- Ryan Kretch
When I got off the plane at Berlin Tegel Airport (which ceases to exist now) back in April 2018, I had never been to Berlin nor had any expectations what the next few years would bring to me. On a taxi past the drab houses on that gray Spring day to my friend's place, I sleepily reflected on the past few months and the spontaneous decision I took to move here. I remember thinking it was going to be one of those places I would visit for a bit, and soon after decide to leave, like all of the other temporary places I had lived in my life.
4.5 years later and stepping off of the train at Hauptbahnhof after some travels and passing the same drab buildings, I have this strong feeling of home in me, probably the first place in my adulthood where I have ever had this feeling.
What makes this place so different from all the rest? It is hard to pinpoint an exact answer, but I reckon it has to do with all of the changes it has brought me in my time here; changes that have brought me closer to a clearer purpose and have given me values that challenge the norm, for the better.
So without further ado, let's jump into the 3 main ways living in Berlin has changed me:
1. I see status and prestige as tacky
Growing up in the United States and then moving to another consumerist-driven nation like China, has always had me thinking that success was having the best quality things, staying in the best hotels while traveling, being the best in my career, going to the best university. But living this life and constantly striving for "best" is fucking exhausting and unobtainable.
The other day, a traveler from New York City who was staying in a chic hotel blurted out to me that it wasn't as nice as SOHO House, one of Berlin's top-notch hotels where he was staying prior. A few years ago, I would have felt this guy's privileged pain. Now, I pretty much vomit in my mouth when people say things like this.
While living in Berlin, that feeling of needing to be the best in every category fades. Berliners thrive off of finding a 90s track jacket from the depths of a second-hand shop. We scoff at expensive brands and turn our heads when the odd Lamborghini passes us on the street. We don't ask one another our jobs upon first meeting, because work doesn't define us; and thus doctors, waiters, cleaners, and entrepreneurs hang out in the same circles. We like to take care of our bodies, but don't starve ourselves or overdo it at the gym and its perfectly okay to let ourselves go occasionally.
After finding myself develop this mindset, traveling to places like London and Paris isn't always so easy. When I meet people in these cities, I realize just how 'normal' I have become and all of the inadequacies of adolescence and early adulthood start racing back to me. That question of "Why am I not the best?" starts to surface again.
But in the end, the Berliners are the true winners here, for being perfectly average is more sustainable for our bodies, minds, and the planet. And in the end, all of the status, prestige, and nice things that Berliners tend to turn a blind eye to truly means nothing when we are dead.
2. My open-mindedness has reached levels and dimensions unheard of
After traveling to some of the wildest corners of the Earth and experiencing opposite spectrums of culture and economic privilege, I thought of myself as one of the most open-minded humans. But truth be told, I had never experienced Berlin.
Soon after landing, my partner at the time and I moved into a place and asked the landlord for a suggestion of a place to go out. He recommended a place called KitKat without flinching. We decided to give it a go on a Friday night and after a long queue, were finally inside. Upon entering, we knew this place would be different from anywhere we had ever been. At the coat-check, people started immediately stripping their clothes to reveal all types of fetish gear or nothing at all. Meanwhile, we felt like we were wearing the equivalent of a burqa in our skimpy athletic shorts and tank tops. A few tequila shots of courage later and further into the club we went. Within minutes we were surrounded by sexual hedonism of all kinds. I remember at first being utterly shocked that our landlord could recommend a place like this, but over the night, even a guy eating another guy out next to us at the bar started to feel normal. (You can read another article I have written about this KitKat experience here).
This is obviously an extreme story and not something I would experience on the daily in Berlin, but it is a representation of a bunch of experiences that have made me a much more open and tolerant person over the 4.5 years that I have been there. In Berlin it is commonplace to encounter all types of people and scenarios on the daily that would challenge your typical views and perspectives, so when I come across something new, it doesn't take long for me to adapt and learn from it.
3. I couldn't go back to the world where I come from
This third point stems from something that is not necessarily unique to Berlin, but widespread across many European countries, and therefore not something I had experienced first-hand until I moved to Berlin. I am talking about living in people-focused societies.
Let's say I get fired, which is incredibly difficult after your probational period here, I am immediately eligible for comparable monthly stipends and could even receive free re-education if I wanted a leg up in the job market. On top of that, I am still provided health insurance and do not have to worry about having no coverage.
Meanwhile, people work to live whereas I felt in other countries it was quite the opposite. The work-life balance is unlike anywhere else I have been.
Let's take another category, like infrastructure. It is quite rare that I have to get in a vehicle while I am here. Instead I have (relatively) on-time networks of trains, buses, etc. and bike lanes that are safe and plentiful.
Not to rant on the US again, but it just does not compare in living quality as what I experience on the daily in Berlin, and this is a big preventer from me going back.
All in all, Berlin has changed me for the better and I am grateful everyday for somehow ending up here.