Friday, November 30, 2007


Earlier this month, I visited a friend in Prenzlauer Berg for dinner. As I approached the apartment, a rat scuttled across the pavement.

Now, many of you probably aren't surprised by that; after all, Berlin is a big city, a dirty city, and that's just where you find rats. But one of the most surprising things about Berlin is simply its lack of rats. Even in the most wretched apartments here, or at least the ones I've been to, you just don't find them. The city is extra-diligent about cracking down on them, and on places where they could breed, and as a result, you're far more likely to see a marten or a weasel (especially in cold weather) than a rat.

But, as you might guess from the way my luck runs, I've had experience with them. My last apartment, which I moved into a little over twelve years ago, was a nightmare. I took it over from a guy I knew whose wife had gotten a job in Hong Kong, and it was a huge, ground-floor place in a particularly depressing part of Wedding. It was in the back, not on the street, but it was just exactly what I didn't want: two coal ovens, for one thing, each of which burned a different kind of coal, which, because the neighbors had destroyed the coal-cellar assigned to the apartment, I had to haul around 35kg of coal into just about every day. For another thing, there was nothing of interest in the neighborhood, or, as I discovered, for many, many blocks around. None of my friends wanted to go up there, but at least it was close to the U-Bahn.

Now, in the street-front was a shop which looked like it had been closed for a long time, given the dust on the windows, with a sign behind the grating indicating that it sold espresso machines wholesale. As the bitter winter, one of the coldest on record, faded into spring, there was activity there. Out went the espresso machines, and in went a bunch of burly guys, cleaning the place up. Soon, a sign appeared, saying that an Italian ice cream place would be opening. Certainly nothing too exciting about that; those places are omnipresent here, and, since I don't eat ice cream, I don't know if any of them are any good, although I suspect not many are. Finally the place opened, with a sign saying the ice cream was made on the premises, which I found surprising, since the shop was incredibly tiny and I couldn't see where they made it, not even when the back door, which opened onto my and my neighbors' living space, was open.

One problem that I had was that I was subletting this place illegally. I believe all sublets in Berlin are illegal, but some landlords are cooler with it than others. I was told that this place was owned by two sweet old ladies, one of whom had briefly taken English lessons from the guy who'd sublet it to me. At any rate, I never saw them. I paid rent to the guy I'd sublet from and he paid the landladies. My address was c/o him, as it had been at my previous sublets, and I never had any trouble getting my mail until one day we got a new postman. He was an ageing hippie, from the looks of him, John Lennon wire-framed glasses and a greying pony-tail. But looks can be deceptive. "I can't deliver mail to you because your name isn't on the post box," he said. I told him that the name of the guy whose apartment it was was on the box, and that should clue him which box to put it in. "No," he said, "you have to have your name on the box or I won't deliver it." I'd been warned not to do this, but it looked like I didn't have any choice. So I wrote my name on a label and pasted it onto the box.

The days got warmer. Finally, in July, it got downright hot. A friend came to visit and when he got in the apartment he said "Man, those are some mellow rats out there. They didn't even budge when I came walking by." I looked out the window, and sure enough, there were a few grey lumps in the lawn. When he left, I watched him go, and he stamped his foot. The rats scurried a bit, then settled down after he was gone. This didn't look good. That night, as I left for work, I noticed that there were a bunch of empty cans out back of the ice cream joint. The labels indicated they'd contained peaches in heavy syrup. No doubt that's what had attracted the rats. The ice cream guys couldn't be bothered to walk a few steps to the garbage cans and throw them in.

I got off work at about 11, and I'd go to Zoo Station to catch the subway back up to Wedding, and it was there, among some of the most unsavory residents of Berlin, that I noticed more rats. They were between the tracks, the same color as the pebbles, but unlike the pebbles, they moved. They'd run for the sides when trains approached, then come back out again, scavenging for who knows what. I guess I just hadn't noticed before.

It started to cool off again, following the usual pattern of warm days but increasingly sharp nights. I was sitting, reading, one night when I heard a sound from the kitchen: eeeep eeeep. From my time on the Lower East Side in New York, I recognized that immediately. When I checked, I found a couple of turds. They were big enough that I knew the animal I was dealing with, and it wasn't a mouse. I went to a hardware store the next day and bought a rat trap and baited it with peanut butter. Don't mess around with cheese; go for the stuff they really like. That night I was awakened by a snap, some high shrieking, some rhythmic flopping, and then silence. I fell back to sleep.

The next morning, there was, as I'd expected, a large, dead rat in the middle of the kitchen floor. I picked it up and went outside to the garbage bins, which were overflowing with empty cans left by the ice cream guys. As I deposited the rat, there was the sound of scuffling inside the bins. I bought another couple of traps. It was getting colder. The ice cream guys would be closing down. They'd want in, somewhere.

A few days later, the doorbell rang. It was the hippie postman. In his hand was a bill from the electric company. "I'm not going to deliver this," he said. "You shouldn't be here." And with that he walked off. Now what?

I bagged a few more rats. This was getting unpleasant.

Soon, a letter, registered mail, arrived for the guy I was subletting from. The word "Hausverwaltung" was in the return address. It was wrong, but I suspected I should take a look at it. After all, he was in Hong Kong. And it was what I'd feared: the bill the postman had refused to deliver had been sent back to the electric company as undeliverable. They, in turn, had alerted the landlady that Herr Ward had apparently skipped town. The landlady checked her records and saw there was no Herr Ward on her books. She checked the mailboxes and saw my label on the box. She terminated the lease.

I faxed Hong Kong. The guy filpped out. He told me to get out immediately and cursed me for losing him his big, cheap Berlin apartment. He announced he'd be back in a couple of weeks to close the apartment down. I had to be out by then.

I was hardly heartbroken, but the timing could have been better. I had a lot of work to do, and this was just complicating things. Still, it was time to look for a new place. And there were the rats.

In late September, the ice cream shop closed for the season. The cans were no longer being tossed out the back door, or in the garbage bin. I headed to Zoo Station at 8 one Saturday night to catch the first batch of Berliner Morgenposts to check the apartment listings. There weren't many, but there was one from a woman in Mitte who needed someone to take over her lease. I wasn't sure I wanted to live in the east, but things were, it's true, cheaper over there. I called the next morning. It turned out that not only was she a journalist, not only did she speak English, but she recognized my name from the magazine. I looked the place over. It was fine. We set a date to meet with the landlord.

The furious guy from Hong Kong was still due, and the woman in Mitte was having trouble moving out. I moved some of my stuff in, and left some in Wedding. A friend had rented a place in Neukölln that he'd partially furnished but couldn't yet move into, for some reason. He let me have it for a couple of days, just to sleep in, while things shook out. I'd go to Wedding, pack some, call a cab, and move it to Mitte. Finally the day came when a friend rented a truck to take everything, and I woke up early, and went to the apartment to start getting things together for the big move. When I got there, there was excitement in the courtyard. One of the garbage bins was on fire, and the neighbors had a bucket brigade going. I reflexively looked to see if I could help, but it appeared things were going well, so I went inside.

About twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see an old woman leaning on a cane, and a well-dressed younger man with her. The woman started shouting. "You started that fire! I'm calling the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei] and having you charged with arson!" And who, I asked the man, are you? "I'm her lawyer." Do you speak English? "Yes." Does she? "No." Good, let's speak English. I hope you're being well-paid for this. "Not nearly enough," he sighed. I told him I'd been asleep in Neukölln when the fire had started and only wanted to pack my stuff and leave that place for good. The guy who had the lease had missed his plane in Bombay, I think it was, and would now be a few days late, but she could deal with him when he got here. "You'll really be gone this afternoon?" the lawyer asked. I promised him that as soon as he got the old bat out of my presence, I'd go back to packing and they'd never see me again. "Have a nice day," he said, and steered her towards the courtyard.

So that's how I found the place I'm leaving now. People are always surprised when I tell them that this -- rats, coal heating, being informed on by my postman -- happened in West Berlin instead of East Berlin, but someone recently theorized that the postman could well have been ex-Stasi, given a job where he could do no harm. Possibly. Another friend who'd been studying law and had dropped out to work in the Post Office later told me that the postman had broken something like eight federal laws. No doubt.

I hope there aren't any rats in my next place. With four, three, or two legs.


Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Rats. Nasty things. I've seen some scuttling along the Spandauer Straße late at night, and otherwise there were a load of rabbits hopping along Am Zwirngraben the other day; but vermin in the city is not Berlin's main thing, is it? Unlike London.

After reading that story, no wonder you find moving complicated... Anyway, the usual trick is to write "Post für E. Ward (etc.)" and stick that on the letterbox; it doesn't prove you live there, but the post should arrive. Your old postman there sounds like he was right up himself in any case.

And subletting is fine (and perfectly legal) - the proviso is that the tenant actually informs the landlord (the tenant has to 'ask' first, but the landlord isn't actually able to turn it down anyway) and tells them the name and particulars of the person who will be living there. If it's a 1-room-flat the tenant must have a reason (going abroad to work/study for up to 18 months or so), otherwise, the tenant should just request their right to sub-let less than the whole flat (1 room of 2, 2 rooms of 3 etc.). Easy (once they've agreed). And then, of course, your name can go on the letterbox/entryphone etc. as well (alongside the other tenant's name). So you weren't in the wrong, just the man you were subletting from.

I'm sure you'll be able to sleep more easily now... How's the flatsearching going? (And is your landlady looking for a Nachmieter, incidentally?)

Arabella said...

That's downright depressing!
I wish you a new neighbourhood filled with sunshine, with a postman who resembles Santa (insert image of your choice if you get a postwoman). Oh, and a home free of furry things apart from fluffy kittens.

Anonymous said...

Aaah, the delights of being a sub-letter. What's not "legal" is if the tenant demands a higher rent from the sub-letter (i.e. making a profit off the deal); and there are some landlords who will do their damndest to make everyone's life a pain anyway.


Anonymous said...

Those pebbles that move are mice, very fast and probably quite cute (too fast to tell), but I do have to admit they always elicit an "eep" from me. I look around to see if anyone else has noticed; never happens. Am I the only one in Berlin that stares contemplatively at the trash on U/S-Bahn tracks?

Berlin's extremely large and aggressive rats, on the other hand, scare the shit out of me. At my current place in Kreuzberg, for example, the very first time I lobbed trash into the dumpster, there was a very complacent rat looking at me just like "hmm, what have you brought me this time?" Since then I always avert my eyes when opening that dumpster door. Also, what about the construction site on the corner of Torstr. & Schönhauser Allee, that had rats the whole time I was living in PZLberg, as far as I can tell. Uggh.

Anonymous said...

"a snap, some high shrieking, some rhythmic flopping, and then silence" - sound like my love life

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

What's not "legal" is if the tenant demands a higher rent from the sub-letter

Surely, MP, that can be done (ok, it is plainly done all over the city, but I'm sure it's allowed). Sub-let rooms/flats are, as a rule, möbliert, so there's no Mietspiegel, no legal price, and all that furniture, the electricity, the gas, the phone line rental, the generous-sounding (emphasis on the *sounding*) "Telefonflatrate für zusätzlich 15 €/Monat" all costs money, and can flow into the sub-let price as agreed in anyway both parties decide to do.

Die Miete, die die Untermieter/innen an die
Hauptmieter/innen für den von ihnen genutzten
Teil der Wohnung zu zahlen haben, kann frei
vereinbart werden. Sie sollte jedoch in einem
angemessenen anteiligen Verhältnis zu der Miete
stehen, die für die gesamte Wohnung zu entrichten
ist. Wer bei der Höhe der verlangten
Untermiete die Wesentlichkeitsgrenze des § 5
Wirtschaftsstrafgesetz überschreitet (d.h. mehr
als 20% über der ortsüblichen Vergleichsmiete),
muss sich gegebenenfalls wegen Mietpreisüberhöhung

So: never mind "buy to let" as in the UK, in Berlin it's all "find a very cheap flat, rent it to let part of it again at up to 20% above the 'standard rent level', and rake in the money". There's probably a series on how to do it best on RTL2. Hang on, even RTL2 isn't as bad as some BBC programmes.

Anonymous said...

OK, what I was thinking of were cases where e.g. someone has an apartment at a bargain rent (typically an "inherited" lease) then rents it out at market prices with a far greater margin than 20%. Was a common problem during the 90s with East Berlin apartments at the special East prices being rented out at market prices, and I can imagine it happening now with people coming in used to e.g. London prices.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

You can still do it - should you so wish - if it's furnished (the room, or the entire flat).

London prices - indeed. Or Munich ones. I saw an advert in the copy shop the other day for someone looking for a "cheap room or 1-1.5 room flat". She elaborated on what "cheap" was - "400 Euro".

Madness. For one room. Plus bills. I know it's going to be difficult when I have to move.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Whereever you move, you're right to only consider somewhere with a gas cooker. I'm glad I'm not the only one to abhor electric. There are gas-powered tumble dryers on the market, but I don't need one. If you could still get gas lighting, I'd probably go for it. Cos I live on the edge. And was brought up with some scary Public Service Information Films (ask any Brit what they are) which involved a couple smelling gas in their house and one of them going to turn on the lightswitch, and someone else screaming "DON'T!" at them (accompanied by scary music). And don't even mention wearing plastic wellingtons on an escalator.