Berlin: Ten Ways to Tell if You’re in the East or West

When you first arrive in Berlin, the first thing most people want to do these days is “see the wall”. Despite Berlin having plenty of other things worth seeing, I guess it’s understandable. But aside from a short stretch of brightly painted remains, there is not much in the way of concrete remnants to remind us of Berlin’s recent history as home to two very different states, two very different political systems. Here is a lighthearted guide for new visitors to Berlin on how to figure out which side of the wall you are actually on.

1. If you ask someone to give you directions to the nearest food store and they direct you to the Kaufhalle (or Koofhalle) you’re in the East. If they send you to the ‘Supermarkt’ you’re in the West.

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2. Trams and tramlines? You’re in the East. After World War II trams were considered passé in the West, and with all the spondulix from the Marshall Plan being thrown at them, the West Berliners sprung for some brand new omnibuses instead, slowly phasing out the outmoded trams. One of the favourite pastimes of old-time East Berliners by the way, is sitting outdoors at cafés near busy crossroads where tramlines intersect with bike paths, and watching as unwary West Germans (and tourists) fly through the air when their bike wheels inadvertently get stuck in the tram tracks.

3. If there are large Kindergartens with spacious playgrounds and gardens on every corner, you’re in the East. Childcare was BIG and free in the GDR: 98% of all kids went to kindergarten.

4. If you come across strange-looking narrow shops in the backstreets plastered with children’s drawings that purport to be selling children, “Kinder Laden” (child shops), then I can put your mind at rest. These are the Kindergarten equivalents of West Berlin. The West German government didn’t generally support childcare, expecting mothers to stay at home, so in the seventies, enterprising parents in the West got together and shared childcare in an anti-authoritarian atmosphere.

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5. Döner Kebap shops

Because of the mass influx of Turkish workers into West Germany and West Berlin in the fifties, the majority of Döner Kebab shops are still to be found in the West. This is changing and not always a guarantee of knowing what side of the fence you’re on, but …Look at this map. Pink is for Turkish citizens: the darker the pink the higher the percentage. Where it stops and turns blue or green correlates exactly to the course of the wall.

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6. Flower power from Vietnam

If you go and buy a bunch of flowers from an Asian lady, it’s a sure bet you’re in the East.

Eastern Germany has the highest Vietnamese population in Europe aside from France, their former colonial power. Many came to the GDR as students from North Vietnam, to study. After reunification there was no legal foundation for them to stay and they were given a choice of a paid ticket home or opening a business. Because florists and corner shops don’t need any form of training, or much in terms of investment that’s what they tended to go for. Want a culinary trip to Hanoi without leaving Berlin? Head to the Dong Xuan Market in Herzbergstrasse in Lichtenberg.  You will not regret it.

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7. Street lights.

When heading back home after a long fun night out, East Berlin always seemed suffused in a warm golden light to me. I always put it down to the vodka, but when Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, took photos of the world from the International Space Station, he noticed to his surprise that you could clearly see the western and eastern parts of the city by the different lighting they used. (White in the West, yellow in the East). So if you get lost at 3am, check out the street lights, at least you’ll know if you’re in the right half of town or not.

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8. You’re probably not on the look out for little old ladies or retired rich men, but if you are, you should definitely head west. Hitting retirement in style were the Wessis with 895 Euro standard state pension with East Germans taking a cheque of 455 Euros home for the same number of years worked back in 1992. (I am hoping and guessing that the disparity is narrowing).

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9. If there are bullet holes in it, you’re in the East. You could be forgiven for assuming that the Allies were simply a little gun-shy. It’s not that the Allies didn’t shoot at Nazis so much, but it was the Ruskies who actually liberated Berlin. House-to-house combat meant that walls were riddled with bullets, and whereas the generous Americans were happy to foot the bill for new Brutalist buildings to replace the old in West Berlin, in the East they had to make do, and many of these houses still remain. Go ahead and choose, I already have.

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1o. And last but not least, something that only the design aficionados amongst you would notice. You can tell by the fonts all around you what part of Berlin you’re in.

West 2008*/East 2014

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West Berlin was definitely “up with the hipsters” in the seventies, and into bubble script and curls before the East had time to say “Solo Sunny”, so the Tannenberger Fraktur script so beloved of the brown gang is definitive proof of something that hasn’t seen the light of day since Hitler shuffled off this mortal coil (the underground station was blocked up after the war but has since reopened with new fonts…

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But wherever you are in Berlin, you can be pretty sure that EVERYONE will have an opinion on what side of the city is best. And if anyone tells you that there is no difference between East and West, go see for yourself. I’ll wait here.

*(image courtesy of Marco Magnago, 2008)

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