It is an all too familiar tale of life in Berlin – people making sacrifices for an extra day in a largely metaphorical sun. Indeed most Wahlberliners are united by the fact that they are not here for the money. Notoriously economically challenged, the German capital has a special allure but whilst the reasons for moving here can be magical or mundane, they are rarely financial.
New social butterflies drawn to Berlin soon realise that even in this fairyland of freedom and cheap rents, you’ve got to pay the bills. Thus begins the job hunt in a city lacking buttoned-down positions and perhaps the people prepared to do them. Alongside their desperation, creativity and derring-do become a Berlin jobseeker’s best assets. Issyvoo spoke to three people whose financial quandaries led them down unorthodox paths.
Jakob, from Sweden, had been dreaming about moving to Berlin since he was 15 years old. But within a year of his arrival, he had assumed the identity of a variety of fictional women and was sending erotic text messages for money. It was far from an ideal job for the 23-year-old graduate but it allowed him to stay and live out his dream in Berlin.
After nine months without finding a job, except for a failed trial shift washing dishes, Jakob said that although desperate he never once considered returning home. His somewhat murky salvation came in the form of an advertisement on Craigslist looking for a ‘Swedish-speaking moderator.’ Within a matter of weeks Jakob was adopting many fake personas and replying to messages from lonely men back in Sweden. These men, believing they were talking to real women, paid €3 per SMS for the privilege of writing to the heavily mustached Jakob in his Berlin bedroom.
He was as surprised as anyone else to find himself in this new role: “It happened fast but I felt so relieved. I knew it was a bit shady but still it felt formal enough to go further. Also when telling my friends what I was about to do, in a very silly way, it felt such a part of being here. I knew I would have the best story to tell people.”
Jakob worked for €5 a hour, spending up to seven hours a day, replying to hundreds of texts on his computer. Over time he recruited several Swedish friends in Berlin to do the same job and soon became a trainer, paid at twice the rate. Their main objective was to keep conversations going as long as possible, which involved making good excuses why they couldn’t meet in person. He said: “The men would often get erotic. They’d describe their fantasies and we’d also have phone sex. That was the best way of getting them to write back. That could go on for a whole day, with them taking a break to wank in the office toilet.”
Although Jakob did have fun working with his friends for the company, Dating Chats, slowly his parallel life began to take its toll. He explained that many of the men had very backward, chauvinist beliefs and would mistreat him via SMS: “If you were pretending to be a woman for seven hours and you were treated like shit, that affected you because somehow you lived these profiles. You ended up with sick things from someone who had the wrong picture of how to treat another person. They wanted discipline and you were just a stupid woman…Sometimes it felt righteous to take their money as they were such assholes. It felt better that they spent money on us rather than hurt a real woman.”
Working was a surreal experience for the part-time DJ. As inspiration, he would use his own ideas of love in the texts and over the year several men fell in love with him. Not only that but the girlfriends of his clients sometimes found his messages, and also believing them to be real, would go on a jealous SMS rampage at the unwitting Jakob. He said that it was a painful job but it allowed him to stay in Germany: “I thought about quitting but didn’t know what else to do and it was so comfortable working from home and I got enough money for living.” He said that he knows that he’d never do it again but saw it as a necessary first step of his Berlin adventure: “It was one of the low watermarks in my life but I had a fantastic time and it was all paid for by this horrible activity.”
The Blood-donating Elvis
Robert, at the age of 19, left his town in Poland for the bright lights of Berlin. His first job was in a call-centre that never paid him. Seeing as he was learning guitar at the time, Robert decided to give busking in U-Bahn stations a try. Music licenses from BVG were €7 per day and after one week, Robert had actually spent more money than he had received. “I really earned nothing, it was ridiculous. It was way below what I was expecting. It was horrible so I wasn’t even motivated and people could see it. I felt I was bothering them because I couldn’t really play,” he said.
Robert said that he moved to Berlin because of his passion for the German language and a flame of adventure inside of him. Not put off by his experience thus far in the city, the gutsy Pole soon found several more profitable jobs. He went weekly to a clinic in Mitte to donate his plasma for €20. He did this with his girlfriend at the time, it took only half an hour and together they could earn €160 per month. “Back in those days in Berlin  I could live on €300 a month with the low rents so it was a lot of money,” said Robert.
Although he felt it wasn’t particularly healthy, Robert remembers it as an enjoyable experience, going when he wished and reading his book in the waiting room: “You could feel a bit tired [afterwards] but it wasn’t so uncomfortable. I think it wasn’t so good giving blood every week and sometimes they would refuse you if your blood values were too low.”
After a year, he stopped going to CSL Plasma on Axel-Springer-Straße because it wasn’t compatible with his new party lifestyle (donors are required to lead a somewhat pious life to keep their blood healthy). Luckily sobriety wasn’t required in his other line of work as an Elvis impersonator. Robert had joined a marketing agency and as it was his first job offer, he knew that he had to take it. Promoting a new karaoke program for MSN, it involved going around bars with a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. They gave out flyers and free polaroid pictures taken with the faux rock ‘n roll king. “He said: “Overall it was a painful experience but the money [30€/hour] was pretty good. It was really exhausting. One of the worst jobs they had on offer. You are Elvis, you are on the street, and you are ridiculous.”
Robert had a motley and inconsistent supply of work, yet Berlin’s low living costs meant that he was never dependant on any one job. He had both time and freedom, two precious commodities in big city life. As he explained: “It was thrilling to know I only had to earn so little to pay for everything, to be totally autonomous. If you do shitty jobs, you need an interesting place to live. And I never spent more than two days a week earning my money.”
In the beginning of his Berlin life, Robert hadn’t much experience or many qualifications so he did every job he could find: “It was very useful to me because I have an idea now of what it means to work. I developed a philosophy of what work I want to do, what work is important to me and what things I would like to focus on.” He is now a third year engineering student at the Technische Universität.
The Guerilla Juggler
Vanessa, from Argentina, is a full-time juggler in Berlin. She performs at traffic lights, throwing and catching her fluorescent skittles, before running between the cars with a hat out for donations. For a long time now, this has been her main source of income. She said that if you do it every day for several hours, it’s enough to both live and travel, and Vanessa had been juggling through Europe for over five years before deciding to stay a while in Berlin.
Even for street performers operating in a fringe economy, the German capital is not the most lucrative of destinations. She explained: “I heard from a lot of people that you don’t make much money in Berlin. In other places you can make more money, but still, you have other things as compensation here. People are nice and relaxed, and you have lots of parks and water.” Arriving from the dusty streets of Madrid, this was an important factor for her and her young dog which she called by the name Gordo (or in English, Fatty).
The total freedom of juggling outside is what Vanessa likes most: “I did many jobs but if you compare them, this is way better than anything else…It’s a way to get money that’s not going to the office. You don’t have someone on your back ordering you around. You can do it wherever and whenever you want.” Although far from a nine-to-five job, there still appears to be something of an unofficial uniform amongst the street performers. Suspenders, gaudy colours, clashing patterns and comedy hats (intentionally or not) are all de rigueur. As are long-where-it-ought-to-be-short/short-where-it-ought-to-be-long haircuts.
Berlin, or certain districts at least, as an open-minded, safe-haven for outsiders is a big plus for the pro-juggler. Currently residing in Kreuzberg, Vanessa said: “Walking through Madrid, people always look at you weird if you are not wearing a suit or something nice, and here I never feel that people look at me strange. There’s so many different people and you see lots of styles…it’s so nice to be in a place where people are more tolerant of difference.” With stories of the police in Barcelona hitting her and taking her money, she said that the tolerance of German authorities, who largely turn a blind eye, was another huge advantage in her line of work.
Like the other Berlin survivors, Vanessa lives a modest life. After work on Oberbaumbrücke, the guerilla circus performer dined on a one-euro pizza at Schleschisches Tor before going to a free workshop to repair her bike. She shares a room with fellow Argentinian juggler, Tamara, whom she met recently at the traffic lights. But after years away from their families, both women plan a visit home as soon as they can save up enough coins.
Despite being a long way from home and the uncertain income, Vanessa says that she enjoys working in Berlin: “You can be there for an hour and get nothing but you don’t care. You still come back the next day because you meet all kinds of people and can make people smile.” She said that she has learnt a lot on the road, not least that Mercedes-Benz drivers never give any money.
Jakob and Robert asked for certain details, such as their names, to be changed.
Image credits: 1. Luke Atcheson 2. Fake Dating Profiles 3. Training screenshot from Dating Chats
3. © Mr Fink via Flickr 4. Provided by Robert 5. Luke Atcheson