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Betraying Berlin

19 Jul 2011, 15:11

Published: 19 Jul 2011 15:11 GMT+02:00

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It was just a moment, the time it takes to gulp a double espresso, but long enough to persuade me that I had to leave Berlin and reclaim an interrupted life.

Too lazy to shop for food, I was having breakfast in the Kempinski Hotel. Two Yanks were eating Eggs Benedict at a window table and, as usual, I strained to listen in. They were evidently business men considering investing in Berlin.

“Prices are low,” said one of the men, thin-faced but with a slight stomach that pushed against the table. I deduced he was talking about property here.

“But so are profits,” said his colleague, “Forget-it – the German rental laws are a nightmare. Leave Berlin alone.”

Leave Berlin alone! At the neighbouring table, I let out a silent cheer, a muffled “Bravo!” Who wants foreigners buying up our city? Imposing their alien rules and expectations on us? By all means, visit Berlin, spend your money here, and certainly feel free to admire the city. But then, for the love of God – go home.

For me, this was the point of no return. Suddenly I realised that I had mutated into a Berlin micro-chauvinist, a near-native of this provincial Prussian metropolis that is so determined to resist all that is foreign and strange. After 20 years, I had become a victim of the Berlin version of the Stockholm Syndrome. I had slept with the enemy. It was time to go.

Many English people say they love Berlin, of course. The fatuous lifestyle magazine “Monocle” has just declared it to be the eighth “most liveable” city in the world, after Helsinki (number one) and Munich (number four) but satisfyingly ahead of Tokyo and Madrid. The judges liked the public transportation network – presumably they did not investigate the city’s S-Bahn commuter trains last winter – and its value for money, its greenery, its bicycle paths. That’s nice.

Mismanaged and in denial

There is a big difference between Berlin and the other winners though: places like Melbourne and Zurich are not just easy to live in but are embracing change. They give a sense that new ideas can be realised, that money can be made and that foreigners are not just something to be tolerated but celebrated as part of the adventure of urban life. That spirit, which I found as a student in West Berlin in the 1970s, has evaporated.

But the truth, my truth, is this: Berlin, so badly managed for so long, has betrayed us all, those of us who thought we could fall in love with the place. Some older Berliners tell me that the place has become harsher, more self-regarding over the past decade. I don’t think that’s quite right either. It’s not about the tone of the city, however raw, but about its withdrawal from the realities of modern Europe, its deliberate inability to deal with or even address the issues of an accelerating world.

Under a string of mediocre politicians above all under Mayor Klaus Wowereit, Berlin has allowed itself to become as second-rate capital. I am sorry that it has to be a foreigner to say this, a foreigner moreover with packed suitcases but who else will say it? Not the mayor. He is fond of saying Berlin has “a special attraction – the number of tourists prove that.”

But Disney World in Orlando also has lots of tourists; it is attractive to certain groups of people (most of them under the age of nine) and only for three days at a time. Tourists are no measure of international flair. Or a mark of a city's authority.

As for Berlin’s problems, says Wowereit, it is up to the federal government to pay more. That doesn’t sound like a politician with a vision. Actually it sounds almost identical to what Wowereit was saying five years ago. And my heart sinks as yet another Berlin politician abdicates responsibility.

From cutting edge to standing still

There was a time when Berlin was at the cutting edge of Europe. The city has always had problems, not always of its own making, but it has never tackled them by standing still. Nowadays, the quicker the world moves, the more immobile Berlin seems to become.

It has become cool to the outside world because of its big empty spaces – space for clubs and galleries and re-invention. Provincial kids, not just from the villages of Baden-Württemberg, are in the city's thrall because they can take drugs and stay out late without anyone reporting them to their parents. But the clubs and galleries are going bust. They lack high-spending backers, anyone willing to make an investment longer than nine months.

And the few internet start-up companies the city’s boosters like to tout are likely to become close-down companies as funds dry up. Markets shrivel and banks lose confidence.

Story continues below…

It would be cheap and silly to blame Berlin’s clinical narcolepsy, its sleeping sickness, on the political class alone. We all know the deep cultural rot of this stasis.

The city that has been stuffed full of subsidies, like a wrestler on steroids, is of course going to find it difficult to move or think straight, is going to confuse size with strength. And of course its political class is going to be more adept at spending state money than saving it, more likely to cater to its clients than puzzle out what is best for the city. And we all let that happen.

Over the years I haven’t made myself very popular in Berlin and no doubt this article won’t improve my chances of becoming an honorary citizen. But you don’t become popular by trying to wake someone up in the morning. I will cherish Berlin with all its weaknesses and follies, its big sentimental heart, its vanity and its caustic humour. Yes, maybe I even love the place and its people.

But it’s time to say goodbye – and not with a kiss.

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Your comments about this article

18:27 July 19, 2011 by DinhoPilot
Somehow I feel the author pain and in the same way I am saying goodbye but to another german city. One cannot stop feeling that the relationship with Germany is a love, hate novel.

Reading many posts in here and Toytown is easy to see that one will take a very pros or very cons attitude towards Germany. Either the picture is very dark or unrealistcally positive, but that's life. Germany is a great place to live and maybe the fact that it is not open somewhat makes it special, I feel some people see it as the image of what they want their countries to be (not taking the bad aspects of it).

To say goodbye is hard because one will always look back briefly and think in how good it could have gone.
18:38 July 19, 2011 by Klaipeda
I want Gernany to be open to foreigners just as it has been traditionally throughout its history, but I also want it to remain German.
18:55 July 19, 2011 by DinhoPilot

Weird demand no? What you are asking is more that Germany becomes a tourist hub. I don't know any country that is "open", yet it kept a "closed" culture. As more people come in it is just natural that things will change. There is nothing wrong with it if people come and add value... We all live in the same damn planet after all.

"You cannot eat your cake and have it too..."
21:53 July 19, 2011 by Kennneth Ingle
For any Briton, who has lived for sometime in Germany, saying goodbye is not easy.

Over here one misses the good old fish and chips - and I do not mean stuff like they sell at the Berlin railway station - but rather cod and chips, possibly with mushy peas. Return to Britain though, for a few weeks, and you will find yourself missing the Bratwurst. British sausages contain too much bread and not enough flavour.

Roger, I bet we will see you come back again soon. If not you only have yourself to blame!
07:39 July 20, 2011 by harcourt
Personally it is the intangible things that I miss rather than the culinary delights listed above. After 20 yrs, perhaps it is warmth, friendliness and thinking of other people rather than yourself that I find lacking in Germany.
10:37 July 20, 2011 by West-Berlin
Very interesting blog, Mr. Boyes!!

I like his position concerning the Senate of Berlin.

Even though I'm a strong supporter of the SPD, it's always the same arguments coming from Mr. Wowereit. There is too much talking and blaming each other in Berlin's political landscape.

For example our new international airport down south in Schönefeld.

Berlin always wants to be considered as a world city but forgets that it still does not have a *real* international airport and it took more than 20 years to start building it. I'm glad that the new aiport is almost completed, but this *change* should have come like 10 years ago.

I hope the new airport will attract new investors that bring lots of new jobs to Berlin.

Berlin's cultural offers are great and in my eyes unique in Germany, but its economy is still the weak point -- okay it does not inlcude the tourism in Berlin.
13:39 July 20, 2011 by dbert4
Tschüß Herr Boyes, you won't be missed!

Go back to that picture of good management, London. Perhaps you will better appreciate that Auslander Mecca than you did here.
15:25 July 20, 2011 by Konrad S Waldau
I think that any city that has a long history such as Berlin or Rome or Tokyo should celebrate what it already is and not worry about meeting anyone's pre-conceived expectations. It's peace, joy and contentment that make for a good place to live, not the number of foreigners.
17:47 July 20, 2011 by whpmgr
Interesting that we lose perspective on things. Our perspective is over-ruled by that of another. When I lived in Spain, I had to learn the language, as no one in Zaragoza actually spoke much English, or very good english. I studied teh country's history and had a very good grasp on things. Phillipe GOnzalez and Jose Maria Aznar were in the front of my mind. An American Soldier in Spain, but feeling so Spanish. I embraced teh culture and politics, history, and knew more about it than many who even were born there.

I had left Germany to go there, and after 4 years plus there, I went back to Germany. I traveled teh world, seeing how things were in so many places. I embraced Germany, bought a home and wanted to become a part of it. I learned the language, studied the history, politics, etc, and made friends for life, just like in Spain. While I was considered an outsider by many, many thought of me as one of them.

So where am I going with this, right? Just becuase the author is born in England, and not necessarily a German, he saw things. He took note, he was conversant with the problems of the city he lived and he told us some things that may or may not be true, but if peoploe don't look into them, we wont know. His point of view is important, and should not be discounted since he is just another Briton in Germany. It is easy to tell him to Go HOme, the new way of saying (auslander raus), but you left in Berlin, you will still have the problems he writes about. You need to grasp what he says. Investigate the truth, be engaged and fix the problems.

The world is on a destructive path. If people do not make their poloiticians responsible, and vulnerable if they are not, nothing will change. We are losing a grasp and on the verge of an anarchist wave of apathy that will kill many great societies.

Heed what he says, for you can fix it now, or lament the lack of action later.
18:05 July 20, 2011 by harcourt

It's sad when any hint of criticism gets this sort of reaction!!
20:54 July 20, 2011 by IYWMTS
Constructive criticism should always be welcomed by the ones who are being criticised. Therefore "whpmgr" is perfectly right.

But we'll see what the future holds.

In the year of 2000 the Anglo-Saxon world used to criticise the German economic system as not being sustainable - in deed numerous reforms were much-needed - and they were done.

Now eleven years later it seems, as if those who critisised others should rather also have critised themselves....
21:00 July 20, 2011 by lunchbreak
Yes, I remember when lots of folks around here were thinking about moving to Berlin and some of them actually made the change. And I also remember when many of them came back disillusioned. Poor Berlin, a city frozen in a perpetual state of unfulfilled promise.
21:54 July 20, 2011 by DinhoPilot
The truth is nowdays the "Land of Milk and Honey" is long gone...
22:01 July 20, 2011 by LecteurX
Lots of true things were said and criticism should always be welcome, especially when it is carefully thought, and coming from a foreigner who obviously still loves the city he elected to leave.

However, let's not be too carried away about the Swiss and Australians' "celebrating" of foreigners instead of merely "tolerating" them... Australia had race riots in the last decade (arguably in Sydney, not Melbourne, but well...) and one in four Swiss voters cast their ballots for a xenophobic party whose name in French is UDC. Minaret ban anyone?

Therefore, confidently saying something like "places like Melbourne and Zurich are not just easy to live in but are embracing change. They give a sense that new ideas can be realised, that money can be made and that foreigners are not just something to be tolerated but celebrated as part of the adventure of urban life" requires a leap of faith indeed.
23:24 July 20, 2011 by finanzdoktor

Will miss your insight and intellectual wit. Although I do not currently reside in Germany, but am looking forward to returning there for a visit or work assignment soon (Ich komme aus Deutschland in Landstuhl.)

Good luck and please do not be a stranger.
23:59 July 20, 2011 by MrJones321
Overall your points ring very true. Especially the mayor, a self-inflated ego who thinks that his personality alone is what's necessary for a city, the "sexy but poor" line and all. Not to mention his atitude during the S-Bahn scandal, essentially stating on television "so what" when asked about the problems for tourists who have no signs or information explaining what they should be doing now that transportation is effectively missing. Imagine him trying to move further up the political line now. But Berlin was always a facade after 1989, the point now is how people utilze it. There is no imagination for many reasons, not only but certainly the economical ones. It is a playground without much real law because there is no character implementing any vision of law. The government closes down any streets they need for half a day or so, whole segments of a city, without putting any signs as to what detours should exist. You can drive on the best streets around important historical areas and find beautiful call-girls on the street, obvious in their job. Each aspect has something. No business invests here because of security in what they are promised and what they can expect. The metaphor for Berlin today in my hof, a beautiful 19th century building, 3000 sq ft loft, renovated with the imagination of having an expensive business client with some decorum to match this neighborhood. Instead it is crammed with six times as many people as expected, full of small cubicle-desks, just missing the walls but otherwise pure Dilbert, with wannabee hipsters, loud, uninterested in the neighbors around them and glaringly obviously from other parts of Germany. Just the spiesers that most people left to come to Berlin originally.
03:16 July 21, 2011 by ChrisRea
I need the help of those that (recently) lived in Berlin - I do not understand the problems this article would like to point out.

The author starts by reporting a discussion between two real estate investors. They seem to freak out because of small profits and difficult rental laws. Apparently these two are not very experienced if they ignore that the German rental laws applies all over Germany and that Berlin had in the last year quite a development in the real estate sector. The office rental market grew 26%, the average rent of prime office spaces grew by 10%, the vacancy diminished at about 8.1%. Most of the offices to be build by the end of 2012 are already pre-rented. As for apartments, about three weeks ago Hamburg Trust announced that they will invest EUR 24.2 Mio in housing projects in Berlin. It takes only a walk in Mitte to see many new projects developing. As a personal experience, it was a matter of days to find a new tenant for a 70-sqm apartment and a rent of EUR 800.

The author continues saying that the internet start-ups of Berlin are likely to be closed due to lack of funding. Well, apparently he ignores examples like Wooga. Started in 2009, the company grew to be the second largest social game developer in the world (the first being Zynga, valued at around $20 billion). In May, the company attracted $24 Million Series B Investment. And Wooga is not the only one - IT companies are the number one growth driver in the office rental market. So definitely there is a lot of money made in Berlin (even if other German cities make even more), it just takes an open eye to see it.

Mr. Boyes also says that clubs and galleries are going bust. Well, in the last 11 months since I am living in Berlin I haven't notice such a trend. Does anyone have any info on this?

If this were the reasons he decided to go back to leave Berlin/Germany, then he probably should rethink it. But maybe I am missing something - so please give me a hand so that I understand what are the reasons outlined in this article.
09:37 July 21, 2011 by KimiDaYo

You're seeing it too logical and too fact based. For instance, he also puts out Zurich and Australia as celebrating foreigners (which is a good thing, celebrating nationals is wrong... because foreigners have 10 times the worth of a domestic person as everybody knows). Anyways, where is he going? London.

An englishman going to the capital of england to be celebrated as a foreigner? Hmm... Its nearly as if he doesnt want foreigners to be celebrated but as if its the other way around, he's had it with all those strange non-english ticks and he finally wants to be imersed in an all-around english culture. Where people speak english. Where people are english. And before anyone says that London is a melting pot and has a frontline spirit and whatnot... try surviving in London by only speaking german or french or japanese and come back reporting how much you where celebrated for being a foreigner.

So, Mr Boyes instead of going to London, how about going to Tokyo or Beijing or perhaps Singapore? What about Abu Dabih or Buenos Aires? Yes, they dont speak english there... but surely you want that foreign feeling, yes? Believe me its much stronger outside England if you're an englishman. If a german wants to be celebrated as a foreigner he'll hardly go to Munich. Even though Bavaria is "innerdeutsches Ausland".

I wholeheartedly agree that Red-Red government is insanity though. Not a Berliner myself, so nobody can blame me for that. I'm just hoping that the Schuldenbremse, that will also be applied to the Länder, will get them out of office as soon as they cant continue to steal other germans money to buy their votes. For all I care, they can go to Greece... seems to work there.
16:34 July 21, 2011 by Woden's Day
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
16:35 July 21, 2011 by Raycr
One minute Roger wants foreign investors who want to pay rent out of Berlin and the next he wants high spending backers for the clubs. Feeling a little schizophrenic anyone?
17:21 July 21, 2011 by DickShawnsDiction
"It¦#39;s not about the tone of the city, however raw, but about its withdrawal from the realities of modern Europe, its deliberate inability to deal with or even address the issues of an accelerating world."

As the "accelerating world" becomes a glorified playground for money-mad sociopaths, I'll gladly remain here (22 years in November) with a few other lazy, unambitious, and utterly un-reptilian humans, thanks!

"Enjoy" London... ! (laugh)
18:14 July 21, 2011 by SandraDay
Can't some people accept that not everyone is supposed to approve and find joy out of the same exact things in life?? I respect the author's honesty and think it's definitely his prerogative to like or dislike a place.

Just FYI, all the same things seem to ring true in Paris as well. I can't wait to say good-bye without a kiss!!
22:07 July 21, 2011 by ChrisRea
# SandraDay,

You are right, de gustibus non est disputandum. However, the author fills his article with statements which are purely false (and it is not about his taste). Perhaps "ignorant" suits him better than "honest" (or "honestly ignorant" if you like).
10:42 July 22, 2011 by PeterJames
Just enjoy life, wherever you may end up.....and don't be bitter ; )

We moved to Berlin from Iran 9 years ago after we lost our daughter, to read the above complaints seems all so petty. Every day now we wake up and love this city more. We have been embraced here and are clearly foreigners. Beautiful streets, good food, so many things to see and do.

Love and live!

Life has it's ups and downs, but I must say life in Berlin could be a lot worse. Ironically in London 2 years ago someone shouted racial abuse at me and my wife, yet here in Berlin we have not had this.

All the best for life and the future everyone!
11:28 July 22, 2011 by ECSNatale
No place is perfect nor can it be all things to all people. Whatever points My Boyes makes about leaving a place he loves because it isn't exactly what he wants it to be left me with the image of a man throwing his toys out of the pram.

It is very easy (and I supposed considered witty and intelligent by some) to write criticisms of a person or place, but in my mind what makes people truly valuable is when they use their skills to try and fix what they see as broken.

I've been in London and Berlin many, many times and enjoy both cities, I also feel blessed that I grew up in one country and now get to shape my life on this planet with the influence of another, however, I wonder if the writer's dissatisfaction with Berlin isn't more rooted in his need to write a story for attention then to actually make Berlin (in his eyes) a better place.

Enjoy your fish and chips, Sir - this article left me hungry.
15:53 July 22, 2011 by segovius
I have an acid test for when I read articles like this - it is one that it is (imo) iron-clad and foolproof and will always speak volumes more than the mere statement of intent to leave.

It is simply a question addressed to the writer or would-be-abandoner-of-ship:

"Where are you going instead?"

It seems that in this case the answer may be "to the UK" and at that point surely no more need be said?
19:07 July 22, 2011 by McNair Kaserne
Berlin would doubtless have even more tourism if the Reds who "won by losing" were not so busy erasing every vestige of it's history as a divided city.

West Berlin was a very special place where life was other than normal, yet had a unique flavor. I am proud, and will be so always that I spent 3 years of my youth defending West Berlin from the Bolshevist hordes. I met the love of my life there, and though I, with the callowness of youth, left her behind at at the end of my service, TLWNF, (True Love Will Never Fade) and we were recently married after 30 years of being always in touch but also apart.

I'd like to thank all the West Berliners who made us welcome, Berlin will always be a special place for me, even though the Berlin I knew remains only in memory. Thank you Berlin!
07:45 July 23, 2011 by dinerouk
I'm annoyed that people still seem to think that the main diet of the English, is fish & Chips!
10:00 July 28, 2011 by Kennneth Ingle
Oh dear! Sorry, I completely forgot the Saveloy fans. But nobody will ever be able to beat the good old fish and chips.
18:29 July 28, 2011 by Zlik
Love/hate novel, I agree.T Now try to understand even Elder Deutschlander's can accept they can learn newer ways based on evolving time and actual proof. Grow.

Fundamentals are never lost, but communicating the desires often are snap shut by a built- in do no interrupt known methodology. Thus devolution.
03:14 July 29, 2011 by crunchy2k
What a flounce piece. I hope his new digs in the council house and job cleaning floors at the local fish and chips works out for him. This is the type of individual that you don't want in any city. They believe themselves disenfranchised from the time of birth when their mother forced them out of the womb. They just never fit in.
12:00 July 30, 2011 by siba
This is just one subjective view on Berlin and I - representing a younger generation of new berliners - cannot share a single line with the author. I am 31 years old and I lived in NYC, London and Amsterdam. In 2006 I moved to Berlin which, lots of friends said, is the new capital of Europe or the new New York... and after having spent more than four years here I know what they meant. I, and so many expats, experience Berlin as an overly open, tolerant, creative and vibrant place where no one judges you about what you do or who you are and where you have a lot of space for personal and professional development. Partys, culture, jobs... there is so much happening here.

And Berlin has not just become a tourist hub; if you look at the statistics, year by year more people move to and settle in Berlin - like most of my friends. They come from the US, Australia, England, France, Italy and Spain - and all of them have a job or created their business and plan to spend their lives in Berlin... (Btw: IT start up businesses flourish in Berlin, look at the statistics!!)

Berlin keeps on growing regarding so many aspects and let's appreciate this hype before it becomes just another London, NYC or Paris.

The author apparently did not see much of what is happening around him, or did not want to or just was locked in a life world which did not let him see the rise of Berlin.

@ DinhoPilot: You cannot compare Berlin with any other city in Germany. The Berlin of today is a very young and international world city which is proud of its tolerance and openness; its mayor is openly gay and English is more heard on the streets than German.

Berlin has got my place to be. I have got a good job, great friends and the quality of life is very high and absolutely affordable... I love Berlin. -- This is my subjective view on Berlin - and I know that most young people who have moved (and willl move here will) share this view.
09:54 August 5, 2011 by Shiny Flu
It's a fair criticism. When Klaus "invite me to your event and take my photo" Wowereit puts the effort into making noise that he is bidding to host the Olympics even though every Berliner with an ounce of intelligence knows that the IOC is not going to give a mis-managed city like ours such responsibility, let alone how Berlin would pay for it.

Or Wowereit's insightful comment about Berlin's rental inflation: Higher rents exhibit Berlin's residents increase of income and henceforth ability to pay higher rent. *smash head against brick wall*

I'd beg to differ though about 'internet start-ups' as there is growth and although many will fail, some wont. Unfortunately if you're not in the know, you don't know - and owning a smartphone doesn't count. Sorry. Not to mention other start-ups that I know are working well and functioning for years as opposed to the length of pregnancy.

Could I indulge myself and say that as a relatively recent expat (4 years), that whilst the Senat is not moving forward, or at least taking only one step forward and two in the opposite direction - the city itself, is. And indeed, this 'change' or progression that you are craving is rather just starting to happen now as opposed to not happening at all.

Is there even the possibility that you yourself are the one that has found no new avenues in Berlin after 20 years, rather than the city itself. Don't get me wrong, it's entirely understandable. For even a city as geographically large as Berlin, it's not too hard to know it like the back of your hand after a while. The adventure and change that was happening in Berlin 10-15 years ago is much akin to watching a child grow. Now that Berlin has reached the end of adolescence, change and progress tends to be more subtle and slower. It might just not be moving into the direction that you thought it would when you decided to stay here all those years ago. That's ok.

I wish you all the best of luck in your return to London.

Simon Chan
00:07 August 8, 2011 by ChrisRea
A recent Reuters article about Berlin being the host of internet start-ups:

22:42 August 14, 2011 by username112973
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
13:33 August 16, 2011 by soros
I lived in Berlin before the Wall came down. Then it was called die Sterbende Stadt, the dying city, because people were leaving it. I'm a bit disappointed to read that it hasn't made much progress lately, but it's always been something of a welfare haven and drop out center for the disaffected, with a 'floating' population while it's elderly died off.

However, what I want to add is that I have been to the UK a few times these last years and I hear lots of complaints that Britain has nothing much that is British about it any more. Places like London are nihilistic, culture-less cities of migrants who themselves find no new identity there. Perhaps this is what the Germans would like to avoid, and I cant blame them for it.

The US and Canada, too, esp. in the big cities, have a similar lack of identity. Compare the major N. American cities with Istanbul, Tokyo, Mexico City, Beijing, and you find a lot more culturally-confident people who dont lack a sense of who they are. People are more rooted. If progress means openess to the point of wiping out the local culture, then we will end up with bland megacities that all look and feel alike. No thanks.
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