Last year I went on a tour of Western Europe in search of a city that I could potentially call home. I went to London, Amsterdam ... and I would have kept going, through the overpriced splendor of Scandinavia, or the lush, economically disenfranchised ruins of Athens, but Berlin stopped me in my tracks.
It’s a city best described as charming ... and lawless. Somewhere between watching a green-haired comedian hammer nails up his nose at an underground comedy club at a punk squat, and attending a fetish club, where people in latex underwear debated politics before making out in an indoor swimming pool—I decided that this was the place for me.
I’ve been here since August.
Germany, and Berlin in particular, has a reputation of being progressive. With free tertiary education available to anyone, a strict recycling program and unimpeachable tenancy rights, it certainly presents as a pretty picture upon first glance. But much like the history behind this troubled, vibrant city, there’s a wall you have to break through first.
The first thing local (or foreign) Berliners will warn you about is the bureaucracy. The authenticity of German stereotypes varies from person to person, but one thing that requires no exaggeration is this country’s obsession with paperwork.
It’s wonderful to live in a city with rent control. Less so when it means filing a binder of documents, and a five-minute registration process that requires a three-month advance booking, a series of signatures and the occasional sexual favor. Not speaking from experience, of course, but that’s not to say that I haven’t felt royally screwed whenever I’ve left the Finanzamt (tax office) or Bürgeramt (registration office).
There are just some things you accept as part of life in Berlin: being yelled at for crossing the street at a red light, offering to pay for dinner to avoid the awkwardness of watching a German man divide the bill, and having to systematically flash my paperwork to do, well, anything. In return, I get to live in a city where nature is fiercely preserved and radical queer feminists host summer barbecues where white people with dreadlocks are charged twice the admission as people of color.
And even though it has a population of 3.7 million, 13.5 percent of whom identify as foreign-born, black people experience Berlin very differently from white people—a reality that became abundantly clear to Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor, an artist from Florida. Initially interested in just a summer visit, Taylor describes her first impression of Berlin as “pure, unadulterated magic.”
It was Berlin’s radical theater scene that appealed to her artistically and, ultimately, compelled her to stay instead of moving on to Paris as initially planned. That was eight years ago.
“I was really impressed ... I was in awe,” she says.
She describes Berlin as ripe for experimental performance art ... but also sorely lacking in discussions on race and intersectionality.
Some years ago, she attended a prominent ex-pat magazine’s panel discussion about the African experience in Berlin, an event where distinguished Afro-Deutsche panelists were silenced from participating in discussions with which they had direct experience. She says the conversations revolved around that month’s publication, which featured a cover story about how one journalist spent his day with a black drug dealer.
“It was unreal,” she says.
That’s why she started Black in Berlin in 2012, a regular salon series that provides people of color a place to discuss the issues important to them ... and the occasional trap-music party.
She says that racism has definitely been the biggest challenge of living in Berlin.
“The city and the people are still very far behind,” she says. “The German word for race, rassismus, wasn’t even put into the German dictionary until 1996. All the words used to discuss racism are in English. It’s a challenge.”
Even though Germany has publicly atoned for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, a political resistance to combat spiking rates in hate crime, along with continued denial of historical atrocities like the 20th-century genocide in modern-day Namibia, makes it a frustrating experience.
Taylor is well aware of these double standards. And, after eight years, she reflects pensively on the time she’s spent here and admits that her feelings on the city are conflicted.
“The spirit of this city is on shaky ground,” she says. Her initial infatuation with Berlin is now mixed with tension, but she finds comfort in the black, queer art community fostered over recent years.
“The biggest thing I love about Berlin is that you can really be free to be yourself here,” she says.
Mark Ivan Mukiibi Serunjogi, a digital marketing manager, agrees. He grew up in an East African community in Copenhagen and moved to Berlin in January of last year for a role with an e-commerce retailer. Serunjogi says that after living in Brooklyn, N.Y., for a while, he had really low expectations about returning to Europe, and that’s why Berlin has exceeded them.
“After going to America, I became aware of so many things still wrong with our [Danish] society. We have this way of telling ourselves that we’re so great and we’re over things. ... America made me more aware. I was worried about coming back to mostly white Europe,” he says.
But Serunjogi believes that working in an international business really helped to assuage those fears, allowing him room to explore the city with an open mind and heart, which ultimately led him to the Black in Berlin group. He says that Googling hip-hop parties in Berlin took him to a late-night event where he met a member who told him about the salon discussions.
“He had me at ‘black,’” he says.
With the added support of a community of color, a solid job and a place to live, Serunjogi says he’s made it work for himself here—but not everything is pleasant. “The worst aspect about living in Berlin is the dating experience,” he says. The city has a reputation of being hopelessly single, and regardless of your sexual orientation, you’re bound to come away with some pretty wild Tinder stories ... like that one time a doctor proposed to me in a WhatsApp message while high on LSD and MDMA (Ecstasy). Classic Berlin.
But he agrees with Taylor that the freedom found in this city makes overcoming those challenges worth the effort—though he warns it’s not for everyone. When asked whether he would recommend the city to other black people considering Blaxit, he said it depends on one’s frame of reference.
“Growing up in Denmark prepared me to live in a mostly white space again in Germany,” says Serunjogi, which is why his expectations were exceeded with the discovery of the local black community.
“Living in Europe [before] gave me tools to deal with that ... but if you come to Berlin because you’re expecting something better, you’ll be disappointed,” he says.
Advising that the best way to experience Berlin is to be open (and ready to be called out on cultural differences), Serunjogi says that giving new voices space to be heard is critical to anyone who has previously lived in America, as he has.
Though Taylor admits that openness is one of the many benefits of living in Berlin, her advice is a bit more practical: “Learn German ... and use it as a weapon.”
As a newly minted local, I can definitely say, “Ich stimme zu.”