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People think life in Berlin ends outside the Ringbahn. They’re wrong

Columnist Floraidh Clement explains why a decision forced on her - living outside Berlin’s famed Ringbahn - has been a surprisingly good fit with her lifestyle... and has helped improve her German.

People think life in Berlin ends outside the Ringbahn. They’re wrong
The Rummelsburger Bucht. Photo: DPA

When I tell people I live in Lichtenberg, the response is generally unfavourable. From a smug “so that’s basically Poland” to the more apologetic “well…at least IKEA’s nearby!”, opinions on our decision to live in the eastern district tend to veer towards the negative.

But after six months of defensiveness when somebody questions our choice of district, it’s a decision I still stick by.

Lichtenberg was never on our radar when my boyfriend and I began the search for a permanent base. But when the notorious Berlin flat hunt became more urgent, we decided to look beyond the Ringbahn – the suburban rail line which encircles the inner city. In a city so well connected, we were happy to forget about our preferred districts and just focus on finding a flat with a reasonable enough commute to the centre.

Our new game plan worked. Just two weeks later, we were signing the lease for a Wohnung to call our own. Only two stops outside of the Ring, clean and modern with a balcony and even a pre-installed kitchen, our new flat was the final step in settling into Berlin life. We were delighted, spending the run up to the move bickering about mattresses, as any self-respecting couple should.

Photo: DPA

But the sweet success of finding new digs was short-lived, as friends and colleagues were baffled by our choice of location. Wasn’t Lichtenberg miles away? Wasn’t it still quite… communist? What was there even to do there?

The anti-climatic concerns weren’t quite enough to dampen our glory entirely, but still led us to second guess our decision. We were intent on enjoying our neighbourhood though, both out of sheer stubbornness, and, well, just how bad could it really be?

As it turns out, not so bad at all.

Yes, it’s definitely less trendy than neighbouring Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg. We’ll typically travel to get dinner and go to bars. But the beauty of Berlin’s round-the-clock transport system means that what we need is never that far away. And what we do have suits us and our lifestyles: quiet, safe streets, parks aplenty, and an Edeka in the train station which is, to our joy, open on Sundays.

Living here has also done wonders for our German. In our previous neighbourhood of Prenzlauerberg – a fairly anglicized, international district – it was easy to fall into lazy habits of speaking half-hearted “Denglish”, with little incentive to progress further.

Moving to an area less accustomed to English speakers was just the right motivation needed to improve our language skills. Even if this just means better polite chat with neighbours and ordering a McDonalds without stumbling, all of this does contribute toward a sense of genuine improvement with the language.

What Lichtenberg might be lacking in terms of any kind of culinary or nightlife scene, it makes up for with other, less obvious attractions.

The banks of Rummelsburger See are lively and fun, not unlike the inimitable atmosphere found in most Berlin parks on every sunny day. Landschaftspark Hertzberger, once a site for the GDR’s youth camp, is one of the few parks in Berlin which feels convincingly rural enough for somebody with limited tolerance for the fast pace of big-city life. Tierpark and the Stasi Museum – both also based outside of the Ring – also make for interesting days out.

Plattenbauten in Lichtenberg. Photo: DPA

My experiences are a far cry from what others had warned of. But “Lichtenphobia”, as we have begun to call it, had to come from somewhere. Once the home of the Stasi headquarters, then the site of a neo-Nazi problem in the early noughties, the district has something of a chequered past. The Soviet-style high rises in the area are stark reminders of more austere times, suggesting Lichtenberg hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the city yet.

But writing off a district on the basis of its past misses an opportunity. Life in Berlin certainly doesn’t end outside of its centre – nor will it in most major cities attracting internationals. Exploring and living in a district less frequented by tourists and expats was an opportunity to come to know and appreciate all my new city has to offer outside of the obvious hangouts.

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Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the ‘die’ and carnival lingo

From the push to reform long-term unemployment benefits to the lingo you need to know as Carnival season kicks off, we look at the highlights of life in Germany.

Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the 'die' and carnival lingo

Deadlock looms as debates over Bürgergeld heat up 

Following a vote in the Bundestag on Thursday, the government’s planned reforms to long-term unemployment benefits are one step closer to becoming reality. Replacing the controversial Hartz IV system, Bürgergeld (or Citizens’ Allowance) is intended to be a fair bit easier on claimants.

Not only will the monthly payment be raised from €449 to €502, but jobseekers will also be given a grace period of two years before checks are carried out on the size of their apartment or savings of up to €60,000. The system will also move away from sanctions with a so-called “trust period” of six months, during which benefits won’t be docked at all – except in very extreme circumstances. 

Speaking in parliament, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) said the spirit of the new system was “solidarity, trust and encouragement” and praised the fact that Bürgergeld would help people get back into the job market with funding for training and education. But not everyone is happy about the changes. In particular, politicians from the opposition CDU/CSU parties have responded with outrage at the move away from sanctions.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz has even branded the system a step towards “unconditional Basic Income” and argued that nobody will be incentivised to return to work. 

The CDU and CSU are now threatening to block the Bürgergeld legislation when it’s put to a vote in the Bundesrat on Monday. With the conservatives controlling most of the federal states – and thus most of the seats in the upper house – things could get interesting. Be sure to keep an eye out for our coverage in the coming weeks to see how the saga unfolds. 

Tweet of the week

When you first start learning German, picking the right article to use can truly be a roll of the “die” – so we’re entirely on board with this slightly unconventional way to decide whether you’re in a “der”, “die”, or “das” situation. (Warning: this may not improve your German.) 

Where is this?

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Residents of Frankfurt am Main and the surrounding area will no doubt recognise this as the charming town of Kronberg, which is nestled at the foot of the Taunus mountains.

This atmospheric scene was snapped on Friday morning, when a drop in temperatures saw Kronberg and surrounding forests shrouded in autumnal fog.

After a decidedly warm start to November, the mercury is expected to drop into single digits over the weekend. 

Did you know?

November 11th marked the start of carnival season in Germany. But did you know that there’s a whole set of lingo to go along with the tradition? And it all depends on where you are. First of all, the celebration isn’t called the same thing everywhere. In the Rhineland, it’s usually called Karneval, while people in Bavaria or Saxony tend to call it Fasching. Those in Hesse and Saarland usually call it Fastnacht. 

And depending on where you are, there are different things to shout. The ‘fools call’ you’ll hear in Cologne is “Alaaf!” If you move away from Cologne, you’ll hear “Helau!” This is the traditional cry in the carnival strongholds of Düsseldorf and Mainz, as well as in some other German cities.

In the Swabian-Alemannic language region in the southwest of the country, people yell “Narri-Narro”, which means “I’m a fool, you’re a fool”. In Saarland at the French border, they shout “Alleh hopp!”, which is said to originate from the French language. 

Lastly, if someone offers you a Fastnachtskrapfe, say yes because it’s a jelly-filled carnival donut. And if you’re offered a Bützchen? It’s your call, but know that it’s a little kiss given to strangers!