Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

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.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

saythatscool (#101)

Yeah, things usually turn out well when zie Germans start getting all worked up about the outsiders taking over their cities. Sleep with one eye open, Mr. Rogers.

oskomena (#232,608)

@saythatscool Considering Mr. Rogers is a half-German like me, he'd probably tell you to fuck right off. You are probably North American and raised on Hollywood, so I'll let you know there's been quite a bit going on in Europe since the 1930s.

@oskomena For one thing, The 1940s.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

I'm a little confused about the economics of this. Berlin sounds cheaper than New York, but if apartments are going for 500 euros (or even 200) it must be more expensive than most other American cities, and plus there is the cost of the airfare, and -one would assume – the near-impossibility of anyone without a German passport being able to find work. Plus, there's the euro exchange rate, which is better lately than it has been but still is hardly conducive to saving money on drinks. So what, exactly, is it about Berlin that is allowing these hordes of twentysomething artist-types to descend on it and live a life of hedonism financed only by the savings they racked up working as administrative assistans and baristas in Brooklyn?

saythatscool (#101)

@Nabonwe It's based off some old city laws that says Jewish people have to give you 99.99% of their stuff if you ask for it.

hershmire (#233,671)

@Nabonwe East Berlin was pretty much impoverished for the first 10-15 years after unification. There was a lot of crime, excess housing stock, and a gritty undercurrent – something that inevitably gets taken over by the hipsterati. That's changing now and, as Mr. Rogers said in his article, soon they young, unemployed drifters won't be able to afford it and will move on.

Hint: buy apartments on the Bosphorus.

jfruh (#713)

@Nabonwe Do you honestly not consider $650 a month (500 euros at today's rates) to be a cheap apartment in a hip neighborhood in a U.S. city that would have a cultural cachet similar to Berlin? No idea what size we're talking about here but you can't get a $650 a month one-bedroom in a hip neighbood in Baltimore, and Baltimore is no Berlin.

I actually did a five-month, less sexy/party-y version of this trip in 2002. My then-girlfriend and I were moving from San Francisco and found a two-bedroom in western (i.e. already gentrified then) Kreuzberg online for 1050 euro a month, which we signed up for site unseen. All the numbers were in square meters, which we had no real understanding of, and when we arrived we were shocked to find how huge and gorgeous it was. (It was about 1,300 square feet, it turned out). It seemed insanely cheap to us coming from the Bay Area, as 500 euro a month surely would coming from New York.

(We did have the experience of living there when the euro went through a big shift in relation to the dollar. When we got there, a euro was worth 80 cents; when I left, it was worth about $1.10. Basically, every day I was there our rent went up, since I was freelancing remotely for US companies and being paid in dollars.)

Mr. B (#10,093)

@jfruh I think he means 500 a week?

Ugh, humans and their dreams of epiphanies! I blame texts. And creators of texts. Life in and of itself does not suggest or tempt with epiphanies. Never has, never will. James Joyce and Robert McKee and Saul of Tarsus, however, do. And you know what they're like!

[Rest of comment redacted for Onehipsmanship re: Berlin]

mediumtime (#4,674)

I'd be out with a video camera 7 days a week if there were rich non-English-speaking European party girls spending their afternoons taking MDMA in Maria Hernandez Park.

southernbitch (#2,141)

if you went through this article and replaced "berlin" with "new orleans", it would still be 95% accurate.

Mr. B (#10,093)

More than 2,500 words and not a single Christopher Isherwood reference. What are we awl coming to?

@Mr. B: I'm glad I'm not the only one that thought this.

Sounds like you met me on the train (trousers, skirt, pink hoodie) – so thanks I guess!;) …Apart from that: Great article. That's pretty much how it is. And not only for the foreigners. It's a great place to be but one that tends to suck you up into its nightlife and cultural events, gets you drunk and feeds your hedonism until you wake up blinking, wondering where your time and ambitions have gone. I guess the trick is to enjoy all the advantages of living in a vibrant city like Berlin meanwhile holding on to a job, a university degree, the 'serious stuff' so you don't lose yourself (and it might help and be fair, too, to keep an eye on the fact that Berlin is more than just a fairly affordabel place for happily irresponsible and inconsequential behavior) – kontrollierter Kontrollverlust. Good luck with that.

zobot (#240,049)

Yes, this is pretty much how it is. Having just moved here, I am constantly surprised by how affordable and livable the city is, and how little I get done during the day…

nickelbribe (#240,051)

How have these people managed this? I'm trying to move to Germany for personal relationship purposes, and that shit is not going well. Is everyone just living there illegally or only for 3 months at a time or what, tell me their secrets.

Am I not doing enough drugs, should I start up a playdough statuette business, somebody advise me.

jfruh (#713)

@nickelbribe if you're an American you can actually live there six months out of any twelve, though only three months sequentially. Which means you have to make an occasional trip over a border that requires passport control (more difficult now that Poland is part of the passport-free zone of the EU).

But yes, in practice many people are living there illegally. One of the things I realized when I was there was that, if you have access to some income (I worked at home freelancing for American companies), it's easy to live someplace without knowing the language and without filling the paperwork you're supposed to fill out, so long as nothing goes wrong. This is not legal advice, obviously, and I'm sure it helped that I was white and Germanic-looking and didn't try to get local work or apply for any government benefits of any sort, but you are not as a rule asked for your papers on any kind of regular basis.

marblestox (#240,070)

@nickelbribe yes jfruh is right about many people staying illegally, and many others are in fact only dropping in and out a few months at a time. If you're really researching this though you'll already know how appealing but ultimately stupid stretching the time is, esp. if you have a relationship to maintain. I've had my entry/exit stamps VERY closely counted more than once over the years of coming and going, and once they throw you out, you're out.

And @jfruh isn't it 90 days out of every 180? And leaving for a stamp and reentering only works if the passport control person chooses not to dig too deep; it doesn't reset your rolling 90/180 count.

The people i know who've been here a while legally have sorted either a student visa, an employer-sponsored visa, or an artist visa (much harder to get than it sounds). It's also possible to get an extension on your tourist stay in some circumstances.

Steven@twitter (#239,726)

Belfast is not the next Berlin. Belfast isn't even the next Dublin.

@Steven@twitter Belfast is the last.

Terrible Tommy (#240,067)

Do you refer to the masses of Jews swarming back into Berlin?

marblestox (#240,070)

hey you know what though, there are many, many people who came to berlin and applied their talents, worked incredibly hard, built a life in this compellingly livable place, and didn't sink to the bottom when the savings ran out and despair set in. They applied and did the work for the right visa, studied the language (those of us who didn't inherit that handy skill), and integrated themselves into both rooted expat and local communities — who, it turns out, are quite accepting of foreigners who make a little effort to see this as a real city with real people in it. Granted, a real city with some bonkers options for spending your free time.

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