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If At First You Don't Succeed, Try It Again In Berlin

Dispatch from Berlin | Published : 22/May/2008 14:50

I generally dislike articles that sound like advertising, especially when they are written about foreign cities. You know the type? Like, how everything is good in XYZ and people are nicer and girls/boys are prettier and things are cheaper and nobody works and everybody's happy. A couple of years back I felt it was appropriate to comment on the much promoted virtues of Buenos Aires. Right now, I feel the same way about Berlin, except I can not claim to have lived there myself, so I only have my scepticism to go by.


In any case, the latest in this infinite-part-series of articles "Life is Better Where You Are Not" is "German Expressionism" in the New York Times' "T" magazine, by Adam Fisher. The subtitle of the story: EXPATS IN BERLIN HAVE TURNED THE CITY INTO ONE BIG ARTY PARTY gives away both the premise and the conclusion. But perhaps I am being too quick in dismissing it. Why don't I quote the main points (and comment on them while I am at it) and you tell me if I am being unnecessarily skeptical?

  • "What New York was in the '80s, Berlin is now," says Nadja Vancauwenberghe, the French editor in chief of Berlin's English-language magazine, the Exberliner. "That's the cliché." "It's cool, it's cheap, it's international," Vancauwenberghe says, ticking off the contributing factors.

    Was cool in the 80s? Would you like to return to the good old days? (or the "bad old days", to quote Brian Lehrer).

  • Berlin, the biggest city in continental Europe by far, has actually been losing its German population for years, but for the last five — the five years that the Exberliner has been publishing — that loss has been more than made up for by an influx of expats.

    Well, the author's credibility just went down a notch. The biggest city claim is entirely and grossly incorrect Moscow is by far the biggest city on the European continent. The NYTimes' fact-checkers should have caught this.

  • There may not be many opportunities for regular employment, but there are plenty of good gigs. For musicians, Berlin is an ideal staging ground; its central location makes touring Europe easy and more profitable. For visual artists, it's all about the city's cultural wealth.

    Am I the only person naïve enough to worry about things like job permits and visas? Has anyone ever tried getting an EU residence visa as an artist (warning: I don't recommend it). What are they saying, exactly - that you can come to another country and start performing without either making your status official or paying taxes?

  • As Mayor Klaus Wowereit likes to say about his city: "We are poor, but sexy."

    The phrase reminds me of Borat's repeated references to the "sexy time" he enjoyed in the company of his sister. Anyway, I believe what the mayor really wanted to say was "sex-obsessed".

  • According to the last census count, in 2006 there were about 13,100 Americans living here, and, invariably, they cite Berlin's bohemianism as the draw.

    In the 1990s Moscow counted several times that number of Americans - business people, consultants, publishers, opportunists, and crooks of every stripe. I don't remember the NYTimes publishing any gushing articles about city life there.

  • The common thread is that everyone feels they're leading lives they could never have back home. "Cheap in the States?" Siegel wonders. "There, we never even would have thought that we were the kind of people who could pull this off."

    Take a second look at Pittsburgh, guys.

  • Berlin is undoubtedly fun. The loose liquor laws don't require bars to close until the last patron has quaffed his last drink, and some club parties can go for the entire weekend. If there is any problem with Berlin, it may be that it's too free, too wild.

    The credibility level keeps on dropping.

  • The whole of Berlin's bohemia — expat and German, arty and punk — resonates with the same kind of attitude. Things are invariably provisional, experimental, cerebral.

    I rest my case.
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