What a difference a car makes

old berlin transportation

Form follows function. Credit: postcardparadise.blogspot.de

I am exceedingly grateful that we do not have a car in Berlin. There are many reasons we have one in the states (two, actually) and none in Berlin. Here we have: No commute. A walkable neighborhood. Grocery stores in every direction. Great subway system, and buses too, though we haven’t tried those yet. Friends with cars.

There are advantages to not having a car: The cost of buying/renting one. Insurance. Where to park it. Relearn manual driving. The cost of petrol. The need for an international driver’s license.

There are also disadvantages to not having a car: Going to Ikea on the subway, stocking up on housewares, then schlepping the heavy bags on a walk in the rain and two trains. (Note to self: Next time, ask a friend with a car). And having to walk the pitch-black, deserted streets from the rowing club up to the S-bahn station after an evening practice. (Sometimes I get a ride, but many of them bike to the lake).

But more than any of this, I realize that one of the reasons I am so slow in grasping the layout of the city is because I haven’t seen it by car.

We have a friend here who is a retired professor who used to teach in Minnesota. The other day she took me, S and C for a drive to some of the “green parts” of the city to give us a glimpse of something new, she figured.

As luck would have it, she headed towards the Wannsee, the one area I know best. What I didn’t know, however, was how it fit together with where we live. As a subway rider, I walk a few blocks, head underground, get on a train, then another, then another, and my experience of the city is in the one-block chunks where I come up for air to transfer from U-bahn to S-bahn, and then rumble through the city without a clue what’s around me or how it all fits together.

When I emerge at Nikolassee, all I know is what turns to make coming out of the station, crossing the highway, past the water treatment plant, past the youth hostel, to the rowing club. I have no sense of what comes before or after it, where people live, anything like that. And of course I know what it looks like from the water, but that too is a limited perspective.

Our friend drove us through our own neighborhood, heading southwest towards hers, and soon I saw where the second-closest subway station was, and something clicked – for the first time I understood that I could easily get off here and walk home if I were ever diverted. We continued southward, and she narrated the cityscape all the while; here is the shopping district, here is the ugliest intersection in the city, here is a 1920’s affordable housing community built for S-bahn workers.

We worked our way down to Schlactensee, a lovely spot we had visited once before with other friends, but this time we came by car, and I was glad to see how it fit together, the roads, the walking paths, the lake. The girls were perhaps more excited to see hot chocolate, raspberry cake, pommes frites.

She took us right past the rowing club, and now I knew what I would find if I headed north from there, and also saw what came after – saw how I could get my bearings if for some reason I went one stop too far.

This discovery of the city, and how sections of it now light up in my mind while others remain dark and unknown, is much the way I discovered Philadelphia, my home town, as a child. I knew the city from a child’s perspective; I didn’t have to worry about how to get from Mount Airy to Center City, I could sit in the back seat and play games with my sister and emerge in the city as if from a vacuum, having noted only that we were approaching the city as my dad pointed out the pretty houses of Boathouse Row and the looming Art Museum.

When I was old enough to drive, I spent most of my time shuttling between friends’ houses in Chestnut Hill. There are some routes into the city that I’ve learned over the years, and I adhere to them because I don’t know where I’d be if I wandered down some alternate route. I suspect I’d quickly get lost. And at times I have done so, but eventually have come across some street name that sounds about right, and followed it back to more familiar sights, and always eventually made my way back.

I do not want to tool around in a friend’s car wasting petrol in this way in Berlin.

I’m happy to be driven around, as I have been on occasion by rowers when they’ve offered to drop me at the subway station nearest their apartment, and in this way I piece together the city, begin the mental mapping, and the southwest quadrant of the city that I have traversed now by car, train, and parts of it on foot, is beginning to make more sense.

M remarks that it seems a shame that this urban planner only understands the city from a car. To which I say, when a city is built after the invention of the horse and carriage, there are streets, and it is laid out in a manner that suits the available transportation. On-ground transportation was the rule before the subways went in. The neighborhoods of Berlin are absolutely walkable, but the city is vast, and discovering it in the mode for which it was built is perhaps the only way to fully experience it.

We’re still not considering a car. Next task is to get my hands on a bike.

2 thoughts on “What a difference a car makes

  1. Deb M

    You know, I really have begun to appreciate trams and buses. You can ignore the traffic and just focus on the city around you. And there’s no going underground. I learned St Petersburg that way- just getting on a tram or bus and just seeing where it goes. Same with Melbourne. And getting the lay of the land makes a place that much more like home. For me, it’s about feeling the city through the soles of my feet. Some rainy day, give the bus a whirl and see where you go.


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