Berlin is known for its fantastic public transportation system: U-bahns, S-bahns, trams, buses, and even ferries get you where you need to be 24/7. And you don't have to pay for any of it. The whole thing works as an infrequently controlled honor-system. You either buy a ticket or you don't, and then you get on the train/bus. There are "controllers" who check the trains at random and collect tickets. If they catch you without a ticket, they ask for your ID and then they send a notice to the BVG office informing them that you owe a fine. It's between 50 and 75 euros, based on whether you have a ticket or if it is the wrong ticket.
I lived in Berlin for two years and I was only controlled about ten times. I was controlled twice with the wrong ticket (both times I accidentally bought a child's ticket). In the first instance, I argued with the men on the platform, got sick of speaking to them, and walked away leaving them with my ID. They called after me saying that they had it and I said they could keep it. They gave it back to me and said, "Schäm dich!" The second time I was controlled, I used the printed bill as my "Tages Karte" and never saw the actual bill in the mail.
This is what most of the unemployed, hipster artists in Berlin get. It is essentially a visa granted to you based on promises and rules that you either abide by or don't. What you need to get this visa is a bank statement saying you have enough money to support yourself for the amount of time you want to stay in Germany; at least three signed documents from potential employers / clients; proof that you are insured; and a letter of recommendation. I applied to be a Freelance Writer / English Teacher. I brought two bank statements: the first was my American bank account; and the second was my German bank account after I transferred all the money from my American account to it. I brought them a letter of recommendation from my au pair family and three letters of intent from German families who wanted to hire me as a babysitter but kindly wrote that they wanted to hire me to teach their children English. One woman wrote that I would also bring the kids to bed and help with meals, and the official said, "Nicht als Babysitterin. Nur als Englischlehrerin." I just nodded in agreement and kept my job as babysitter.
I also showed them unsigned letters from editors who had published my work, all of which were in English and could have easily been forged. Finally, I had a letter of approval from a German insurance company saying they would insure me as soon as I got my visa. In the Zwischenzeit, I had a crappy international plan that cost 30 euros a month and wouldn't do anything more than call my parents and advice them on how to ship my body back to the US if I was killed. I got the visa and stopped paying for the insurance.
The war ended a long time ago but it doesn't always seem like that in Berlin. There are still plenty of abandoned factories and buildings, just a bus ride away from the center. It is illegal to even go into these buildings, but people do it all the time. A few times a year, people throw parties in them. Take the U8 to Heinrich-Heine Str. and walk down Köpenickerstraße 41. You'll find the old Berliner Eisfabrik. I went to two parties in that building. The first was a small birthday party with about thirty people, and the second was a huge deal with a hundred people and a DJ. The cops broke the whole thing up in less than two hours. I've never been there in the day, but at night, you need a headlamp to climb through the yard, into the cement factory, and up the failing staircase to the roof. There is a great view of the Spree and the bars and clubs below. Be careful, there are broken bottles everywhere, and holes dug out for fire pits.
There are a lot of poor travelers, refugees, and unemployed Berliners on the streets and in the U-bahns begging for money. Most of them walk around with a backpack full of newspapers for sale for 25-50 cents. They stand in the aisle of the U or S-bahn, recite their story, and ask for money. Then, they walk up and down the aisles collecting until the train stops. Musicians get on with either a full band, one instrument, or just their voices, and they perform until the train stops. These guys are the worst and the best, but either way, it is impossible to get them to stop playing. No matter how early it is or how hung over you are. This happens on the streets as well. People are surprisingly generous and the cops in Germany are pretty lenient.
A quick tip: if you're a good musician looking to make some real money, go to Kurfurstendamm, the main shopping street in Berlin, and play there. Most of the beggars and buskers are in the center, so people are less annoyed and more pleasantly surprised to see you. Plus, tourists are very generous when the music is good and the street is clean and posh.
You can find some pretty great stuff in the garbage in Berlin. People throw away tons of food, even store bought, packaged food. They also throw away everyday household items, some never used, some gently used, and some destroyed. You can find furniture and clothes next to donation boxes all over the city. Some people like breaking into the donation boxes because they disagree with their politics. The biggest complaint is that the clothes are dropped in the box freely and then sold in hipster-high-fashion second hand stores in Berlin for pretty steep prices. The donation boxes are locked, but sometimes you'll find them already open. In that case, most of the good stuff will already be gone.
There are also open kitchens that pop up for one or two nights around the city offering 2 euro dinners, which are usually gathered from dumpster diving. They're pretty incredible, though. The last meal I had was a pasta dish with vegetables and Parmesan cheese, fresh bread, and a tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad. These are hard to find online; best to inquire at your local project house.
A lot of run down, empty buildings have been turned into Project Houses. These buildings can house up to 60 people, all from different countries and backgrounds but all dead broke and wild in Berlin. I spoke to one girl living in a project house and she said new members stay for a preliminary period of six months before officially being accepted into the house. Rent was 100 euros a month and she had a room the size of a closet, but it was her own room. Members also helped out in the bar and shared the profits. She said there could be a lot of drama in the house and it was best to be kind to everyone but keep a pretty low profile.
If you don't necessarily want to live in a project house, you can just party in one. A lot of the houses have bars, clubs, or family-style restaurants in the ground floor. They throw impromptu parties that are incredibly cheap and usually raise money for a good cause. One of the parties we went to cost 2 euro entrance and served 1 euro beers all night. It was great until the speakers died at 5 AM and the DJ had to stop playing. But that could happen in a club, too, I guess.
Kristyn Bacon is the founder and editor of Trainless Magazine, and she is currently travelling overland from Berlin to Taiwan with her dog. She is a writer and has published many athletic, travel, and fiction pieces. An architect read her work and compared it to George Saunders.