So, You Want A Flat In Berlin?
Getting a flat in Berlin was what we considered to be both the most challenging and important step in getting settled in Berlin. Initially we had been told that it was extremely difficult to find a flat and that Berlin had become a far more gentrified and expensive city and as two young men (we are both twenty-one) this difficulty would be amplified due to the assumption that we had come to Berlin to take lots of drugs and go to Berghain. This, as you can imagine, made us both extremely anxious. We should also note that neither us have come to Berlin with any knowledge of German.
This preconception was quickly dispelled by our friend Karl. We had met Karl earlier in the summer during a brief foray to Berlin at his stall just outside Museum Island in Mitte. Karl is a bronze caster and I had bumped into him whilst looking for a necklace for my sister. After a brief conservation with Karl at his stall I had learned that I should not waste my time with girls from West Berlin but focus my sexual efforts on the Slavic-looking girls from the east, as they tended to be more willing and adventurous. I bought a pendant from Karl (a bronze cast of sea shell) and we met up later for drinks at his favourite bridge.
After moving to Berlin we met up with Karl last week in Neukoln to chat and plumb him for information about finding flats and jobs. The bar we met in was a classic Berlin bar: exposed brick walls, clouds of blue cigarette smoke and a tasteful scattering of bearded men and desert boots: hipster mecca. Karl was sporting his ubiquitous cheeky gin and ordered himself a peppermint tea. When we met Karl, Finn and I had just returned from our first flat viewing in Wedding where we had both left with the distinct impression that we had both been judged to be irresponsible children not fit to tie our shoe-laces. The owner of the flat, Nora, a thirty-something casting director for an independent theatre company, was extremely taken aback when she discovered that we were both twenty-one. The conversation moved from an adult discussion about the ‘avant-garde musical opera’ she was producing to how to use the heating responsibly and the importance of making sure the door was locked whenever we left the flat. We both protested in our most polite and charming fashion that we were in fact two incredibly responsible and grown up young men who had no intention of turning the living room into our personal sauna. In Germany the education system functions differently from the UK; you leave school at nineteen, have a year of national service (this has recently been abolished) and then university at either twenty-one or twenty-two. In the context of this system we were two renegade young persons without the slightest exposure to the real world.
When we got round to discussing the topic of flats Karl dismissed any previous concerns with a casual flick of the wrist and told us that it would be easy, and most importantly to ‘take it easy’, get bikes and ‘have a look’. Karl told us to look online, he recommended in particular checking out: www.kleinanzeigen.ebay.de and craigslist. All flats in Berlin are to be looked for online -this is something that is unanimously agreed upon, with www.kleinanzeigen.ebay.de being the first choice for all native Berliners, also the place to find cheap bikes. This was a great relief to both of us and we soon found ourselves lost in an orgy of cigarettes and the house Weiss beer. So lost, in fact, that we missed/fell asleep on a succession of trains and found ourselves in Berlin Spandau train station at 3am with two hours to wait before the next train to Brieselang.
The approach we adopted to flat hunting was to religiously check craigslist, ebay-kleinanzeigen and a host of other Berlin letting websites every day. We applied to every listing we saw regardless of location – we dispensed with any idealised preconceptions and were to a large extent willing to take anything (so long as it wasn’t too expensive – nothing more than 350 euro a month). We had a pre-written blurb which we would just copy and paste into every application, we applied for between fifteen and thirty flats a day. You can realistically expect a hit rate of one-in-ten in terms of actually getting a response. This is an exact copy of the blurb we sent round to all everyone we attempted to lease a flat from:
My friend and I are two young graduates from the UK, we studied history and philosophy respectively, and are very interested in sub-letting your flat. We are two tidy, liberal and considerate young men who have moved to Berlin to learn German and experience Berlin’s rich and diverse culture. We are currently staying with friends in Brieselang and are looking to move to a more central location.
We were at the time staying with our good friend Lennart’s parents who lived in Brieselang which is a large suburb of Berlin about an hour away on the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz. I would also just like to note that staying with Lennart’s parents was crucial to our flat finding success – they went beyond the definition of kind by letting us stay there for two weeks to sort ourselves out before crash landing in Berlin. It meant that we didn’t have to pay for a hostel which can be the ultimate crippler in trying to set yourself up in Berlin. Hostels in Berlin are not cheap; you are looking at between 20-30 euros a night.
We eventually found success at a flat in Kreuzberg, which can loosely be described as the flat of our dreams with the exception that Finn and I have to share a room. Our willingness to share a room led to everyone believing that we were a couple, we are not, but we both agree that this is a fairly natural conclusion to reach based on our appearance and eagerness to room share.
Our flat viewing in Kreuzberg could not have been further removed from our experience with Nora in Wedding. We were greeted outside by the lease holder Benjamin/Benj, a young charismatic architect in his early thirties, tall and smiley in a loose fitting hoody and a pair of Vans. Benjamin took us through the flat; you have to walk through a large bike filled courtyard to reach the entrance. The flat was on the third floor after a fairly non-descript staircase: bikes resting outside doors, large cardboard boxes of disused kitchenware and the odd street sign. I had seen a few photos on craigslist of the living room, kitchen and the bedroom, all of which looked passable at the time. To tell the truth I hadn’t looked since the first application we were both thrilled we had a viewing.
The first room we saw was the living room which was separated from the kitchen by a large wooden framed glass wall; it was also the size of Brazil. Benjamin proceeded to take us through his hipster mansion flat to our room upon which he said ‘If you like I give you the keys now to make moving in easier’. We had both been expecting a gruelling interview and both had prepared back stories: we were not going to be twenty-one; we were both going to be twenty-four having both just finished extended post-university travels to India and Argentina respectively. I was dumb struck when Benjamin offered us the keys – Finn must have been talking for a good twenty seconds before I started to respond with enthusiastic head bobs and moronic smiling. That was that and we moved our stuff the next day. Well, late the next day; there was much celebrating to be done.
Words and Photos: Deb and Finn