Being Berlin’s culture monkey

Braving a chaotic, frustrated crowd of 20,000 people, Ben Knight spends his Saturday evening as a bus guide during Berlin's first ever Long Night of Opera and Theatre.

Being Berlin’s culture monkey
Photo: DPA

“Three theatres I couldn’t get into, and now I can’t even get on this bus,” one woman ranted, having unsuccessfully attempted to see a 15-minute puppet version of the Norse myth Edda in the tiny Schaubude theatre. There was an edge of despair in her voice. “This whole evening has been one big frustration.”

“I’m very sorry about that,” replied Manhard my bus driver, preserving admirable equanimity, “But there’s nothing I can do. It’s a safety matter. If I can’t see out of the side of the bus someone might get killed.”

After a stoic stand-off, it was left to her husband to mutter some conciliation, and the disgruntled couple stepped out.

“There’ll be another bus in ten minutes!” I called out after her, knowing it would be just as full. It was about 8:30 pm, and the much-vaunted Long Night of Opera and Theatre was in its busiest phase. Crowds were gathering outside nearly every tiny venue in the city, and specially-requisitioned public buses were dumping new audiences on the kerbs outside each one.

An hour and a half earlier, the first raging masses had piled into the Staatsoper on Bebelplatz, the central hub of the unwinding chaos. It quickly became clear that a large portion of the estimated 20,000 people taking part in tonight’s theatrical free-for-all had had the same idea: catch the half-hour version of The Magic Flute before dipping into the unknown hinterland of Berlin’s theatre scene. That’s where I came in, clutching a microphone and wearing a snazzy black t-shirt with the frivolous word “Infoooooooooos” printed on it, manning one of the buses.

For one night last weekend, fifty of Berlin’s theatres opened their doors to anyone with a €15 ticket. Theoretically, anyone could go and see anything anywhere. Almost all the theatres put on shortened versions of their standard programmes. The larger theatres gamely gave up a night’s takings while the smaller theatres, sensing an invaluable opportunity, went to town, offering a myriad of off-beat shows, foyer entertainments, live music, and sometimes soup. But it was apparently a bit too successful.

They told us it might get chaotic at the brief induction a couple of days earlier.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen,” said the benign old Reinhard Ellmer of Kulturprojekte Berlin, the organisation charged with getting this cultural orgy on the road. He was almost proud of his uncertainty. “This is biggest event of its kind ever attempted in the world. They’ve done them in Stuttgart and Hamburg, but those are much smaller,” he said referring disdainfully to other Long Nights elsewhere.

He was addressing the fifty or so people – predominately students and the unemployed – who had signed up to accompany a bus on one of the seven routes around Berlin. I got Bus 4 on Route 4, a circuit of Prenzlauer Berg taking in nine famous and less famous theatres, beginning and ending at Bebelplatz, where four venues were located.

We all received an info pack containing maps and programmes of our theatres, plus the jaunty t-shirt. Knowledge of Berlin’s cultural landscape seemed to be a plus rather than a requirement, but we did get a daunting brief: “Try to keep them in a good mood,” Ellmer said, before sending us on our way.

Manhard and I made six rounds of Prenzlauer Berg, each 45 minutes with a 10 minute, transit union-enforced coffee break between them. As traffic thinned towards the end of the night, Manhard contrived to make his breaks longer and longer.

He was cheerfully cynical about the whole enterprise: “I knew it would be chaos, you know. I’d never do this as a spectator. What’s the point? By the end of the night, you’ve gone round to all these funny little ‘performance’ joints and you’ve got no idea what you saw.”

He said the word ‘performance’ in English, and infused it with scorn. Even Berlin bus-drivers know wanky artsy jargon when they hear it.

Despite the stress, a festival atmosphere started to develop on the bus. By the second run, I had understood my role – I was meant to be a holiday entertainer, a Club 18-30 mood-maker, a kind of bus MC of merriment. Berlin’s culture monkey, as it were.

I chatted cheerily to the passengers, wishing the ones alighting good luck in the ever-extending queues, and asking the ones that entered what they’d seen and if it was any good. By and by, I even started enjoying myself.

I was only prevented from starting a sing-along by the fear of lowering the tone of a supposedly highbrow evening of culture. A breezy rendition of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” probably wouldn’t go over very well if you’ve just consumed an Israeli-Palestinian-German modern dance “exploring the differences between national and private shame and disgrace” at Dock 11 on Kastanienallee.

It soon became clear that the key to navigating the evening was going Zen. The passengers having the best nights were the ones that had serenely abandoned their carefully worked out programmes, and let the buses take them on a surprise journey.

“It’s really good for the small theatres,” one woman told me, “but for us, we’re really just getting a tour of the venues, so you have an idea where to go on another night.” Another woman, who wandered forlornly over to us on one of Manhard’s breaks, was less gracious: “More like Long Night of the Bus Rides. It was much better in Stuttgart.”

But that was in the initial madness. After 10 pm, the crowds had got the hang of it, and began dispensing themselves more evenly throughout the city. And the theatres did their bit, too. Actors began performing in the streets outside the Galli Theater in Mitte and there seemed to be a consensus to have a good time. Many venues hosted after-show parties.

In the morning, as the video screens were being dismantled and the theatre programmes strewn across Bebelplatz gathered up, the organisers were claiming it had all been a great success – regardless of what Manhard thought.

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.