandenburg Gate decals on the U-Bahn

The woman and her husband berated the bewildered young woman for minutes in harsh German tones. We have no idea what they were going on about, but that would not have been me sitting there. No sir. Not gonna yell at me with some nonsense. We shared sentimental looks with the woman. That couple was out of line.

Unfortunately, we arrived at Literaturhaus minutes too late for breakfast. Foiled again! As we were waiting for our server to clear the table she led us to, a tall dirty-blond haired man moved my friend with a slight push to her back and said tersely, “you have to get out of the way.” I looked askance at his back as he exited the restaurant, shocked at his rudeness.

People behaving like jackholes aside, we enjoyed lunch instead and followed it up with a bit of shopping on the avenue.

I finally saw eggs of the scrambled form the day before we left Berlin when we returned to Literaturhaus the following day. Yippee!

Berlin’s reputation as a party city, with one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, is why we chose it for NYE festivities. To get a taste of the Berlin nightlife in prep for the over-hyped holiday eve, one night we piled on our multiple layers of clothing – sexy – and headed out tor Clärchens Ballhaus in Mitte, because who doesn’t want to go dance it up with Germans in a ballhaus/biergarten/dance club/restaurant?

Clärchen's Ballhaus Berlin

Clärchen’s Ballhaus exterior. The outdoor biergarten was closed due to the cold

The clientele was a mix of people I couldn’t figure out: a tall white-haired couple knocked back Berliners (the local beer) like pros; a female couple dance seductively nearby; assertive to the point of nearly-aggressive men stared lasciviously at women whose gaze met theirs and tried to find ladies to bump and grind; other couples – both straight and gay – danced and sang to American songs sung by a fun German cover band. They performed “Hey Ya” by Outkast among other popular former American Top 40 hits.

The kitsch of the place made the evening fun, but if I lived in the area I am not sure it’d be a regular haunt.

Like Copenhagen, smoking in bars is legal, which for this non-smoking Californian is tough to endure for too long.

On another night we joined a pub crawl which Z and I both agree was a boring mess. I’ve had more fun at the dentist. At least my dentist tries to make conversation with me, unlike the surprisingly unfriendly Australians on the crawl with whom I attempted to make conversation. Also unlike the three crawl hosts who spent more time socializing with each other than the group. Two French women we talked to betrayed the French reputation for rudeness and were polite and conversational. Unfortunately between their somewhat limited English and our limited French (a few years of French as a kid only gets you so far), conversation grew stilted. We chatted up an American couple from Texas and New Jersey who commented multiple times about how unfriendly they found Germans.

Mixed sausage plate Berlin

Another dinner – more meat. Mixed wursts plate. I miss vegetables.

As thankful as we were to meet the outgoing American couple, we were so put off by the group’s lack of cohesion or attempts to remedy it, along with the hosts’ subpar socializing job, we left the pub crawl at the second bar and set off on our own. I wasted a cute outfit and risked a hangover on a lame evening – I doubly resent the pub crawl.

We alternated between walking (an average of 4.5 miles a day), taxis and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn to get around. Buying tickets at the train station amounted to playing a live action “hurt as many people as possible” video game of which you are the main character. Your goal is to buy a train ticket without getting shoved, pushed, hovered over or yelled at. To be fair, whenever someone spoke to me in German I felt like I was being lectured even if they were saying “I like ponies.”

A woman shoved me out of the way at the train station one morning as I was waiting in line for the ticket machine. It left me feeling which left me feeling disrespected. After not quite five days in Berlin, during which both our moods drifted toward “blah,” we realized the overarching sense of misery and general sense of displeasure in the Berlin atmosphere was bringing us down. I tired of either being stared at or ignored. I even had nightmares every night!

A couple of hours later we agreed to a detour in our travel plans and decided to leave Berlin early and spend New Year’s Eve somewhere more pleasant. First though, we visited a place of historical importance, even though it certainly wouldn’t boost our spirits: Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Oranienburg Berlin

Town of Oranienburg. I wonder what it would be like to live there, so close to a former concentration camp.

The train ride to Oranienburg, where the Sachsenhausen former concentration camp exists as a museum and memorial, is about 50 minutes from the center of Berlin. The number of passengers aboard dwindled the further north we traveled, with only a smattering of riders remaining at the train’s last stop. As Z commented to me, “they really did ship people out to the furthest place they could.” Every muscle in my body suddenly seemed to weigh double.

As sunlight gave way to moonlight, we arrived at the snow-covered entrance to one of the most depressing places my mind and body have ever been.

Sachsenhausen operated as a prison, work camp and extermination center from 1936 to 1945. The camp housed close to 200,000 prisoners including criminals (murderers, rapists), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, Jewish people and communists.

We didn’t stay long. I feel nauseated the deeper we trekked into the recesses of the grounds. The remaining empty barracks, lit from within, served as a spooky reminder of the purpose they once served. The invisible stench of human depravity leading to human misery hung in the already cold air. Z felt the hairs on the nape of her neck stand at attention. No amount of thought-wangling will make me understand how people can be so disgustingly cruel to each other.

And yet…some people still managed to take photos of themselves smiling in front of the memorials.

The next morning, we boarded a train for the 4.5 hour ride to Prague, Czech Republic in search of warmer people and lifted spirits.

On train to Prague

Goodbye Berlin, Prague see you soon!

37 Comments
  • Cynthia
    January 30, 2015

    I read this post about a week ago and have been thinking ever since then (really!) about why you may have received such cold shoulder treatment in a place that I have always been treated really warmly in (however, I’m a lil’ blonde girl that easily passes for German, so that could be a part of it).

    Berlin does have a reputation for being a bit cold, but personally I’ve never experienced it. There is a bit of anti-American sentiment in certain districts, and as you mentioned, anyone who even looks “hipster-y” could be shunned in certain neighborhoods as that sentiment runs high with the rise of the gentrification. I wasn’t sure necessarily that it would be looking like a non-ethnic German because it’s SUCH a multicultural city compared to say, Prague, but in some areas, anti-foreigner sentiments run deep and this might also be the case too (I’ve heard some stories).
    No matter why it happened, I hope it won’t deter you from coming back.All these haters need to know where they can stick it.

  • LostwithYvonne
    January 29, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s always good to know the good and the bad of places. I didn’t visit Germany when I was in Europe last, but when I do I will have to watch out with rude people. I definitely would not tolerate that either. And I would’ve left early if a pub crawl was that boring as well!
    Your photos of the East Side Gallery are just beautiful though!

  • natalye
    January 27, 2015

    It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this, and as someone living in Berlin, I can agree. While I can’t speak to the experience as a woman of color (which you discuss in another comment above), I can say that I have found a lot of Berliners can be rude or downright awful regardless of who you are or how you appear. Germans in general are known for their public shaming, but the “Berliner Schnauze” as it’s known (the slangy, crude dialect and way of treating others) is definitely special to this city. Some days it doesn’t bother me, though other days it drives me up the wall. I’m glad you had some good experiences to counter the negative attitudes though. If you ever decide to come back, I would suggest Berlin in the summer. It simply can’t be beat.

  • Sara @ Simply Sara Travel
    January 27, 2015

    Love all your Berlin photos! I went to the East side Gallery last July and really enjoyed it. Sorry to hear that your time in Berlin was tainted by rude people and whatnot. I don’t remember experiencing much rudeness when I was there, but I have to say in general I found Berlin much more enjoyable in the summer than winter. I went for two days one December and froze there! Summer was nicer to be able to relax in the beer gardens and be more comfortable to walk around the city and not be bitterly cold.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 28, 2015

      Is it hot in the summer? Maybe people are nicer when it’s warmer out? 😉 It definitely would have been fun to hang out in a biergarten!

  • Sara Granados
    January 27, 2015

    Ah, Berlin! I was able to briefly visit it last summer but I want to go back and stay longer! Its such a big city and I didn’t have enough time there! These pictures have me drooling to go back! Glad I found your blog on the Travel Tuesday linkup 🙂

  • adrianscrazylife
    January 11, 2015

    I read a lot of foreign blogs and I’m always surprised by cultural differences. You always think that people are just people, but I think they are profoundly influenced by the environment they grow up in. I used to date a guy who was Jewish and his family was SO loud! I found myself yelling right along with them and then they’d ask me why I was mad when they were just talking. I think you were so brave to visit the concentration camps – I once watched a commercial for Schindler’s List and it gave me nightmares for weeks. I’ve very sensitive to such things – I probably couldn’t have gone. Beautiful and moving pictures though. #SITSSharefest

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 12, 2015

      The concentration camp was tough. We talked about going to another when we were in Poland, but decided it would just be too much.

      Thanks for your great comment!

  • trininista
    January 10, 2015

    Great photos. Wow. Berlin sounds like Debbie Downer. That sucks. It was on my list. I could not bear rude people. I decided after my 2013 vacation to just not put up with it.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 11, 2015

      Thanks!

      I won’t dissuade anyone from going to Berlin, but I certainly won’t be going back anytime in the foreseeable future. I also have low tolerance for rudeness and it’s really bothersome when you’re spending money for the “pleasure” of encountering it.

  • Mrs_ AOK (@Mrs_AOK)
    January 10, 2015

    I loved reading and seeing your trip through your eyes. Your pictures are beautiful! I’m sorry people were rude to you and Z, jerks. I can never understand why people do not take the opportunity to meet “new people” from somewhere else. Why?
    Reading the beginning of your post I was wondering if you made it to a Christmas market, and alas!
    XOXO

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 11, 2015

      Thank you! I have lived in heavily-touristed cities for the past 14 years and while I am not going to pretend I don’t get annoyed with inconsiderate tourist behavior, that’s few and far between. I try to practice patience and as a frequent traveler remind myself what being a tourist is like. It makes you smile when you see someone see something like the Hollywood Sign for the first time. I recognize that I represent the city I live in and I don’t want people leaving going “they’re assholes” if I have anything to do with it.

  • Sarah Day
    January 10, 2015

    Such an interesting and absorbing post! You really captured the essence of the place with your photos and descriptions. I look forward to reading more.

  • BritishMumUSA
    January 10, 2015

    Oh we were there back in 1992, and ran from Berlin so fast I think you could see our dust rising!!!! We took a year and traveled the world starting in Europe. I was excited to visit there because of all of the history. We were planning on spending 3 to 5 days there and ended up spending only one and a half days there. We went to the countryside and enjoyed ourselves there. We didn’t like Munich much either! Rude people, just to many rude people. And I feel I can say that after living in many countries and traveling extensively. We also visited a concentration camp Dachau, as we drew closer we asked the bus driver to tell us which stop to get off at. When it was time he yelled “Death Camp” I was SHOCKED!!!!! So many there to this day do not believe that it ever happened!!! Glad Prague was amazing!!!!!

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 10, 2015

      Ok, so it’s not just me! How callous of that bus driver.

      Sounds like an amazing experience to travel the world for a year!

  • MB
    January 10, 2015

    I read this a few days ago, and I really enjoyed reading about your trip. The pictures were amazing, and it looked like a wonderful trip. I was so disappointed by how unfriendly some of the people were! My husband went to Germany back in high school (in the 1980s, gulp!), and he’s always said how he wants to go back. He’s 3/4 German. Anyway, the way you wrote this and the pictures you included made me feel like I was with you on the trip! I’m looking forward to more of your posts! Visiting from SITS Sharefest.

  • Jim Butcher
    January 9, 2015

    Such an interesting perspective on Berlin. I haven’t been to Germany at all but a friend of mine lives there and loves it. He doesn’t speak German that well (like a 6 year-old + swear words!), but he says Berlin is unlike anywhere else in Germany. To the extent where most people don’t even connect it with the rest of the country. Fascinating.
    Loved your description of the concentration camp. I can’t imagine what those places are like now – let alone when they were in use.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    #wanderlust

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 10, 2015

      You have the same name as one of my friends. 🙂

      Berlin was my first experience in Germany, I’d be curious to see what the other cities are like, I hear they are quite a bit different from Berlin too. It may be awhile before I go back honestly! Lol

  • BOYEATSWORLD
    January 8, 2015

    The pictures are amazing. I’m sorry your experience didn’t match them.I hope Prague is kinder to you 🙂 #teamwanderlust

  • Lydia C. Lee
    January 7, 2015

    I’m sorry you had a bad time – I had an absolutely fabulous time. I’d read about Berliners regards for etiquette and rules, and was a little paranoid about it, so we had no problems at all (only once when my partner had done the wrong thing and left an empty plate on a food stand – but it was just a dramatic ‘you stupid tourists’ eyeroll – which we were, for not following their rules). I insisted on using my German everywhere (I’d only learnt from a CD the month before) and absolutely everyone, in shops, restaurants and in the street humoured me, even thought my Australian accent must have made it virtually impossible to understand – they pretended it was perfect and would answer me in German (then switch to English if I looked like I didn’t understand, then back to German again). We had people falling all over us to tell us what things were and joke around in the beer gardens. I even took a photo inside somewhere where you weren’t meant to (I hadn’t understood) and the guard was really nice about it (and let me keep the pic – I offered to delete it).
    I thought the Berliners were really fun, friendly people. I loved it so much, and the people really made a lot of the experience for me.
    Also went to Bar Raval in Kreuzberg – Daniel Bruhl’s restaurant – FABULOUS!

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 7, 2015

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lydia! I’m glad you had a good time. Such different encounters!

      My friend and I discussed our time in Berlin at length trying to figure out what it was that rubbed us the wrong way. So many factors can change alter one’s experiences. We honestly wondered if our skin colors had anything to do with it. We got stared at a lot in Berlin and unlike Prague, it felt less like genuine benign curiosity and more like something uncomfortable, bordering on unwelcome. But, of course we can’t say for certain that color was the issue. I was disappointed by my reaction – there are so few cities I dislike strongly.

  • jarretr
    January 5, 2015

    We’re headed to Frankfurt for a two-week trip this April. I hope we have a more friendly and jackhole-free experience there than you did in Berlin. Have fun on the rest of your trip!

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 5, 2015

      Hehe, thanks! The friend I’m travelling with has been to Munich and Duesseldorf and said she didn’t experience anything close to what we did in Berlin. So, hopefully Berlin is unique in it’s rudneness!

  • edwinasepisodes
    January 5, 2015

    what a shame that Berlin was so unfriendly, and the people so rude. My young nephew is currently in Prague teaching English and iis having the time of his life! Hopefully you will have a great time there too 🙂

  • Shahidah
    January 4, 2015

    Loving your pics and insight! What tour did you book for this trip? Ive been wanting to do an extended holiday to those areas. Been to Germany but only for a two nights. Didnt care for it much either

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      January 5, 2015

      Thanks! 🙂 We didn’t book through a tour. We handled all the arrangements ourselves; tripadvisor and yelp are of great help. Everyou city we’ve visited haa decent public transportation and many people speak English, so it’s been quite easy to get around. We booked our flights through Norwegian Air – they have some ridiculously good deals!

      Where do you hope to go?

  • Janet Burns
    January 4, 2015

    I think the next place will be better. I love the excellent photography.

  • Pauline
    January 4, 2015

    Looking forward to the next post and living vicariously through you right now!

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