“We do the house numbers differently in Britain,” I explained to my German boyfriend once. I hadn’t been long in Berlin, a little bit over a year. I’d only ever seen streets with the numbers going 1–150 on one side, and the other way down 150–300. Like that.
“Yeah?” He said.
“Yes,” I said. I took a deep breath, I was going to need all my German skills to describe this shit.
“What do you call numbers like 2, 4, 6, 8? Even? And how do you describe the numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 9? Odd? Okay.” Another deep breath. “On one roadside – here. The even numbers. 2. 4. 6. 8. On the other roadside – here.” I gesticulated the other side of the road and plonked imaginary houses down next to each other. “Here go the odd numbers. 1, 3, 5, 7. Number One is across from Number Two. Number Three is across from Number Four. And so on and so on.”
I looked at my German boyfriend.
“I don’t know why we do it like that,” I added, gravely. Another deep breath.
“The numbers go up the same way. In the same direction? Not opposite ways.”
I sighed, exhausted, I had literally used up all my German abilities in that conversation. I was spent.
My German boyfriend looked at me, vaguely interested.
“It’s like that everywhere else in Germany,” he said.
“NO IT ISN’T!” I yelled, horrified I had so completely linguistically exhausted myself on explaining something that wasn’t unique to Britain.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know why we do it like this in Berlin. It’s so confusing. But it’s not everywhere in Berlin. Some streets still do it the normal way. Haven’t you noticed?”
The Berlin house numbering system – and really, using the word system is kinda generous here, to be honest – is the most confusing fucked-up house numbering system ever invented. I mean, I am prepared to be proved wrong on this – maybe the system in Ancient Egypt was even more confusing, but I find it hard to believe. Instead of, like nice, normal people, who want people to be able to find the houses they have to go to, dividing the houses into odd and even numbers, on opposite sides of the roads, they slap them down in chronological number like total sociopaths. And then, and then, and then, AND THEN they go up one way and down the other. It’s fine if you’re at Number 76 and you need to go to Number 85. Absolutely fine. But what if you need to go to Number 350? You literally have to know how long the road will go on for before you can take a wild stab in the dark as to what side of the road the number will be. It’s awful. It’s probably one of the hardest things about living in this cold, cold, cold city.
And what about the Hinterhaus, Quergebäude, Seitenflügel stuff? The first time my parents came to visit me in my house in Neukölln, I called into the intercom: “WE’RE IN THE BACK HOUSE!”
“What?” My dad shouted.
“THE BACK HOUSE! The Hinterhaus! The behind house! THE BACK HOUSE!”
I ran onto the balcony, and when I saw my parents enter the Hinterhof, me and my son jumped up and down for joy. When they finally got upstairs, my step-mum said, disapprovingly: “It’s a good thing you were on the balcony to greet us, Cint, we didn’t have a clue what you were going on about.”
“Well, what’s the English for back house then?” I asked, sulkily.
“They don’t have a word for it,” my dad said. “Do they? They just have blocks. Block A, Block B, Block C…”
“Like a prison,” I said.
What I still don’t know, if I am truly honest, is what the difference between the Seitenflügel and the Quergebäude is. I know the Hinterhaus is opposite the Vorderhaus, and I know the Seitenflügel is opposite the Quergebäude. And I think houses that only have one extra house only have a Seitenflügel, not a Quergebäude. But I am not sure. I might have this all wrong. Also, this Quergebäude stuff confuses EVERYONE, not just foreigners. Even proper Germans. PROPER Germans. Actual Germans. If you ever get visited by an actual proper German, who wasn’t born in Berlin, and only moved here a month or so ago, they’ll be as confused and bemused by the Quergebäude stuff as a non-German. It’s just a thing Berliners invented to make life harder for everyone. They’re good at that.