I think I’ve wanted to write this post since forever but it wasn’t until someone suggested it to me last week that I actually realised it myself. Sometimes the thing we are most struggling with is the absolutely last thing we want to think about or talk about. But I feel like I may have sufficient clarity right now so I’m just gonna give it my best shot.
Moving to Berlin was/has been one of the toughest experiences of my life. I have written before about the difficulties I experienced when I first moved here but I focused mostly on the things I saw. I haven’t really ever shared the psychological challenges I have endured.
What is comforting, however, is that through discussions with other expats/immigrants and Germans who moved here from other parts of the country, it is safe to say that my struggles are not rare. It seems that everyone who has moved to Berlin has experienced what I’m about to explain. Some might say this happens during any big move to a foreign country but I would like to suggest that this is not necessarily true. I think Berlin challenges ‘the newcomer’ in very specific ways and these culminate in what I refer to as the Berlin Effect.
1. The first AHA moment
I believe that Berlin is currently one of the hottest European cities. Before I moved here I already knew that Berlin was very trendy and hipster. I knew it was also a city of contrasts and new beginnings due to reunification etc. And I knew that techno and big parties were standard fare. But I don’t think anything can actually prepare you for that moment when all that you’ve heard and all that you see around you suddenly becomes crystal clear in your mind and you have your first moment of realisation as to what Berlin is about for so many people.
Let me try and paint a picture. It’s summer. The nights are long. The sun goes down around 9/10pm and everyone is outside, in the parks or even just hanging out on the streets. You’ve bought 1.50euro beers from the Späti (Spätkauf meaning late store because they run all night). You’ve probably met some of the people you see around you just that day. You most likely rode your bike there. You’re getting tipsy but you have the clarity of mind to take a deep breath and look around you. In that moment you soak it all in: the colourful people who could be wearing anything from Acne Studios to leather and studs, the sense of freedom as you realise you’re in a European country but the smell of marijuana sits in the air ‘like it aint no thang’, the faint sound of guitar as it drifts over from a group nearby, the sound of children’s laughter as young families chill amongst punks and hippies, and the lack of tension or stress or even a hint of that familiar ‘rat race’ mentality of bigger cities like London or Paris.
I believe that the first time you have one of these moments in Berlin, it’s like an Oprah “aha”. For me it happened in the first week I arrived. Suddenly, I no longer thought about my struggles finding work, my homesickness or my anxiety over where I was going to live. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have an apartment yet or know where I would get my first pay cheque. In that moment, all that mattered was the intoxicating sensation of being in Berlin. I breathed it in and felt gratitude. A part of me felt like I had arrived in a place I was already familiar with and yet nothing felt ordinary, nothing was already known.
This aha Berlin moment is not a one time thing. Anyone who lives here will tell you that it will be re-experienced multiple times throughout your stay.
Things that contribute to aha moments:
- Riding on the u-bahns during the weekend (they run 24 hours a day) and seeing people drunk and happy, being funny or ridiculous, wearing outrageous outfits, singing, swearing, etc.
- The bright green trees contrasted with the clear, blue summer sky
- Little kids everywhere (many of whom have older parents who look like punks, hippies or hipsters)
- Cycling through the city
- Sitting on a rooftop looking over the city
- Long days spent in the parks, near the swimming pools, or at lakes
- Day drinking
- Watching the sunset over the Spree (the main river in Berlin)
- Getting out of the club at sunrise and seeing more activity on the streets than during midday
- Watching people queue for hours to eat ice-cream
- Street performances
2. Bureaucracy and Berliner Schnauze
As with all wonderful moments in life, the Berlin aha moment comes to an end. Summer days shorten after what seems like a minute and the inevitable reality call sounds like a church bell on a Sunday when you’re hungover. If you come to Berlin for a holiday you might be able to avoid this experience. Those who come for short stays usually have only positive things to say about the city. But for those of us who’ve put down roots here, we know that the bright lights of summer nights start to fade and eventually you have to get a job and register for health insurance and because this is Germany that involves reams and reams of paper work.
I’m sure this doesn’t bother the Germans as much as it bothers us expats, but the truth is that moving to Berlin involves a lot more bureaucracy than you expect it to. You cannot so much as breathe here without the appropriate paperwork. Each and every little inch of life here requires forms to be filled out. And because there is a single (or more) correct form for each action, there are also countless opportunities for getting it wrong. Thankfully, Germans love to tell you when you’re doing something wrong. So it is not uncommon to wait in lines for hours only to be told that you didn’t bring the right document. And don’t expect compassion or a sense of humour. German officials are not there for their amusement. Don’t expect to try and capitalise on their humanity, they leave that at the entrance of the Bürgeramt.
For many of us who come to Berlin without much German, this process is made even harder. German officials are given the mandate to speak in German and only German during business hours. Even if they can speak English, they won’t. And unless you burst into tears (I’m afraid to say that this occurred on more than one occasion) they may actually shout at you. Thankfully tears still arouse some sense of humanity (or is it just shame) and so you might get a “speak to my colleague” rather than the usual “no” in these cases.
Politeness, hospitality, warmth, and welcoming are not really words easily associated with Germans or should I say Berliners. Germans will tell you that Berliners are known throughout Germany as having really bad attitudes. I think it stems from the fact that Berlin is a poor, working-class city that has always had a very complex and dark identity. There is no real industry here so there is not much economic power. And what’s more, over the last ten years Berlin has become a hotspot for ‘waster’ travellers who want to drink and drug themselves into a standstill, scream down the streets and then leave with a hangover while the Berliners have to cater for them, clean up their messes and then live with the consequences of higher rents and other effects of globalisation.
Thus, the Berliner Schnauze is something that you have to get used to when you move to Berlin. You will get shouted at by strangers. You will be made to feel ‘other’ and unwanted. You will feel like you’ve done something wrong every damn day. At first this seems shocking and you will be outraged. You will feel hurt, wounded and insulted. But then, after months of snarls and stares and swearwords being flung in your direction, you will slowly start getting used to it. You will laugh when someone flips you off for riding your bike on the sidewalk. You will smile when the supermarket cashier barks at you. You will take no notice of the old lady screeching on the train.
Once you’ve gotten over the bore of bureaucracy and the sting of the Berliner Schnauze, you are half way there. Your skin thickened, you can now start settling into your environment. You might even forget about these things until a fresh-off-the-boat expat talks about having the wrong documents for her visa application or one of your friends visits you and comments on how rude the local shopkeeper was to her.
3. Familiar and forgotten
I moved here in summer and only really got work and an apartment around October, which means that it was autumn going into winter when I first started to feel a little bit settled. Berlin changes dramatically during the colder months. People disappear from the streets, some of the shops close down and things generally start slowing down and getting quieter. For the summer revellers, this is a Berlin that most don’t see.
After the trials and tribulations involved with jumping through bureaucratic hoops and getting one’s life in order here, the inevitable routine of daily living seems mundane and boring in comparison. But so it goes. You start working, you start making money. This offers you the opportunity of going out more and buying more. Suddenly those Späti beers are replaced with 10 euro cocktails at a fancy speakeasy. You start to go out for expensive dinners. You may even have enough money to go for weekends away to other European cities. This all sounds lovely. But with it comes a strange melancholy. I had never known this feeling before. There was something so uncomfortable about being this comfortable. Maybe it’s a Western thing, I thought. Maybe I’m just not used to this affluence, this seemingly unlimited access. But it’s not that. Let me be clear, middle-class white South Africans live way larger than most upper class Europeans. It’s not about access to wealth.
So what was it? I realise now that something happens when the unfamiliar turns into the familiar. When you ride past the Brandenburg gate and no longer stop to take pictures, then you know Berlin is no longer a travel destination. It’s where you live. All of a sudden days spill over into months and you realise you’ve been living this new life of yours quite convincingly but somehow not quite registering it. When this happens you no longer feel the tingle of those earlier aha moments. It’s like the fun and excitement have been taken out of life and you feel lost, alone and without help. You look around you and no one is coming to your aid. They’re all living their lives just like you. There is nothing special about Berlin in these moments. It’s just another city: busy and quiet, free and confined, rough and pristine. And you wonder why you felt such urgency to make your home here if this is all it’s about.
4. Existential angst and identity crises
I don’t think I’m a typical Berliner. I don’t wear only black. I don’t really LOVE techno music. I don’t do recreational drugs. I don’t feel anarchistic, rebellious, or “alternative” in any way. I like classic and safe fashion; I am really trying to be about health and well being, I like to smile and get excited about stuff.
So when I arrived here and realised that I was the odd one out because I have no tattoos or facial piercings, it made me question whether I was right for Berlin. Well, actually I questioned whether Berlin was right for me. This questioning started on day one and is still present to this day.
When I walk down the streets, dodging the dog shit and broken glass, watching the local punks sit and drink around the electricity box outside my local Späti, I know that the answer to those questions is “no”. These streets do not reflect my personal identity in any way. I am not at all aligned with punk, from the music to the fashion to the ideology. Neither am I hipster, or hippie, or boho.
I like to get drunk sometimes and have a party, sure. But I’m not into this ‘waster’ culture of Berlin where people drink and drug their weekends away and then hide from the world while they live out their three-day hangovers until they reappear for the next round the next weekend.
I really don’t know if I like anything about German culture. I don’t like sausages or beer. I don’t like rude people who aren’t gentle with others. I don’t like this ‘do or die or get over it’ attitude that most young berliners have. I don’t want to get hardened by life and feel cynical all the time. And I miss colour, I miss femininity and softness, and I miss sunshine (not just weather but in terms of friendly people too).
What’s more is that I am at the beginning of my career and although Berlin has offered me an amazing work opportunity, I do sometimes worry about whether my career is flourishing in the same way it would if I was living in London for example. People don’t live to work here, they live to live. And this is something I love a lot about Berlin. But it also sometimes feels like people are stagnating, like there is very little ambition going around and I have often felt like I miss the hustle of cities like London or Johannesburg.
But here I am. And even after a year of complaining and months of unhappiness, here I remain.
Because you see Berlin is never just one side of the coin. For every complaint there is a compliment, for every struggle there is a blissful moment of satisfaction. In all the moments when I’ve looked at myself and felt at odds with Berlin’s image I have also built something within myself. Call it resilience, call it self-awareness, call it whatever you want. I call it the Berlin Effect. Through this agonising process of being different, other, of not fitting in, I have come to know myself better than I have in years. I have sat with myself through some of the hardest moments of my life, alone and at a loss, and I have made it through. And now, even though I don’t look or dress or act like everyone else, I feel like I am part of the scene that you see on this street. I am that girl with the curly hair who has the neat apartment and rides her 50euro bike to the store where she will smile at the cashier and probably apologise to more than one stranger. I am the girl who provides therapy to the expat population. I can understand fully their struggles of integrating into this society. I know exactly how hard it is to find one’s way in this wayward town. And I will encourage them to keep on trying, to keep on integrating, to keep on keeping on. Because I know that there are certain things I get from Berlin that no other city can give me right now.
5. Berlin’s beauty and magic revealed
When it comes down to it, all my complaints and angst have not resulted in me saying aufwiedersehen to Berlin just yet. So why is that?
There are many things I love about Berlin. I love that it’s still relatively cheap and the cost of living is pretty low here. I love that there is great public transport and it’s a wonderful city for cycling (my new favourite activity). I love that you find a great deal of diversity here. There are so many different types of people moving around this city on any given day. I love the freedom you feel here. Yes, there are systems of control but compared to many cities in Europe, Berlin is one of the freest and most liberal. And people are tolerant here. You don’t feel judged, ever. You can wear whatever you like, look however you like, act however you like and you will probably be left alone for the most part.
I also love the chilled pace of life. It reminds me of my hometown, Cape Town, in that people get up later here and spend many hours a day hanging out in coffee shops or out in the parks at dusk. There are hardly any suits because there is no real business district, so you never feel like you’re in the way of someone rushing to get to work. And you can always find some creative event going on somewhere in the city.
But above all else I am grateful for Berlin for being such a conflicting experience for me, for the highs and the lows, for causing me to fall in love and then breaking my heart over and over again, and for always finding something else to spark my interest or keep me here despite the list of complaints.
Ask any Berliner and they will tell you that no one has a straightforward relationship with Berlin. This city is complicated and so is one’s relationship to it. In Berlin it is pretty standard to walk around feeling complete exhilaration and then the very next day or even hour to be thrust into utter despair. Because Berlin is like life, it is a struggle, but when you come out the other side you feel grateful for the tumble you just took.
What are you grateful for today? Share your gratitude stories here.