WGs and All That Nonsense

After what seems like several months of looking for a WG (considering that I started pretty much the day I got back to New York at the beginning of November), I feel I am uniquely qualified to talk about such things. Hence: a post. For those of you who don’t know (in other words, those of you not living in Deutschland) a WG is short-hand for a Wohngemeinschaft, a flat or apartment (whichever your preference) in which at least two, but usually more people have their own rooms and share all the living spaces. Now, having read this somewhat mundane description, you may be asking yourselves how these differ from normal shared living spaces in any city and any country in the world. Well, the answer is: not much. And: quite a lot. The word translates as a “living community,” more than just a “common living,” and Berliners can take it quite seriously, setting up interviews for potential candidates, spending weeks trying to find the right person to fill a space. A WG is not merely a living arrangement, but more like a kind of project; something that can be constantly worked on and improved. On the three websites I check almost constantly for new listings, I’ve several times seen an ad not for a free Zimmer, but for a person who is looking for others to start a “WG-neugründung!” (“WG-launching/founding!”). Because rent is so cheap here, most people live in shared spaces because they want to; it is a way to meet interesting and open people, have instant friends to spend time with, and to always have someone to complain to when you get up in the morning on the wrong side of the bed. There are zweck-WG’s (WG’s started for a specific purpose, with people who live together to save money or because they are all vegetarians…or Communists) but these are few and far between. So when you’re looking for a WG and you’re as picky as I am, and most of the people looking for new roommates are picky too, you run into something of a problem.

Let me try to explain to you a bit of what I mean (in other words, complain to you about the weird/annoying/bad experiences I’ve had looking at my first five WG’s). The first one was not half bad: it would have been on a street I like, in a big old crumbling building with large rooms and high ceilings, and the roommate was a cool-seeming graphic designer. It had been advertised as a two-month sublet, because her roommate was moving out and then she would be moving out soon after. I went there thinking that perhaps if I liked it, I could persuade her to let me take over the lease and have a friend move in, but I was pretty much immediately told that there was not a chance, as the person who actually rented the apartment (there’s a lot of subletting and sub-subletting and sub-sub-subletting here in Berlin) would be taking it over again. Next!

I had up to this point been checking out the obvious Berlin Craigslist page, as well as two other German websites (WG-gesucht and studenten-WG), but had balked at the idea of addressing an email to a potential flat in German. Finally I realized that I would just have to take the plunge, and so sat down with Agnes to write a painstakingly meticulous (but still, of course, very very cool) letter in German about myself and what I was looking for; general enough that I could send it out to everyone, specific enough that they wouldn’t think that’s what I’d done. I instantly got replies, and set up about five more WG-besuchs (WG-visits) over a period of three days.

The next one, basically around the corner from the first, was rather disastrous. It was in Kreuzberg, and I was to arrive there straight from dinner in Prenzlauer Berg, basically two neighborhoods as far from each other as humanly possible (okay, fine, a relative statement). I decided to skirt the problem by skirting the entire city on the Ringbahn (the S-bahn line that winds its way around inner Berlin and connects to every other train line), but this turned out to be a bad idea when I missed my connection, had an interminable wait, and got to the flat a half hour later than I said I would. It was advertised as a 3-bedroom, but the door opened and I counted four standing there. I immediately asked whether one of them was just a friend visiting, and they looked at me strangely, then explained that two of the boys (a gay couple) shared a room. Already a red flag went up, because the last thing I want to deal with is a cutesy, in-love couple all the time, whether gay or straight. It was to be a six-month sublet, so I would not have been a long-term roommate but still would have stayed there for a significant amount of time. Nevertheless they were not that friendly, did not even ask me to sit down for tea or coffee, and just seemed all-in-all taken-aback by my excessive talkativeness. (And yes, I talk a lot, but I’m not going to apologize for it; I’m just going to find someone who can meet me halfway.) The apartment was dark, the ceilings were low, and there was no common area to speak of. Next!

At exactly the same time, I heard back from two places on my ideal street: Pannierstrasse in Neukölln, my old neighborhood and an area fast becoming über-hip (although not yet in an annoying way; just in a cheap way). The first, in fact seemed highly promising, as it was basically on the northern part of the street right on the Landwehrkanal–a beautiful area to be at any time of year. I got there hopeful, as the building seemed nice and the boy who lived there had actually called me to set up a date and addressed me in English over the phone (always nice because it means I don’t have to work that hard). He greeted me at the doorway but then immediately remarked upon how the room had been advertised as having a separate entrance. I started to get a bit worried. He took a pair of keys, showed me back out the door and turned at a 90-degree angle to present to me: the room! It turns out it did not just have a “separate entrance,” which, in the way it is phrased, actually seems kind of glamorous, but rather was entirely separate from the rest of the flat. I gawked in disbelief, and asked him tentatively exactly how the person they had living there now dealt with it. He replied that there was a boy living there now (that said a lot to me) but that two girls were sharing the room before quite easily. Images of me getting up to go to the bathroom at night and having to take the keys, unlock my door, unlock the door to the other part of the flat, and then return to find half my furniture stolen or a stranger in my room, danced through my head. I met the other roommate and talked to them both for a while, and yet there was something awkward about the conversation. I knew I wouldn’t be taking it, and I let them know that the separate room thing was just a bit too weird, but that I would still consider it. Nevertheless, I came home this afternoon to find the following message in my inbox:

Hallo Giulia

Vielen Dank für Dein Interesse an unserer WG, wir haben uns aber für einen anderen Bewerber entschieden.

Dir noch eine gute Zeit in Berlin.


M— und K———–

Ah, the sweet smell of rejection! I don’t know why I should even remotely care, considering that they merely rejected me before I was to officially reject them anyway, but still, as Simon pointed out, you can’t help but take it as a personal affront. (I went over to the old flat to have dinner with Simon and Carole right after this, and Simon and I talked about the stress of WG-besuching. He remarked that, while you can agonize over whether you are going to get a place in a WG you like, what it really comes down to is that “if they don’t accept you, then they don’t deserve you. After all, why would you want to live in a place that didn’t want you?” I remarked upon how similar this sounded to what my parents always tell me when I have a crush on someone who doesn’t like me back: “If he doesn’t realize how special you are, then he doesn’t deserve you,” etc. And sure enough, after emailing my dad about the WG situation, I received a one-line P.S. from him:

If they don’t accept your “application” to join the apartment they don’t deserve you! Love, Me

Later that evening, I went to see a sublet in Treptow, a neighborhood east of Kreuzberg and North of Neukölln that is also on the verge or over the verge (depending on whom you speak to) of full-on hipness. It is a neighborhood of huge brick factories and warehouses, bisected by an old train line that runs into Gorlitzer Park (which itself was built on the remains of a train station) and separated from both other neighborhoods by different sections of the canal. The walk from the old flat on Sonnenallee took about ten minutes, and I marveled at the industrial beauty of the neighborhood (yes, I fall for that, just like any other New Yorker). The room was huge, the people nice, and I got to exercise my German a bit when I realized that one of my potential roommates was being almost entirely silent because he actually didn’t know any English at all. It turned out I could hold a conversation for at least a few minutes, and they were all duly impressed. Still, it would only be a two-month sublet, and although all of my belongings can fit (sort of) into two suitcases now, I loathe the idea of having to move more than once in a six-month period. I left feeling good about the place, but wanting to see what else I could find.

Almost at the same time I received news that my second hopeful WG on Pannierstrasse had picked their new roommate before they’d even met me. (It seems like occasionally this is the case, although most often people will interview ten or twenty potential roommates before making a decision; it just seems never to work in my favor.) But then I suddenly found a listing on Craigslist (usually the least promising of all) for a WG on Sonnenallee (the big boulevard that my old street ran into, which I walked down every single day to get home) looking for a new roommate. They were made up of a German, a Brit, an American, and an Australian, and wanted someone to take over when the Australian moved out. I was so excited I called right away (whereas usually I just email, because of my general awkwardness on the phone), and had a besuch set up for the following evening. I went with high hopes and a woozy feeling in my stomach (and probably shaking hands and palpitating heart, as well), and ten seconds after I’d arrived, knew that I wanted to live there. The room itself was massive and had a big window letting out onto a courtyard, and the guy moving out was leaving all his furniture (always a plus). The building is turn-of-the-century and the walls and ceilings were positively covered in Art Noveau, flowery moldings. One of the rooms even had a massive, iron-wrought and ceramic old-fashioned stove covered with the same motif-they said it had just been there when they moved in. I sat down to have a conversation with the roommates, following Simon’s advice in making sure to ask them about themselves first before I started prattling on about me. I ended up staying for over an hour, and there was not an awkward moment in the conversation. I had hoped I might be able to tell them that I wanted the room and have them accept me immediately, but as I said, this never seems to work in my favor: they already had interviews with other people set up all throughout the week, and said they would get back to me within a week. I desperately want to be the new addition to this WG; it is the closest I have come so far to that ideal, L’Auberge Español living that I think I also had at the old place. But now, all I can do is wait and hope, and yet I’m torn between whether to count on the room being mine, or whether to start looking at other places in the meantime. I honestly don’t know what would jinx it more….

So that’s where I am right now: sitting, waiting, hoping, jinxing (?). There are places I see that are perfect but allow smoking, there are ads that lure me in with a great address but then seem to betray something unforgivably weird about the roommate. I’ve read listings for WG’s with single mothers in their 30s and 40s, and wonder why they are still living that existence now that they have a child to bring up, and who will answer the ad to live in a flat with a two-year-old running around the place. I saw one where the roommate admitted that they had “no TV, fridge, or washing machine,” but assured potential candidates, “we’ve found we get along just fine without them.” One thing is for sure, though: I’m not responding any more to places with “separate entrances,” because I’m certain that if I were to move into one, I would eventually find myself stuck out in the hallway in a towel one morning, rushing to get ready for work, locked out of the flat the entire day.

Next: Visum! Praktika! Deutsche Sprachkurse! MAX RAABE!