How to Become a Berliner – New Berlin Fiction

Wash Echte is the pen-name of a man who has lived and worked in Berlin for ten years, and decided to write down his observations about the German ways, first in blog form, then in book form. Ich werde ein Berliner: How to be a really hip German (Goldmann, 2010) is written as a satire, deliberately in a sarcastic tone, which may, to a large extent, be lost in translation (while written in English, the book was published only in German).

It presents Germans as ambitious, regulatory, and hierarchy-loving for no good reason (p.8), as “alternative” because it’s cool to be alternative (p.10), and it mostly generalizes “Germans” into a homogeneous unity, called “Elitedeutsche” (p.10), who are perhaps best defined as bohemian-bourgeois, Tatort-watching, arugula-eating, gentrification-supporting “Yuppies” (p.278), which in the German context also means former West-Germans, well-off, hipsters, and children of the Wohlstandsgesellschaft parents. Many generalizations and stereotypes are presented sarcastically as the status quo.

The author, who seems to be anglophone, agreed to a Facebook interview, but prefers to stay anonymous:

1. How long have you lived in Berlin?

I have lived here for about 10 years now, with a few breaks in between.

2. What made you want to write about Berlin and its inhabitants?

Disappointment and boredom, mostly. I reckon I was one of those people who believed the hype about Berlin being touted as the “new New York”, and was expecting to come to a vibrant, diverse place full of different cultures, 24/7 entertainment, and plenty of stuff to do. Well, Berlin can be an exciting place for about a month, but then the novelty wears off and you come to the sobering realisation that Berlin is in no aspect living up to the hype around it. It’s infrastructure, culture, and diversity are very typical for a city of 3 or 4 million people, and sure, Berlin does play in that league of cities together with Barcelona, Portland, or Stockholm, but to say it is as diverse and interesting as for example, New York, is a sign that the people who love it here have never experienced a truly big city. Of course, if you’re in your early 20s and come here from Bottrop or Stoke-On-Trent, you might think that you’ve made it to the “Großstadt”.

So, I was disappointed in the reality of daily life in Berlin, but mostly I was disappointed in myself for having been so gullible 10 years ago. Writing “Ich werde ein Berliner” was probably a way to seek catharsis as much as making fun of gullible people – such as my former self.

3. How did you do research for your book?

I didn’t do any conscious research. Yet, once you spent some time with a certain group of people, who all think of themselves as completely individualistic, but are at the same time dressing the same, talking about the same things, going to the same places, and are making the same plans, you can’t help but notice a lot of recurring patterns. After the 25th time you hear someone proclaim “I never watch movies at anonymous multiplexes, but only at small independent movie theatres” as if he or she just made a revolutionary cultural discovery, and what’s worse, people still, in the year 2011, take that as a token of actual individuality, then I have to write about it just to cope with the disgust I feel towards such lazy rebellion.

4. Why did you publish it in German rather than in English?

I didn’t publish the book myself, but was approached by Goldmann Verlag who wanted to put it out on the German market.

5. Who is your target audience?

I haven’t written for a specific audience, but it seems that the exact people who are satirised in my book are the ones who are really getting its intent. On the other hand, people who just casually pick up the book because they’re looking for actual advice on Berlin’s cool spots, feel betrayed and mostly hate it.

6. Why do you prefer to keep your identity hidden?

Mainly to not piss off future employers. I don’t have a private Facebook account, and when I google my name, absolutely nothing turns up, which is great. As I have never written anything before, using my real name would have been the same as using a pseudonym anyway. Nobody would have been any wiser that way.

7. How would you sum up a typical Berliner?

People always say that typical Berliners are brash and very direct, but I’d say that’s not typical for Berliners, but Germans in general. I can’t really tell a Berliner from a German person from, say, Hannover, unless of course they have an accent. I have never been able to spot any typical traits that can’t be found in Germans from elsewhere, too.

8. How would you sum up your definition of “Elitedeutscher”?

Anyone who is content with the lazy achievement to break free from their mainstream upbringing, just to promptly enchain themselves in the even more confining and irrelevant gratification system of occidental counter-culture.

Another blogger and author of a recent Berlin publication is the Austrian Walter Lendl. His Achtung, Freilaufende Berliner: Alles, was Sie wissen müssen, wenn Sie sich in die Hauptstadt wagen (Warning: Free-running Berliners – All that you should know if you’re heading for the capital, Heyne, 2010) is a well-researched impression of the city, as it unfolds itself to someone who likes to observe, read-up, and analyze trends and (hi)stories.

Written in a journalistic style, Lendl also describes the children of the Wohlstand (affluent) parents who move to Berlin to “find themselves” (p.10) and to “actualize themselves” (p.11), because in Berlin everyone can live cheaply and find people with similar interests and needs (p.12). But unlike other Berlin fiction writes, Lendl does not dwell on, or mock the Yuppies, he merely acknowledges their presence as part of the city fabric. While in the past, people used to rebel, he points out, nowadays people simply want to be left alone while they await their inheritance (p.12). And right now there is no better place to do that than Berlin.

Lendl believes that there is no such thing as actual Berliners; instead there are East- and West-Berliner, new Berliners, inhabitants of Charlottenburg, Spandau, etc. Turks, Poles, Russians, Vietnamese, French, and what they all have in common is that in Berlin they can live their lives as they see fit (p.22).

He notes a sense of nostalgia (p.37) for the good old times of anarchy among the aging CDU-voting West-Berliners, and he also notes that nostalgia is more prominent in the West than in the East (p.54).  While protest culture has long been transformed into “pub culture” (p.50), the city has been repopulated by “bourgeois bohemians” (bobos), who may or may not generate what Richard Florida calls the “creative capital” (p.155).

Branded as “poor but sexy” and presented as a narrative of success stories in the marketing campaign “be Berlin” (p.155), the city is fed by the free labour of “generation practicum” (p.158), who populate the start-up businesses of the “creative industries” (p.162), yet all this creativity does not make up for the lack of buyers, investors, and profits, and even the most elaborate fashion trade shows won’t help anybody if nothing is sold there (p.163).

This sober and critical look at the city’s development from an island of rebels, anarchists, and punks, to a capital of Yuppies, project managers, and practicum-labourers, is not new. It is the same mirror that is being held up to Berlin by most journalists, artists, and intellectuals. While it is a very necessary mirror, what hasn’t been written yet is a strategic re-conception of the city’s creative industries, capital investment, and social welfare. Perhaps in many ways, Berlin can learn from Lendl’s hometown Vienna, where the cultural networks generate profits and support their young at the same time.

Yet to conclude on a positive note, Berlin also deserves its credit. Wowereit and his think-tanks and campaign managers are doing their utmost best; they invested into culture, they got the “creative classes” (Yuppies) and their “creative industries” (start-ups) and a whole lot of talent and creativity in-between – the capital will follow (right after the international airport completion). But the question on everyone’s minds seems to be “at what cost”? The term used to express this anxiety in light of looming change is “gentrification” – how does one raise the wages, generate profits, and provide for the young and the old, without sacrificing freedoms and comforts? This is a question for future economists and sociologists. In the meantime, Berlin is caught somewhere between nostalgia and exhilarating progress. And it’s a fascinating journey.

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3 Responses to How to Become a Berliner – New Berlin Fiction

  1. Pingback: The team’s choice of the berlinhipsterfestival2012 « Berlinhipsterfestival2012

  2. Heintze says:

    I came here through Hipster festival. Thank you for the review and interview. I own Wash Echte’s book, but haven’t heard before about Lendl’s, so I’ll look for it next time I go to a bookstore.

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