When you fly in to Berlin, the first thing that strikes you is that there’s lots of water – lakes with marinas and beaches, rivers and canals with boats. As you get closer, you realise that there’s lots of greenery everywhere. Even at the airport, travellers took advantage of the unkempt green spaces, and were lying on the grass leaning on their backpacks, waiting for boarding time. Each time you take the fabulous public transport, U-bahn or S-bahn, you pass huge swathes of green areas, lots of it very beautifully unkempt. On every side, you see Schrebergartene or allotments, so called after Moritz Schreber, who founded allotments originally to improve childrens health at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid urbanisation that followed, which became areas of food production for the poor. Berliners take great pride in their gardens, and make miniature summer houses out of recycled material or use hedging and trees to make interesting spaces. Green areas are often unmanicured and are valued hugely. They are utilised all the time by everyone, especially families. Is it my imagination or are there tons of children and pregnant women in Berlin? It’s cheap by European standards, and the city itself doesn’t have much money to spend on development, so for the moment, there’s a nice comfy rundown feel to much of it, which encourages families and newcomers.

The city itself is divided into neighbourhoods, which feel like villages; each has it’s own flavour, it’s own art or graffiti, it’s own immigrant shops. I’m living in Neukoelln, which is on the way up to become the next Cool Place. A couple of years ago, it was Kreuzberg which was cheap and full of artists and immigrants; now that’s become so hip it’s difficult to find an inexpensive houseshare. My corner of Neukoelln is as quiet as living in the country, though the main street a few minutes away is a collection of cheap eateries (Turkish, Vietnamese, Italian) bargain shops and cheesy hairdressers. I share with two bearded artists who have the typical Berlin look – no hips whatever and a mop of curls in a sort of 1980’s style. They smoke rollies, listen to cool music, collect interesting bric-a-brac, spend most of their time out working or socialising. They have just announced that I can stay until Christmas, subletting the room, which is welcome news, as finding another place would be a tremendous drag just at the beginning of college life. Even though it takes me up to an hour, depending on traffic, to get to the University for classes, it’s worth living in Neukoelln. The university is reminiscent of Belfield, a new concrete building in a “nice” area, but with none of the rough edges of the real city. Actually, truth be told, travelling on U-bahn, S-bahn, tram and bus is a trip in itself, with both scenery and characters there to entertain you. It’s so efficient, so regular, so reliable that getting lost is almost a pleasure.

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