I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Hello to Berlin

Margaret Haverty

Recent Irish and British Migration to Berlin: A Case of Lifestyle Migration?, by Melanie Neumann, Wvt Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier (Irish-German Studies 12), 246 pp, €29.50, ISBN: 978-3868218688

… cities like London and New York and Paris, they’re fabulous cities to live in if you have a lot of money and if you don’t, your life is going to be miserable there. […] Berlin isn’t like that.

The story of recent British and Irish migration to Berlin is a complicated one, as, of course, all migration stories are. With an eye for this complexity, Melanie Neumann sets out to reveal some of the nuances of Irish and British people’s decision to live in Berlin and their experiences of the German capital. Doctoral research carried out between 2015 and 2018 forms the vast body of material for the work. Neumann carried out both quantitative and qualitative research among Irish and British citizens leading their lives in Berlin, with 149 participants in her survey and in depth-interviews carried out with five British and eight Irish people living in Berlin.

Neumann delves here into the rather unexplored field of the Irish living in continental Europe. Germany is a far cry from the Anglophone poles often associated with Irish emigration (for example, USA, UK, Canada, Australia), and so remains largely uncharted by researchers. This is perhaps due in part to a certain perception of the European continent primarily as a holiday destination for the Irish and British. Michael Cronin drew attention to this gap in 2008 when he remarked that “[t]he permanent move to Canada but not the sojourn to Sicily, the emigrants’ letters home from Australia, but not the visit to Berlin, become objects of critical inquiry”. The visit to Berlin in this case could be considered a turning point towards a more permanent move for Neumann’s respondents, whose impressions of the city form their imaginaries of it and, inevitably, their very real choices to live there.

Media coverage, Neumann asserts, has often been superficial and lacking in the discussion of emigration from Ireland since the financial crisis and most of what is known about those emigrants is based on media reporting – with some more insightful exceptions (Derek Scally writing on the Irish in Berlin and Germany in The Irish Times is often quoted in this monograph). With Brexit, as well as the Irish government’s recent publication of a review of relations between Ireland and Germany entitled “A Wider and Deeper Footprint” and the increased interest in Irish-(insert other important EU partners) relations in the aftermath of Brexit, Neumann’s publication is timely. Her interdisciplinary and multi-method approach paints a picture of the motivations and daily lives of the Irish and British emigrants living in the German capital.

The book has a classical study structure, taking the reader through the theoretical contextualisation, the research questions and hypotheses, before examining the results of the quantitative and qualitative data generated by her study. In two “discussions” towards the end of the book, Neumann questions the illusion that this group of expats could be considered in any way uniform or homogenous and zooms in on the “Berlin Myth” mentioned repeatedly in interviews. The book ends with an outlook towards the future and the appendix is jam-packed with everything she took with her in her research toolkit, from the questionnaire to the demographic profiles of her interviewees.

The question of whether Berlin’s reputation as “cool” and “creative” really does draw Irish and British migration is answered in her survey with a resounding yes. Many see Berlin as the place to go to “find themselves” as well as a good match to their personalities. 59.1% of respondents (strongly) agreed that they expected to realise their dreams in Berlin. Peppered with graphs and tables, this section lays the groundwork for the micro-level analysis of the day-to-day experiences of this group who have chosen the “Berlin lifestyle”.

As an ethnographer currently working with the Irish in Germany, I found the section discussing the thirteen in-depth interviews to be the most appealing as it deals with the way in which these persons experience their everyday lives in this city. The section is also the most accessible in the book to those readers interested in the personal experience of real-life adopted Berliners hailing from Britain and Ireland. The role of language, situations of precarity, the “Berlin myth”, ideas of escape and Brexit are among the topics of these conversations.

The encounters of anglophone emigrants with the anguage are bittersweet. An Irishwoman struggling with German describes her verbal interventions as being like “using a hammer” – somewhat lacking in the subtlety she feels necessary for successful communication. All the respondents made at least some effort to bring their German to an acceptable standard for day-to-day interactions. This represents an invalidation of the stereotype of the anglophone expat abroad who stubbornly insists on the English menu in the local restaurant. Learning a new language is nonetheless challenging. One British man points out rather directly that he decided that “life is too short” for German grammar – a position that most acquainted with German can at least to some extent sympathise with. Experiences with what is described as “German directness” and the “Berliner Schauze” abound. For anyone with experience living in Germany, the observations around language and communication are bound to strike a chord.

In 2003, Klaus Wowereit, at the time Berlin’s mayor, declared his city to be “poor, but sexy”. Fifteen years later, this sentiment has stuck around. Some describe a “precarious yet celebratory lifestyle”. “Laoise” describes how in years to come, she and friends may reminisce about their time in Berlin by saying:

remember that time in our twenties when we all lived in Berlin and we’d just go and get a Späti beer, we were broke and […] we’d sit there and we’d have the best laugh ever […] whereas in Ireland, […] you need money to have fun. […] [I]n Berlin, everyone’s poor, so it’s fine. You know, you’re in it together.

Not all voices are comfortable with precarity and one woman declares to Neumann that she has been poor and “it didn’t feel sexy”. Overall, Neumann finds, the “myth of the ever-partying migrant” in Berlin is not applicable to her interlocutors, at least not as a long-term lifestyle.

The “Berlin Myth”, the “honeymoon period” and “Berlin Depression” are three particularly interesting concepts which emerge from the interviews. The mythological status of Berlin is a social imaginary which can be traced back to at least the 1920s and has a powerful pull effect on those considering moving abroad. Ideas about “the bohemian life” are modelled onto the city. References to Berlin as a kind of “Neverland” are not uncommon. Yet, many aspects of the city are far from mythological in the lived experience of interviewees. “Affordability”, “opportunities” and “freedom” are the watchwords for conversations with those who find themselves priced out of the Dublin or London rental market or seeking a setting more conducive to taking artistic risks. “The perceived lack of financial and societal pressures led to a feeling of increased freedom and self-determination in all of my respondents,” Neumann tells us.

The honeymoon period with the city ultimately ends and these adopted Berliners go through bouts of “Berlin depression”. Let it be known, there is very little which can be described as sexy in the realms of German bureaucracy. Tending to one’s health insurance and registering with the city authorities are not quite as thrilling as the nightlife. Nonetheless, Berlin remains agreeable to many and has almost rural qualities, with interviewees praising the green spaces and the city’s less anonymous feel in comparison to London, for example. It seems that Neumann’s interlocutors have to “suffer a little bit to earn [their] place” in Berlin.

Brexit does not go unmentioned and given that the research took place across the period during which Brexit was decided upon and negotiated, this is important. The uncertainties and the feelings of “uprootedness” experienced by the British interviewees are discussed and the incertitude around the process was palpable in Neumann’s interviews. Brexit invokes not only practical considerations around citizenship and residence permits. It also seeps into family life and personal relationships, causing one respondent to struggle with her parents, who voted “Leave”. The already fragile equilibrium between national identity and the self is disrupted by the discourse surrounding Brexit and this historical moment for the United Kingdom causes what one British woman describes as “identity shock” on a very personal level.

For some, moving to Berlin involved “escaping” from a “neo-liberal hamster wheel”, exercising agency over one’s life and taking up one’s responsibilities to become an active member of society. This is an opportunity that other metropoles do not seem to afford their residents, as described by “Adam”, a British citizen who values a perceived “ease of living” in Berlin:

I think the one thing that keeps me here is […] how easy it is to live here. That’s the one thing that’s […] impossible to replicate in any other city that I could do my job in […] Paris, New York, London, Hong Kong – […] all these places that really like beat you into a pulp by living there.

The move to Berlin is not a “dropping out”, Neumann is told, but rather a “dropping in”. A complete break from the structures which guide our human lives is not possible but appears to be worth a shot for the characters interviewed. These new Berliners are typical of Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity, Naumann asserts. The Bauman triad of consumption, transience induced by a lack of certainty, and disintegration of social networks form the context for the decision of a Londoner or Dubliner to take their chances as a Berliner, especially for those pursuing creative professions.

Looking towards the future, it can be assumed that Brexit, tightening immigration rules in Australia and Canada and the increasingly international and English-speaking character of Berlin will make the German capital, and indeed Germany itself, more and more appealing to Irish and British individuals seeking a life outside of their home nations, we are told. Add the Covid pandemic and the sudden difficulties in travelling between Ireland and more distant destinations into this mixture and the European continent could grow in popularity. Neumann has shown that Scally’s Berlin, the laboratory “testing what an Irish emigrant community can be in the 21st century”, is up and running.

The strength of this book lies in its sharp eye for the micro level detail seen in the interview section as well as a taste for the broader picture of British and Irish migration to Berlin. The qualitative work might well have benefited from greater engagement with Berliners’ day-to-day practices through participative observation, accompanying them in their activities in the capital. Further, the respondents are quite young, particularly the interviewees, who are all younger than forty-five and living in Berlin for between one and nine years. It might also be pointed out that Berlin is a very specific case within Germany, as, indeed, I have been told by my own respondents. The “sex appeal” of Berlin does not exactly apply to, for example, Stuttgart or Düsseldorf. Those cities are chosen as destinations for different reasons. Berlin, therefore, should not be taken as representative of all Irish stories in Germany, as is acknowledged also by Neumann’s interlocutors, who emphasise that they could not imagine living in another German city, Munich coming off looking the worst for the Irish/British Berlin residents spoken to – too posh and too clean altogether for these Berliners.

In this book, Neumann presents her insights into the struggles faced by British and Irish migrants to Berlin, their relationships to Germans and other migrants, their imaginings of this iconic city and the spectrum of social, cultural and economic capital they brought with them. “Nobody gives a shit about you in Berlin,” Bowie tells us. With her own personal experience of living as a German in Ireland as well as a non-Berliner in Berlin, Neumann brings a sensitivity to this work which is anything but indifferent. With ardent attention to detail and great care, she discloses the intricacies of the lives of this particular group of “Berliners”.

1/1/2022

Margaret Haverty is a doctoral student at the Ludwig Uhland Institute for Historical and Cultural Anthropology at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Germany and Konrad Adenauer Foundation scholar. A graduate of the distinguished Tübingen institute for “Empirische Kulturwissenschaft”, as it is known in Germany, she began her studies at Trinity College Dublin, reading history and German. Her research focuses on the Irish community living in Germany.

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