Hidden in a courtyard, deep in the bowels of Neukölln, is one of the city’s finest Italian restaurants, and one which hasn’t forgotten its roots in the “problembezirk”. Once a month, Lavanderia Vecchia, flings open its doors and puts on a slap-up meal for Hartz-IV recipients, totally free of charge. Berlin’s hungry and jobless, come from near and far, to sample the top-notch cooking normally well beyond their shoestring budget. Indeed, an evening set menu costs €45; a bit of a stretch for someone afforded only €130 in state benefits for food and drink each month.
Numbering six million countrywide, Hartz-IV recipients aren’t always shown such kindness. Pilloried in the tabloid press, they are often represented as a sponging, scourge to the nation. And with an unemployment rate of 23%, Neukölln itself had a benefits bill of €154 million in 2011, surprisingly topped in Berlin only by Mitte.
Despite Germany having its lowest rates of joblessness since reunification, sympathy levels remain low and especially so for areas of high immigration (thanks Thilo). One third of Neukölln residents hold foreign passports but even their district mayor, Heinz Buschkowsky, in a recent book condemned the unemployed for driving extravagant cars, pronouncing: “Multiculturalism has failed.”
The part-time philanthropists behind Lavanderia Vecchia have no such misgivings about their clientele, who turn up religiously for the free nosh. Since opening in 2010, the husband and wife owners have offered the three-course lunch on the last Wednesday of every month. “We wanted to help other people. Our opinion is that if everyone gave a little, it’d be a better world,” said Renate Hoffman. “The regulars tell me that it’s a really nice meeting point, that they enjoy coming here, and some say, it’s a highlight of their life.”
One of the regulars, 48-year-old Uwe, was proud that it was his eighth time and today he had brought along a neighbour for his first try. Uwe said: “For free, it’s a wonderful thing. Sometimes it’s unbelievably full and once you’ve eaten, you’ve got to give up your table for someone else.” He saw an old workmate and although it didn’t take long, they exchanged their news: “What are you doing now?” “Absolutely nothing at the moment…nothing…nothing.”
Not only does it provide a sense of community for the regulars but it can also be a real belly-saver when funds are low at the end of the month. Ulrika had known about the free lunch for a year, yet only decided now to come along for the first time: “It was very practical because I looked in my purse for €10 and everything was gone…the atmosphere is the best thing here, they treat you like in a real restaurant.”
Mr and Mrs Hoffman had been living in the Italian countryside, but when a launderette, in the Neukölln building they own, terminated its lease, the pair decided to come out of retirement and turn it into a restaurant. They stuck to a laundry-themed decor and aimed to replicate the familiar atmosphere of eating that they’d witnessed in Italy. Not only has their restaurant won plaudits from all corners in just two years, but by a simple gesture of goodwill, they’ve shown that different sides of Berlin can exist side by side: old and new, rich and poor, hartz and haute. If only for a day.
Image credits: Anna Massignan