Month: April 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Sunny to stormy

Today I went across town to Prenzlauer Berg to check out St George’s bookstore. They had a huge selection of English language books and hard to find translations of many European authors.

As you can see, the day turned stormy, so I stopped for a crepe and to read one of my new books.


Shipping my bike over proved to be cost prohibitive and logistically overwhelming.

So, I bought this big green monster. It’s ugly as heck but, hopefully, that will deter thieves. It’s a solid frame, albeit of unknown provenance, with a nice old sram internal 7 speed hub. The wheels and tires are new too and it comes with a year of free maintenance in case anything goes wrong.

Lebensmittel Einkaufen (grocery shopping)

Grocery shopping isn’t much different in Germany as it is in the US, however, there are a number of things that we’ve had to adjust to since moving into our apartment. The biggest difference is size. Space is at a premium and grocery stores are significantly smaller in Berlin compared to almost anywhere outside of Manhattan in the US.

Combine that with our tiny fridge and we usually shop for only 2-3 days at a time.

Our apartment building has a higher-end (in German terms) grocery store right across the street (ReWe). Additionally a discount store (Netto) is a block and a half away. In total, we have 4 grocery stores within a short walk from our apartment.


Much like the US, there is a distinct hierarchy of grocery stores in Germany. Having said that, we’ve found that the neighborhood you are in also has a big influence on quality, selection, cleanliness, and friendliness of staff.


Aldi, Lidl, and Netto dominate this space.

Aldi (parent company of Trader Joe’s) is the cheapest of the cheap with almost no brand names and hit or miss produce. They also sell a weird selection of non-grocery items; like cheap printers, phones, bikes, and lawn furniture. Speaking of Trader Joe’s, you’ll occasionally find the odd Trader Joe’s branded item in an Aldi. I can only imagine the number of miles something like that has to travel to make it to the bargain bin of an Aldi in Berlin.

The Netto outlet in our neighborhood isn’t bad and we’ve used it for staples as they are significantly cheaper than the other stores in our area. These types of stores are no-frills outlets usually with large boxes of stuff cut opened and stacked on the floor or on large shelves.


ReWe, Kaiser, Edeka

I’ve only been in one Edeka and it was a dump. ReWe is our go-to store and the 2 out of 3 Kaiser’s we’ve been to have been fantastic; large for German standards and lots of selection. The third one I’ll write off as an anomaly.


Turkish  markets have an abundance of high quality fresh produce available year-round that is usually cheaper than elsewhere. Sadly, the closest one to our apartment is a bus ride away so we haven’t really availed ourselves of this option.

Super High End

If you want to splurge, the enormous KaDeWe department store has a grand food hall on its top floor comparable to Harrods in London. You can buy hard to find American staples like marshmallows and taco kits for an exorbitant mark-up. A box of US-imported cereal can run you around 13 Euro! They also have just about every meat, seafood, and cheese product imaginable along with impeccable produce.

If you get tired of shopping or dizzy from the prices, there are about a dozen little bar/food stands littered throughout the floor that serve excellent, albeit pricey,  beer and hot food.

Similar to KaDeWe, some Karstadt department stores also have a grocery section called Perfetto.


There are Bio (organic) stores in most neighborhoods although we haven’t yet shopped in any of them. Many shopping centers will have 2 grocery stores: One will be a regular chain like Kaiser and the other will be a Bio right next door.


Having lived in California for the past 10 years, we were spoiled by year-round, local, organic produce. Yet, even in California, we  often paid a premium for shopping this way. We were curious to find out what kinds of fruits and vegetables would be available in Germany and how much organic selection there would be.

To our surprise, even in the tail-end of March, the selection of fruits and vegetables was good. Not comparable to California, but we wholly expected that. As we’ve moved into Spring, selections have become more diverse.

Fruit has been coming from Spain except for grapes which mostly come from India.  Vegetables usually come from Spain, Holland or are locally produced. Currently, stuff like tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces have been coming from the miles and miles of greenhouses in Holland.

The quality of vegetables has been very good, although fruit has been hit-or-miss. I expect that to improve as the Spring and Summer months get into full swing.

Organic products are widely available in most stores and the markup is comparable with California.

Beer and Wine

We haven’t paid more than six Euros for any bottle of wine in a grocery store and have been satisfied with over 90% of our purchases. Beer is cheap and plentiful and mostly high quality. No complaints here.

In grocery stores, most wine is from Spain and Italy with France and Germany making up nearly the rest. California, South Africa, and South America wines are available but in very limited quantities.

Shopping Carts

Universally, you have to deposit a Euro coin to get a shopping cart. When you’re done, you hook the cart back up to the one in front of it and you get your coin back. The benefits of this are that everyone puts their cart back where they belong to get their deposit back and cart theft is virtually non-existent.

In a city of 3.5 million, I have seen a total of two abandoned shopping carts.

By contrast, in the US, it’s popular for retailers to employ complicated wheel lock systems where the cart locks up if you get too far away from the store. The abundance of shopping carts strewn around the Bay Area leads me to believe that this is a less than perfect system.


Bags are never free, you usually pay around 20 cents for a plastic bag. However, they are actually re-usable. Big, thick plastic bags that will last for months. Some stores also sell cloth bags for about a Euro but these tend to be smaller than plastic. Paper bags, as far as I can tell, do not exist.

Check Out

Check-out clerks are always seated and never bag your groceries. It’s very rare for there to be more than one or two check-out lanes open even if people start stacking up 10-12 deep. It doesn’t really matter; clerks are fast and expect you to be just as efficient with bagging and paying. If you have a lot of stuff, you just grab it once it’s been scanned, put it back in your cart, and, once you have paid, move to a designated area to bag.

Unlike in France or Belgium, we’ve never gotten grief for not having exact change or paying with too big a bill.

Deposit Return

You pay a deposit for almost all plastic drink bottles and beer bottles (Pfandflasche). Every store that sells bottles like this is obliged to have an automated machine that takes your empties and gives you a receipt that you give to the check-out clerk for your deposit back. You can either put it toward what you are buying or just give it to the clerk for cash back.


  • Red pepper flakes, chili flakes, hot sauce and the like are pretty rare. Most things labeled spicy (würzig, sharf, pikant) are far milder than we are used to. We’ll probably have better luck in a Turkish or Asian market finding stuff like this.
  • Nuts are also harder to find and much more expensive.
  • Salty junk food and snack items in general are more expensive. Not that we’re complaining as, conversely, cookies are more diverse and cheaper than in the US.
  • Most stores, even the discount ones, have small separate bakeries attached that sell everything from coffee and sandwiches to baguettes and danishes.

Stormy spring day

This is the view from the top of our street.

Jewish Museum

The Memory Void. There are 10,000 of these life sized metal faces.

Döner kebab

Sliced chicken from a spit (similar to how gyro meat is cooked), roasted and fresh veggies, feta and a squeeze of lemon juice. Perfect street food.

We got this from Mustafa’s in Mehringdam/Kreuzberg.

Pictures from a Sunday walk

We walked just under 10 miles from Viktoriapark to the Zoo side of the Tiergarten where we rewarded ourselves by hanging out in the Biergarten.

How did you do this?

This is the question I am getting most often. So here is the nitty gritty for those who are interested or researching this type of move.

This is in NO WAY any sort of official path to moving to Germany. It is 100% based on our own experience.

1. We saved some money. This seems obvious, but I also want to encourage people that it can be done. It costs less than you think to live here. It’s true that we were at an advantage with no children and no real debt, but if you want to do this start skipping the morning Starbucks, lunches out, and restaurant dinners. Visit your library instead of the bookstore. Enjoy Netflix instead of cable or going to the movies. It all adds up. The German government will want to see that you have enough to support yourself. Their requirement is just under $9,000 per person for 12 months. I would say that’s  bit low, but not by much.

2. What are you going to bring? We sold/donated 99% of our belongings before we moved. This is hard for some people. We are of the opinion that it’s just stuff and we’d rather not be tied down. The experience is more desirable than the accumulation. We have a few items in storage at Chris’ parents, which is a huge deal as we don’t have to pay for any storage. We came to Germany with one large suitcase each, and one carry-on each.

3. Find housing. One reason we chose Berlin is that it is incredibly affordable and has a lot of available housing. There are many companies that specialize in furnished housing for short term (6-12 months), but be aware of the commission they charge. It can often add up to an additional month’s rent. The advantage here is that they have enormous inventories. You could get off the plane and be in an apartment in 3 days. We found a company called Berlin99 and cannot recommend them enough. They manage multiple affordable properties, have no commission (although I am sure it’s just built in to the rent), and make the entire process very simple.

4. Get health insurance. This sounds intimidating, but it was so simple. We used a company called Care Concept. It’s a German company that provides coverage for non-Germans or Germans who are traveling abroad. We went onto their website, completed the application (name, address, age, and duration of coverage). We paid the premium – $620 for each of us for 13 months – and 5 minutes later our insurance cards were emailed to us with a welcome letter and policy pages. Ridiculously easy.

5. Let Germany know you are here. This is the first bureaucratic step. It’s an in-person visit to the Burgeramt to register your address. The online info says you can make appointments but we were unable to get one for at least a month, so we went and stood in line 2 hours before they opened. Burgeramt offices are located all over the city, usually in the Rathaus (town hall) of various city neighborhoods. Check the times and hours, get in line early, and don’t be afraid to elbow people who try to cut ahead of you in line. Once inside you are given a number and application, and you wait. And wait. And wait. When it’s your turn you meet one-on-one with someone who checks your passport and lease agreement and gives you a document that shows you are now “official” with the city. This is NOT a visa, but you need this before you do anything else. There was no cost for this.

6. Get a visa. This was by far the biggest pain, but again – it wasn’t hard, just a long process. There is one location in all of Berlin for visas. This is called the Auslanderbehorde, or foreign office. Again, they say to make an appointment, but that is not an option as we didn’t see an appointment for at least 7 months. So you get in line early. Not just early – ungodly hours of the morning early. They open at 7am on Mondays and Tuesdays. On a Monday we went at 4:30am and the line was down the block. We knew we’d never get a number that day. The next morning we got up at 2am and were in line by 3:15. We were not the first ones there, but we were not too far from the front. The gates are opened at about 6am and security keeps everyone orderly as you get in the ticket number line. At about 6:30am they start to let people in to get their numbers and then you are dispersed throughout the building depending on your visa type/country of origin. We had to wait a bit, but once we were in the process was simple and we were done by 9:30am.

What did we need for the visa? The visa application (they have one in English), our passports, the certification from the Burgeramt’s office, proof of health insurance, bank statements, a marriage license if applicable (not on the list, but we were glad we brought it), certificates from our language school, and two biometric photos (like a passport photo – there are overpriced booths at the visa office or places all over the city.) We brought our birth certificates just in case, but we didn’t need them. This cost 100 Euros total, or about $110 US.

We were granted a one-year language visa. This is not a student visa and it does not allow us to seek employment.

You can also apply for the visa before you leave, but that requires a trip to a Germany embassy in the US and a long/undetermined wait. It could be three weeks or it could be three months before your visa approval arrives and you can travel. The long morning of waiting in line was worth it in our opinion.

I want to emphasize that none of this was hard. If you have an Internet connection you can have all of your ducks in a row. The longest part of the process was two mornings of waiting in line.

So there you go. We are done with the bureaucracy and are enjoying life!

Impromptu trip to Amsterdam

Sunday afternoon found us wondering if we could find any deals for a quick trip via train. Chris found a couple of tickets on the night train to Amsterdam, so we threw our toothbrushes into a backpack and headed out.

I had never been and it’s been 20 years for Chris, but between Trip Advisor and excellent recs from social media friends we had a fantastic time. More details to follow.

Brücke Museum

At the very nice but small Brücke Museum.


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