I remember coming to Berlin as a tourist on class trips or for concerts and I remember the way I saw it then – so excited to take everything in, to see the Brandenburger Tor and the Lustgarten, to go to cool shops we didn’t have in our small city up north (this was before I returned to Hamburg to study there), to mingle with cool people in a beautiful city. That’s what it felt like to me then, like an adventure in the capital, hitting all the tourist spots and going on overpriced bus tours. That’s how most tourists perceive it, I think – they see all the old pretty buildings, the impressive embassies, the vast spaces that feel small because of all the bodies squeezed into them. As a tourist, you don’t see much of the actual Berlin. You see the area your hotel or hostel is in and you see the inner part of the city, all the places that are kept pretty for the tourists who love emptying their purses for overpriced gifts and things to remember their trip by.
When I moved to Berlin almost two months ago, I hated it. I absolutely hated it not because it’s Berlin, but because it wasn’t Hamburg. It just wasn’t where I wanted to be and it could’ve been almost any other city – except Dublin, maybe – and I would’ve hated it. Everything about Berlin annoyed me intensely: the weather, the people, the streets, the busses, the trains, the University, the buildings and even the dialect. Name it, and I probably hated it with a passion strong enough to fuel our sun.
I’ve kind of mellowed out now, because I know that I’ll be spending the next two years of my life here and so I’m trying my best to stop hating everything about this city. I’ve already made some progress in that respect – I’m okay with the weather by now, I don’t hate the streets, I’m just sort of annoyed by the busses and the trains, the University is actually fairly cool, some buildings can be quite pretty and – well, I’m getting used to the dialect. The people, though, they’re just rude. That will take some getting used to.
There’s other things that I’ve started to notice, things I didn’t notice as much before I had a set routine, and definitely didn’t think about as a tourist. I didn’t move here from a small town, so it’s not at all confusing or shocking, but I did live in a quite privileged neighbourhood in Hamburg and spent most of my 4 years there, and as such I haven’t been confronted with poverty on a grand scale in a while. The differences between the rich and the poor in Berlin are staggering and unmistakeable, if you’re not an oblivious tourist or spend all your time in the richer neighbourhoods. I live in Spandau, which is, according to the Statistisches Landesamt Berlin-Brandenburg, the neighbourhood with the second highest poverty rate in Berlin, second only to Neukölln. Between 2006 and 2014, the poverty rate in Spandau climbed from approximately 9% to 18.6%; in Neukölln, it was 21.5% in 2014.
What exactly does this mean? Well, people in Berlin are poor. Quite poor, even. The average income in Germany in 2014 was 914,00 Euro, while the average income in Berlin was 841,00 Euro (B.Z.)[i]. A comparison of average poverty rates in Germany shows this more clearly: in 2015, the average poverty rate in all of Germany was 15.7%, while the average in Berlin was 22.4%. Those are quite a few numbers at once, I know, but what does this mean in reality?
Whenever I have classes, I go from Spandau to Dahlem. I commute an hour from one of the poorest parts of Berlin to one of the richest and while most of it is underground, I can definitely see the differences in many ways. In Spandau, the cramped apartment blocks are lined with streets full of fallen leaves and abandoned trash and public transport is a disaster (especially busses, which are infrequent and often so full, no one can get in them) – Dahlem is the polar opposite, with its large villas, clean streets and busses that are timely and empty. Then there’s the people: in Spandau not only do people live in this area, they spend their lives here – work here, shop here, have a social life here, sleep here. Most of what I’ve seen of Dahlem consists only of huge houses, the University and the occasional shop – frequented mostly by University students. There are shopping areas in neighbouring districts, but it’s quite different from Spandau with its storefronts and bright billboards.
I assume that the people who live in Dahlem only sleep there in their giant houses, but have most of their lives happen outside of the area.
But it’s not just the different neighbourhoods and how people there live. The number of people living out on the streets has increased drastically in the past few years. The exact numbers are hard to find, but thousands of people all over Germany, but especially in Berlin, live on the streets without money or shelter. I’ve encountered many homeless people in Hamburg, but I feel like the number has really increased since I moved to Berlin. Not so much in Spandau and at University, but it’s almost certain that when riding the S-Bahn into the city, at least one person will get on the train and ask for money or food.
This is the real Berlin, an S-Bahn cart full of the most diverse groups of people. Mothers trying to console crying children, businesspeople in suits on their way to work, a handyman with his toolbox, tourists holding maps and suitcases, homeless people asking for money or food. As you look out the window, you drive past cramped apartment buildings, power plants, embassies, huge malls and people trying to somehow survive in this city that houses the extreme ends of a devastating spectrum.
Britta was listening to a mixture of Glory Days by Little Mix and the upstairs neighbours fighting.