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What's drawing so many young Brits to Berlin and what are the issues they face?

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What's drawing so many young Brits to Berlin and what are the issues they face?
Photo: DPA
11:39 CET+01:00
Ever more Brits are deciding to leave the shores of the island nation and make a move to the German capital. But it's not just the thudding beat of techno that is calling them over the sea.

After graduating from university in Glasgow, Floraidh Clement knew that she wanted to work in social media.

Ideally, she would have stayed in the “underrated” Scottish city, where she felt settled among the welcoming locals. But she sent off hundreds of job applications and never got to the stage of an interview. In a smallish city with four universities, competition was tough.

And while everyone who graduated in Scotland “seemed to see it as the natural next step” to move to London, she wasn't interested in the British capital. The friends she had there were spending most of their earnings on rents and didn't seem happy.

So instead Clement and her boyfriend decided to look for work in Berlin. Born in Lower Saxony and raised in North Rhine-Westphalia, she was no stranger to Germany, although her family moved back to the UK when she was a teenager.

Within a few weeks of job hunting the couple had both been given interviews at companies in the thriving Spree-side startup scene. After long application processes, they were offered jobs and set off in the early autumn.

“Before I arrived I wanted to stay here, get married and have children,” Clement says, explaining that she saw Berlin as the perfect place to raise kids. “Seeing people from all walks of life makes you a more tolerant person.”

But after a rocky start, she isn't so sure anymore.

The over-heated rental market was the first bucket of ice Berlin threw at her.

“Before you arrive here you look at rental costs and think ‘great, I can afford to get my own place'", she says. "But good luck getting a flat as an English-speaker against the 30-odd other people who want it.”

The young couple have been staying in a property rented through AirBnB, an arrangement which is of questionable legality and also expensive. While they started looking in the Prenzlauer Berg district, which would have given great access to both their jobs, now they are open to moving anywhere in the capital. But, after weeks of trying, they still can't get their name on a tenancy.

“I understand that a landlord would have hesitations about signing a contract with people who don't speak German - it's a big undertaking - but it's frustrating nonetheless,” she says.

“A lot of Brits who come here have this idea of living the bohemian dream in Berlin, but I don't think that exists anymore,” she states.

Getting used to the rather gruff way Berliners have of dealing with strangers was the next challenge. The people of the capital are notorious even among their famously direct compatriots for their abruptness, what is known as the “Berliner Schnauze.”

Clements says that she finds German directness to be a relief from “overly polite Britishness” - but even for her it goes too far in the capital city.

“I was in the supermarket the other day and when I asked a shop attendant where I could find a chocolate soya drink she started shouting at me,” she says.

At her work too, the Berliners tend to stick to themselves.

“They're the ones who dress in black and listen to techno. They think they're really cool - they're not really up for banter.”

Still, in many ways the city has met her expectations.

“There is something really inspiring about being in a place where people come from the whole world in search of the same thing,” she says.

“I'm not a party person but there is so much to do here even if you aren't spending Friday night queuing outside Berghain. I don't think there is a chance for me to be bored here.”

Her new start has also been hindered by sickness. While this has made it harder to settle in, she has been pleasantly surprised by the German attitude to illness.

Whereas in Britain “you are expected to fight through”, in Berlin “they want you to go home. Everyone is so sympathetic and there is no resentment among colleagues.” Her doctor wrote her off work for two weeks and at the end of the month she was surprised to see that she had been paid more or less in full.

A bar in Berlin's hip Neukölln district. Photo: DPA

Time to experiment

At some point near the start of the century the Berlin buzz began to spread among young British people. Some say Brits first discovered the city during the World Cup held in Germany in 2006. Others attribute it to a slow process fuelled by the growth of cheap flights.

Either way, at the end of last year 14,931 British citizens were registered as living in the capital, demonstrating a 79 percent increase in the British population since the year 2000.

“The reasons why people come to Berlin are of course varied,” Melanie Neumann, a doctorate student at the Centre for British Studies of Humboldt University, told The Local. “But especially young Brits come here mostly for lifestyle reasons. They want a new start, a new challenge.”

Life in Berlin gives them “more time to experiment and find out what they can do and what they want,” said Neumann, who is doing her PhD on British and Irish migration to the German capital.

The Brits that Neumann has surveyed for her research are by-and-large satisfied with their decision.

“Over half of the people who took part in my study said that their lives had improved after migrating, and a third said it had clearly improved,” she states.

But many complain about the difficulty of dealing with German bureaucracy - a quarter of respondents said they felt discriminated against by authorities over the past two years.

Neumann says that there is no single secret to adapting to Berlin but that “it is incredibly important to learn at least a little bit of German if you want to really experience the city and not just live in an English expat bubble.”

‘Like an old jumper'

Rachael Marriott is someone who has been through the Berlin grinder and lived to tell the tale. In fact she has adapted so well in the five years she has been here that she now says "Icke" instead of "Ich" when speaking German, the classic trait of a Berlin dialect.

She warns Brits to be under no illusions about how easy it will be to begin with.

“It can be a very lonely experience at first, you need to give it 18 months,” she said. “Don't give up after six months, it can be hard to find expat friends at first.”

Marriott was “sick of the Cameron government” when she packed her bags for Germany. Meanwhile a teaching stint in South Korea had given her "a taste for another way of life" even if the cultural differences had shown her that she needed to find a country that was “almost home.”

She had spent childhood holidays in Germany, so moving here was “like putting on an old jumper.” She wasn't solely focused on moving to Berlin, but it also isn't a choice she regrets. “The food choices and the theatre are incredible, it is the place the US should be but isn't,” she says.

The struggles she faced seem typical of those which confront many Brits in Berlin.

“German bureaucracy is so much more than you ever imagine it could be. You fear going into the offices and being confronted by some angry German who tells you you don't have the right papers," she says.

The Berlin winter can be tough. Photo: DPA

Marriott had luck. A former colleague of her father's took her under her wing and became her “German mother.” When she got a shock demand for a €500 payment from her internet provider after just a few months in the country, her new mother was there to help sort it out.

Her advice to Brits considering moving over is to start learning German even before they get here and to find a German at work or through friends to "adopt" them and help them through the administrative struggles.

She also says it is important to make expat friends. “They don't necessarily have to be British, but other expats know what you are going through. Germans can't look at their culture in the same way that we can.”

She assures though that trying to befriend Berliners will pay off in the end. “Once you get to know them they can be incredibly warm - they just save it for those they care about.”

The notoriously long and cold Berlin winter on the other hand is well deserving of its reputation, she says.

“My first winter was rough. It is okay up until Christmas because you have Glühwein to keep you warm. But there was still snow on the ground in April."

For Scottish emigre Clement, the winter is one thing that she has found to be kinder than its reputation.

“Everyone talks about how bad it is. Maybe I'm just used to anything coming from Scotland,” she jokes. “But it hasn't been that bad. Yet.”

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