Berlin - Warding off homesickness is a skill members of Berlin’s international community have had to master during the pandemic. But the sense of Heimweh feels particularly strong in Kreuzberg’s Australia Shopping World. Australians face a wait of up to a year before the country lifts its severe travel restrictions. Among the classic products like Vegemite and outback boots, racks of postcards from Australia and New Zealand serve as a reminder of everything that’s on hold.
Shop worker Libby Barnes, born in Sydney, welcomes us to the shop half an hour before it is due to open at 11am under its reduced corona working hours. She put down roots in Berlin just before the pandemic started and has now worked in the shop for a year. The 48-year-old is a keen traveller – but for now, working here provides a much-needed level of comfort. “I didn't get it at first,” she admits. “Why is there an Australian shop in Berlin? Is it just for flag-waving, football-brandishing Australians? But now I totally get it.”
These days, the shop offers emotional respite for some of its customers. “A lot of German partners of Australians have come in and said, my partner is so depressed, they haven't been home in two years,” Libby says. “You don't realise what the comforts of home mean to you until you are really far away and isolated. Even the really small things bring a lot of comfort.”
For Australians in Berlin, small home comforts will have to do for now. The country’s borders are effectively completely shut, even to citizens. Individual exemptions have to be applied for and those who do make it into the country have to cough up 3,000 Australian dollars (about €1,900) in fees accompanying a 14-day quarantine. Officials have also indicated the situation won’t be changing until mid-2022.
For Libby, a former intensive care nurse, it’s a frustrating and disheartening policy. “I’m desperate to get home – I haven’t seen my son in three years,” she says. “My educated side says Australia’s an island, so it’s ideal for quarantine, and if you’re fully vaccinated, there’s no reason you can’t travel – but I saw what swine flu was like in intensive care. Not many people understand what it’s like to be really sick. It’s ugly and painful and awful. When it affects the whole community, you have to look out for each other.”
A sign in the shop’s window advertising visas for gap year working holidays to Australia and New Zealand offers another reminder of life pre-corona. The shop used to offer an in-house service helping people complete the online forms for the necessary visa, which enables entry for up to a year – holders usually take jobs in agriculture, on farms or picking fruit. The travel restrictions have also made these working trips, a popular gap-year option for Germans, impossible.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it’s not just Australians and New Zealanders who make up the shop’s clientele – Germans often come to the shop to relive their travel experiences. “People come in and they show me all their pictures from Australia,” Libby says. “Lots of Germans come in and buy the things they had on holiday.”
The interest among expats and Germans in goods from down under is clearly nothing new, having inspired founder Colin Truslove to set up Australia Shopping World in 1993, 15 years after he first moved to Germany in 1978. “There was a demand for Aussie items back in the early 1990s that was not able to be met, both for fans and for expatriates in Europe,” he told us via e-mail from Cologne, where he runs a second branch of the shop and takes care of the business’ online custom.
The Berlin branch has been in the Spittelmarkt area since 2003 and in its current home on Neue Grünstraße for the last five years – a short distance from the Australian embassy. Shortly after opening time, a young family comes in: Victoria native Carla Beranek and her German husband Marco are headed for the embassy to pick up their one-year-old daughter’s new Australian passport. Australia’s strict travel restrictions have meant that Carla’s parents still haven’t met their granddaughter. Like Libby, she too is frustrated by the restrictions and the long wait ahead before things could change.
“We’re hearing it’ll be next year, but I don’t know what to believe anymore,” she says. “It's a complete wall of no: no matter what you do, you can't go home. In Germany, you get a test and then you're good to go - why can't you do that in Australia? I don't understand it.” In the meantime, she picks up some honey, mustard and flower seeds as reminders of home.
Corona has meant the shop’s shelves aren’t as fully stocked as they might have been otherwise. Colin says the shop has managed reasonably well despite reduced air freight and delayed deliveries – Libby says at one point she had to start an emergency waiting list for Vegemite after their supplies ran out last year. Besides the controversial yeast spread, varieties of Cooper’s beer are among the shop’s most popular products.
Ultimately however, Libby says it isn’t just the shop’s wares that offer respite for her and others. “The first time I walked in here, it was like home,” she says. “Having people come in that speak Australian as well is really comforting to me. Sometimes people will spend an hour here just chatting. I've made friends with people that have come into the shop. I just hope it weathers the storm of Covid.”