Hinter den Kulissen

It’s like clockwork. Here we are, all living out our lives in this little bubble we call Berlin—actually a bubble inside a bubble since we are not just Berliners but expat Berliners—and then, perhaps once or twice a month, someone publishes an article, a blog post, or a rant that shatters this illusion we all hold about our lives, silencing that little voice telling us, however faintly, that we are special. That our decision to move here was more than just following a trend. That we aren’t just living out a cliché that has been lived out before our parents were even born, as old as Paul Auster, Paul Theroux, or even Hemingway before them.

A couple of months ago it was that article in the New York Times. Remember the one? If you don’t you must have been living in a cave—or maybe just not in Berlin. It detailed the legal, illegal, and definitely stupid exploits of an Australian who moved here to be a rock star, and got what he wanted—minus the music. It set off a cascade of responses, angry tweets and Facebook messages and blog posts that went unabated for a good week or two. How dare he suggest that expats are uncreative leaches? How dare he put into words that everything isn’t perfect here? Having seen it all, having gone through the highs and lows of being unemployed because I wanted it and then being unemployed even though I didn’t, of taking abuse and exploitation and low-paid jobs and the feeling that everyone was getting ahead except me, and finally, finally feeling like I’d reached the point where I could demand a certain amount of money for my time, certain expectations for myself, I remained silent. (No, this isn’t going to be like the classic quote about how they came for the Jews and the Communists and everybody, and I remained silent.) There have been articles about how gentrification is killing Berlin, and I agreed but remained silent. There have been online hate-filled screeds about hipsters and expats by hipsters and expats, in the end, the authors revealing only their own self-doubt and self-loathing. Perhaps I’ve even written something like that in the past and didn’t realize it. Never mind. I largely remained silent.

But all these articles made me realize something: we expats like to discuss the merits of our decisions to move in terms of how “real” our lives feel. Yep, come to think of it, I remember writing just such a post not long ago. Maybe we really are what we’re afraid of: the traveler on a constant quest, the tourist on vacation forever. The reason I know this? Travelers are always comparing experiences, trying to deem one the most authentic while the others are just shells of experiences…or stage sets. Very often the most authentic experience involves stumbling upon something that takes you “behind the scenes”—literally behind that stage set that towns and cities and world attractions put up for you to make absolutely sure you’re seeing what you came all the way to see, when in fact you hardly see anything at all. Very often, an authentic travel story involves speaking to a local or being invited home to dinner by one. I often wondered how you succeed in doing this if you don’t know the language, beyond the usual absurd, childlike charade gestures we all have to resort to at one point or another. The truth is, you can’t.

And at its heart, that is the subject of the latest rant to enter our sphere, the only one I’ve ever felt the need to comment on, the now infamous (but only a week and a half old) ExBerliner rant Sorry, no German! by Julie Colthorpe. Ostensibly an article about brunching in Neukölln (it is, after all, subtitled, “Julie Colthorpe on why she’ll never eat brunch in Neukölln again”) the article quickly devolves into a pretty powerful rant about all the annoying expats in Neukölln who can’t be bothered to learn German, some of whom are now, God forbid, even opening their own businesses, at which German need not be spoken. Aside from stating the obvious solution to this, advice I’ve more or less, deliberately or not, followed for the last couple of years anyway (don’t go to Neukölln if it annoys you), I can merely express my sympathy. I know how she feels. And yet…I know how the other side feels too, because I’ve been on both.

Immediately, the Internet seemed to be abuzz in conversation. (Occasionally, when I scroll through the obvious expat blogs here in Berlin, I wonder whether every expat community in every major world city has its own navel-gazing, insular world of online blogs and interconnected artsy groups who all know and secretly hate each other. I also wonder at the extremity of our situation here: jump from Berlin to Istanbul, and no one would have heard of 99% of the blogs and magazines we get our inspiration from, but I bet you they’d still be discussing who among them spoke better Turkish.) Points were made, fingers were pointed, and, I must say, some very good, meaty, ranty writing came out of the whole affair. But when you take all the writing together as a whole (the entire “expat” body of work, as it were), a trend seems to emerge. Everyone is thoroughly terrified that they’re not being authentic enough; that their lives here are somehow a joke. The most you want as an expat is to begin to feel like you’re living a normal life in the country you’ve chosen to call home. Something about that seems so cool, doesn’t it? It always did for me. And yet, as soon as you find yourself living that normal life, some of the magic is gone, I guess. If all you’re doing is waking up, going to your job, and maybe going out on weekends, you could be doing that in any city, right? You could be doing that back home, where you already know the language and you can look down on all the people who don’t.

Yet there’s something about Berlin right now—maybe because it seems to be the city of the moment and lots of people are moving here without thinking it all the way through, ostensibly forgetting that Berlin is the capital of Germany—that makes it particular prone to hand-wringing over the issue of language, whether you’ve learned it, and what it says about your authenticity, your “right” to be here. Of course, I usually feel like the only people asking those questions of expats are other expats; I, for one, certainly can’t remember sitting around in New York talking about how annoying it is to go into the Brighton Beach neighborhood and only hear Russian or Chinatown and only hear Chinese. That’s part of what most New Yorkers love about their city—that every neighborhood is a small vacation just a subway ride away. In fact, English is the only language that ever seems to be on the receiving end of people’s ire, and those who are angry are usually expats or immigrants themselves.

Discussions about the difficulty of the German language and the reluctance of Berlin’s expat community (that’s right, Berlin’s expat community as a whole, apparently) to learn it seem to fall into two categories: there are those who think you shouldn’t have to learn any language if you don’t want to and can get by without it (usually the same people who haven’t learned German because they don’t want to and can get by without it) and there are those who think it should be learned as a common courtesy to the natives of whatever country you’re in (putting aside how difficult this can be if you’re taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan or Egypt). Of those who have been in Berlin for a long enough period of time that their lack of German is beginning to seem a bit ridiculous, even to them, there are also two basic categories: some don’t learn it because it’s just too difficult, some don’t learn it because it’s just too ugly. I’ve usually refrained from commenting on such discussions because I fit into none of these categories. (I suppose, however, I’ve commented with my actions: if I look at my circle of friends, they consist of quite a few people who have gone to great lengths to learn and use near-fluent German in a relatively short period of time.) The fact is, I don’t think German is ugly. I’ve wanted to learn it since before I even visited the country. I moved to Berlin to learn German, not knowing a single person here who could tell me what kind of a city it was, that I would enjoy it here, that it would be cheap. My whole reason for being here was to learn the language, and by God I was going to. Sure, it was difficult, but somehow I managed it, and that makes me think anyone else could. I took intensive classes my first year, was lucky enough to meet a German man in my second, was kind of forced into it after that, but all in all, in spite of my continued struggle and quasi-triumph over this language, I’ve never blamed the language itself.

But I do know how different my life here would be without it. I remember, with that familiar knotted feeling in my stomach, the experience of cold-calling a doctor’s office for the first time and reciting lines I only half understood over and over again as the phone rang ominously. I remember walking into a shop, my embarrassment ostensibly showing on my face as I uttered the only four words I knew in German at the time: “Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?” And then I remember what came after that: first, having to have a few lines prepared to apologize for your bad German skills before launching into German so faltering, you’d be lucky to get away with it. I remember the satisfaction of launching into a conversation without having to apologize: my German skills were finally good enough. Then I remember that ultimate prize: navigating an entire party, dinner, or even job interview and realizing I had gotten away with it; I was speaking without thinking, coming up with the German words automatically instead of the English words first. That little burst of brain energy you get from this, the shivering thrill, is reward enough for spending your first couple of years constantly feeling like a four year old (at least you could probably converse with one of them in German at the beginning, until they decide you must be stupid and skip away). It is a feeling of pride unlike any other, something so wonderful that I can only wish my fellow English-speaking expats well, and hope they get there someday, with some language. Maybe then they’ll realize that, while Berlin is a city you can reach, a lifestyle you can achieve with barely any effort at all, putting in the effort will take you that much further. It may even take you through the stage door and behind the Kulisse. And it doesn’t get much more authentic than that.