My girlfriend and I moved to Schöneberg recently. We’re not settling down to have children; or settling down to get a pre-child (i.e. dog); we’re not gay either; and we don’t really care about David Bowie. Lip-service now paid to Schöneberg stereotypes, I can move on and tell you that we had to move out of our place in Friedrichshain and, not wanting to partake in any WG Gesucht grotesquery, plugged some other channels to find a flat sharpish. One came up in Schöneberg, we saw it, it was nice, we signed a contract for it. With move completed, everything ordered, and N64 hooked up to a TV lightyears ahead of its time, we decided it was time to explore, and hit the surrounding streets for a wander on our first day out in the wild (south) west.
On said wander we meandered round Kleistpark’s Kolonnaden, looked up at the balcony from which JFK declared that he was a donut before spilling his jam in Dallas four months later, and stared – open-mouthed with wonder – at a Kneipe called the ‘Willi Mangler’. Having agreed that this find was probably going to be the apex of our day, if not 2014, we called it quits and started to head back to our new flat. On the way we ducked, last minute, into an eccentric looking second-hand clothes store, seduced by the shimmering light of a giant diamante-studded crucifix in the window.
Inside the air was rich with the smell of mothballs and there were clothes spilling from their racks, to the point that it was difficult to walk down the two aisles flanking the long, slim store. There was a little old lady with wispy white hair stood behind a counter in the corner that was covered in receipts, thread and various knick-knacks. Her face broke into a fond smile as she welcomed us in brightly – like a grandmother doting over rarely-seen grandchildren. As it turned out we were the only two people in the shop, so we dived straight in and had a rummage through the rails as the little old lady bustled between us turning on lights and gesturing to another room hidden behind a curtain out back.
As my girlfriend and I are browsing and chatting, our host interjects politely and asks where we’re from – she can tell we’re British, but can’t place us. We tell her where we’re from (Bristol and West Sussex), she says she would have guessed Scotland – smiling wide once more with crinkled eyes, and chuckling as she heads back to her post behind the counter. A few minutes pass, I find some musty-smelling additions to my wardrobe, and then head to pay for them. As money and clothes switch owners, the seeds of conversation sown just before begin to sprout. The Alte Verkäuferin tells us that she has dreams of visiting Scotland, that every time she hears a bagpipe she’s moved to tears, and that she was glad it hadn’t succeeded in seceding – that the United Kingdom had stayed united. “Ihr gehört zusammen”.
We then probe her for a backstory. She reveals that she’s Romanian, and became a Berlinerin thirty years ago, in the early 1980s, when she moved to what was then West Berlin with her husband, who was one of the resident pianists at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald for 15 years. She beams with pride as she tells us that Karl Lagerfeld had designed parts of the hotel’s interior, and that her husband had brushed shoulders with the likes of Eric Clapton and Elton John during his tenure. Her smile then fades as she gravely shakes her head and informs us that the hotel’s standards slipped in later years, and because of this her husband moved on. It was taken over by Spaniards, she says, who don’t have the same level of taste as the Germans. Alarm bells start to ring, but we give her the benefit of the doubt (maybe Spaniards had gaudified the Schlosshotel, we’ve never been there, we wouldn’t know) and try to steer the conversation elsewhere. “How do you like living in Berlin?” my girlfriend asks. Her face crinkles into that smile again as she says she loves it, that she feels German. The smile then gives way, just as before, and her voice takes on a conspiratorial air as she reveals that she doesn’t like it here so much now. Those alarm bells start getting louder. “Warum?” we ask. “Es gibt zu viele Türkische, zu viele Arabische, zu viele Flüchtlinge.”
So there we stand: three immigrants in a room, with one bemoaning immigrants to the other two. Now while I might be filling in the blanks here, the presumption on her part seemed to be that our presence in Germany was fine: we’re white, we’re ‘us’. The Arabic people, the Turkish, and the refugees (some of whom had been on the wrong end of police batons in the weeks and months immediately prior at Oranienplatz, Ohlauer Straße and Gürtelstraße) are ethnically different, they’re not white, they’re ‘them’. I begin to wonder whether that diamante crucifix in the window should be a flaming one, with a white cloak and cowl behind it.
Things don’t stop there though, it’s only going to get worse she says. Now that Bulgaria and Romania have been accepted into the EU, we’ll be inundated with Bulgarians and Romanians too – “gangsters, fraudsters and criminals” all flooding across die Grenzen in a vast black tide of doom, ready to engulf all in its path. Strangely, this seemed to suggest that her image of Romanians wasn’t coloured by her time spent growing up and living in Romania, but by opinions she had since absorbed living here in Germany (unless, of course, Romania is in fact some sort of vast pirate-cove like haven for all the nefarious creatures of the Balkans). Her sentiments were identical to those that periodically stain the pages of the right wing press when any country gains entry into the EU, and its citizens gain the right to move unhindered within it.
My mind flits back to the point in the conversation where she’d smiled sweetly and gushed that she feels German, and I realise the significance of her prior admission. She’d created an assimilated persona for herself, one that had utterly left behind first the Romanian, and then the immigrant she had been. This persona put her at odds with Berlin’s Turkish population – many of whom would have been part of, or descended from, Turkish families who were ushered into West Germany and West Berlin on the back of a 1961 labour recruitment agreement signed to provide human fuel for a rapidly expanding West German economy – on grounds of ethnic difference, denying their German-ness in order to gratify her own. What was more tragic, though, was that this persona also denied the right of others to follow a trail that she herself had followed, in search of a better life for herself and her family. It denied the person that she was thirty years prior.
Having left the store and the sweet, crinkly racist behind, I began mulling over our whole exchange, coming to the conclusion that: a) it’s important to champion people’s right to freedom of movement, regardless of their creed or circumstance, b) that despite the fact that I live in Germany I shouldn’t lose touch with my native culture and people, no matter what’s said elsewhere about them, and c) that I should never, ever, under any circumstance be a prick to someone who’s just taken the plunge and moved to Berlin. Chances are they’ve taken enough abuse from second-hand clothes sellers already.