Reflections on Berlin

Berlin is ever changing. Last week I read that they’ve decided on building four new skyscrapers in the city. They were first planning for a hight of 150 metres, but now it seems they will make do with 130 metres 🙂

Tearing down a buliding opposite Hakesher Höfe

They’re also tearing down old buildings around Hakescher Markt, where the area is becoming less alternative by the minute in favour of expensive clothing stores, trendy restaurants and tourist knick-knacks.
Apparentely the area has it’s appeal on tourists, as I even ran into a jury member from my group at the Prix Europa during the two hours I spent around Hakescher Markt last week. We were equally surprised.

Last week was also the end of the Festival of Lights in Berlin, where many buildings got a new look thanks to colourful and creative light.

It’s always fascinating to visit Berlin, since it’s such a mix between old and new. Meeting up with friends also makes it a deeper experience, as it tells me more about what’s going on behind the walls of all those buildings.
They give the city heart and their struggles are not unique – what happens to them is a sure sign of where the city and society is heading.
When I lived in Berlin I befriended lots of different people – Canadians, Americans, Germans, Swedish, French, Zimbawean… which also says something about the multicultural mix.
Some of them have left Berlin – gone home or moved to other German cities. Some of them struggle with staying on while at the same time taking care of sickly parents in another country – going back and forth as soon as something seems to become more serious.
A Canadian friend has a husband who is working both in Germany and in an Eastern European country. She thus has to work and take care of her children mostly on her own. When her company reorganised, they made it almost impossible for single parents to cope with the schedules – leaving only a few possibilities for normal work hours during the day. My friend – a very accomplished professional – got stuck with junior tasks and had to see all her dreams evaporate due to impossible working conditions.
What about all the others – there must have been an outcry? I asked her.
Of course people were angry and disappointed, but they didn’t dare speak up. Most single mothers with kids have left, and the ones who stayed on either have family support or help with the children in other ways. But of course, they’re not happy. Not being able to spend time with the family is hard. But jobs like this are scarce, and people are afraid of loosing their income, she said with a big sigh.
This friend has another challenge as well. Her status in Germany might change, due to Brexit, as her permit to stay is founded on her British passport (she has two nationalities). She might have to reapply on her Canadian passport.
What if it’s not approved, she asks. Maybe I have to move back to Canada.
Well, isn’t that where everybody wants to go now, our American friend asks.
Yeah, she says. Maybe it’s not so bad. It’s just… I’ve been here for 25 years now, and my kids are kind of German…
With the world changing all around us, we find ourselves having to rearrange our lives and the lives of our loved ones only because we happened to put one passport forward, instead of the other when applying for a residence permit.

Another friend had been struggling with a very lonesome work as a translator. She started out loving it, but as time went by, and the translation companies pressed down the pay per word to a minimum, the work became more like a factory by the minute. The pressure and the low revenue sadly made her loose her passion. As a freelance translator, she also felt very lonely, and now she’s looking to find a new job. This is pretty difficult though, as the unemployment agency in Berlin has set its heart on putting people in different programmes as soon as possible. Computer courses, training to become a nurse etc – it’s hard to find time to look for jobs when your days are filled with different job programmes. Perhaps this is part of Germanys very low unemployment rates – just over 3% is an amazing number. But it doesn’t help my friend.
Partly because she’s at that age where she’s also thinking about what the last half of her life is going to look like, and then you set your standards accordingly.

And then there’s my German colleague, who decided to go back to school. In every sense. She had been trying to make a living as a journalist in Berlin, but never found a permanent position. Freelancing with two kids, rent constantly going up, is not a good combination if you don’t have a steady inflow of assignments. But she certainly tried, and made it for a good ten years. Now she doesn’t feel like struggling that hard any longer. She’s looking for a steady and predictable income. She took the opportunity to re-educate herself and become a teacher. She gets payed to go to school and learn how to teach. Berlin is crying for teachers and she is right to see this profession as one that will never cease to be in demand.

It’s funny, because meeting these wonderful women, I felt like I used to back in the days when I was living there. We met, discussed our future, our dreams, the difficulties and the opportunities. I always felt Berlin had everything to offer, but also such a great variety in the ways of life of those living there. The possibility to choose your own path was great, and that’s also what my friends did.

But as time passes, we also weave our lives into those of our partners, children and friends, and become a mix of all of this. And thus, each person is affected by so many outside factors, that it’s impossible to say what will happen in the end. Some will get what they dreamed of, others won’t. Most people will say they were happy anyway, and some will always carry that unfulfilled dream with them.

Having watched gruesome documentaries about refugees of war and injustice beyond belief at the Prix Europa screenings during daytime, these brief meetings with my old friends were welcome breaks, where hope still exists and people do have the opportunity to choose their life at least in some ways. I am sadly aware that this is not everyones’ luck.

What I know is that next time we meet – we will all have changed again – as will Berlin.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Berlin

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