Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Escape from Escapism: Unsetting the English Tourist Trap

Street Art in Hackescher Markt: The Epicentre of Gentrification
I'll never forget the day that my friend Andreas said, "Germans usually associate speaking English with going commercial and selling out."

We were discussing English involvement in Berlin activism scenes at the time.  "To most of them," he said, "Lady Gaga, Hollywood and McDonalds are what the English [and Americans] are all about." 

His words made my face go pale, my hair stand on end, and the world begin to go dark.  Saying such things to  someone who has never willingly taken part in anything commercial (except one brief stint at a major magazine which I regret) can pose a serious threat to one's health!

Sadly the English-language media in this city does very little to challenge that assertion.  English blogs and magazines push unaffordable goods and services that seem custom-made for wealthy out-of-towners: the most recent Ex Berliner featured gourmet subs at 6 euros apiece, vintage notebooks at 18 euros apiece and an art magazine that costs nearly 50 euros. 

By contrast, whenever a German-speaking Berliner recommends something to a friend it is always and without fail, a cut-price bargain: Sudanese veggie wraps for 2 Euros (Nil) notebooks for 50 cents (McPaper) or publications for free (Mittesch├Ân, Partysan, Stressfaktor etc.)  That's a savings of more than 70 Euros between the English and the German perspective, right off the bat.

Maybe that's the reason why people look gobsmacked when I walk into a solidarity center, vok├╝ or anti-squat and start speaking to them in English-accented German; maybe they're wondering why in Hell I'm not busy maxing my credit cards or flying around the world in my private jet.  Well, if that's what they think then they are being a bit unfair.  I see plenty of German-speaking out of towners shopping and dining in Hackescher Markt or Ku'damm too, after all.

But I can see where the stereotype comes from.  The fact is that there is an increasing number of English-speaking visitors who come to Berlin just to get a taste of the good life and play at being upper crust for a weekend (longer if they can telecommute) and the sight of them throwing Euros around like Monopoly money inevitably changes local attitudes.   The rest of Berlin's English natives may seek to distance themselves from that by talking English very quietly, or hunting down less touristy hang-outs but a more effective, rewarding and fun way to challenge the stereotypes is to break out of the recommended-by-expats mould and look for German-speaking scenes on one's own.     

Finding real "alternatives" in Berlin is not as easy as it would be in another city, though.  Berlin's reputation as a derelict, creative haven has turned its underground into a commodity.  Here, the "underground" label is used to lure tourists and their money.  Any business that can successfully convey an edgy image succeeds, so there are a lot of smoke and mirrors about.  The features that would normally tip off a traveller that they are in uncharted territory - graffiti; ramshackle buildings; people with piercings, tattoos and dreads - are ubiquitous here.  They're found even in areas where the prices are too high for the locals.

Here are a few tips I've picked up that may help.
Not all English visitors to Berlin believe that travel is a way to "escape"
Stressfaktor: This German language zine covers Berlin's most pressing left-wing issues and events.  For non German speakers, the zine's events page will prove more accessible than the articles; once armed with the  basic details of the city's underground events - the "what", the "where" and the "when" - they can go there in person and maybe get the chance to talk to the "who" or learn more about the "why".

Couchsurfing Users have to register and invest time online to explore the Berlin message boards before they find the right people and events but this site pays off big-time dividends for anyone who is new in Berlin and looking for  stuff that doesn't just look alternative. 

Resident Advisor in Berlin has a surprisingly diverse listing.  It's not just about dance music but also covers gigs, art exhibitions and other odd little one-offs, although the cheaper they are the more you have to read between the lines to figure out what they hold in store for visitors.   

The internet isn't  the only alternative source for Berlin info, though: posters are also pretty popular, here.  I regularly stop to check out ads on telephone poles, electricity boxes and boarded-up buildings because, one out of every 5 times it's for something I'd actually go to - a street party, protest or club night - and that makes the delay worthwhile.  And then there is the old tried and tested standby: making friends in Berlin, because locals always know stuff that outsiders don't.

English voices are good for something other than singing football chants and ordering overpriced menu items.  English brains are good for thinking about more than what advertisers tell them to think. This seems like it should be obvious, but obviously quite a few Berliners haven't travelled to England before and they only know what they see on the most widespread TV and music shows.  No wonder they think the whole culture has sold out - by the time any new act gets here, it usually has! 

The English presence in Berlin has more than just a monetary value, though.  Anybody who believes this can make different choices to change the misconception that being English is just one big, never-ending spending spree. But first, they have to decide whether they believe it themselves.    


  1. Thanks. These are useful tips.

    Don't you think there are plenty of rich German visiting the party scene here too?

  2. Definitely! They tend to be less conspicuous spenders than the non-German visitors but like I said above, they are just as likely to be overspending. It's just easier to stereotype the English (French, Russians, etc) though isn't it - they're speaking a different language than the locals, after all. But there are also plenty of places here that look 'underground' but charge tourist prices, which winds me up. It's like a Disney ride or something... :-/