Living Without The Language: An Idiot’s Guide to Berlin

Languages are tricky. A common obstacle all expatriates face is a common tongue. German seems equal parts practical and completely illogical – in other words, somewhat suited to Berlin’s ambiguous nature. After the initial settling in period, if you’re lucky enough to stumble into a job you like, manage to leap the many hurdles of bureaucracy and end up in comfortably insured, financial stability, you’re still left aghast when faced with 24-character words, and ever-changing sentence structure.

Firstly, know that reading this article will do nothing to help you out. This is merely the equivalent of two kids sitting at the back of the class talking ill about the teacher, as facing their inferior learning skills takes second tier to poking each other in the arm with compasses.

Berlin is, despite what your stoner roommate says, actually quite a welcoming city. On average, 40,000 new arrivals set up camp here each year. Graffiti throughout the city proclaims that refugees are welcome, while other art demonises gentrification. Berlin is famously “poor but sexy” and, as long as expatriates don’t disrupt either of these by knocking up the rent, or by dousing themselves in fake tan, there’s little to fret about in the way of discrimination. The only people who have trouble entering bars in Berlin are Nazis, which is the broad term bars in Berlin like to ascribe to any Pegida- or general fascist-like organisation affiliates. Any attempt at speaking German while ordering food or drink is taken well, and help with pronunciation is commonplace - along with an (ever so slight) snigger as you attempt, woefully, to correct yourself.

The two exceptions to this rule of accepted ignorance are Berghain and the elderly. (For some reason, I love that they are in the same sentence.) When dealing with a bouncer at the renowned club, which houses, according to your stoner roommate, the greatest sound system in the world, admittance is notoriously difficult. Queues last for hours and rejection is probable, being paramount to maintaining their exclusivity. One sure-fire way to be turned away with your tail between your legs is to fumble over your words when asked a simple question in German. One “huh?” and you’re out. Effectively, Berghain acts as the stern principal of Berlin’s school for the blubbering expatriate.

The second tool at Berlin’s disposal for weeding out the linguistically impaired chancers among us is sweet old ladies who attempt to speak to you on the train. It’s rare that Berliners will engage with anyone on public transport, as is only right in peak travel hours. Nothing further ruins a day that’s already been dragged through the managerial muck of irrelevant meeting after meeting, than an impromptu accordion solo on a busy U-Bahn. Ladies especially of an older generation, throw caution to the wind when it comes to the unspoken rules of tired Berliners and will often attempt to speak to those seated next to them. The topics range from directions to the weather, and anything remotely out of the ordinary that may have occurred in the midst of your five minutes of mutual travelling. Their eyes reveal the classic, all too familiar, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed” look, as they realise you have an inept ability to maintain any remotely coherent conversation. They’ll smile slightly, and finally turn to a more suitable travelling conversationalist. These short, seemingly non-consequential parts of your Berlin life begin to fester in your mind after a while. The feeling that results is something akin to a sort of volunteered isolation. Living in Berlin without the language is completely  doable, but just because that’s the case doesn’t make it a wise decision.

Sitting in a small flat just outside the Ring, my Croatian friend interrupted the conversation in the room. “Can we decide to either speak German or English once and for all, so we can actually learn something?” I was taken aback by the statement; never before had socialising had any ulterior motive other than generally killing time. I looked at my friend and then leafed through a book written in Croatian, familiarising myself with the sounds of the words. We decided upon German. Class had begun.        

By Conor Kilkelly

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