Friday, 12 October 2012

4: Never pay for anything

Berlin is by far the cheapest capital in Western Europe. To spend money in the city is practically a crime. This of course has invited the vultures and gentrification is taking over, as Sallowists from Denmark to Delaware snap up properties and rooftop-lofts across the city.

Capitalism is a sleeping elephant in Berlin that has started to fart in the last ten years. The River Spree has seen huge developments, with Mediaspree, a conglomerate of corporate interests, munching up land all along its banks.

You will find this hard to believe when you arrive and your future landlord asks you, with the smirk of a man robbing you, for €400 a month for an 80 metres squared loft with a balcony and courtyard. Five years ago it would have been €300 however, and Berliners on a tight budget (92.7 percent of the population) resent the increase. Look robbed and give your landlord the deposit.

It is hard to spend real money in Berlin. If Brewster's Millions had been filmed here, Richard Pryor would have been left with a bank full of generous interest-reaping cash and a herd of angry anti-capitalist demonstrators pelting tomatoes at him from below the window of his empathizing rent-free squat.

Nothing really costs anything. Beer is €0.70 cent, you can eat out for €2.50 and half the town’s clubs have free entrance. As long as you can avoid ticket conductors, transport is barrier-free.

Berlin is a cycle graveyard and several bikes will fall into your hands whether you ride one or not. Food is also free. Wolkskuche, VOKÜ, a sort of anarchist-run meal-on-wheels conglomerate, serves dinners on donation all over the city at varying daily locations.

You’ll be looked at strangely if you try to donate more than 2€ at such vegan buffets so don’t bother. Wine comes in at €0.80 cent. But unlike London where you’d be dining soggy soup with the homeless in a garage in Clapton, in Berlin you’ll be eating lasagne, baguette and chocolate mousse in a chandelier-lit former brothel with high ceilings and funky furniture while discussing Sufism and riots with Goddess Danish Islamic Science students.

Always pretend things are expensive however, even if you can afford more than you would ever expect for the same price in your recession-hit hometown. If you live in Prenzlauerberg and have fabulous ceilings, nobody apart from your inner circle needs to know. If you want to be poor but sexy, you need to work for it.

Berliners are a cultured people and they love to read. Bookstores are everywhere and often operate only on an exchange basis. Bookshop owners tend to be sluggish, sleep-inducing characters and their stores are like film sets; stacks of un-shelved books form narrow corridors between layers of dust. Somewhere at the centre of this maze will sit the owner, rearranging shelves of out-of-print Marxist commentaries with meticulous care.

No Berlin bookstore owner will ever let you think he doesn’t have the book you want, so don’t ask if they do. You will be told it is the wrong particular book to read by that author; you will be asked if you have read other books by the author that are far superior than the book you are after. If you haven’t, you may well be labeled a fool for having asked for your desired title in the first place.

Because Germans love recycling things, second hand shops are one of the pearls of the capital. Whether you’re looking for broken record players, rhinoceros heads or 70s plastic kitchen appliances, Berlin’s second hand shops have a surprise in store for everyone. A whole living room can be furnished for under €20. The sofas will even have the necessary rips at the edges to spellbound your Sallowist guests and the coffee machine will still smell like damp - weeks after you buy it.

Neukoln Ikea.  Simply wonder down Sonnenallee and take your pick off any side road. If you happen to come across any iconic posters or protest slogans at these stores, buy them. “No man is illegal,” “Terrorism is an answer to tyranny,”  “Asocial associated.” If you can find them printed on a t-shirt, even better. Anything semi-esoteric that will stimulate your audience without requiring them getting it will complement any Sallowist specials that you indulge in.

Don’t overestimate the prices.  A fabulous lamp that might cost 100 quid in London is probably a fiver in Berlin. A must-have vintage t-shirt that is 35 dollar in New York is probably 35 cent in Berlin. 

Many second hand clothes stores operate a sell-by-the kilo policy, where the fashion is a further expression of Sallowism; beige 1970s dresses for women, vintage zip-ups for men.

Old steel factory workmen t-shirts and sauerkraut collective hoodies are also very popular. Ripped wife-beaters never go out of fashion in Berlin either. Long army coats stuffed in sheepskin (although these could get you into trouble with the vegan police) and anything survived from East Germany is obviously incredibly trendy. Much of the stock in second hand clothes is sourced in Romania, Poland and Ukraine and the bargain boxes offer a unique opportunity to find the Polish 1970s handball top you always wanted.

Kreuzberg and Neukölln have hundreds of such bunker second-hand stores, selling everything from original copies of Mau’s Little Red Book to square-pattern Sallowist curtains. Bring all your money in coins to show the store owner who you are: in New York wise-men carry their money in a roll – In Berlin, you don’t carry money at all.  

Food shopping is an altogether different story. Germany has many supermarkets, most of which you will never have heard of. Kaisers is very up-market and has its own delis and bakeries. DM, founded by economist Gotz Werner, pays its staff a good wage and encourages them to have a life, so the vibe is good and the products stocked are ethically and sustainably sourced and produced. Germans of course love all this.

LIDL is the poor man’s Kaisers and Netto is a decent mid-way choice. But if you're broke, you’ll want to shop at ALDI.

The products in ALDI are simple but honest: the labels have stains, the tins are battered and the vegetables look unaltered. Germans love all kinds of strange teas, apart from normal tea and ALDI is full of chemical-tasting hot refreshments on steroids like Mango-Lassi Chai, Rooibos and one I'm yet to try - Vanilla Aroma Hot Love Tea. Black tea is considered boring and hard to come by however.

But a supermarket is a supermarket anywhere and you’ll find whatever you need to sustain the level of nutrition you’ve committed to. In Germany you will just find more bottled celery and condiments with names like 'Gypsy Sauce'. 

The only problems are when you can’t find what you want and don’t know what the word is in German. Try explaining to a supermarket attendant what baking powder is without using words. Or tape, tin foil or pastry for that matter.

ALDI is food with no thrills. There are no baskets available and you will have to bring your own bags, unless you want to pay for them. While the bags cost no more than €0.10, you’ll want to bring your own from home to avoid Sallowists looking you up and down as if you are the death of mother nature and the revolution.

The sausage section is a sanctuary of German munchies. There are hundreds of different bratwurst, brockwurst, wurstchen etc in all different sizes, shapes and attached-slogans. If a city has a high street, likelihood is it has its own sausage: Berlin, Vienna, Bern, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Thüringen, Eberswald, and South Tyrol all have their own variation, stuffed with different spices, chemicals and local flavour. 

Every German city in fact has its own sausage but don’t worry, you’ll be able to eat them all in Berlin. Curry Wurst, a sliced up sausage in paprika ketchup is a favourite and is served at little sausage parlours across the city, often with anomaly flag from far away countries.

The quality of life in Berlin, despite its fashionable poverty, is very high.  The ALDI prices speak for themselves: mozzarella is as cheap as 55 cent and wine comes in at 1.50. For €10 you can get a week’s worth of stocks. Germans are not the world’s second largest people for nothing. 

Berlin simply gives Eurocheap a new meaning - nothing has a price, everything is on donation, so just remember to define yourself as poor in that key wallet moment. 

Buying beer on the other hand can be a headache. Unlike in the UK where a handful of companies have moved in and monopolised the market with dull, tasteless brews, Germany still has hundreds of great beers for you to get plastered on, giving you a lot of choice, perhaps too much when all you want is  a beer. From Paulener to Warsteiner, via Krombacher, Halleröder, Schöfferhofer, Sternburg, Erdinger, Breznak, Wernessgrüner, Köstritsser, Schultheiss, Berliner Kindl and dozens more; the names go on for ever. A trip to your average German corner shop is like a tour through a museum of breweries. 

You may feel emasculated by your inability to reach out for one single familiar brand of beer, but don't be afraid. The best way to deal with this onslaught of potpourri brands is to work through them systematically. The first time you go to your local store, start from the window and work your way towards the till every time thereafter. 

After a while you'll know your Helles from your Dunkel or Hefeweizen, a Stein glass from a Maß.  Within no time you'll be the perfect German piss head. 

More than just the hangover to think about.

Stay tuned next week for why German men pee sitting down

1 comment:

  1. 400 EUR/month for a 80 square meters flat? This may have been true 15 years ago. In 2013 you would gladly pay 800 or 1000 EUR.