‘That’s where we climbed up to look over the Wall and wave at the East German guards,’ explains Peter Scollin in his Australian drawl as we cross snowbound Checkpoint Charlie, the former gateway between two Berlins. Peter’s a self-styled ‘first fleeter’, a ‘pioneer’ who came to the German capital from Melbourne in 1981—he lived in this quarter of Berlin for more than 25 years, and still runs his theatre company from an office nearby. Then, Peter joked he was an ‘economic refugee’ escaping a dire Australian recession. Three decades on, despite the sunnier economic climate at home, more and more Australians are making sorties to Berlin. Walking with Peter in early December, the city already turned to ice, hangovers of the Third Reich lurking in the ‘topography of terror’ down the road, one wonders what they’ve come to find.
Go to a bar, club or gallery opening in Berlin, and Australians likely outnumber other foreigners, and maybe even Germans. ‘I come across Australians every day,’ says Chauntelle Trinh, an architect and designer from Sydney who has called Berlin home since 2007. In fashionable Mitte, where Trinh has her studio, the Aussie patois is more audible than French and Italian, she says. ‘It’s very surprising, considering how far away home is.’
Berlin is different. For a city of 3.5 million, it’s relaxed, open and tolerant. It has a world-class transit system, rents in commodious apartments are half those in Sydney or Melbourne, and a beer (500ml) costs 80 cents. Though unemployment remains high, the wide, graffitied boulevards of post-Wall Berlin have become a metropolitan oasis for foreign dreamers and artists. As the locals say, Kreativität braucht Platz (creativity needs space).
‘There is such an amazing art culture, and there are so many international artists living here. It really is an incredible place to be for an artist at the moment,’ enthuses Dan Angeloro, who with sister Dominique makes up Sydney video art duo Soda_Jerk, now based in Berlin as part of a one-year residency program. Surviving off an Australia Council grant, the duo says they won’t be going home when the money runs out.
Australians in Berlin are part of a widening diaspora — 12 per cent of the population has left for greener pasture at last count, while 2008 saw the biggest exodus on record. Some put this evacuation down to a globalised job market, and a more cosmopolitan worldview. Australians are not leaving to escape the cultural cringe, nor is this a repeat of the brain drain. We are simply becoming part of the world.
It was different once. Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Nation, explained why cultural exiles like Robert Hughes left Australia in the 1960s, usually for London: ‘Anyone found haunting an art gallery or a library would be suspected, like a crab climbing out of a barrel, of being a snob and an elitist and a deserter, whose own people were not good enough for him.’
By the 1980s, antipodean runaways were looking beyond squalid London, a city then ‘passé’ according to Scollin. ‘When we go[t] to Berlin it seemed like the right place,’ singer Nick Cave told Matthew Hall in 1991, having spent most of the Eighties west of the Wall. ‘There was an incredible community of really talented, really interesting people. It was an incredibly wonderful period of my life … my second youth.’
For Australians in Berlin, one unifying theme is autonomy, a sense of free will exemplified by people legally drinking alcohol on the streets and in trains, or riding bicycles sans helmet, without compromising the city’s vaunted calm and safety.
‘I was at Bondi Beach and there were these signs everywhere saying “don’t, don’t, don’t”. I thought, what can you do?’ says Megan Mann above the din at a Berlin club where she is promoting the DJ. Mann left Melbourne in 1996 and, after stints in Tokyo and London, has lived in Berlin for six years. ‘The attitude here is what I thought Australia had, a kind of rebellious freedom.’
Berlin has been associated with the transitory lifestyle of the peripatetic ‘churners’, the ‘nation-stateless’ that writer Brigid Delaney describes in This Restless Life — she has lived for a time in the city, among many others. But for every young expat coming to drift or party in this affordable nightlife capital, another arrives with a higher purpose.
Paul Fitzsimon, the assistant conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2008, has followed a trail of antipodean maestros to Berlin, including composer Brett Dean, a Berlin Philharmonic member for 15 years. Having already extended his mentor program in Berlin, Fitzsimon plans to stay. ‘Berlin is the best classical music city in the world. There are four symphony orchestras and three opera houses. The audience is educated … people even boo.’
But it won’t be easy. ‘There are a lot of people like me, a lot of young conductors here. I could have stayed in Australia and got regular work. But I had to decide to go overseas or stay forever.’ The downsizing has suited him. Sipping a pilsner in his large, top-floor room with city view — walkable from the Berlin Philharmonic’s home, it costs 60 euros a week — this struggling artiste notes with glee that his beverage is taxed at the same rate as milk and bread.
George Gittoes recently spent six months preparing a major exhibition in Berlin, where he channelled the ghosts of German expressionism. A painter, filmmaker and co-founder of Sydney’s seminal Yellow House gallery, Gittoes has long come to Berlin for respite after working in war zones like Rwanda, Afghanistan and Bosnia. ‘I have always found it easier to come to Berlin after the trauma of war. The sunshine of Sydney can be blinding after such deep darkness.’
‘It’s an environment that allows one to get working,’ says James Drinkwater, a 26-year-old expressionist painter who went north to Berlin in the ‘monumental’ winter of 2009. ‘We had coal heating, no shower, snow falling outside, poor man’s soup on the stove. Within that misery I found I could work.’
For Trinh, an architect turned artist who etches cityscapes into stainless steel, Berlin provides the space and anonymity she could not find in ‘claustrophobic’ Sydney. ‘I just felt this great sense of freedom when I arrived. I felt so motivated to work. We didn’t leave our studio for a year.’
In this city of division and destruction only now finding its feet, Australians are somehow seeking out new spaces, frontiers they could no longer locate amid the security and plenty of home. ‘For me,’ says Drinkwater, ‘Berlin is a city still struggling to find its identity. I find that extremely exciting to be apart of.’
Stuart Braun is an Australian living and working in Germany.
Photo: Diana Panuccio