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5 August 2016

The slacker’s sanctuary: in Berlin, without a job or a plan

A Brexit exile in Berlin tries to adjust to life, and heads to German lessons alongside Polish workers, fashionable Swedes and Syrian refugees.

By Philip Maughan

Just over a month ago, I quit my job in London, packed as many clothes as I could into two suitcases and left the UK for Berlin. Exactly a week after I arrived, Britain voted to leave the European Union and overnight the country I had departed from felt noticeably further away. “I feel like we’ve lost our friends,” said the mother of a German girl I know. “But don’t worry,” she told me. “You are still welcome here.”

She meant well but her words chilled me all the same. The possibility that I might not be welcome in Germany hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Mainly that’s because for the past ten years, probably longer, Berlin has been a sanctuary for young, queer, radical or indolent people from across the world. One of a number of cultural differences that will strike a fresh arrival from London is that at parties and in bars or clubs, nobody asks you what you do. The reason for this is that so many people in Berlin do nothing – or, at least, they do as little as is necessary to survive. There is a culture of scrabbling through, living thriftily, borrowing and sharing.

Despite the rapid expansion of technology start-ups in the city, life here is still cheap by western European standards (my rent is about a third of what it was in east London). The German capital is not a major financial centre, unlike Frankfurt or Munich. What it has instead is politics and culture. And partying. Nobody has asked me what I do but many people have asked if I have “a plan”. Everyone has known foreigners who succumbed to the 24-7 party lifestyle and bankrupted themselves before getting the chance to settle in. It’s not impossible that I will become one of them.

I hope not, though. I came here, at least in part, to write (naturally in English), feeling pretty ambivalent about learning German and about the wider country beyond Berlin. Yet, as soon as I stepped off the plane, my ignorance irritated me (more so than usual). I downloaded the language-learning app Duolingo, which “gamifies” comprehension and vocabulary practice to speed up the acquisition of words and phrases, and remembered how fun learning a language can be – even one as grisly as German!

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In an attempt to step things up a notch, last week I took the S-Bahn to a Volkshochschule (community college) in the east of the city, where I had been told that state-run “integration courses” teaching German language, law and history could be acquired for just over €1 an hour (refugees, the unemployed and the low-waged pay nothing). I waited in line to register alongside Polish workers, fashionable Swedes and Syrian refugees for over an hour before realising that I was in the wrong queue.

I had been queueing to have my existing German skills tested – but I had none. Given that it was a Monday, I was also dealing with some rather harrowing post-weekend feelings and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy was too much for me. Defeated and depressed, I slouched home to bed.

The next morning, I returned and registered in about ten minutes, joining a class of Thai, Chinese, Russian and Italian students of mixed ages to sit in small groups and speak German like drunk toddlers.

Before the EU referendum, my German friends had been keen to emphasise that, for them, the ideal of European unity held great emotional significance. Yet it was the Brits in Berlin whose reaction to Brexit surprised me most. Those who had left the UK around the time of the financial crisis in 2008 claimed not to have realised just how far the country had shifted to the right. More accurately, they had no idea just how polarised it had become – or, to make a broad generalisation, how much it had come to resemble the US, where a crude culture war in which “normal people” despise “the elites” has been perpetuated for years, making any closer scrutiny of the reasons underpinning that inequality unlikely.

Of course, Berlin has its own problems, as does Germany. As I write this, the streets of Friedrichshain in east Berlin are swamped with riot police. Several squats in the area have been forcibly shut down to make way for new housing developments. A recent  anti-gentrification march that attracted thousands of protesters ended in arrests.

In May, the city began to restrict the rental of entire properties through services such as Airbnb and Wimdu – an enterprise that is believed to be choking the limited housing supply. At the same time, the federal government continues to encourage outside investment in Berlin. “We will now take advantage [of Brexit],” Cornelia Yzer, the state’s senator of economics and technology, recently told the BBC, after trying to convince tech entrepreneurs and global venture capital firms to leave London.

Despite a series of violent attacks in the southern regions of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg over the past week – three of which involved migrants from Syria and Afghanistan – the door, for the time being, remains open to all. The German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, has suggested that remaining EU member states should consider offering dual citizenship to young Brits living on the Continent to guarantee they can stay put. Personally, I wouldn’t say no.

This weekend, having taken a total of four German lessons, I had something of a breakthrough. After nine hours of dancing at Berghain, believed by many (and I see no reason to argue) to be the finest, most hedonistic techno club in the world, I started chatting with a woman from Crimea who was less than nine months into her own Berlin odyssey. Many Germans are good English speakers and I welcomed the chance to talk to someone who wasn’t – especially given that by this point I was in no condition to give a damn how stupid I sounded.

I managed to say, “I’m tired but I’m still dancing,” “I have no money but the men are buying me beer,” and, “Russia is scary,” before leaving the club at around 1pm, as thrilled at having made a friend while speaking in German as at making it past the notoriously selective bouncers.

To celebrate, I grabbed a beer from a kiosk and lay down in a park. I wondered when I’d finally do some writing. Later, probably. And after that, I’ll start working on my “plan”.

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue