Why I left Berlin

Dinner in White. Flashmob. Berlin, Gendarmenmarkt

Dinner in White. Flashmob. Berlin, Gendarmenmarkt

Berlin was my home for 3,3 years. I came there July 2011 after graduation in England and was ready to start a new period of my life. I knew nothing or very little about Germany and Berlin in general, but I was tired of the UK and naively believed this was my chance to start a career.

A year before I moved to Berlin I visited a friend in Berlin. She lived on a vital full of bars, cafes and restaurants Falckensteinstr. and I fell in love with the city immediately. It felt both familiar and new at the same time. It felt like this is the city that never sleeps and this is what I need because I don’t wanna sleep.. I wanted to work hard 5 days a week in a media company and do my own video projects in the spare time. And so I started a German course on my 3rd year of studies, and a year later moved to the German capital with 50kg in my hands, paying a €300 big fine for the overweight in Luton Airport. Honestly, I did not know back then Berlin is such a popular city and that 95% of planes that land here bring whether expats full of hopes or party tourists who won’t even see Brandenburger Gate.

Kreuzberg remained my neighbourhood from the very first to the very last day, even though I moved several times like a proper Berliner, because if you haven’t changed at least three flats within the first half a year, then you are not in Berlin. A typical Berlin flat is located in an old building with wooden floors and a high ceiling, some of them still have coal heating and a stove that takes the 3rd of your 12 square meter room that costs you now €300. When I moved to Berlin, the Neukoelln boom has only started. While some only spoke about it, many others already were moving there, paying €200 for a 25 square meter room.

The first three things you have to get used to are: that Berlin drinkssmokes and parties a lot and everywhere; that friends you had yesterday, might be gone today because it’s a transit city and last, but not least that there is no work. Sitting in a park with a 0,70 cent bottle and a €2,90 kebab is comfortable and cheerful, smoking a joint is legal and relaxing. When there is a party – you don’t have to rush there, because: 1. everything in Berlin starts late 2. if you don’t go there, there are another 105 variants today and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. With the friends situation I never figured out what to do – whether not to get attached to anyone and be just “whatever” or simply hope that I leave faster than my new friends.. Anyway, the reason why all the friends/expats/people are leaving is exactly work.

I did a 100 different jobs in Berlin. I worked for a paleo restaurant, film festivals, Berlin Fashion Week, creative agencies, model agencies, tourism agencies, startups, art and film projects, production companies, Rocket Internet + I did various freelance jobs and ran workshops on the internship economy. After a month I moved to Berlin I already had my collages presented at the public exhibition. Seems like a lot going on, but all that does not make you financially stable. There is no minimum wage in Germany (even though this shall change soon) and many places offer you black work, which means that no one pays the taxes, and you end up without a pension scheme and most importantly without a health insurance. Having no health insurance in Germany is a tragedy. Yes, you can come with an EU or whatever insurance from your home country, but it still will cost you money OR will cover only emergency. All in all you gotta love German bureaucracy in order to survive.

Berlin is definitely one of a kind. It’s a city of freedom. You can do here whatever you want. Participate in any kind of activities, climbing walls to check abandoned spaces, going to wild, experimental parties or riots, attending tantric or DMT gatherings, having a dinner with your own table on the underground station, traveling naked etc etc etc. See my The Very Berlin Moments blog post.  Whatever you want to try in your life, you can do it in Berlin and no one ever will ask you anything or give you a judgemental look, because here everything is normal or abnormal, but still acceptable. Berlin is a vegetarian city that stinks of urine, beer and weed. Berlin’s true face is “I work at the party”. Because most of the people work in the bars, cafes, galleries, tattoo salons, festivals, shared spaces etc. Startups work hard, but Friday afternoon you already see boxes of beers in the office. Fashion shops in the city centre open at 11am. And even big international companies will end up sniffing coke, because they are young, because the young rule the city. It’s like a big community and in the end of the day it’s just a big party where everybody knows each other. Not that it does not happen in London or other capitals, but here it’s more public and sexual. It’s more dirty by all the means, like New York in the 80s. Creativity for the creativity’s sake, not for the money. I am a freelancer, I pay my rent, but I can’t pay for anything else.

All rights reserved by Katja Avant-Hard

All rights reserved by Katja Avant-Hard

Berlin is beautiful in it’s own ugly way. It’s grey on the outside, but it’s the most saturated on the inside. Walking the right streets and entering the right doors open up a completely different view on the city. Berlin is absolutely anti-romantic, rough, but very cosmopolitan. Berlin is the city where you can discover something new every day, I’ve gone to random stations and came across with mind-blowing things. Berlin is a cheap prostitute without a health insurance. And yet it is full of talented and amazing people, important and special places. Berlin is the city to love and hate. With all these wonderful opportunities, there is no industry here and respectively no money. Poor artists’ myth has died with the previous century. An artist is also a job not a style of living. 

Bossa Fakata in Berlin.

Bossa Fataka in Berlin.

There are now mainly three work options in Berlin:

  1. You run your own business, and you earn enough to live in prosperity.
  2. You are a freelancer, who is lucky to have clients who pay enough to live in prosperity.
  3. You do a simple job (example: bartender, sale’s person, call centre) and you are happy with €700 – €1000 a month, because you do not care about the career

All these options are a headache, because there is no money in the city and you are in a constant run for the client who pays. Berlin is NOT the city for those who want to build a career. To register a new company you need €1, to make sure your business gives an income, it has to be international. Same goes for the freelancing – locals won’t pay much for your most wonderful design; often they won’t pay at all. It’s a normal practice – work for nothing. Herz lV is not an option. Living on benefits is not an option, because to move out from this city was the option for me. Because working for free was not something I came for. The experience I gained in Berlin is unbelievable. Nowhere else in the world I would have had a chance to do what I did in Berlin. But you get tired from working for free, because working for free is volunteering.

It’s important to understand that there are job offers in Berlin, but mostly internships, badly paid or unpaid. I’ve gone to interviews to find out they have no money to pay. My friends had high positions, but their payment was delayed. I was also told stories when applying for a cafe job a boss would ask:”Do you want to get paid?” It is also important to understand that there is a high competition absolutely everywhere, especially because us Latvians, Polish, Romanians, Bulgarians etc. don’t want to stay in the home country. We increase the amount of applicants for a good position up to 300 and up. But if other cities have well paid options, Berlin mostly does not.. Even IT specialists are paid much less in Berlin than the rest of Germany.

Berlin is a city of change, Berlin won’t be poor forever. The business centres are being built, the clubs and graffiti being removed, even the Wall leftovers.. More than half of my friends have left Berlin, and a few are planning to move out soon. This blog post is also written for those who plan to move here. My advice is – know exactly what you want from the city. If it is just a year for the experience sake – it is a great place, if you think “career” and “family” – this is a sad place. Not being able to pay for the dentist is sad, not being able to fly for a holiday is sad. Berlin is sad during the day and fun during the night.

A few days before leaving for good I’ve filmed the places I have been cycling through on a regular basis. This is Berlin I will remember.

Goodbye to Berlin from Katja Avant-Hard on Vimeo.

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14 comments
  1. LaHaine said:

    Your experiences are those of a small minority of the people of Berlin. Most aren’t artists, most don’t have creative jobs. Most Berliners have normal 9-5 office jobs and can fly on holiday once a year. Also, most Berliners don’t move anymore because they couldn’t afford the rent of a new flat.

    • Yes, creatives don’t make the whole Berlin market. But why then the statistics say Berlin has the highest unemployment rate in Germany? Why then IT guys are paid twice less than in the rest of Germany. Why then Klaus Wowereit called Berlin “poor, but sexy”? Why then Hamburg is creative, and can pay their creatives? Why then business people go to Frankfurt and not the capital?

      • LaHaine said:

        That’s all correct, I’m even an IT person in the public sector and could earn much more everywhere else. Wowereit tried to push creative industry for PR reasons, look at what Bread & Butter brought for Berliners, it was nothing.

      • Berlin is changing, what it’s gonna be in 10 years time, we’ll see in 10 years time.
        But for now Happy New Year!

  2. Cool video. Sorry to hear the work didn’t work out for you. I had exactly the same experience, exactly the same sense of frustration before I eventually struck it lucky with the work I have now. Even that’s only hand to mouth and if I lose that I’m fucked again. Still, I’m grateful to have it.

    Best of luck with your new adventures!

    • Thanks a lot for reading, and good luck to you too!
      There are Berliners with work, and even good work, but too few. There is no ideal city: – if there is money in the city, there is no freedom, and wise versa. But Berlin is the city you need to know how to survive in, if not – you’re out.
      I’ve learned how to survive, but now I want to live.

      • I agree – life should be about more than mere survival. The way the world is going though, even that seems like a luxury, a pie in the sky ideal. I got the hell out of Ireland precisely because I wanted to live. That feeling of elation carried me through the first year or two in Berlin before the reality set in, and I experienced all you describe above. But still, I feel at home here, even through little things like chatting with the guy at the Späti about what he did New Year’s Eve…

        I sincerely hope it works out for you, and that you live. It’s the minimum anyone should ask for. If you ever decide to give Berlin another chance let me know. I’m a nobody but I’ll help whatever way I can.

      • Thanks a lot.
        But I am done with Berlin, and surprisingly I don’t even miss it! Not even a gram of nostalgia torturing me.
        Apart from work I also found it difficult to accept such a high level of sexuality in Berlin, not that it confuses me. It’s great that people are open and I did go to Porn Film Festival, and it was the best, but classical relationships in Berlin seem to be a rare thing.
        I just stopped feeling like a woman; everywhere else I’d get attention, compliments etc. In Berlin – just never happened. Want to have sex? No, problem. Want to have a relationship? But why? An open one – sure, we can try that.

        I am looking for work everywhere, including Ireland. So far only Google gave me a chance, but too bad I did not pass the test. The competition is humongous.

        I will pass Berlin spring time, to see my friends before they leave for good to the US.

  3. all you have to know about Berlin:

    FRANZ VON SUPPÉ
    „Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du mußt nach Berlin.“

  4. in other words you losed ,you have many other options ,then benefits is not a bad thing ,after all ,the taxes are here not only to finance wars but also to help you to achieve your projects in a relaxing way…

  5. David0ff said:

    Some of the things you’re writing are definitely true but one can also tell that you have unfair point of view towards the city! Maybe you were hanging around too much at Berghain and around those kind of people!? One doesn’t have to choose a poorly paid or unpaid job, one could choose a successful career path, have a family and live a happy live in Berlin too! Berlin forever! ❤

    • If a “successful career path” were simply a matter of choice everybody would be doing it. Unless you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth it takes hard work to build a career..and even that isn’t always enough as increasingly you need connections to people who can refer you to someone working in the field you are interested in. And if you are lucky to get a foot in the door often you are still expected to work for free initially. That’s bullshit and shows our society has moved too far in the wrong direction…but that’s how it is at the moment.

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