As a Fulbright Exchange teacher, I learned that I had to be flexible in teaching and in living abroad and was no stranger to Germany, but the 1994-95 year found me living as a single parent in a high rise apartment in the former East Berlin while my husband worked and maintained our house at home. It was not long after the fall of the Wall (1989) and the Reunification of Germany (1990). Still, we left living in a suburb in Upstate New York with a surrounding population of about 220,00 to moving to the large city and capital of Germany with about 3.4 million inhabitants.
New challenges awaited. We relied solely on public transportation since parking spaces were at a premium and my two children had different schedules with one in second and the other in fifth grade. My teaching schedule changed daily. Our apartment was small compared to our house at home and the refrigerator was the size of small dorm refrigerators. We experienced early on that our favorite ice cream bars were half thawed by the time we got to the apartment, and the freezer of the refrigerator did not keep them frozen. So we resorted to eating them over plates since they immediately came off the stick with the first bite.
Our favorite supermarket at home, Wegmans, was open 24/7. We discovered that stores closed most weekdays at 6 PM in Berlin with Thursdays closing at 8 PM. Most Saturdays, the stores closed mid-afternoon and most all were closed Sundays. There was a joke that we could always buy cake and flowers on Sunday for a few hours so we could take them on visits to friends.
One of the first necessary purchases to transport groceries was a covered cart on wheels which I quite often had to bump up and down trolley and subway stairs with the children helping me at times. Additionally small cloth bags were available for purchase. Some supermarkets allowed me to select my own fresh produce and then weigh them and put the price on the bag. But, more often than not, I simply had to pick up a package and purchase all of it when I didn’t really need or want it. Because of the small size of our refrigerator, we had to shop daily or face eating in restaurants.
We had to pay for our shopping cart much like at Aldi’s. But to steer the cart forward, I discovered I had to angle it slightly; otherwise, I was constantly steering into the shelves or other shoppers. And turning it took practice as well since it tended to lunge and lurch madly in either direction. And shoppers had to not only place their groceries on the checkout conveyor belt like at home, we were also expected to retrieve them and replace into our shopping cart at the end of the belt. It was as if we were running a marathon because the cashier had a long divider stick on the conveyor belt so she could start the next customer even before I had a chance to finish replacing the items aka throwing them wildly back into the shopping cart including cartons of eggs. I would then run madly back to the cashier while the children helped replace the shopping items in the cart. After paying for the groceries, I did not receive the customary thank you and have a nice day. No, the cashier was focused on the next customer. So I put on a large smile and thanked them and wished them a nice day and startled many in the process. Stores provided other places for shoppers to then fill their own carts on wheels or cloth bags for the trip home.
We could not purchase two liter plastic bottles of soda, water or juice. Everything during that year was in bottles which had to be returned again. Of course, glass is much heavier than plastic. Having run low on our milk, juice and water, we had about one dozen heavy one quart glass bottles in the shopping bag one day. When we arrived to the high rise, we discovered the elevator was out of order. Left with nothing else to do, we had to make several trips up and down the ten flights of stairs until I could finally manage the red shopping cart alone. That night I awoke to severe leg cramps from all the stairs. That’s a story my children recall to this day. We don’t mind visiting a large city but do not like living in one.
Eating out in restaurants was fortunately less expensive than at home so we frequently ate at one nearby. We also grew accustomed to drinking all our beverages at room temperature or at least slightly chilled since serving with ice cubes was not the norm in Germany. We were happy to return to ice cubes in our water back at home. Our lives were forever changed from this experience of living in East Berlin, attending schools there and teaching there.