“Dieses nächste Lied heißt ‘Skinheads and Heroin’” announces the guy on stage, before taking a couple of healthy slugs of Hasseroder. He’s big, bald, and has a voice like a gravel pit. I’m at Jägerklause – a no-frills, smoke-filled, antler-orgy of a boozer in Friedrichshain. The event is called ‘Knuts Opa war Nazi’, and the headlining band is post-Mauer, East German punk band Turbolover.
“Ah man!” cries Boris, “this is my favourite one, let’s get up front!” Boris is the reason me and my girlfriend are here. He plays trombone in a Bolshevik-style band here in Berlin, and, along with some of his bandmates, he played brass backing on some of Turbolover’s latest album – the one that they’re launching here tonight. The three of us are the only native English speakers in the place. Everyone else is German. The men are thickset with skinheads, and most of the women have savage and colourful angular haircuts – both sexes are wearing Doc Martens and are covered in tattoos. The majority of them, Boris explains, are former East Germans. They would have been teenagers when the Wall fell, and the drastic changes wrought on their lives by reunification would obviously have been a massive headfuck. They were left completely marooned in, what was to them, a completely new Germany. Brash, gritty and disjointed punk – a la Turbolover – was the outlet they found for their disorientation.
Suffice to say, then, that I felt a little out of place moshing along with these people. Don’t get me wrong, no one reacted negatively to me being there – if anything, we were encouraged to dive into the mix to throw some elbows and barge some shoulders. But these people were part of such a close-knit scene – a truly native Berlin subculture. I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider looking in.
They had gravitated towards each other thanks to a specific shared experience that was unique to a time in this city. In my eyes, they were true Berliners – they utterly belonged here.
In the days that followed this night where I’d ‘gone native’, my mind started to chew the cud with regards to how I saw myself in Berlin: Am I, and would others consider me, a Berliner? In some senses, yes. Come October, I’ll have been living here for two years. My current job requires me to be well versed in Berlin’s history as well as its culture in centuries past, while in my previous job it was necessary for me to keep abreast of more current cultural developments. Because of these things I feel like I have a decent insight into how and why the city has become what it is, what it has to offer today, and how it will develop in the future. The city’s character, pace and the mindset of its people all resonate with me – I feel comfortable here. What’s more, in the eyes of people who don’t live here, I probably adhere to perceptions of what a modern Berliner looks like – I’m skinny, have a beard, wear thick-rimmed glasses and dress in a manner that you’d probably describe as ‘hipster’ if you were groping around for an adjective.
I don’t yet feel like a Berliner, however. And it’s not due to the fact that I get treated like a moron when I go the Finanzamt – doesn’t everyone? Nor is it because of any perceived or real backlash against expats.
(If anything, it’s veteran expats themselves that seem to feel aggrieved by newcomers following in their footsteps, and attribute negative changes in the city to those ‘greener’ than themselves – native Berliners seem to have a more ‘who cares’ kind of attitude when it comes to the increased influx of Ausländer into their city. But let’s force the lid back on that can of worms for now).
For me, the issue of belonging here in Berlin largely boils down to language. I’m learning German, but it’s a slow process. I still rely to a large extent on English, and am fortunate that, by merit of the fact that Berlin is a burgeoning international city, the lingua franca in many circles tends to be English. I have an English speaking job, and roll primarily in expat circles. This means the number of non-standard, more in-depth German-speaking interactions and encounters I have on a daily basis is low (telling the lady at Edeka that I don’t want a receipt, or asking where the toilets are in a bar, unfortunately count as standard). For me, feeling integrated in Berlin depends on being able to communicate with other people – whether they’re German, Turkish, Spanish, whatever – in German. If I were to call myself a Berliner now, I’d feel like a bit of a fraud.
By calling yourself a Berliner, a Londoner, a New Yorker, and so on, you tie yourself to a particular place: It’s past, present and future. You also align yourself with the people who live and who used to live in that particular place in times past. With regards to 21st century Berlin, this is particularly important.
Berlin was the most turbulent place on earth in the 20th century – from WWI through WWII and into the Cold War. A large proportion of the people who lived in this city at some point during the last 100 years are likely to have lived through severe hardship of one form or another. To place yourself in the same sphere as them, you need to be able to understand their story – their highs and lows, their suffering and their triumphs – as told in their own words. Otherwise, great detail and subtle nuance alike could be lost in the translation. Learning a language doesn’t stop at grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation – it extends into the culture and history of a locale too.
And, looking back, that’s what so excited me about this night at Jägerklause: The ‘newness’ and unfamiliarity of the atmosphere, and the implicit promise that there was much more to discover – that Berlin would continue to become a much richer place as my grasp of German improved. In time I’d be able to broaden my stereotypically ‘expat’ experience of the city and become embedded more deeply in its fabric as a result. I’d be able to call myself a Berliner – assuming, of course, that deutsche Grammatik didn’t spangle my brain irreparably first.
To quote the refrain of an old cabaret number introduced to me in unadorned and thigh-slapping style by one of Turbolover’s support acts: “There’s only one Berlin and it’s mine.” Too true, and I wanna be speaking German in my Berlin, to show that I belong.