How to work at a startup: 3. Cover letter and social media

by Guest Blogger

By Federico Prandi.

Ever wondered why cover letters are called cover letters?

That’s because they’re a cover-up, a fraud, a final attempt to reinforce all the lies you’ve shamelessly written on your resume and spice them up with some hardcore lip service. A good cover letter is something you can’t have your wife and children read without them thinking you’re willing to trade your family for a part-time customer service job at an internet startup.

Now, in order to write a convincing cover letter you have to be able to write a regular one. I know that nobody writes proper letters anymore, but in our childhood we’ve all done it in (at least) two specific circumstances.

#1 Love Letters

I remember middle school as the place where my first literary attempts took place. All the guys were pouring their hormonal intensity into odes to girls who either wouldn’t let them touch their breasts or didn’t have breasts at all. One of my letters was so successful that a 12-year-old girl in my class pulled me aside and kissed me, making death poems suddenly look like a better idea.

#2 Letters to Santa

Growing up in a catholic family, I could either write my Christmas wishes to Santa or to baby Jesus. I always picked the former, assuming that the old man wouldn’t be up to date with my sins. In hindsight I feel like I was never really filled in on the magic of Christmas and as a result all my letters to Santa sounded like financial scam against a vulnerable senior, as if I had to convince him to spend all his pension on my presents. Also, I probably looked down on Jesus, thinking that a baby born in a shed wouldn’t be able to discern between the real Little Mermaid merchandise and those cheap rip-offs.

Anyway, the perfect cover letter takes something from both examples; it combines the pained longing of the teenage love letter and the manipulative hidden agenda of the Santa letter; it makes big promises but also claims big rewards; it tells a company that you’ll be their dream, you’ll be their wish, you’ll be their fantasy. You’ll be their hope, you’ll be their love, be everything that they need. You’ll love them more with every breath (truly, madly, deeply do), you will be strong, you will be faithful ’cause you’re counting on a new beginning, a reason for living, a deeper meaning, yeah.



My name is Federico Prandi Barry LaVaughn [PRO TIP: use a name that oozes out awesomeness: fake IDs aren’t as expensive as you think!] and I’m applying for the position of Online Marketing Manager after applying to three others and being rejected finding the job posting on some random Reddit thread the company website.

I’ve spent the past year watching every season of Survivor on my couch traveling around the world, but now I need money feel like it’s time for a new professional challenge. I’ve been keeping an eye on NAME_OF_COMPANY for the past seven minutes, while simultaneously shopping on Amazon years and I was always impressed by your constant achievements in terms of growth and marketing efforts.

Before traveling, I worked for two months years at a marketing agency whose main focus are on-site and off-site SEO. When the company started offering a wider range of services, the fact that I have a Twitter account with more than 6 followers my holistic approach to online marketing came especially handy and I was given new responsibilities. My professional path gave me practical experience in stalking people online conducting detailed on-site audits, developing actionable inbound marketing strategies and researching keywords in a clever way. My team left the boat before it sank swayed between “very small” and a “one-man-show”, which made me cry in the shower at night called for crazy organizational skills, high versatility and alcoholism a talent for setting priorities.

In my private time I tend to read and write Harry Potter erotic fanfic in a lot of online places (forums, blogs, e-zines, online newspapers, social media…you name it!); this gave me a very sharp sensitivity when it comes to anything futile in life contemporary online trends and the language of the web.

Having read the profile you’re looking for, I am going to ignore all the requirements I don’t have and apply anyway think I might be a valuable asset to your team and at the same time have a chance to grow as a marketer.

I look forward to hearing back from you and dive deeper into the selection process.



Ta-da! You’re all set!

You have the perfect CV, the perfect cover letter and you’re now ready to pack everything together and send your application via email.

Bonus Track: Clean up your social media



There is one more little thing that needs to be done in order to make your application really really perfect.

Hire a private investigator (or me if I’m bored) and ask him to turn the internet upside down in search of some dirt about you. As much as you consider yourself an amazing human being, that time you made fun of coat-hanger abortions on Twitter may not be well perceived by everybody.

Delete the tweet and, since you’re at it, replace it with a photoshopped picture of you hugging a koala bear (which, in my opinion, is exactly what restored Luke Perry’s public image after 90210).

Bingo – you’re all set!

Federico is an Italian in Berlin. He blogs, tweets, infiltrates the German language, and is currently employed at a cool internet company based in Berlin with a million open positions.

If you liked this, read the rest of the series here. And check out our observations on the Berlin startup scene, and get more practical advice about landing a startup job (with more GIFs!).

Berlintercourse: The GIF Guide to Sex Party Etiquette

by Guest Blogger

My first trip to a sex club was about five years ago. I had come to spend yet another weekend visiting a dear high school friend living in Berlin and, on a whim, we decided to go to KitKat. The bouncers let us in after first telling us to remove some of our clothes, and my friend happily obliged, keeping nothing but her panties on. I took off my dress and entered the club wearing just a jacket and my underwear.

The rest of the evening is kind of a blur, but I vividly remember enjoying the fact that we were able to dance wearing close to nothing without any creeps following us around. Which brings us to the first – and maybe most important – lesson:

Sex clubs are meant to be safe spaces, so if you visit one, please make sure you help it stay that way.

Having been a guest at several sex parties now, some at pretty tame yet fun nights like GEGEN and some more adventurous ones where almost everyone ended up getting some, I have come to realise that there are a few things you should know before getting involved. To help out my fellow sexplorers, here is what I have learned so far:


“Alles kann, nichts muss”, as the Germans say. What this means is that the fact you are attending a sex party does not necessarily mean that you’ll end up having wild group sex on the dancefloor. Only if you feel like it and only if the party allows it. While many people probably assume that sex clubs are places where everything is allowed, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

During the sex party I attended a few months back, a significant portion of the evening was dedicated to reciting the event’s rules, and it was made very clear that whoever ignored them would be shown to the door in no time. At this particular party, voyeurism was not welcome – but this isn’t always the case, so make sure you know about the event’s specifics before you misbehave. You will usually find that information on the club’s website but don’t hesitate to reach out to the organisers via email if you have any doubts.


If you are attending a sex event, know that there is no place for politeness. What I mean is that if a situation is bothering you, you should not say so. I have been hesitant myself, but being straightforward is a must, so if you are afraid of making your move, ask someone to do the dirty work for you.

Once in the dark rooms of Ficken 3000, I realised that someone was watching in a very creepy way that I did not feel comfortable with. I ended up asking a friend to tell him, and the lurker was gone within a couple of seconds. As with most things in life, problems are usually solved more quickly if you deal with them directly instead of allowing them to linger on.


Every time I engaged in or witnessed threesomes or group sex, I remember being amazed at the level of consideration couples gave to each other. Much to my surprise, I found that couples that engage in this kind of activity seem to have more balanced and healthier relationships, at least from the outside. They’re the kind of people who will outright say when they are not comfortable with a situation instead of sulking or making a scene. And the other person will take the criticism just fine.

What I learned is that, while you should obviously focus on enjoying yourself, you should always keep an eye on other people’s wellbeing. This is especially true if you decide to engage in sexual endeavours with your significant other: the experience will only be truly rewarding for you both if you make sure you are not being selfish or making your partner uncomfortable.


On a more shallow note, don’t forget that there is nothing worse than attending an event and feeling like your outfit isn’t quite right. In fact, dressing up is a great part of the fun.

Find out whether there is a dress code beforehand, don’t keep all of your clothes on if nobody else is doing so, and don’t stare at people whose sartorial choices are more daring than yours.

When in doubt, remember that this is Berlin and wear black. My go-to outfit is a black bra and black thong, but you could just wear nothing and make Germany proud.


Brace yourself for the fact that you will probably witness a few situations you never expected to. I have seen things that would normally qualify as crazy, such as grown men wearing diapers or a girl holding a knife ridiculously close to a guy’s penis and occasionally poking it.

I did a double take because I was curious, but in the end remembered that everyone has their own dark side and that other people’s should be, at most, considered with a shrug. Try to remember that sex has a lot to do with people allowing themselves to be vulnerable and allowing others into their personal space.


Embrace the fact that this is your chance to try out new things. Most people who attend sex parties on the reg are ready to be your guide if you need them to.

Asking for advice will never be frowned upon and, just as with any regular party, people are usually open to taking new playmates under their wing. If you’re feeling unsure, just look at the way others are behaving and adjust – be emotionally intelligent and empathetic and people will welcome you with open arms.

Don’t believe me? The day after the sex party I went to, I was invited to have dinner with some of the organisers, before heading to a BDSM play party in the evening. That was the night I tried suspension bondage for the very first time, and it was quite the experience. I was incredibly glad to have more seasoned BDSMers around, as they took care of me and shared their precious advice along the way.


While it’s totally fine to be buzzed at “entry level” parties where most sexual acts happen in dark rooms or other dedicated areas, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself while other people are trying to get busy.

I did get pretty, ahem, tipsy during the first sex party I attended, and even though I mostly just ended up dancing and chatting everyone up, I regretted being that person when I woke up the next day. Oh well, it wasn’t my idea to bring all that vodka!


Bring condoms with you (even if you are a girl), but also know that you will always be able to get some for free at the bar – this also applies to Berghain, by the way.

While it can be cute to wake up with a few misplaced love bites the next day because they make for good stories, you don’t want to spend it running from the pharmacy to the STD clinic. Also, nothing says “I don’t respect you” like not caring about this kind of thing. Try to remember what queen Aretha was demanding back in the sixties.

In short, have fun, be open-minded, pay attention to what is happening around you, and you will have a blast! I will soon dedicate another column to my favourite sex parties to help you choose the one on which to try out all these tips – watch this space :)

GIFs sourced by @p_a_p_i_

How to work at a startup: 2. Your resume

by Guest Blogger

By Federico Prandi.

If you’ve read the previous chapter of this guide, you should have identified the startup job of your dreams and be ready to apply.

If you haven’t found your dream job, that probably means you’re being too picky and are doomed to homelessness while you wait around for that perfect job to pop up (“Hairstylist at a horse beauty contest”).


But let’s assume you are ready to go.

Applying for a job at an internet startup is a delicate process that you can’t afford to fuck up. Your whole career depends on this preliminary phase, so in this second chapter I’ll focus on how to put together a spotless Curriculum Vitae.


Once upon a time the world of CVs was ruled by an evil king called European Model. The European Model states that all the information inside a CV shall be divided into two columns and presented in the most readable (i.e. boring) way possible, as if to proudly proclaim to the world that we all have OCD.

Then the game changed. Recruiters were getting tired of their job life after hours of going through piles of excruciatingly boring and anonymous documents, while at the same time Internet startups started understanding the value of differentiation and personality.

I remember the day that Davide, a former boss of mine, decided that pink was the right colour with which to rebrand his career and had a professional graphic designer redesign his resume. Not only did the document suddenly look shiny and fresh, but a couple of weeks later Davide was offered a new, better job.

Clearly, I needed to follow his footsteps.

I went home and dusted off my self-taught Paint skills to give my CV that subtle touch of personality which makes it look like the Myspace page of a 13-year-old Luke Perry fan.


I only wish the PDF format allowed me to include a “My Heart Will Go On” midi file and an animated glitter effect on each page, but I guess you can’t have everything.


Stop everything you’re doing now. You need to take care of your CV photo ASAP. There are three possible strategies to follow:

1) The Conference Photo

My personal favourite resume picture is the one in which the subject is giving a talk at a conference, looking irresistibly smart.

Of course, you can always fake this. You just need a shot taken from below (or by a very short person) while you’re holding a microphone. Karaoke will do, but be sure to take care to Photoshop out the lyrics of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” from that giant screen in the background.

2) The German Photo

Months ago I tricked my boyfriend into watching five hours of Vier Hochzeiten und eine Traumreise (the German version of the American reality show Four Weddings). It really seemed as if the future brides on the show hadn’t grown up idealising their wedding and I ended up applauding German society for that.

The truth is that in Germany your wedding day is not even as important as the day on which you have your LinkedIn picture taken. Little girls grow up dreaming of which pantsuit they’re going to wear and their prudent mothers make sure to have enough money saved up to pay for makeup artists.

A German CV photo basically portrays you at your fanciest. If the Financial Times and Men’s Health were ever to merge and I was asked to appear on the cover, that’s the kind of picture I would go for.

3) The Boy Next Door Photo

I hate to highlight this, but a lot of internet startups are owned by nerds who still giggle when they see a boob and have been wearing the same three hoodies for the past 13 years.

If you suspect option 1 and 2 may be too threatening for the company you’re approaching, just go for the boy-next-door photo. Smile at the camera, look natural, don’t overdo it. And if you can’t help thinking the picture could be better, send it to your friend who claims to know Photoshop and ask him or her to Vogue it up. That expensive nose job you’ve always desired is only a couple of clicks away.


(Shout out to my co-worker Maria for noticing, after months of working together, that “there’s something different in your LinkedIn picture, but I couldn’t say what”).


Wait a second now. Nobody knows better than I that the sentence “I can easily operate an excavator” comes with a price, so I don’t mean to suggest you write things that aren’t true on your CV. You should definitely consider, though, writing things that are *almost* true.

Every single task you do at work can be blown up to unprecedented levels of greatness and graciously land on your resume. Last week, for example, I put together a scrapbook for a co-worker who’s leaving the company and even though the result looked pretty amateurish, I can’t wait for my next employer to read about my skills in “coordinating and executing internal design projects involving more than 20 team members”.

You know what I mean? In order to write a good CV you need to walk the fine line between truth and outright lie, and pray that nobody checks your criminal record.

Some more random tips include:

  • Never specify you can work with Microsoft Word and are an accustomed Internet user unless you’re planning on sending your CV back in time to 1997.
  • If you’ve ever played team sports be sure to mention it, even if you were forced by your parents who eventually changed their minds after you went on a two-week long hunger strike.
  • Mention somewhere that you’re very good with pivot tables, then head to the nearest church to ask the Lord for forgiveness.
  • Ask a trusted friend to check for grammar mistakes, typos and the inadvertent inclusion of terms like “semi-reformed arsonist”, which could lower your chances of getting the job.

In the next episode I’ll teach you how to write a proper cover letter and manage your online persona before submitting the application.

Federico is an Italian in Berlin. He blogs, tweets, infiltrates the German language, and is currently employed at a cool internet company based in Berlin with a million open positions.

If you liked this, check out our observations on the Berlin startup scene, and get more practical advice about landing a startup job (with more GIFs!).

How to work at a startup: 1. Finding a job

by Guest Blogger

By Federico Prandi.

My mother used to put stuff in boxes. Professionally. She did it for 30 years at the same small-sized suburban Italian company and while the boxes were sent everywhere in the world, my mom and her career weren’t exactly going places.

My dad, the only male among four siblings, had to drop out of middle school to help his father in the fields. Like many of his peers, he learned to think of work as something that is closely related to suffering, sacrifice and blind obedience.

Whenever I tell my parents about company breakfasts, team building events and gamification, they share a very specific look that I’ve come to interpret as “Our son is lying to us. He doesn’t have a job in Berlin. He’s squatting an abandoned building and carries stolen drugs across countries in order to pay for his groceries.”

I get that look. I do. Growing up with a blue-collar mindset made me both conscious of my current luck and weirdly aware of the seemingly absurd sides of the startup life.

This series of posts is the natural consequence of that.


This is going to sound obvious, but in order to work at a startup – in Berlin or anywhere else – you need to either found one or be hired by one. I’m going to focus on the latter ’cause I’m a slacker and I’ve made it my life goal to achieve less and less every day.

If you’re smart you’ve probably created alerts that fire off an email every time a desirable position is available, either through Google Alerts or more specific job hunting platforms like Indeed.de or BerlinStartupJobs.com. What you might not know, though, is that when it comes to job titles startups can be as quirky as the side character of an indie TV series.

The chances that your alert will be triggered by the keyword “customer relationship manager” are thinner, for example, than the ones for the keyword “Customer Happiness Ninja”. Stop looking for “Sales Manager” and keep your eyes open for stuff like “Customer retention power ranger”, “Office management karate kid”, “Java Sorcerer” and any title that could have easily been invented by a Dungeon Master after his sixth pint of mead. ‘Cause nerdz.

Startups want their jobs to sound so cool that it’s impossible not to want them. I’m perfectly happy with my own job, but if I ever read an ad for a “fluffer of moral erections”, I’ll drop everything and go, even if it means I end up teaching old ladies how to dance salsa in a holiday resort a la Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

The exceptions to this rule are the internships. Companies don’t even try to make these “jobs” sound cool, given that the word “intern” is at times already an euphemism for “slave”.

Centuries ago, before the invention of coconut M&Ms or, like, minimum wage, I was doing an internship. Money was so tight that I felt compelled to rewrite the Wikipedia page for the term to reflect my true real feelings about the matter.


Unfortunately a Wikipedia editor told me I wasn’t being – air quote – objective about the facts. Fine, Mr. Logic. Whatever.

Anyway, you need to really read those job postings and check off the required skills one by one, even if that’s boring. And when you’re doing so, try to be honest with yourself about your real capabilities. I once thought my brain had no boundaries, but then it turns out that things like the Norwegian language or “Ruby on Rails” (I still think that’s the name of a synthetic drug) cannot be learned overnight.


Once you’ve found a position that seems perfect for you, don’t just start shooting off applications like crazy. You need to pick the right startup before even letting them pick you. Of course you wanna be employed by a winner and there’s one basic criteria to discern whether an internet company is gonna take over the world. Mark my words: It’s all in the name.

Look around: the “General Motors” days are over. Don’t look for class, meaning or authority in a name. The startup world is now calling for “Goojdi”, “Faamp”, “Leerk” and “Huora” (which was gonna be the name of my own startup until someone told me it literally means “whore” in Finnish). In other words, you need to look for a name that sounds like something between the first words of a baby and what your cat may have written while walking on the keyboard.

The only acceptable alternative to this are Latin words. A lot of startup founders pick these, probably by listening to Harry Potter spells and noting down stuff that sounds nice. Sometimes it works, but other times your web agency ends up being called “ferocity” in Italian.


In the next episode I’ll teach you how to actually apply for the startup job of your dreams.

Federico is an Italian in Berlin. He blogs, tweets, infiltrates the German language, and is currently employed at a cool internet company based in Berlin with a million open positions.

If you liked this, check out our observations on the Berlin startup scene, and get more practical advice about landing a startup job (with more GIFs!).

Pro tips: shop at IKEA like a BOSS!

by Guest Blogger

By Danilo Sierra.

Going to IKEA is a pain in the butt, but it is a necessary evil, especially for any manager of an office or coworking space. If have a wallet as deep as the Mariana Trench, go ahead and get everything from somewhere fancy like Modulor or Minimum. And if you have endless amounts of time, get thee to the Trödel shops. However, the rest of us need to prepare for a quest.

Here are some tips on how to tackle your IKEA trip like a pro  <ahem, like James, Zoe and I!> and make the most of out of going there:

1. Be prepared.

Do your research. Make sure you are going to the IKEA closest to you. And measure the space you are buying for, because there is nothing worse than hoarding – especially IKEA furniture.

Use their shitty website and read the notes below each item, which describes its exact size. If you are some kind of retro oddball, use the paper catalogue. But go with a list already made!

Bonus points: add the article numbers (in this format xxx.xxx.xxx) to a printout of a mood board-style wishlist.

2. Measure up!

IKEA think they are helping by giving you those tiny pencils and paper tape measures, but they are complete shit compared to a proper aluminium or wood I’m-a-construction-worker-who-drinks-Sternis-at-9-am kind of meter. You know, the ones that cost two Euros in Bauhaus.

Using a proper meter will help you to measure accurately, check your angles, get a sense of the volume of your space, and save you tons of time.

Pro tip: bring a floor plan drawn to scale. Then you can be sure you’ve bought everything you need, and left space for important things like fire exits and humans.

3. Do it from behind <hehe>

You need to know exactly how much time you have, including the commute. If you have two or more hours, go ahead and run the maze like IKEA suggests/forces you to. But if you followed through on points 1 and 2, you should be able to cheat and start from the back.

Walk in through the out door and go directly to the warehouse. This is the best way to avoid the unnecessary showrooms, impulse-shopping, student-parent combos, new families (gross!) and their strollers. You are here in a professional capacity.

Pro tip: if you do find yourself in the maze, look up the short cuts (yes, they do have them).

4. Use self-checkout.

It is way faster!












Have meatballs for dinner. And if you’ve left yourself tons of time, have meatballs before you shop, and hot dogs after.

As well as these culinary delights, treat yourself to a taxi, Möbeltaxi or delivery service. IKEA do same-day delivery through another company, with the cost based on how much you bought. If you don’t mind waiting something stupid like three weeks, buy online and pay them to assemble the stuff for you. That way, there are fewer things for you to mess up, not least your back.

6. Stay loyal.

Consider signing up for a loyalty program, like IKEA Business or IKEA Family. You will get proper invoices, gift cards, and a not-that-bad user interface which you can use to track your business relationship with IKEA (and download the old invoices if you lose them). It works, bitches!

Try these tips and track how fast you go from UGH to NOM! Meatballs!

Now that you’re a Berliner…

by Guest Blogger

By Giulia Pines, author of Finding Your Feet in Berlin: A Guide to Making a Home in the Hauptstadt. Her lively book gives the answers to every practical question regarding: history, official stuff, finding a place to live, learning German and other expat resources (yes, including überlin!). Scroll down to find out what you should know now that you’re *really* a Berliner.

So, you say you’ve been here for a while, now? You’ve got a job, an apartment and a Späti owner who always says hi to you? You’ve survived a whole winter (or at least a few months of it) and lived to tell the tale? You’ve already been practically run over by a speeding cyclist and yelled at by a cab driver (only to curse back in return)? You’ve memorised the U-Bahn and don’t actually need to carry around a map anymore? Well, congratulations: you’ve made it… halfway.

That’s because, luckily or unluckily for you, becoming a local is no step-by-step process. Learning to know and love and conquer a city is an experience for which there is no rulebook; a mind-boggling journey of twists and turns, of failing and falling and getting back up again, of trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. Only you will know when you’re finally at home here, and only you will sense when calling yourself a local stops sounding like wishful thinking and begins to ring true.

In the meantime, though, here are some tips to help you navigate the wild, roiling waves of the city, in those first few months when you think you might drown in the wonderfulness of it all—that is, until something fundamental snaps you back to the surface. When those little glitches fail to rile you because you can anticipate them before they happen, that’s when you’ll know you’re a Berliner.

Now That You’re a Berliner, You’ll Know…

… To cross on the red in the right circumstances.

Sure, you’ve been told it’s the greatest sin in Germany – that whatever you do, you should never ever cross the street on a red pedestrian signal (Ampelmännchen or “little traffic light man” in the former east, as the lights are actually shaped into little men walking or standing still, now a beloved symbol of the city). Indeed, Germans are notorious for following this particular rule even when no one is watching (it could be 3am with not a car in sight, and the only other person at the crosswalk will wait for green). You may have heard stories from friends who were yelled at by old cranks when they crossed the road before the light turned green, or given absolutely penetrating looks by parents standing patiently at the curb with young children. But really, 99 times out of 100, the worst that can happen to you is just that: a few nasty looks, a few raised voices, a couple of people who seem to think they need to give you an abbreviated etiquette lesson. By the 100th time you may actually run into a policeman, but the worst he’ll probably do is scold you lightly and tell you to be on your way.

This is really one of those rules that you can break, once you feel comfortable doing so. Sure, it might be best not to exercise your human right to traverse the crosswalk freely when there are young children around if you fear the wrath of their parents, but you can always reason it away: most parents who are adamantly against crossing on red argue that it sets a bad example for their children. But really, blindly following the red or the green man sets a bad example as well, and can be downright dangerous if a car is speeding or goes through a red light after you’ve taken your first steps into the crosswalk. It is a far, far better thing to teach children to observe what’s going on around them, assess the situation, and then cross when all signs point to it being safe.

Of course, as with many rules that are meant to be broken, this one is also occasionally meant to be followed, and for good reason. Besides being yelled at by senior citizens, there’s nothing more embarrassing than having to jump out of the way to dodge a honking, oncoming car just after you blithely, ever so nonchalantly waltzed into the street on red.

… Not to begin every conversation with “Do you speak English?” when what you really mean is, “I’m sorry I don’t speak German.”

You may have felt it before: that slight twinge of embarrassment or shame when you’re in a foreign country, have to communicate with someone, and don’t yet know whether he or she will be able to communicate with you. The only thing to do is begin with “Do you speak English?” It’s a slippery, precarious slope: only a few more of those charming conversation starters and you’ll be on your way towards becoming one of those tourists.

Luckily, you live in a city where people are very likely to speak English—or at least enough English to get you what you want. But why not start by assuming this? Start by assuming that they are better in English than you probably are in German, and give them the benefit of the doubt. A perfect opening phrase to use, which will get you the same results as the dreaded “do you speak English?” but with far more respect implied, is the more polite, subtle, probing, “Can we speak English?” This does double duty, not only assuming that your speaking partner is already bilingual, but also handing over the proverbial reins: of course, it is implied that the conversation will continue in English, but it also suggests that the choice rests not with you, but with the person you are addressing.

What’s more, when you get to the point where you probably can speak enough German to conduct the conversation in that language, but perhaps do not feel quite as confident as you should, you can ask the question in German instead (“Können wir Englisch sprechen?”) and bask in the well-earned satisfaction of having your partner reply, “Aber Dein Deutsch ist viel besser als mein Englisch!” (“Your German is far better than my English!”)

… Not to make blanket statements about “Wessis” versus “Ossis” unless you really know what you’re talking about (in which case you’re probably an Ossi, no wait, a Wessi).

Not long ago, Germany was two countries; this you know for sure.  What you might not know, however, is that it kind of, sort of still is… at least in the minds of some Germans.

You may not really get it until you get to Berlin, and even then it can be somewhat hard to believe, but each year some newspaper (or at least your first German teacher, eager to make an impression on you) reports that an astonishingly high percentage of East Germans wish the Berlin Wall were still up. This may sound insane considering what the Ossis went through under ruthless dictatorship (by the way, don’t call it that in front of an Ossi unless you know them well), but it makes perfect sense considering what they’ve been through since. Instead of feeling like they’d reunited with a long last friend, the other half of their homeland, many Ossis (East Germans, taken from Ost for East) believe that their culture, their beliefs, and the entire history of their short-lived nation were taken over by a country that had become entirely foreign to them. Going back to a reunited Germany meant they were now in the world of the Wessi (from the German word West).

In fact, when the Wall fell, East Germans had so much catching up to do, it was almost inevitable they would fall behind. And fall behind they did, as statistics show that East German cities and towns continue to shrink, mostly as the result of the exact brain-drain the Soviets feared when they put up a wall in the first place: young people with means, education, or any small amount of talent still tend to leave East Germany for better prospects in the West. What they find when they get there, however, is a society that seems to be rigged against them, with very few former citizens of the DDR winning promotions and career advancements, let alone reaching the tops of their fields. (One notable exception, it should be said, is Chancellor Angela Merkel, although there are even those who would attribute her every misstep to her East German background.) A recent article in translation on Spiegel Online referred to this as “a different type of glass ceiling,” observing that, even a couple of decades after the Wall has come down, “at times, it feels as if East and West Germans are becoming more and more estranged.”

The only way to really understand what it’s like to be an Ossi is to talk to some former citizens of East Germany, and when you do, make no assumptions or authoritative statements, because you’ll realise pretty quickly how little you know. Many older Ossis still chuckle at what they went through and what they had to do to survive, while some still insist, as their desire to rebuild the Berlin Wall might suggest, that things were better back then. There’s no way to go back in time and find out what it was really like, and the number of people with vivid memories of East Germany will continue to dwindle over the next few decades. Honour their experiences by listening to them and accepting that, in the newly reunited German Republic, everything is not as it seems.

… To leave all those comments about Schwaben to the Germans.

Even if you’ve only been here for a week, you’ve probably already sensed that there’s a debate about gentrification raging right in your neighbourhood. That’s because, after years of seemingly paying a pittance for a palace, Berliners are starting to suffer from a drastic rise in rents for which they are probably, at some point, going to blame you. Yes, whether it’s fair or not, as a non-German new Berliner, you will likely be faced with the wrath of people who have been here for longer, either directly or indirectly. And it’s really not fun. Complaints about gentrification in which you become the culprit are a double-edged sword: you’re basically being told, in one fell swoop, that not only was the city better before you got here, it actually got worse because you decided to come. Whether you ignore these comments or feel terribly hurt by them, one thing is bound to make you feel better: the Schwaben have it worse.

Who are the Schwaben, you might ask? Some little-known tribe the Romans vanquished in the year 52 BC, on their way to tussle with the Gauls? Some 1970’s electronic band that came seeking fame and fortune and was summarily kicked out of the city because Berliners weren’t ready for techno yet? No, the Schwaben (Swabians) are alive and well, and they’ve taken over Berlin, as anyone who isn’t one of them would have you believe. They come from a region of the same name (Swabia in English) in southwest Germany that compromises the area of Baden-Württemburg and part of Bavaria, and is known as one of the richest parts of Germany. Like Bavarians, Swabians have their own culture, history, and cuisine, along with a dialect that can seem incomprehensible—even laughable—to Germans who aren’t from there. Over the years they’ve been the butt of many jokes and the victims of many an insult from the rest of the country, but perhaps none so cruel as the accusation that they are ruining Berlin.

True, many of the people who rushed in to buy up the city just after the Wall fell were very wealthy Germans from the south, and some of them were from Schwaben. Even today, with Prenzlauer Berg thoroughly gentrified and Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg well on their way, you’ll still see graffiti against the Schwaben defacing many a new storefront or recently renovated building. You’ll even hear someone drunkenly railing against them on public transport every once in a while. But really, regardless of whether the rumours are true, where is most of the antagonism coming from, and who is it helping? In fact, many of the people who grumble the loudest about the so-called Swabian takeover of Berlin originally come from richer, more prosperous areas of the country, lured here by the same things that brought everyone else. The sad truth of the matter is that many of Berlin’s original Berliners left these neighbourhoods long ago; people who survived an East German dictatorship only to be felled by capitalism in the end after all. Now those who replaced them back in the early ‘90s are complaining about the scourge of international wealth sweeping the city, pushing them out. It’s playing out in every popular city in the world, and will no doubt repeat yet again. But until Berliners find some way to break the cycle, they’ll still be one word for their ire: Schwaben.

… Not to make jokes about Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

In 1963, American President John F. Kennedy addressed thousands of West Berlin citizens in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg, on a square now called John-F-Kennedy-Platz. The aim was to send a clear message to the Soviets that Americans stood with West Germany and West Berlin, at that point still separated from the rest of the country and just as fearful as ever of a Russian takeover. The speech was a great moment for both the president and West Berliners, who needed all the encouragement they could get, and has gone down in history as one of Kennedy’s best, but most people have very little memory of what it was meant to convey. In fact, they remember one thing and one thing only: when Kennedy, in what was meant to be an expression of solidarity, uttered the immortal words “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he was actually making a horrible gaffe, as “ein Berliner” is not a person who lives in Berlin, but rather a type of jelly donut.

Comedians are still thanking him to this day. There’s no telling who reported the embarrassment first, but the media latched on to the story, turning it into something of a legend, a particularly hilarious bit of pop culture history that everyone knows, but still brings up as if they’re the first to mention it. The trouble is, John F. Kennedy’s phrase was not a mistranslation at all, and what’s more, would not have sounded particularly funny to Berliners anyway. That’s because what some Germans label a “Berliner” is actually called a “Pfannkuchen” in Berlin, and even a “Krapfen” in various other parts of the country. What’s more, due to an obscure bit of German grammar that allows the meaning of a sentence to change entirely, depending on the article used, what Kennedy said was exactly correct for someone who is not actually from Berlin, but wants to express solidarity with the Berliners. While “ich bin Berliner” literally means, “I am a person who comes from Berlin,” in the context of a presidential speech, “ich bin ein Berliner” could only be interpreted as “I am a jelly donut” by the most obtuse of Germans. What Kennedy actually meant to say was, “I am one with the people of Berlin,” so it’s a good thing that’s exactly how you would translate “ich bin ein Berliner.”

… To get out of town.

The comparison exists for a reason: Berlin is to Germany as New York is to the United States. Both seem to exist on separate dimensional planes, operating independently of their parent countries, bucking all national trends and clichés when it comes to defining them. True, Berlin is the capital of Germany, whereas New York is very happy not to be the capital of the US, but both still have a tendency to keep their distance, attracting newcomers with the lure of that otherness and then holding on tight for a lifetime. True, most Germans who move to Berlin have probably seen at least some of their country outside of the capital—at the very least, the area where they were born. It’s a good bet, however, that a percentage of Berlin’s international population hasn’t been farther than the S-Bahn can carry them.

Try to remedy this situation early on, since the longer you stay in Berlin the harder you may find it is to leave. Berlin is an island no more; no wall surrounds its western districts and there are no scowling East German guards at its borders. Getting out can be just as easy as getting on a regional train to Brandenburg, but you may want to venture even further, going as far north as Hamburg or as far south as Munich to remind yourself that there are other cities in Germany, and people who love them just as much as you love Berlin.

This you knew already to some extent of course, but what you may not have realised is how truly rich and varied German culture is. It’s easy enough to lump all Germans together, telling yourself there’s Berlin and then there’s… the rest of Germany. But actually, there’s Berlin and Leipzig and Munich and Hamburg and Cologne and Frankfurt and Stuttgart and Dusseldorf and Bremen and Freiburg and and and….  What’s more, since modern Germany is actually a fairly new concept and a fairly young country (about 150 years old, dating from the formation of the First German Reich in 1871, which shrank considerably after World War II), its different regions, which used to be kingdoms of their own, still display wonderful variations in terms of culture, religion, language, and shared history. When most people think of Germany, they think of beer, and Lederhosen, and women who look like milkmaids skipping through flower-covered fields surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This can all be found in Bavaria, in that part of southern Germany that shares the Alps with Austria and Switzerland. Somehow, the powers that be got together and decided it was better for Germany to have an image that involved alcoholic beverages, beautiful scenery, and blond busty women in old fashioned clothing than grey skies, dark winters, and the socio-economic inequality left behind by about forty years of dictatorship.

Go figure. Or better yet, go see what the rest of the country has to offer, and come back with an entirely new concept of what it means to be German (if you can figure it out… most of the country is still trying).

… To do your shopping well in advance of a big holiday.

If you plan on throwing a party for New Year’s Eve, you’d do best to make a list of everything you need on the 29th and go shopping on the 30th. If you have to work on the 30th or are otherwise engaged with post-Christmas celebrations, make the most of December 31st: wake up painfully early and march to your nearest grocery store. Better yet, be ready to visit five of them. December 31st isn’t just the day before a big holiday in Germany, you see, it is actually more like the day before the apocalypse. By this time you should be at home, basking in the warmth of the fire (or at least that particular feeling of smugness you get from being prepared). If you’re unlucky enough to be out in this particular post-apocalyptic frenzy, however, prepare yourself: you’ll need emotional strength as well as physical stamina to brave long lines and not just empty but dusty supermarket shelves.

Best to plan early. Or better yet, outsource the work: dig out that dusty bottle of Sekt from last year, back when you learned your lesson by throwing a part of your own, and head to someone else’s house for a Silvester celebration that is all the more enjoyable because it isn’t yours.

… To experience May Day in Kreuzberg once, and only once.

You’ve heard it before, and you’ve come to believe it through multiple trips to the Bürgeramt, Finanzamt, or Ausländerbehörde. Germans are orderly. They are very proper and orderly. They are so perfectly orderly, in fact, they tend to obey completely inane rules that would make the rest of the world’s inhabitants scratch their heads in confusion or double over in mirth (like only crossing the street when the light turns green for them, for example).

But there are a couple of days a year when Germans prove this is all for show, letting loose in a manner so uncontrolled and truly frightening, it would make the rest of the world’s inhabitants run and hide. One of these occasions is Silvester, the New Year’s Eve celebration at which everyone under the age of–oh never mind, just everyone—buys firecrackers and fireworks and begins to set them off in the middle of the city, no matter how many people with a heart condition might be walking by at that exact moment.

May Day is another one of these celebrations. May 1st is based on ancient rituals celebrating the traditional beginning of spring (although by this point spring has been around for more than a month). In combination with Walpurgisnacht or the Night of the Witches on April 30th, this holiday has become a chance for many Germans to frolic outdoors, get quite drunk, and light bonfires. As a national holiday, it is also the perfect opportunity for political groups to campaign for worker’s rights, leading to a number of rallies that, depending on the tone of the evening, can quickly descend into riots. In some parts of the city, activities can reach a dangerous fever pitch, leading to broken glass, cars set on fire, and clashes between civilians and police, who usually come prepared, dressing in full riot gear for the occasion (which of course serves more to provoke than protect).

In an attempt to combat this violent streak, Kreuzberg has instituted the MyFest, a day-long street festival with food and drink, DJs and live music, and dancing and partying alongside the scheduled protests and demonstrations of just about every left wing organisation in town. The area around Mariannenplatz and Bethaniendamm in Kreuzberg can become the rowdiest or the most exciting depending on how you look at it, while Oranienstrasse and the streets running parallel fill up with revellers, making it hard to make your way outside if you live in the neighbourhood, and even harder to resist joining in.

Join in or don’t join in; it’s entirely up to you. But you should probably experience this festival at least once, just to see what all the fuss is about. Then, in years to come, when you’d rather go out of town for the weekend or have a much more civilized picnic on the banks of the Spree, at least you’ll be able to speak from a position of authority: you’ll know what you’re missing. Just don’t go by car.

… That Schönefeld Airport is in the C zone.

Not long ago, there was a mythical time when Schönefeld Airport was considered to be “quite close” to the centre of the city. Then all that changed, and suddenly Schönefeld was “a bit far,” although it hadn’t actually moved position while the city of Berlin slept. No, something far more insidious had taken place, and seemingly overnight: the city of Berlin had adjusted the boundaries of the A and B zones so that Schönefeld suddenly lay outside of them. Schönefeld was now in the C zone, and there was nothing anyone could do about it except reach across the great divide, previously only crossed on daytrips to Potsdam, and pay a few cents extra to buy an ABC zone ticket.

While this may not have been a big issue for most Berliners, it became a very big deal to unsuspecting tourists, who had no idea which ticket they needed to buy for which zones, and the ticket controllers who love them. In fact, ticket checkers had such a ball with this one, they would wait on empty trains sitting at the Schönefeld Airport terminus, looking like normal passengers having a chat as the cars filled up with tourists towing wheeled suitcases. The moment the train doors closed, however, the two would be quick on their feet, jumping up and shouting “Fahrscheinkontrolle,” which most of the train didn’t understand anyway, and proceeding to fine anyone who had failed to notice that Schönefeld Airport had hopped the B/C zone border.

Perhaps you’ve already been one of these people, either as a tourist coming to Berlin for the first time or as a relatively new Berliner, just back from a weekend trip to somewhere warmer in Europe. As the S-Bahn train coasted into town, and you breathed the sweet air of Berlin’s southwest industrial districts, you were suddenly snapped out of your reverie with quite the rude awakening, given the harsh welcome Berlin’s transit officials apparently decided you needed. “All right, Berlin,” you thought, as you slipped back into semi-consciousness, clutching your reprimand in the form of a 40 Euro pay slip made out to the BVG. “You win this one, but not without a fight.”

… To stick around for a whole winter, or risk the wrath of your friends.

You may have heard it gets cold here… pretty damn cold. You may not have realised, however, that the cold is only half the problem. When you’re waking up for work in the morning and it’s still dark outside, or you’re coming home at night and it’s already dark again, all you’ll long for is a little hopeful ray of sunshine through your office window, or a glimpse of brightness on your weekends. In times like these, it can be tempting to go back whence you came, or at least to hightail it to warmer climes like southern Spain or, you know, Australia.

Think of your friends when you do this, though. Not really because they will miss you terribly and bemoan your absence at numerous Christmas and New Year’s parties, but rather because they are almost guaranteed to hate you upon your return. You see, summer is when all the wimps, the hangers-on, and the takers come to Berlin to enjoy the city at the expense of its year-round inhabitants. They lounge on the grass in parks they’ve never seen snow-covered, don’t even bother to bring a pair of shoes that aren’t sandals, hardly own an article of clothing warm enough to be considered a jacket. And why should they? They’re planning on leaving by the end of August anyway, or maybe, just maybe, sticking around until summer’s last gasp, Germany’s Tag der Deutschen Einheit (Day of Germany Unity) on October 3rd.

In our minds—at least, those of us who do manage to stick around until we’re slip-sliding away down ice-covered streets—these people are actually hurting us with their ignorance. They don’t know how much pain the city gives us in winter, so how can they possibly share our deep appreciation of it in summer? For that matter, if they think it’s is so painful here in winter (because we keep telling them so), they’ll never stick around long enough to discover the city’s small, cold weather joys, like sipping Glühwein (mulled wine) with friends while walking around Berlin’s many glorious Christmas markets, or the thrill of sledding down one of its little-known hills (they do exist), or the satisfaction of actually getting all your friends to leave their homes and come out and meet you for brunch on a wintery morning, or the way the city explodes in colour and light on Silvester.

Sure, the word Gemütlichkeit (a cheerful feeling of warmth and coziness) seems better suited to the jovial Germans in the south who have all but co-opted it, and is rarely used north of the Rhine except in jest. Yet something about it seems to fit the spirit of Berlin’s winter months perfectly: a time to surround yourself with treasured friends instead of mere acquaintances, to throw fashion sense out the window in favour of cozying up with blankets, scarves, hot water bottles, and lots of fuzzy sweaters, and to find those small moments of peace and calm that only come to you in winter, when you’re not chasing after every outdoor party or park barbecue, when you’re not feeling the pressure to be outside or else, when you don’t have to make excuses to stay home curled up with a good book or watching a movie.

Berlin in winter will really give you reason to examine yourself in a way that flying off to Mexico or South America won’t, and your fellow Berliners will respect you more for being hardy enough to suffer alongside them. Then, when the spring comes, and you have your first sunny day in months, you’ll be able to enjoy it freely and openly in the knowledge that you earned it.

[EDIT: this competition is now closed. Click here to see if we’re running any open competitions]


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Do you have anything to add? What is one thing that true Berliners know?

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The GIF Illustrated Guide to Writing about Berlin

by James Glazebrook

Inspired by Stuart Maconie’s excellent article “How to write about the north”, here are some pointers for journalists with their sights set on Berlin.

First: remember that “the real Berlin” is what you make it. Your New York Times article is only going to be read by expat hipsters and friends back home living vicariously through them, and neither group would know how to pronounce “das echte Berlin”, let alone where to find it. Get in touch with that friend-of-a-friend who moved here last year, ask them to show you around “their Berlin” (the square mile around their apartment), and then start drawing conclusions. Try to include as many of the following ideas as you can:

“Poor but sexy”
This soundbite has been keeping journalists in copy for nearly a decade, and shows no sign of losing popularity. It’s a neat shorthand for everything you’re going to write, about a city full of creative people seeking refuge from the rising rents of East London, Williamsburg, or wherever they should really be living – a place so international that its (gay!) mayor threw an English word into its unofficial slogan. If you want to sound really authentic, use the German “arm, aber Sexy”, or, if you’re penning a particularly visionary piece, flip it on its head: “Berlin is still sexy… but not so poor!” [insert image of George Clooney stepping out of the Hotel Adlon]

Mention the war
Whatever you write will reach five times as many readers if it has either the word “Hitler” or “Nazis” in the title. As far as you and your audience are concerned, German history starts in 1933 and ends in 1945 – and everything that’s happened since can be traced back to then. If you’re writing about Hitler’s toilet, his Nazi brides or some other “new” “important” discovery, then lucky for you: guaranteed hits. If not, you’ll still probably want to mention whether Berliners do or don’t deal with their “dark past”, note your surprise that the city now welcomes people from all over the world, or concentrate on the city’s outer districts, where neo-Nazis still “run rampant”. As a rule of thumb, you can’t use the N-word enough.

Life’s a Cabaret
Amateur historians will want to reach further back into Berlin’s past, to the hedonistic years of the Weimar Republic. It’s fun to draw parallels between the nightlife of the 20s and 30s and today’s weekend-long parties, and, as long as you have a DVD of Cabaret (research), a sockful of class As and a spare 72 hours, it’s easy too. Depending on whether you’re pitching to The Mail or The Guardian, you’ll want to portray the modern-day Isherwoods you meet as either “lost” or “liberated” – or, if you’re on a particularly bad one (busted, Sunday Times), as mindlessly fucking their way into the gaping mouth of Hell.

Forever blowing bubbles
Tech journalists: ignore what we’ve previously written and turn the crank on the Berlin startup hype machine. Before you land at TXL, you should have already decided whether the German capital is Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley, or just a tech bubble full of hipsters (hardly) working on innovative ideas that are doomed to fail. Your headline should be something like “Forget ___ – ___ is Europe’s hottest tech hub”, with one of the blanks reading “Berlin” and the other “London”, “Paris”, “Tel Aviv”, or wherever you would like the expense account to take you next. Oh, and mention SoundCloud.

Kreuzberg and Neukölln are over
Unfold the map from the middle of your Rough Guide, take out a pen, and draw concentric circles of “over” emanating from the TV Tower. Forget all the places where all the people you know live – the very fact that you know someone with an apartment there means that the district is now too bourgeois to bother with. Mitte might as well be Frankfurt, Kreuzberg and Neukölln are long gone (especially that “Kreuzkölln” your editor told you about) and even outlying areas like Wedding are well on their way. Look a little further afield and you might be able to find an expat artist squatting in Lichtenburg to use as evidence of the district’s “renaissance”.

BERLIN is SO over
Feeling bold? Forget Berlin altogether, and visit either Leipzig (the next Berlin) or Dresden (the next Leipzig). Or, if you want to really stir shit up, dismiss both “Hypezig” and “Dregsden” (“Doucheden”? You might have to come up with your own…) and simply pick any city from the former Eastern Bloc to nominate as Europe’s next “capital of cool”. Why not find out if you can get a decent flat white in Zwickau?

Have we forgotten anything? Leave your tips for journalists thinking of covering Berlin in the comments below!