Welcome To Berlin, Now Go Home

The first in a pair of essays today on being an expat in Berlin.

When I first moved to Berlin this summer, there was a big piece of graffiti in the courtyard next to my front door. “Tourists fuck off,” it said, in cheerful blue spray paint. It didn’t really bother me at first—I wasn’t a tourist, I was moving here; I speak German and have a German passport. And who loves tourists anyways? In New York, where I’d lived for the past six years, hating on tourists was part of what defined you as a New Yorker. Being rude to slow-walking Scandinavians wasn’t just a way of teaching them sidewalk etiquette; you were providing them with an authentic New York experience.

But the longer I’ve been in Berlin, the more I’ve realized that my new neighbors’ anti-tourist resentment has a lot to do with people like me—and all the other frustrated New York millennials that have taken over this city in the last few years. And the more confused I’ve been about where I belong.

Right now, Berlin is Europe’s epicenter of cool. As trend piece after trend piece has explained, in this city you can still afford to spend your days either working on art or doing nothing, and your nights drugged out in strange nightclubs. And it’s true: The Berlin lifestyle is unfeasible in most other major cities, and definitely in New York, where “affordable” means a $900 room in a shared apartment in Ditmas Park, and $12 for a glass of whiskey. As a result, Berlin has become a beacon for thousands of restless North American and European young people and people of any age trying to escape work, or commitments, or the need to put on underwear before 3 p.m.

The city may not have the breathtaking beauty of Paris or Prague, but it has other charms. There are the countless nice cafes and low-key bars. There are the unpretentious Berliners, who all look eerily relaxed and slightly disheveled and like to wear outfits—jeans plus skirt plus bright pink hoodie plus camo scarf—that would look mismatched and hideous anywhere else and yet, somehow, look stylish here. I’ve never been in a city with so many bikers and so many bike paths or so much delightfully incoherent graffiti (“I love you, but you need to start up a gym.”) And the parks are filled with good-looking people and shockingly well-trained dogs and friendly drug dealers who will wave at you from 200 feet away and then sit around with their customers and play Seu Jorge songs for them on their guitar.

To walk around Tempelhof, the city’s decommissioned old airport, on a warm day, is to see Berlin at its best. In nice weather, the park, which is enormous and so flat it seems unreal, fills up with groups of teens and 30-somethings and Turkish-German families picnicking and (legally) drinking beer, all under the haze of barbecue smoke and to the sound of boom boxes playing ambient house. On the former runways, people bike around in circles, or rollerblade, or fly kites, or engage in some sort of windsurfing-skateboarding hybrid sport that looks very 1998. And even though the dirt paths are scraggly and there are no signs telling people where to go, nobody collides, and everybody gets along, and the whole scene somehow manages to transcend the chaos and the grit and become something magical and serene.

And then, of course, there are the parties. Many of Berlin’s club nights famously start on Fridays and go for two-and-a-half days straight without stopping. The first time I pulled an all-nighter in Berlin, on a visit two years ago, I emerged from a rickety riverside club at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, under a light drizzle, having just spend an hour making out with a Spanish man whose name I couldn’t pronounce next to a circus-themed outdoor confetti pit. On my train ride home, my face still bearing traces of the glitter a strange woman had smeared all over my face eight hours earlier in the basement lounge of a gay bar/sex club called Ficken 3000, I felt exhilarated and slightly ashamed. I also realized that this city might be the closest I would ever come to living out the hedonistic fantasy of carefree twenty-something existence.

So, like many others, I decided to come back here to live. For the past four years in New York, I’d been trapped at a respectable job that was increasingly making me unhappy, but as a Canadian with German and Canadian passports, I needed it to keep my work visa. As a millennial, I’d also been brought up to think that I deserved a job and a life that didn’t just pay the bills but was flexible and fulfilling and fun. And more importantly, I deserved a period of irresponsible young-person behavior. So, after one particularly bad day at work, I decided to cut the cord: I gave notice, and, two weeks later, bought a plane ticket to Berlin.

***

When I started telling people that I was moving to Berlin, I would almost always hear two things: 1) “I’m so jealous.” 2) “My friend just moved there, you should look him/her up.” Most of these friends had made the move to “get away from New York,” or “find themselves.” At times it seemed like half of New Yorkers were leaving their life behind to go drink beers in Berlin parks, go down on each other in nightclubs and catch up on their reading.

And now that I’ve been here for several months, the latter really does seem true. If you stroll around the city, especially in the formerly gritty neighborhoods of Neukoelln or Kreuzberg, where I live, you hear as much, if not more, English than German. Walk into a coffee shop in those neighborhoods and the barista is as likely to say, “Can I help you?” as “Was möchten Sie?” Ordering usually involves moving from German to English and back to German again, and I’ve overheard more conversations about being “so happy to have left New York” than I can count. Sometimes this place feels less like a German city than a halfway home for young New Yorkers in the midst of an existential crisis.

The longer I stay here the easier it is to understand why North Americans of my generation, raised on positive reinforcement and dreams of creative fulfillment, are especially drawn to Berlin. This place allows you to escape the harsh realities of adulthood, to avoid confronting the limits of your specialness. In New York, most people I knew were working 12-hour days at bad jobs not only because they needed to make rent, but because they wanted to fit in. Here, you’re free to describe yourself as a “performance artist” or a “graphic designer,” even if you spend your entire day surfing the Internet, because, for the most part, you’re not expected to do anything at all. This aspect of the Berlin lifestyle is sometimes referred to in magazines trend pieces as “downshifting.” A less charitable German would call it “sozialverträgliche Faulheit.”

And this sudden influx is pissing a lot of people off. The more I walk around, the more anti-tourist tags I see: “eat the tourists,” “tourists not welcome,” “all tourists are bastards.” Traffic lights are covered in “I [heart] Berlin” stickers with the heart crossed out. One day, on my way to the grocery store, I saw a poster offering guidelines on “How to identify a tourist.” #1 was “Does not speak German.” It was illustrated with two white hipsters in skinny jeans who looked a little bit like me.

Not long after I moved, I was having beers outside with friends of mine, American writers who had lived here for several years. During our English conversation, a middle-aged German man approached us and asked, in English, if he could squeeze onto our bench. He began repeating random words from our conversation: “nineteen,” “they,” “insanity.” At first it seemed like generic crazy-person behavior, but soon we realized he was trying to make us self-conscious, uncomfortable about speaking English in a public place. “How long have you been here?” he asked me, after ten minutes, a mischievous glint in his eye. “One month,” I said. He rolled his eyes.

Last year, a local bar owner made an angry, melodramatic anti-foreigner video that promptly went viral, getting almost 50,000 hits on Vimeo and garnering national media attention. “You stamp our borough to death with your overeducated self-contented superficiality,” he said, in a long monologue directed at new arrivals to Neukoelln, a neighborhood known for its young, foreign presence. “You are and always will be tourists.” He then went on to complain about “lazy layabouts,” people who don’t like bad service, people who arrive in large groups to have big parties in his bar, people who raise the neighborhood’s rents, people who order latte machiattos. It’s become tense enough in real life that there’s even a group called “Hipster Antifa” dedicated to ending anti-tourist abuses.

The main cause of all this anger, clearly, is economic. Over the last few years Berlin has become dramatically more expensive, to the point that its status as the cheapest metropolis in Europe is already starting to evaporate. In Neukoelln, rents have gone up 23 percent between 2007 and 2010. Apartments that were 200 Euros five years ago are now 500 Euros. Many poor working families are being forced out by landlords and new arrivals from other parts of Europe (along with party tourists referred to as “the EasyJet Set,” after the discount airline) and North America are taking their place.

Of course, this doesn’t just have to do with foreigners; it has to do with the dynamics of the European housing market, and the recession, and globalization, and, most of all, greedy landlords and flawed housing policy. But given that many of these gentrifiers don’t speak a word of German and leave after a few months—once their savings, their drugs or their tourist visas run out—the anger is easy to understand. Imagine if your cheap New York neighborhood was suddenly filled up with rich European party girls who don’t speak a word of English and spend their afternoons taking MDMA in parks. Who would you get mad at?

***

In the meantime, I’m not sure where I fit into all of this. I’m a German citizen, with a passport and fluent language skills and, as one person told me, “a very German jaw.” But every time I see one of those signs, I feel guilty. Like many of the native English speakers I meet here, I’m living off my slowly evaporating savings and I spend most of my days drifting from coffee shop to coffee shop with my laptop, typing and looking for jobs for as long as I can before I feel self-conscious or unproductive or both. At night, I go to club nights until 3 or 5 or 8 in the morning, coming home drunk and reeking of second-hand smoke.

Robert F. Coleman recently wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about his own disastrous encounter with Berlin. He describes how, when faced with the city’s unstructured hedonism, his grand creative plans fell apart. Like Coleman, I figured my newly expanded free time would allow me work on a big project, a book proposal I’d been thinking about for years. Initially, I threw myself into it: I went to Prague on a reporting trip, interviewed American experts over Skype, read books from the university library. But as my friend Charly, who’s lived here for five years, put it, “It’s always fun when new people arrive because they still have their energy and ambition and the rest of us can suck it up like vampires. But don’t worry, pretty soon you’ll be just like the rest of us, feeding on the young.”

And she was, for the most part, right: As time went by, I spent more and more of my weeknights drinking at Roses, a dive bar near my apartment that’s covered in nicotine-stained fake pink fur and fills up each evening with party twinks and the occasional grope-y businessman. I would follow friends on to early-morning parties in train stations and unfamiliar courtyards on Tuesdays or Thursdays or Mondays. My nights grew longer, my mornings less productive. Pretty soon I was worrying less about the book proposal than about how much alcohol I had consumed over the past week. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus describes this experience in his recent memoir A Sense Of Direction: “The main problem with desires, Berlin made clear, is that they’re not nearly as authoritative as we wish they were.”

I recently went to a gay dance party in a basement maze that was lit up with lasers and trippy fluorescents and filled with what seemed like a thousand exceptionally cheerful, furry gay men. Friends and friends of friends kept buying me drinks, and before I knew it, it was 8:30 am, and I was drunk, flagging down a cab to go home. Before he drove off, the cab driver looked at me the way I used to look at drunken tourists on St. Patrick’s Day in New York. “Do you go out this late often?” he asked. “How do you get any work done?” I assured him, a little too defensively, that this wasn’t a normal thing.

The truth is, some part of me was expecting to have a big epiphany the moment I got off the plane here—some clear indication of what I should be doing next. So far, none of that has happened. The only epiphany I’ve had so far has been about my own strange place in this city, the realization that belonging doesn’t come with a passport, but with hard work, and that many of the same problems that haunt Brooklyn—namely gentrification—haunt many other parts of the world too. I’ve realized that escapism without consequence is only possible for the very stupid or the very oblivious, that our dreams of millennial escapism are simply that: dreams.

Like Paris and Rome and Prague before it, Berlin’s hip status is probably going to fade in the next decade, and the twenty-something itinerants will find a new place to flock to. I’m already being told that Krakow or Istanbul or Belfast are the “next Berlin.” When that happens, like it did in New York in the 90s, Berlin will probably be a far less interesting and fun city than it is today. The parties will disappear, presumably, the artists will flee the city, and all the convenient neighborhoods will fill up with upwardly mobile families and hard-working yuppies. The city will also be safer and cleaner and more friendly to children and experience all the other morally troubling changes that come with those shifts.

Not long ago, the graffiti next to my front door began to change. The “fuck off” in “Tourists fuck off” was crossed out, and replaced with “Tourists welcome and bring your parents.” Then the whole thing was covered with a scribble of blue paint, except the word “Tourist.”

Thank goodness, I think, every time I walk past it. My neighbors, it turns out, are just as conflicted as I am.


Related: Talking To The Dead: Channeling William James In Berlin


Thomas Rogers is a freelance writer, editor and translator who has written for New York Magazine, Slate, Salon and The Globe & Mail, among others.