The Moderately Indifferent Person’s Guide to Berlin2013-08-19 8
This is the latest guest post from Adam Fletcher and Paul Hawkins, collectively known as both The Hipstery and “those two guys who should really get real jobs”…
Sometime around 2009, there was a secret ballot and Berlin was officially decided as the coolest city in the entire world. This was mostly judged by itself. In fact, no other city really remembers taking part, and it’s likely the whole thing was conducted with the same level of judicial oversight as a beauty pageant won by Robert Mugabe.
That doesn’t matter. Now it’s just accepted as FACT. Berlin quickly transformed, like the goofy girl in the rom-com who let her hair down one day, took her glasses off, and was surprised when everyone collectively gasped, “wow… Berlin… you’re… HOT!” Once people found out she was also cheap, compliments started to trickle in. Many of us flocked here to try and make lives for ourselves, and many more came every weekend to drink heavily and jiggle to repetitive beats. Berlin’s ego grew and grew. That trickle of niceties became a flood of praise.
Then there was some backlash to all that adoration, which sounded suspiciously like the sound of 80 million German people tutting and simultaneously clearing their throats. Berlin is the black-hole of the German economy – a place where the usual formula of taxes and services go in, but what keeps coming out isn’t Frankfurt, Nuremberg, or Munich, but some kind of very un-German freak Woodstock startup techno art project. Maybe what Berlin really needs now is more people to take the middle position – that of rational, moderate indifference. This guide will teach you how to behave appropriately in Berlin, so that you do not embarrass yourself with the cringeworthy enthusiasm of a heavily-caffeinated tourist.
Stay in your comfort(able) zone
Upon moving to your new Kiez, you should immediately construct a “Zone of Possibilities”. Generally speaking, a 1km circle surrounding your Wohnung should suffice. The real wall may have fallen in ‘89, but the truly indifferent Berliner still maintains their own mental version of it. This zone dictates where you’ll go and who’ll you’ll be willing to befriend.
When you meet someone, you should first enquire as to where they live. If you learn it’s outside your personal Zone of Possibilities, just immediately end the conversation. Pack up your things, pay for your drink, stand up, then walk off. Not quickly, like you’ve left your oven on or got an urgent Finanzamt appointment, but slowly. Very slowly. Look them in the eye. Make it clear they’ve wasted your time. There’s no point beginning a relationship that will be so obviously hindered by unrealistic geography.
While your personal zone can be up to one kilometer at first, it will often shrink by several streets every year that you stay in Berlin. After three and a half years here, I don’t even bother befriending anyone who lives more than four buildings away in any direction from my house, and I’ll only make an exception if they have a skill I can financially benefit from, such as graphic design.
Hide your excitement
I was once drinking at Admiralbrücke with some people from CouchSurfing, and there was an American tourist with us who wouldn’t stop talking about how amazing Berlin is. “Like, oh my God,” he began, “this is just the most beautiful bridge! Berlin is just so amazing! I’ve literally never seen such a beautiful bridge! Oh my god!” Your job as a Moderately Indifferent Berliner is to confront this kind of outrageously disproportionate enthusiasm with plain, indifferent, unsexy fact: “Yes, Admiralbrücke is a successful structural method of crossing from one side of the canal to the other.”
Meanwhile, Oberbaumbrucke “links Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, and is the place one is most likely to receive a bicycle puncture”, Club der Visionäre is an “open-air wooden experiment in tourist stupidity”. Mustafa’s is “an exercise in Zen Buddhism where one must learn to channel inner peace and harmony over a period of 30 tedious minutes in order to receive a seven per cent superior veggie döner”.
When people ask you why you moved here, don’t just dance around and giggle like a 12-year-old Berlinbelieber, gushing about how amazing the city is. That’s amateur. Tell a story about how you painstakingly selected Berlin like it was a piece of fruit. Of taking it in your hands, squeezing it, holding it up to the light, checking for obvious flaws and dents. Tell of how you briefly considered it’s neighbours Hamburg and Leipzig, picked them up, rolled them around in your palm, felt their weight, before putting them back on the maybe pile.
Maybe you even flirted with something slightly more exotic – a Krakow or a Bratislava – and then concluded, with all things considered, Berlin seems pretty decent right now. You’ll take it. But Berlin should not get too comfortable with you. It’s a test drive. A trial run. It will receive only a six-month rolling probation period, after which you will rationally decide again whether to extend this cohabitation arrangement.
You’ll call it “funemployment”!
Employment in Berlin is best described as either complicated or non-existent. There are only a certain amount of jobs that you can do without some fluency in German. Everybody wants these jobs, which means they are horribly over-subscribed. Because they are horribly over-subscribed, they pay badly. Which is logical, if regrettable. Every foreigner wants to know German. Unfortunately, no-one wants to learn German. Indeed, I have friends who’d rather dance six hours a day dressed as a sausage at Alexanderplatz than sit yawning through another Volkshochschule Deutsch course.
You have two main choices for work, then, are as follows: The first is an elaborate version of doing mostly nothing. This works out quite well here, and is to be encouraged. If you want, you can call this “a project”. People will ask you about what you do. You will tell them about what you will do, one day, probably. Projects are best left in this safe planning stage, just after you’ve designed the logo and made some stickers, but just before you’ve done any actual work on them.
The second choice is working for a startup, which is usually just being paid the lowest legally permissible wage for restricted view seats in someone elses short-lived ponzi scheme, which will be described as something like “Airbnb, but for Window Cleaners”. Your role will be doing something with Facebook, that will result in it being a marginally less enjoyable social network for the rest of us.
Not speaking German in the capital of Germany can help you exist in a wonderful bubble of blissful ignorance. The News won’t hurt you, GEMA’s lawyers can’t scare you, and people may happily talk behind your back all they want, because you don’t have a front that understands. Nothing protects you like a language barrier. Reality is filtered. Nothing bad gets in. What did the deranged-looking man just shout at you on the U-bahn? Who cares! That was probably just a passionate compliment! What are all your fellow Berliners protesting about next to that pretty-looking wall? Who cares! Look, it’s David Hasselhoff!
Of course, as a moderately indifferent Berliner, you absolutely must learn German. Otherwise there is nothing that separates you from the evil, evil tourists that you will be required by law to hate, ridicule, and treat with never-ending contempt. Once you’ve learned some German, or can convince people for a maximum period of five minutes that you’ve learned some German, all the pressure is off and you’ll never actually have to use it. If anyone does try to force you, just do a lot of shrugging and generally behave like a homeless man has just tried to extract one of your teeth with an empty beer bottle. Do we have to? Are we doing this? Right now? German? Ugggh. Wirklich? Deutsch? Okay dann, wann wir mussen…
Nightlife: “the toilets should be made almost entirely of stickers”
While Berlin’s nightlife will seem to the fresh newcomer like it’s teeming with a never-ending spectrum of possibilities, the moderately indifferent Berliner knows that there is actually a much smaller bandwidth that is really for them. In all other types of bar, you are essentially verboten. The easiest way to find out which is to walk around your Kiez, going in and out of every building with a beer sign outside, and seeing if the majority of its inhabitants stare like you just walked uninvited into their living room and murdered their cat. If they do, you are probably not in your correctly designated drinking facility.
Generally, if you are young and living in Berlin, a good rule of thumb for you is any bar consisting of flea market furniture, the overgenerous use of candles, and unpainted brick walls. The most authentically cool places should still have crumbling plaster and exposed electric cables, posing at least some threat to your immediate health. The bar itself should be made of an old door. The toilets should be made almost entirely out of stickers. The only kind of noticeable decoration throughout should be graffiti, though parts of a broken jukebox or typewriter are encouraged. Meanwhile, the random mish-mash of chairs and furniture should be meticulously arranged to ensure that all conversations are happening at wildly different altitudes.
Berlin has two kinds of weather: on and off. When the weather is set to “on”, it is illegal to be inside, 90 per cent of people you see on the streets will be putting beer into their heads, and a large yellow ball in the sky causes magic and happiness to spill out of every door and window of the city. People swarm onto streets, parks, canal banks, roofs, and every inch of outside tables. The Greenest City in Europe shows its full potential. Tempelhofer Feld on a sunny Saturday looks like you’ve just hit an ant’s nest, and what comes out is more young people than you knew existed.
Then it is “off”. The warm, circle thing in the sky returns to its normal hiding place behind looming grey clouds, a sudden rainstorm sends the young people scurrying back to their various containers to work on their “projects,” and the professional bottle collectors move in, like the underlayer of a rainforest, to scrub the parks of their valuable debris and ready the soil for another day. The everyday life of the moderately indifferent Berliner resumes.
“That is so Berlin”
Berliners have a tendency to talk about the city like it is a living, breathing entity – a soul, a spirit, a cosmic force that is separate to all of the people and buildings that sit on it. To different people, Berlin is a clubbing paradise, a family-friendly heimat, a chilled-out park city, a Mecca of Delayed Responsibility, or a semi-mystical place with the “feeling” that you can do and be whoever you want.
What they are talking about it is not a whole, big, diverse city, however, but their own little Berliner Bubble. Their little world of bars and streets and parks and friends. When I talk about what I love about Berlin, I mean roaming free amongst the freelancers in Neukölln, cycling round Tempelhof, drinking in Kreuzberg. For me, going as far afield as Charlottenburg is like taking a trip to Narnia.
My particular Berliner bubble is one of cliches, and co-working, and expats, and English. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbour is a man whose day-to-day life revolves around his tireless dedication to consuming alcoholic beverages, an addiction that will mostly likely end his life. Below him, a single mother of toddlers lives next door to a couple of tattoo-faced punks. One more floor down is a Turkish family of three generations. Side by side, there is the 94-year-old Hausmeister who’s lived in my building for 50 years, and next to him a 24-year-old Argentinian who moved here six months ago, and mostly rents out his apartment to tourists on Airbnb.
Berlin can be paradise for some, but like any path to somewhere “better”, the roadsides are littered with the souls who believed the hype, and didn’t make it. The people who packed up everything, moved over with stars in their eyes, and had to return home after a few months when they realised their TEFL qualification was about as desirable to the local economy as a contagious face rash.
There is only one way you can help those sweet, innocent rabbits from becoming next week’s roadkill. Next time they ask, “how do you like living in Berlin?” Do not bait them. Equally, do not crush them. Just respond with safe, steady, moderate indifference: “Fine. Berlin exceeds all of my reasonable expectations.”
If this doesn’t put you off, you can assimilate further by buying Adam’s book on How to be German here.
Checkpoint Charlie flickr user Maguisso
Mona Lisa – flickr user Dystopos
Buskers – flickr user Calleephoto
Scheisse – flickr user Cody Dudgeon
Graffiti – Instagram user Linsey Fryatt
Rain – flickr user Captain Die
Berlin love – Instagram user Linsey Fryatt
All images in this article are subject to the Creative-Commons-Lizenz (credit - no editing, CC BY-ND , link to the legally-binding license agreement). Excluded are pictures that are labelled differently, including from Panthermedia, Fotolia, Pixelio, Morguefile, along with press photos or publishers' own visual material.