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Friday, January 06, 2012

Educated Migrants and Self-Exclusion

Gran Tourismo Travels posted an interesting interview with Paul Sullivan who runs Slow Travel Berlin. I appreciate the underlying concept and idea laid out in the interview as well as - to some extent - both websites. According to Paul slow travel were to mean
Taking your time around a city, not rushing, resisting the urge to follow itineraries, and interacting with local people and local culture, using local businesses, and using public transport and bicycles. Dropping in to a place and just doing your own thing, or knowing the ‘rules’ and breaking them.
I have never really traveled any other way, so I am not certain how much of a novel concept this is and whether it requires its own moniker. Whatever though, I adhere to most of the ideas and Paul's website seems well done/researched and I probably should recommend him for his initiative trying to - at the margins - change mass tourism.

Yet, what struck me in the aforementioned interview is a topic I have blogged about before and that I do not seem to be able to shake, namely Berlin and its recent influx of white liberal Europeans (and Americans) who stay ignorant of the city they choose to live in to an extent that I find simply astonishing.

According to Paul 'there’s a resistance to capitalism [in Berlin], a leftover of the legacy of communism perhaps.' You have never heard of Kreuzberg pre-reunification I assume? The squats of the 80s, the Wehrpflichtflüchtigen, the riots around May 1st? Even in the early part of the 20th century Berlin was redder than the rest of the country. That's just slight historical ignorance though, let's ignore it in turn.

More importantly Paul believes that 'many [...] Berliners [...] work in the international creative industries and are used to speaking English and are open to foreigners.' Well, yeah, actually, you know what? No! Most Berliners live in parts of the city most young, educated migrants to Berlin - whether German or foreign - never go to. Spandau, Reinickendorf, Hohenschönhausen, Marzahn, the whole South West, the list goes on. These people might speak English to some extent or another but they most definitely do not work in 'international creative industries' or are 'used to speaking English.' Arguably most of them aren't even 'open to foreigners' even when they might themselves be of Polish, Turkish, Vietnamese or Yugoslav origin. They are also not the 'handful of anarchists who hate tourists' by the way.

Really what this - and soyons honnête - most of the Slow Travel website hints at is the self-exclusion and incestuous nature of most expats living in Berlin (or really anywhere else). Let's face it, if you come to Berlin without knowing German, you will gain nothing but an extremely fleeting, superficial comprehension of the city - no matter how slow you travel. Hanging out with other expats and tourists in English-language bookshops in Kreuzberg will not give you a proper understanding of Berlin either.

Point being? I am not sure. I really like the website actually. There is good research in a piece on the Pfaueninsel and a literary take on the Kudamm. Yet, I am repeatedly irked by the all too common perception of Berlin as the party town consisting essentially of the inner-city areas populated by cool people. I lived close to Barbès in Paris, I currently live near Bab Souika in Tunis, here are two women describing their quartier in Lichterfelde, I sympathize with the goals set out by the slow travel movement, in fact I try to live it on a daily basis. Paul's comments cited above make me think of my well-educated, bourgeois Tunisian acquaintances who were absolutely shocked at seeing the Ennahda, the Islamist party, handily win elections here. You need to leave your bubble if you want to know what's going on. Ironically, Paul's website tries do that even while he fails at it in his interview.

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