Being an immigrant is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not easy trying to live up to the romantic image of a struggling. poor, hard-working outsider. I just moved here – straight into a penthouse apartment in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin with my partner, The German.
Wladimir Kaminer, a well-known Berliner and Russian immigrant, who wrote Russian Disco, Schönhauser Allee and Mein deutsches Dschungelbuch among others, describes Prenzlauer Berg as a place where there aren’t any flies at all. That sums it up. Although Kaminer did eventually come to live in this area bereft of flies, he did not arrive here without a struggle – no! He furiously scribbles away about the various squats and squalid conditions he lived in with other Russian and Vietnamese immigrants. He tells stories of how he used to sell (and drink) cans of Hansabier illegally at Lichtenberg Station to make ends meet.
Nabakov, another Russian, who moved to Berlin in 1923 (shortly after his father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists) also drew upon his Russian émigré experience in his fiction. In his short story Russian Spoken Here, he tells the story of an owner of a Russian Tobacco store in Berlin, who recognises one of his customers as a member of the secret police and promptly kidnaps him and holds him hostage.
Herta Muller, Berliner and Romanian immigrant who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, also has the experiences of a harsh communist regime to fall back on.
It’s not only the Eastern European immigrants who are at an advantage. The English writer Christopher Isherwood not only did a good job of being “ein armer Immigrant” (he even lived in the working-class slums of Wassertorstrasse) but he had the good fortune of being in Berlin when the Nazis were rising to power.
In contrast the Berlin of today has a tranquil, pacifist air about it. On top of that, it is full of immigrants. The shop that we bought our Indian furniture from on Schönhauser Allee , Himalaya, is run by a Tibetan. The hairdresser who cut my hair last week emigrated to Berlin from Russia and is originally from China. Russian is his first language, Mandarin is his second and German is his third. How can one compete with that?
I am at a loss. Then, there’s a knock on the door. I run to get it, thinking that our new coat stand has arrived. However, I find a man in his 30s standing in front of me without a coatstand in sight. He starts speaking in German. I cannot grasp a word he is saying, so I utter the obligatory “Tut mir leid, Ich verstehe kein Deutch,” which normally helps me through most situations. However, instead of trying to communicate with me in another way, the man asks “Wie so?” – “Why can’t you speak German?”. I tell him that I am English, and before I find the words to say I just moved here, he interrupts and says with indignation “but you live in Germany!” (my German is good enough to understand this). I start to explain in my limited German that I am learning etc, but then it occurs to me that this is not right. This man, who has not introduced himself, who I do not know or does not know me, is asking me questions that are none of his business with an utterly rude manner on my doorstep. I shrug and close the door.
A real xenophobe, here and now, in East Berlin. A survey, carried out 20 years after the reunification of Germany, showed that 40% percent of the 1,900 East Germans polled had a negative attitude towards foreigners. I smile; there is hope after all.