I’ll close up this miniature series on Germany’s capital with observations on getting around, the people who live there, and going out to eat.

As I mentioned before, I’m not sure I’ll ever really warm up to the way Berlin looks; which is purely a matter of taste.

Berlin house-fronts
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Berlin architecture

It’s a big city, pretty flat, and there are trains to take you everywhere. Makes me think of one of the big Aussie cities, like Melbourne.

Berlin subway trains, in yellow

The most important thing about any city is the people who live there. Lauren tells me she likes Berliners because they’re direct and thick-skinned. To a less direct and thinner-skinned Canadian, this can come across as appalling rudeness. Example: Someone on a crowded bus rudely dumps his knapsack on a valuable empty seat, then someone else comes along and snarls rudely at him to take it off. Closer to home: we were pushing the baby along in the stroller on a warmish day, and she managed to pull one of her socks off, waving it like a banner with glee. It wasn’t cold and we didn’t want to stop to re-assemble her, so we dropped it in the stroller carrier and went along. Within the first couple of minutes, a couple of total strangers had intervened to point out that our baby had a bare foot and maybe this wasn’t a good thing.

At one level, I think I could learn to appreciate this; I care a lot about living in a community with more involvement rather than less, and I value transparency and honesty among all other things in communication. It’d just take some getting used to.

Eating Out · There was one thing, maybe minor but significant, that I liked a whole lot; I don’t know if it’s a German thing or a Berlin thing. Check out these two eating establishments; one further west and a bit fancier. Anything catch your eye about them?

Nice outdoor restaurant in Berlin
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Nice outdoor restaurant in Berlin

In both of them, there are lots of children about. Which is one aspect of the way restaurants are more human and more pleasant places. A beer garden with a playground attached is a very fine thing on a sunny July day. In puritan North America, proposing such a thing would get you arrested, most places.

Another symptom is that the waiters and staff are real people with real jobs, not minimum-wage students punching menus on the computer system. For example, we were having lunch the day of the wedding and Lauren had to run off to get her hair done and was getting short of time. So she talked to the waitress and the kitchen and it developed that her salmon-and-potatoes was waiting for the potatoes, but they could dish it up right then if she didn’t mind skipping them. Another story: at that East Berlin place where we had beers with geeks, when we finally all headed out, the waiter came around, sat down at the table, and laboriously worked out with all of us what each of us had had, and made change individually.

Try to do do either of those at the chain restaurant in your local strip mall. Something’s broken and you don’t even notice until you go somewhere that it’s not.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Hanan Cohen (Jul 16 2007, at 23:44)

"Planes and trains and boats and buses

Characteristically evoke a common attitude of blue"

Tom Waits


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Jul 17 2007, at 04:19)

Kids in the “Biergarten”: definitely an all-Germany phenomenon, and actually, a European one. It’s hardly imaginable to segregate the children; babysitting as an occupation (and particular for teenagers) is virtually unheard of.

Wages for wait staff and other service people are relatively low on average, but for the most part above minimum. I was dumbstruck by the pathlogy of the mandatory tipping aspect of U.S. culture when I first heard of it, and the feeling hasn’t much abated since. (Is Canada alike in that respect?)


From: Mark (Jul 17 2007, at 05:06)

One thing broken in the service industry in both North America and Europe is tipping. It's so refreshing to not have to deal with that in Japan--and you still get generally good service (even from minimum wage students).


From: Chris Ryland (Jul 17 2007, at 05:14)

I don't think you should apologize for your lack of appreciation for the Berlin architecture. There are pretty universal norms of what's beautiful, "alive," etc. (Cf. Chris Alexander.)

Compare Berlin to Paris or Rome, and it comes up wildly short.


From: John Cowan (Jul 17 2007, at 11:11)

Farkle it all, another overwide box! They are getting to be the norm.

I consider the North American tipping culture entirely useful and appropriate. The 20% addition (yes, 20%, 15% is obsolete) is one of the few opportunities a customer has to express in directly tangible form their pleasure or displeasure with service.

Consider what happens when you buy something in a store and the salesperson behaves like a chimpanzee. You can go to another store altogether, but failing that you are on the hook for the full price for the item, out of which the salesperson's salary or commission is paid. You can complain to the manager, but unless you do substantial repeat business your complaint will probably be ignored.

In a restaurant or taxicab, you have far more direct forms of retribution or reward. Does the driver sail down a crowded city street at 50 miles/80 km per hour only to slam on the brakes at the very last moment? Reduce the tip! (But on no account to zero, or you suggest forgetfulness -- give a coin or two instead.)

On the other hand, does your waiter unobtrusively refill your water glass without being asked? Increase the tip! (It's true that in some places waiters pool tips, which dilutes the effect.)

Who else gets a tip? Delivery people. Hairdressers for people and pets, provided they are employees and not proprietors. Those who carry bags or wheel wheelchairs in airports and train stations. Whoever packages a takeout meal for you -- doing takeout is just as laborious as waiting tables.

My wife the ex-waitress has read and approved this post.


From: Mark (Jul 17 2007, at 20:44)

"My wife the ex-waitress has read and approved this post." And did she declare her tips for tax purposes? (Pet peeve of mine.) "Yes, 20%, 15% is obsolete." Nice try.

I don't think that it's a good thing when a system ends up depending on customers to micromanage the service quality. Businesses should hire, train, and properly pay their help. If a waiter doesn't fill your cup up, complain to the waiter or the manager, as appropriate. If a taxi driver is speeding, tell him to stop it.

Of course, I realize that things are so out of whack in the U.S. that people are literally afraid their waiter will take a piss on their salad if they exhibit the slightest sign of causing trouble or not tipping.


From: Martin Probst (Jul 18 2007, at 00:34)

"The 20% addition (yes, 20%, 15% is obsolete) is one of the few opportunities a customer has to express in directly tangible form their pleasure or displeasure with service."

Well, you're in the same room as the waiter, no? What about this ancient technology of "talking"? :-)

Seriously, I'm under the impression that western culture in general tends to ignore everything that is not directly money related, so simply complaining doesn't seem like a way of communicating your displeasure anymore. Strange, isn't that? A culture where people communicate by increasing or decreasing money sums.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Jul 18 2007, at 05:45)

John: you see nothing wrong with a culture that expects customers to have to punish service people on a per-transaction basis? That is exactly what I meant by “pathology”.

Remember that the option to reward remains – neither is tipping unheard of in Europe. Quite the contrary – eg. “stimmt so” (“keep the change”) is a customary utterance in Germany. There’s just no *pressure* to tip, and I’ve never understood the appeal of having such a petty punishment tool in addition to the option of going to a manager either. Does it improve service? I doubt it; from where I sit, all it seems to do is create tension between service people and customers.

Basically, what Mark said.


From: John Cowan (Jul 18 2007, at 06:25)

> And did she declare her tips for tax purposes?

In those days she didn't make enough money to owe tax.

> "Yes, 20%, 15% is obsolete." Nice try.

Nothing compels you to be a morally worthy person.

> If a waiter doesn't fill your cup up, complain to the waiter or the manager, as appropriate. If a taxi driver is speeding, tell him to stop it.

And when that doesn't work? Are you going to go to court? (My wife did when a taxi driver assaulted her, but that's not on the same scale of problems.)

> people are literally afraid their waiter will take a piss on their salad

I assure you I have no such absurd fears.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Jul 18 2007, at 08:05)

> And when that doesn’t work? Are you going to go to court?

When that doesn’t work, you have bigger problems than a punishment via tipping could fix – it’s time to vote with your feet. Make it known that you do not plan to return to a pub where the service is repeatedly bad and management does not care. Ask the cabbie who won’t quit speeding to drop you off at the nearest taxi stop or phone booth. Pretty obvious, no? And it will certainly bite the service person in question a lot worse.


From: Gerald Beuchelt (Jul 19 2007, at 12:16)

Some comments on the tipping:

If you take a very close look at the menus in German restaurants, you will probably see (in fine print) that a 12% service charge (sometimes more, sometimes less) is included in the posted prices. A few decades ago it was quite common to tip the waiter in a similar fashion as it is custom in the U.S. This lead to the many issues that come with this, so the restaurant industry (it's kinda hard to think about the stereotypical German restaurant as a part of an industry, but still) converged on the current model: service is included, the waiters get a - relatively speaking - higher base salary and customers only tip for good or exceptional service (also it is expected to 'round up' in any case.

Is it better or worse than in the U.S.? As far as I am concerned, it is neither: it's just different.


Regarding kid-friendliness:

It is true that in the afternoon, beer gardens (across most of Germany) are fairly kid-friendly, but OVERALL, I would rate North America definitively much hight in terms of kid appreciation: When Irina was traveling with the little ones from the U.S. back to Germany, the difference at the airport or in any public transport was significant. In the U.S. many people would offer to help of at least smiled at the kids, while in Germany you get an evil look for your overtired kid, at best. I grant that being a national or a foreigner in either culture might make a difference, though.


From: James Shepherd (Jul 19 2007, at 13:59)

N. American meet European:


€: e.g. Freedom from oppression

$: e.g. Freedom to have a gun :-)


$: Someone who sees an opportunity to make money

€: Someone who sees an opportunity to fight the system :-)


$: A particular skill/experience level is valued enough to be your only/main source of income

€: Being able execute said ability without prejudice from other areas of your life, for example monetary

I used to find it strange that I couldn't have a glass of wine with a picnic on Kits beach in Vancouver, (though US visitors could smoke cubans downwind :-)

Which reminds me, you were lucky that it was sunny that weekend (I went cycling and forgot to check where the meet point was)-: as otherwise you would have noticed the fact that few restaurants have a no smoking area in Berlin, and unlike BC it isn't because it's all non-smoking. I frequently have to pause while walking down the street to avoid secondary smoke.

Oh and I'm British so:


$: Gratuity given in return for good service

£: What you do with large pieces of rubbish / ($garbage$)

Sorry, one more:


$: road surface

£: ($sidewalk$)

So, if you say in the UK that you drive on the pavement... :-) you're gonna need that SUV (£4x4, Chelsea tractor£) :-)


From: Ben Hutchings (Jul 23 2007, at 10:03)

Wanting to divide the bill up *precisely* appears to be a particularly German thing, though. I'm not surprised that the waiter was used to it.


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July 16, 2007
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