Berlin was the place to be

In February 2020 as my partner and kids left town, I enjoyed a rare spout of freedom. I went over to a friend’s practice space, meet up with familiar faces, and do what people in Berlin do or at least did: spontaneously decide to go to a techno club at 2AM. I came home around 1PM the next day. Laughing with random people in the bathroom drug line and dancing the night away to minimal techno with friendly strangers seems a world away.

Your typical Berlin club or bar bathroom.

One week later, as the first lock-down started, I like most people wanted to take the positives away from the situation: strengthen relationships with my family, learn new skills, self-improvement, go for a morning run in Tiergarten before the kids wake up, and do some DIY projects at home. But after a week or two,the beers started flowing at dinner. After putting the kids to bed, the drunk dialing started and the conversation went something like, “what the f*** is going on!?!?!?!?!”.

The million euro question is whether my adopted city comes back as the international capital of cool. To be honest, I moved here for work and not for self-actualization. Nevertheless, the many freedoms, spontaneity, and analog/non-digital aspects of Berlin life have kept me here over the years. But like most city-dwellers, I can’t help but ask myself, “What am I doing living in a crowded city during pandemic?” As someone with kids, the suburban lifestyle, something that I have spent my life actively avoiding, has recently become much more palatable.

Not exactly party time in Germany

A really nice in Politico by explains how much things have changed over the past year and how Germans still find utility in fax machines. Over the summer, I too felt like I was living in the safest place in the world. The head of state is an accomplished physicist and German politicians were putting the country before politics. Compare this to the incompetent buffoon running the US executive branch that was politicizing masks and telling people to drink bleach. But oh, “them changes…”.

Fast forward to now, where our beloved physicist has succumbed to what the German do best: endless bureaucratic stamping and arguments about why something shouldn’t be done as opposed to actually doing something. But yeah, blame it on Brussels. If the Germans spent as much effort in solving problems as they did assigning blame, many Germans might be spending Easter vacation on alpine slopes or at a beach in the Canary Islands. To sum up the blunder, the Germans wanted Biontech to send them a bill (“auf Rechnung, bitte!”) and ended up in the back of the line.

So why didn’t the Germans go big on vaccines? They tend to splurge on other things like camping gear and cars. When people ask me about Germans, I tell them that Germans are the type of people that spend 20,000 Euros on a state of the art kitchen, but still do all of their grocery shopping at discounters like Lidl. My point here is that Germans prioritize: they go really big in one area and pretend things not deemed priorities are trivial.

An overpriced kitchen.

As in other places in the world, the lockdown has affected people disproportionately. While the “winners” of the German economy, such as the auto-industry, building sector, and workaholics without kids, see productivity gains, the smaller “average Joe, mom and pop” operations like restaurants, hotels, bars, small businesses have been blind-sided. These are disproportionately run by immigrants searching for their “German Dream”. On top of this, little media attention has been devoted to how children have suffered through isolation, verbal and physical abuse from overworked and over-stressed parents, and increased screen time. Their future will be much more autistic than ours.

Frau Merkel has picked an opportune time to step down. The new Moralweltmeister (moral world-champion) made a knee-jerk reaction resulting in four month lock-down. The prospects for her political party, based on recent results, do not look promising in this Superwahljahr (super election year). The fallout, both politically, economically, and socially will last years. Maybe next time, go for the budget kitchen at IKEA and invest in better food at the Biomarkt.

Berlin is in trouble…

Most people outside of the country associate Germany with a booming economy, excellent standard of living, and a hard-working labor force. And the low birth rate has increased the need for highly educated immigrants to fill the gaps. But not in Berlin. When tourists used to ask me where they could find an beer hall with authentic German food in Berlin, I’d respond by saying, “You don’t go to New York to see a rodeo, now do you?” In other words, Berlin does not share many of the stereotypical German attributes of cites like Munich, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart.

But what about Berlin’s burgeoning start-up scene? Will that not be the future engine of growth in Berlin? I doubt it. Only a handful of companies, many of them subsidiaries of larger German corporations, have gotten out of the red. Many people I know in smaller startups have a second job. To remind those bullish about the Berlin tech scene: circa 50–60% of Berlin’s economy pre-pandemic was tourism. That’s gone for the foreseeable future and unemployment has gone from 4% to 11% and is climbing. The unemployment rate does not include the hundreds of thousands of furloughed employees (“Kurzarbeiter”).

One of Berlin’s biggest tourist attractions was the club scene. The main-stays have pockets deep enough to survive, but many, if not all, smaller clubs are gone. Sure, this presents an opportunity to start a new one, but who’s going to have the spare cash to blow on a weekend of debauchery. And I do not see the newly arrived tech nomads as the type of people that will sacrifice their sacred “agile” workflow on a two day bender with a two day hangover.

The larger problem is the dissolution of Berlin’s DNA: its post-war ethos. For those that don’t know, West-Berlin was ground zero of the cold war and geographically tantamount to the Gaza strip. American solders stationed in West-Berlin were told that there mission was to hold off Soviet forces for 5–10 minutes, so that there was enough time to release the nukes. West-Berliners, confronted with the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, partied like there would be no tomorrow. David Bowie and Nick Cave followed an influx of artsy types, who channeled this energy and help create a culture of spontaneous and non-pretentious interactions and nights with no end. That generation and that culture is dying out.

David Bowie lived in Berlin for two years. Now he has his own street. He must have made a mark.

Now, Berlin is becoming a working city of techies whose idea of creativity is what new app to develop, knowingly advancing the hypercapitalist business plan of digital surveillance and monetizing attention spans. This is antithetical to Berlin, the former home of the Stasi and the anarchistic hackers that helped create Wikileaks. Why do you think the Germans are so paranoid about Datenschutz (data protection)?

So are people like me…

My third and last child was born in January 2020. As I did not get to take any time off for my first two children, I decided to take 5–6 months off to spend time with them. I was confident that I could an job at my former employer VW or another medium to large size company because of my technical and soft skills. Uh, wrong. Now, I’m on “extended parental leave”.

There’s a narrative that COVID was simply a catalyst for the inevitable. If you were killing it, now you will do more killing. If you weren’t killing it, sucks for you, dude. Value creating dog eat non-monetizable dog. But I see this as largely a digital narrative, especially as it concerns digital innovation. It doesn’t explain what we see when we get offline and walk outside. Look at the growth in industries like booze and fitness equipment. Kettlebell technology hasn’t changed since the 1970s Soviet Union, but prices have. Put differently, it’s time we cut back on the innovation cool-aid.

This is where innovation supposedly happens.

Many have noted that COVID has put a new premium on time. It’s time that many aren’t getting back. I moved to Berlin to get away from 80 hour Silicon Valley work weeks. As a father and a person with a life besides being a father, moving to Europe seemed like paradise. Clock in, clock out. Easyjet stay-cations in the Canaries and Greece. Amazing benefits. Time for hobbies. Rent-controlled apartment in an vibrant world metropolis. Music, art, culture just a 10 minute subway or bike-ride away. Ironically, the first things that disappear in a pandemic.

But that might be the longest lasting change from the pandemic: how we work. Clocking in and clocking out might well be a thing of the past. Now, work when you can. Never close your computer. For me, it is now nights and weekends. Our lives and identities outside of work will slowly dissipate. Before I used to brag about my kids to colleagues at work, now I dare not to mention them a potential employer.

A Berlin “Eckkniepe” or corner bar.

Sure, I want to be optimistic, but the cold grey Berlin winter days just got a lot greyer. Without being able to escape into a smoke-filled Eck-kneipe and down cheap beer or even relax with random naked people at a sauna, I’m struggling to see what Berlin has to offer. But over the last year, I’ve realized that’s this wrong question. I should have been asking myself what I have to offer Berlin and those around me. What is my value as a person to those around me and how can I define it everyday. If Berliners adopt a similar approach, Berlin will be up and running shortly after the next lockdown extension ends. That still might take a while…

While I left the US to get out of my comfort zone, I ended up making a much more comfortable one here. Sure, we all want to challenge and test ourselves, grow, but to what ends? It’s not like we are living in the dawn of opportunity. But maybe that comes and we remember this as a long bad dream. I’ll tell you this, though. If I ever find myself in a drug line in a Berlin techno club, I’ll make sure to party like the next lockdown starts tomorrow.

Linguist, friendly skeptic, distracted parent, AI fan and practitioner