I’m back. Today is my first full day back living in Berlin since leaving here in March 2002. Then I had spent 6 months living in the city as a 21-year old recent graduate from the UK, trying to scrape together a living. I left for Brussels, and resolved one day to return.
Why, I was asked at a party here last night, do you speak German? It’s a reasonable question to ask of a British person, as rather few British people do speak German well. For me the answer to this question is at the root of the reasons why I am always so very content in Germany – because I have, somehow, always been content in Germany, and that goes back to my first experiences here.
My parents were keen that their kids spoke languages more than they did. They had always spent lots of time in France, and from the late 1980s onwards we went to France every summer. This, together with French lessons in school from the age of 11, helped with that language. Then when a second language was offered in school – German from the age of 13 – I suppose I somehow already saw the point of languages. I do not recall whether it was my keenness or my parents’ insistence but after learning German for barely six months I was packed off to Germany for a week on a school exchange in Lahnstein. Here three things came together. Firstly I was lucky to have a super guest family – the Kröck family – and their two sons Florian and Tobias became friends to me. Secondly, Lahnstein was some sort of paradise in comparison to Newport in South Wales – it was spotless and the Rhein was beautiful. Thirdly, it was an escape – my father was a teacher in the school where I was a pupil, and hence knew of everything I did. Not that I was irresponsible in Lahnstein, but I was not under my parents’ gaze.
So that started a series of visits to Lahtstein, at least once a year for 5 or 6 years. My German improved (through to A-Level in school), driven on by a somewhat dour but always thorough German teacher, Herr Kelly, whose attention to the grammar rules of German frustrated me then but benefit me now. Herr Kelly was always willing to push able pupils with texts about things that interested them, so by the time I finished school I was already well aware of many intricacies of German politics. On one of my later visits to Lahnstein I even met the daughter of Rudolf Scharping who was the friend of a friend – I’m not sure how many British teenagers would even have known who Rudolf Scharping was. Last but not least, Lahnstein introduced me to a sport that was just getting big in Germany in the 1990s – inline skating. It’s a sport I still do, and I skate past Lahnstein most summers still in Rhine-on-Skates.
By the age of 18 then, through a combination of parental determination, a good German teacher, and the joy of spending time in Lahnstein I had somehow reached a decent level of fluency in German, and felt content when in Germany. Throughout my studies in the UK, where I first encountered the Young European Federalists (JEF-Europe), this connection with Germany and understanding the rest of the country (not just the Rheinland) increased. When my studies in the UK were done it made sense to move to Germany for some time, not least as my UK university had not allowed me to do an Erasmus exchange.
However my first period in Berlin, between October 2001 and March 2002 – was somewhat fraught. I struggled to scrape together enough money to live, and did two poorly paid jobs. But my boss in the second of these jobs – Bernd Hüttemann – has become one of my closest friends, and I’m sat writing this blog entry at his kitchen table as I’m yet to move into my own flat in Berlin. I lived in a Wohngemeinschaft (WG) with Jan Seifert then, and he and I started our own company together. So while I struggled in that cold, dark winter, friendships made then continue now. My fascination with Berlin started then, and I am looking forward to discovering and understand more about this extraordinary city.
Since 2002 I have continued to visit Berlin (and indeed other cities in Germany) very regularly. I have done numerous freelance contracts in Berlin over the years, and can even make speeches and presentations in German. New connections have been made throughout this period, especially to the many excellent people who work at the intersection of technology and politics in Germany.
In short, ich fühle mich wohl hier. I am content here. And that is why I am here, finally back in Berlin after 11 years. But the roots of why that is so go back to formative years as a teenager.