I’d say it’s the same in any metropolitan city - London, Paris, New York: we as expats rely heavily on public transport. Those of us who are motivated enough to have a bicycle or have enough energy at the beginning or end of the day to walk will know what all of us moles are missing out on.
Here in Berlin its the U bahn. An incredibly convenient link to almost everywhere you could possibly wish to go in central Berlin. You can’t walk anywhere in Mitte or the surrounding areas without coming across a U bahn station. They rise up out of the ground like oasis's, connecting us with our friends, the clubs, the historic sites the cafes. They are wonderful.
To get to work I walk around the corner from my apartment, across a road about 100 metres and there it is, my very own U bahn station. I take this about 4 stops up and then switch to a different line which takes me 6 stations arriving just 35 minutes later at Alexanderplatz.
Taking the U bahn can be an entertaining experience. I have seen many drunk men young and old loitering in the U bahn stations. At first this was a little frightening to me and I have always been paranoid about being accosted by strangers. But now I walk past them without any problem only slightly holding my breath. The trains themselves are often graced by all kinds of charitable cases each with their own style of panhandling. There are the newspaper sellers, the poetry readers, and then there are my favourites the Spanish music men who jump on board a carriage and blast their sound system riling everyone up at 8.30am singing a catchy Latino tune and yelling ‘everybody!’
It's also the best and almost the only time I get to read my book. I can get through about a chapter a day to and from work sitting on the dark underground with nothing else to look at except the equally tired, gloomy looking person sitting opposite me.
But something I discovered recently was a huge eye opener in more ways than one. I was at my friends house in Dahlem which is in the south west corner of Berlin in the suburban area. We needed to make a trip back into Berlin to my apartment to pick something up and rather than taking the two U bahns we would usually take to get there, we opted for a bus which would take us the whole way there but it would take about 15 minutes longer than the U bahn.
It was fascinating. You know when you are sitting on an underground train day after day and you hear each stop being announced. Fahrbelliner platz, Spichern straße, Amrumer straße. You learn these names but have nothing more to connect to them than the colour of the walls at that particular stop. Before I ever managed to do some exploring I knew Weinmeisterstraße right before my work only as the ‘blue station’
On this bus day I sat at the very front of the double decker bus and took in the sights of the different districts between Dahlem and Moabit. I connected neighbourhoods with station names. I know that Bellinerstraße is an area full of Greek restaurants, I know that right in Dahlem there is a beautiful botanical gardens. I saw the buildings change as we got closer toward the center, and the neighbourhoods owned their own idiosyncrasies.
I feel like I have a much better sense of Berlin and the outer suburbs and how everything is connected now. We so quickly become accustomed to looking at a subway map and planning a journey connecting the different coloured lines. We really have no sense of how it is all connected and where we are being taken, all we see is a black tunnel, strangers sitting across from us and different coloured walls of each station we arrive at.
I strongly urge all expats to do an internet search and find a bus route which will take you as close as possible to your destination as an alternative to always taking the underground. Even if it means you need to change a few times, you will experience a completely new side of your neighbourhood, or the daily route that you really have no idea about. It will give you a new appreciation of where you live, or it may make you glad that you travel through the darkness each day.