Expats in Berlin

This month my reading will be focused very much on (mainly but not exclusively Anglo) expats. I don’t know if it’s my own plans for eventually moving to Berlin that have made the subject particularly pertinent and visible, or if it’s a publishing trend, but quite a few recent books seem to be dedicated to life in Berlin. The city that no one wanted to move to before 1990 and which then became super-trendy (and increasingly expensive). It’s the trendiness, a young person’s view of Berlin, that I found in the first three books I read: they talk about relatively recent periods in the town’s history rather than the more edgy grunge and squatter heaven of the early 1990s. None of these books struck me as being truly preoccupied or interested in the city itself – instead, these people were looking for their own selves or for connection or love or to fuel their addictions. They all made me feel tired and old.

Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller, Arcadia, 2015.

Three young men, each with a complicated back story (and the first part of the book dwells perhaps a little too much on their back stories before it brings them all together in Berlin), find themselves couch-surfing and partaking in the crazy 24 hours drinks, drugs, sex and club culture of 2000s Berlin. Tobias is originally German but has spent most of his life outside his country of birth; abused by a family member in his childhood, he has now turned to prostitution and fleeting affairs until he discovers he has AIDS. Armand rebels against his bourgeois family by becoming an artist, and leaves Paris for Berlin when the great love of his life doesn’t quite turn out the way he envisaged it. Franz thought he could pull himself up by his bootstraps by excelling at his studies, but discovers he will always be looked down upon by high-class Germans, so he starts dealing drugs instead. I wasn’t entirely convinced we needed three main characters in this quite short novel (170 small pages) – their experiences and voices did not seem that differentiated.

With graphic descriptions of drug-taking and of homosexual and heterosexual encounters in grimy toilets, it is very much a ‘hedonism as a desperate cry for escape from one’s own trauma’ sort of book – and at times it almost succeeds in convincing me of this. The chapters alternate between the three men, who finally meet up and become friends – or at least, fellow consumers of the Berlin nightlife circa 1998-2008. You might almost describe this as Trainspotting with a more glamorous backdrop. There are some acute observations about Berlin (the author lived there for some time), but perhaps not nearly enough to give me a strong sense of place.

What saves the book from just being a blow-by-blow account (pun intended) of random encounters and excessive clubbing are the moments of reflection. Armand keeps a notebook, and we are often privy to Tobias’ innermost thoughts. Every now and then we get some passages about the city itself, which might be the author intervening or could be written by one of the characters – these passages were my favourite to read:

The streets are wide and people walk around, as though nothing could happen to them, as if here more than elsewhere people take time to live. People are a bit skint but they get by. The soups are good. People smoke in the cafes since it would be crazy not to. They work away on a laptop at some obsession. You sense Europe is around you, all its languages mixing and answering each other.

This contrasts a bit with Tobias’ first impressions of the city when he arrives fresh from Paris:

The sky’s so grey here. No sun or clouds. And buildings, so shiny and low! It’s a far cry from Baron Haussmann’s embellishments. Everything looks like it has a use. It’s sad all the same, a city where everything is useful. What about poetry, where do they put that? Maybe they have little parking lots for sonnets and hangars and factories for ballads.

I particularly enjoyed the description of winter in Berlin:

For several weeks, the street has lost its old appeal. Its heart is frozen, its surface covered in snow… No one panics; people here are used to putting on boots, taking a shovel to clear their doorways. It’s as though a parallel life is activated: bikes and tables outside cafes are put away, hats and tights are taken out, daylight becomes unfamiliar, there are invitations to people’s flats for soup or a cup of tea.

But there simply weren’t quite enough of those passages. Instead, we witness the car crash of people sabotaging their own lives.

Calla Henkel: Other People’s Clothes, Sceptre, 2021.

The queue to get into the legendary Berghain Club in Berlin, which features in all three books. Often dubbed the most exclusive or notorious of techno clubs, with parties continuing non-stop from Friday night until Monday morning.

Calla Henkel is an American writer and playwright/director living in Berlin and in her debut novel she shows us the hedonistic side of Berlin from the point of view of two American students on their year abroad. Rather than a ‘running away from’, this is a novel of ‘running towards’. Zoe and Hailey are art students in New York, who are keen to reinvent themselves, desperate to be hip and memorable in a city that doesn’t seem to be that welcoming to them. Their art classes are virtually non-existent, but they manage to find a sublet in a grand old building where nothing seems to work properly. So they spend their days trying to track down the cool crowd and their nights being refused entry to Berghain.

Drug-taking, drinking, bulimia and sexual encounters are abundantly described, but there is an added twist to keep the story from becoming a wearisome episodic account. They suspect that their landlady, a prolific novelist, is spying on them to write a novel about them, so they decide to put on a show for her – give her something to write about. Set in 2008/9, the novel is full of references to the Amanda Knox case, with one of the main characters following it quite obsessively, so it’s no surprise when the novel takes a darker turn… but perhaps a little too late for my patience.

While the dialogue is often very funny and compelling, it feels to me like the author is trying to squeeze too many strands into this novel, or else couldn’t quite figure out what, if any, genre it was supposed to fit. It has it all: social media feeding frenzy, life as art, female friendships, envy and jealousy, gay and straight relationships, partying lifestyle, obsession with celebrity, being a babysitter in a wealthy family, plus the chilling feeling of being spied upon. If the men in Coop-Phane’s novel filled me in equal measure with disgust and pity, these girls annoyed me with their self-absorption, their spoilt and pretentious attitudes. Yet in both cases, I was pained to see how disinterested they were in getting to know the life of real, everyday Berliners outside their drug-taking or artistic bubble.

Which makes me wonder if the backdrop of Berlin was essential – it felt like this story could have taken place in any other big city with a lively nightlife. Occasionally, however, there is a rather more vivid description to convey the atmosphere:

The dance floor was filled with languages and English accented in French, Italian and others I couldn’t place, everyone expertly stepping to electronic music in quick sharp movements, all dressed in layers of black… A Venezuelan girl starting a gallery. A Croatian dancer making work-out tapes with artists. A spiky-haired guy in a black hoodie talking about Marx… It reminded me of the bar in Star War, all those outer-space creatures from planets I had heard of grinding on each other and smoking cigarettes.

Amy Liptrot: The Instant, Canongate, 2022.

At least this book has no aspirations to be fictional, but is a memoir of the year that the author moved to Berlin. After ten years of living in London and descending into alcoholism and drug-taking, Liptrot had reconnected with nature and herself in Orkney in her much-lauded first book The Outrun. However, after a while the island isolation becomes too much for her and she goes to Berlin on a whim, without speaking the language or a job or place to stay.

I didn’t choose Berlin for a particular reason… You are free to invent your identity in a new city. I want to act like I’m still in my twenties, maybe get a nose-piercing and an undercut, start beng polyamorous, making scultpures. I’m attracted to what I think of as Berlin style: Cabaret-via-Cold War, bicycles, minimal techno, black clothes.

Ah, there come the clichés again! The elements which resurface in both of the books above. Liptrot too goes to Berghain, but she writes about it with more lyricism than the others. She compares it to diving into the sea.

Entering that place is like entering a huge echoing cliff cave and, once my eyes have adjusted to the dark, finding it full of rock doves and black cormorants, on shadowy ledges, darting past. I’ve found a complete ecosystem. Five hundred people or more, a bloom of jellyfish, are drifting with the tide of music… I am reminded of the exquisite illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist and philosopher who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, made detailed studies of sea life, including technical drawings of jellyfish and anemones, beautiful and weird.

You might think that she would fall once more prey to her demons in this partying city, but Liptrot is in her thirties rather than her twenties. Although she longs to find love, she is still fascinated with the natural world around her. Even in the big city, she finds (or rather, hears about but doesn’t see) raccoons, and goes birdwatching. She manages to be poetic about traffic islands. And, for a few short months, she does find love – or so she thinks. And when she discovers it wasn’t quite what she hoped for, she is disarmingly frank about the vulnerable aftermath.

Yet once again I find that odd lack of curiosity about the ‘natives’ of the place where she has chosen to spend a year – even though her boyfriend is German. Many of the activities she pursues in Berlin are either solitary ones: going to swimming pools, walking, trying an immersion tank; or else sticking to the English-speaking foreign community. Even museums: it’s only in the last few weeks of living in the city, that she actually visits any museums – obviously, I don’t expect everyone to want to explore the same things about a foreign city that I do, but it did strike me as odd. Yet the author seems to be quite aware of the privileges of the ‘digital nomad’ anywhere or nowhere culture.

There is growth of this ‘sublet’ or ‘freelance’ culture: people always keeping their options open, skimming the surface of other countries, digitally fragmented, never committing… Move between the cool districts of international cities and the currency and time zone change but the people are the same. The only language you learn is how to ask for a coffee and the Wi-Fi password.

Berlin’s Landwehrkanal hints at a more peaceful way of life. A.Savin, WikiCommons.

If I had no prior knowledge of Berlin and read just these three books, it might put me off moving to that city. I would consider myself too old and uncool. But I have friends who have grown up there while the city was divided, or who moved there in 1995 and raised a family there, so I know it can look and feel very different too. I have just embarked upon a more thoughtful memoir of living in Berlin, which looks at the layers of Berlin (both geological and historical ones) – and that is much more my speed (pun intended). More about that in my next review.

Summing Up the Decade: Blog Posts

I’ll have a separate blog post for my favourite books or cultural events of the decade, but first for something rather personal. It’s been a long, hard old decade for me. I started off with a moribund marriage but tried desperately to keep it alive for another 4 years or so. Then to hide its disintegration from the children for two more years. Then another 3.5 years to finally untangle property and finances. So you can imagine I will not be looking back fondly upon this decade. However, there have been good moments, mostly relating to the five years we spent in my beloved Geneva area.

So I’ll start with my favourite posts from the blog I started in Geneva in February 2012. Not quite 10 years old, but boy, has it accumulated a lot of material! Expect a mammoth post:

My very first book review – because it was a book about expat experience https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/book-review-the-expats-by-chris-pavone/

A rather uncharacteristic short story https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/the-washing-machine-chronicles/

My reaction upon reading Knausgaard for the first time https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/a-man-a-writer-in-love/

A brief essay about motherhood and what ifs https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/my-life-isnt-open-to-revision/

My series of interviews What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime?

Reading Habits and Resolutions https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/changing-my-reading-habits-part-1/

German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/german-women-writers-fighting-against-national-socialism/

Rereading The Tale of Genji https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/the-tale-of-genji-readalong-2/

A political piece and plea for sanity just before the 2016 Referendum https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/i-wasnt-going-to-enter-the-debate/

I visited the Quais du Polar Crime Festival in Lyon several times and wrote a series of posts about it

The most popular post I ever wrote – about The Handmaid’s Tale and what it brings back to me https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/why-its-painful-to-watch-the-handmaids-tale/

Reunited with the books in my loft and rediscovering the most obscure on my bookshelves

Possibly the best holiday I’ve had this decade https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/romanian-road-trip-little-house-in-the-forest/

The Victor and His Family. This is a bit how this decade has felt like for me.

Before I started this blog, I had a professional blog for my business as a coach and trainer for all matters intercultural. Some of the posts were quite business-like, but some wittered on about expat experiences and my family. Here are a few posts that bring back fond memories:

The Racism of St Nicholas – this one is from December 2009, but just about fits into the decade, with a bit of indulgence https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/st-nicholas-is-an-unfair-racist/

British Heritage and Stereotypes – oddly prescient that, although it dates from March 2010 https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/british-heritage-and-stereotypes/

The Dramas of Being an Expat Light Wife https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/the-dramas-of-expat-light/

Remembering my first stint on the border of France/Switzerland (this article first appeared in the expat section of The Telegraph) https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/and-now-for-something-completely-different/

Trying to make light of relocation problems https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/househunting-abroad-art-science-or-pain/

I wanted to close this post with a picture of the Mont Blanc peak, which has been such a huge part of my decade. But when I did a search for Mont Blanc through my saved pictures, I found this special edition Virginia Woolf pen by Mont Blanc instead…

Reading Summary for September

It’s always a bit of a surprise when I sit down at the end of the month to do a proper count of the number and types of books I’ve read. This month, I only managed to read 8 books, which might in part be explained by the fact that it has been a month full of travelling and other cultural events, as well as the back to school rigmarole.

More surprising and disappointing, by far, is the fact that of those 8, only 2 were in translation, both from Spanish, both winners of the biggest literary prize in Spain, the Planeta Prize. These were Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s subversive Naked Men and Dolores Redondo’s gripping (although at times long-winded) psychological thriller All This I Will Give to You

So perhaps NOT the best month in terms of diversity. I found myself reaching for authors where I know what to expect, such as Rachel Cusk, Tana French or Sarah Moss, whose Night Waking brings back many, many memories of failed attempts at being a good scholar and a good mother simultaneously. And, if the author wasn’t known to me, I stuck to situations that would be familiar, such as expat life (Singapore is only slightly more of a police state than Switzerland) in Jo Furniss’ The Trailing Spouse. I cannot stop myself from reading these sort of books, but I do wonder why in so many books about expats, the main female character is often annoyingly self-absorbed, entitled and thoughtless (even when the writers are women, such as Janice Y.K. Lee, Nell Zink, Jill Alexander Essbaum, or more recently Louise Mangos with Strangers on a Bridge.) Nice cover, though!

The only two male authors I read this month were Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square, which left me somewhat perplexed, and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, which left me depressed about corruption, politics and vote rigging, although it takes place in Nigeria rather than in the UK. I’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing the author for Crime Fiction Lover very soon.

The Return

It’s been five but only to me.
To others it’s three, or two,
if they remember at all.
Life moves on, distance no friend,
search for shared words or memories,
fall back on blandness that cannot offend.
Smiles a little too fixed,
eyes darting to others for rescue.
My stories too long, your chambers too full,
no room at the inn for the perpetual wanderer.

returninghome

The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…

From Fodors.com
From Fodors.com

Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

From bookpeople.com
Jill Alexander Essbaum, from bookpeople.com

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatriée (Singapore)