In the last decade, Berlin has become trendy for young Australians. London, New York and Tokyo are passé. Since the 2010s, Berlin has been buzzing with 20- and 30-somethings running tech startups, pop-up galleries and street food ‘events’. Digital nomads share laptop space and bike parking in co-working hubs; international models and freelance ‘creative consultants’ (what is this? I don’t know) bunk together in flat shares and frequent the same nightclubs, riding the wave of cheap rent, entrepreneurial buzz and cosmopolitan transience amid the grimy Old World atmospherics. Sure, Nick Cave got there first, back in the 1980s, when Berlin was proper grungy, and added to the grunge by doing serious drugs, but he’s proper historical himself, old enough to be a millennial’s dad.
The much publicised ‘social media novel’ by precocious critic Lauren Oyler (who infamously slammed the book of millennial superstar Jia Tolentino in the London Review of Books) is set in Berlin. Oyler herself has been called out by yet another millennial (a former Vice.com colleague, no less, writing in Unherd), for not speaking any German, for not featuring any actual Germans in her novel, for wanting to get into Berghain, a club so exclusive and exacting that mobile phones are not allowed. A thought: it’s run by middle-aged people who want to party without the kidz and their compulsion to self-broadcast in real time?
I agree that not speaking the local language and treating the locals like so much exotic wallpaper makes for a limited expat experience. However, learning a language to any useful, let alone intelligent, level takes time, and air tickets, up until COVID hit, were cheap and easily available.
In my impressionable 20s, I left Australia clutching a book called Work Your Way Around the World. It was an actual three-dimensional, physical book, with underlinings in pencil and the cover bent from being rammed into my travel pack. I was fascinated by other people’s adventures as kibbutzim, camp counsellors or English teachers in exotic (for me, European) locations.
Unknown to me, at the same time, newly liberated Prague was choked with young Americans researching their European expat novel. Paris was already too expensive, as well as mean and, frankly, clichéd, and what academics now call the ‘post-Soviet space’ was virgin territory, just waiting for young Westerners to experience it. The experiences and writings of young post-Soviets themselves was quite another matter.
These days, young Australians bypass London, go directly to Berlin, select a café in Kreuzberg or Neukölln and start a business from their laptop.
Unfortunately for my wanderlust, I hated English teaching. I tried: a year in Japan, a CELTA course in Barcelona, a stint in Moscow. My skills are language-based; I ended up with an editorial job in London and took holidays in Europe. My boss, a Europhile American married to an Austrian, told me I should go and live in Italy. London was too expensive; I could have more fun in Italy. In his married-man imaginings of what fun an early 30s single me could have in Italy, he omitted the practical question of how I would earn a living, absent basic Italian language skills. A European passport on its own wasn’t enough. Also, reading Tim Parks’ entertaining but clear-eyed accounts of living in Italy had provided a counterbalance to Anglo fantasies, which omit the bureaucratic realities.
Now it’s too late for me to live in Europe. In 2016, an Australian friend sneered at my grief over Brexit. It’s not like you actually took the opportunity to live and work in Europe. In her London years, she’d had a few business trips to Paris and Frankfurt, which she spent holed up in her hotel ordering room service, not wanting to be there.
This friend, for many reasons, is no longer a friend.
As a citizen of New Free Britain, I am permitted spend 90 days out of every 180 in Europe. I’ve spent the last year proving that I don’t need to be in the office to do my job. When mass vaccination takes effect and the latest spike of infections recedes, maybe I’ll pack up my laptop and spend a month working in Verona, Valencia or Crete. I can still pretend to be European, without the paperwork.