Moving into lockdown: What it's like to be new in Berlin during the pandemic

Moving abroad is hard enough even if there isn't a global pandemic on. For our writer, solitude has become the norm nearly a year after she moved to Berlin.

Once you've found a flat and binged your favourite show, Zoom calls are one of the few lockdown hobbies left - but they're no replacement for real life conversations.
Once you've found a flat and binged your favourite show, Zoom calls are one of the few lockdown hobbies left - but they're no replacement for real life conversations.Sarah Böttcher

Berlin-People often say the first year after moving to a new city is the hardest, whether it be due to separation from friends and family, culture shock or the lack of familiar faces in your new town. That's true even if that move doesn't happen during a pandemic. For me, this critical first year is nearly over.

In the summer of 2020, I packed as much of my life into a suitcase as the Ryanair baggage restrictions would allow (20kg, to be exact) and boarded a one-way flight from London to Berlin. It was a move I'd wanted to make for years. Now, I had the security of a job waiting for me on my arrival. Back then, infection rates were still low, and the airport I landed at was still called Schönefeld.

A year on, the picture is much more sobering. When I take weekend strolls through different corners of Berlin, I often get the impression that most of the people around me are out and about in groups, whether in the supermarket, doing yoga in the park or soaking up the sunset with a beer on the banks of the Spree. Meanwhile, I'm left feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb - and that after almost a year of living in this city, I've hardly established any new friendships or even casual acquaintances.

Sometimes the only people I actually speak with face-to-face at the weekends are supermarket cashiers. I'm not saying that because I want sympathy, that's just how it is. And because I think it's quite possible that there are several people out there in the same situation as me: according to official statistics, 11,000 people moved to Berlin in 2020. Maybe some of them feel the same way I do. Is corona to blame? Is it Berlin? Or could it be me? That would be worst of all. 

Flat-hunting: a classic Berlin lockdown hobby

When I tell people about how and when I moved to Berlin, despite the pandemic and the fact that I knew few people here prior to my arrival, they often describe this as a "brave" decision - or more often, an "interesting" one. I suspect this choice of words usually means they're actually thinking: "Why the hell would you do that?"

My first six weeks here were relatively normal, given the pandemic conditions - most lockdown rules had been eased to the point of being almost inconspicuous. It was fun to get to meet people for work interviews in person again, or to go to the cinema at the weekend for the first time in six months - then as now, the corona situation was much better in Germany than it was in the UK. In my free time, I enthusiastically dedicated myself to a classic Berlin pastime: the hunt for a reasonably priced flat. In all seriousness, I enjoyed discovering previously unfamiliar parts of the city in the process.  

Then came the surprise positive PCR test, which I took (symptom free) in mid-October before a planned work trip. After my quarantine was over, barely two weeks passed before the second lockdown, November's crassly named "lockdown light", began. I'd like to be able to say I used this time to take on one of the great novels, something like War and Peace. Instead I took to Netflix and binged all 80 episodes of Canadian comedy Schitt's Creek. The title music still gives me slight flashbacks. At least by that point I'd found a flat and could concentrate on doing it up. Since then, almost nine months have gone by.

At some point in January of this year, the penny dropped: Had I squandered valuable opportunities in my first few weeks as a Berliner to build up the connections I was now sorely missing? Was all this my fault? When I first arrived in Berlin, people were allowed to meet up in sizeable groups both outdoors and occasionally indoors; the cinemas, concert halls and galleries were all open, this was a time before compulsory tests and vaccine passes. And after all, the figures suggest there must have been a fair number of people in the same situation as me. 

Looking for friends on Facebook

Ever since this realisation dawned on me, I've often regretted not grasping what opportunities were still available in these first six weeks, in the time before the second wave and the "lockdown light". Maybe I could have got to know more people outside of work. As soon as this period was over, practically all of the usual opportunities to meet new people vanished overnight. 

The typical places where newcomers in an unfamiliar city go to build connections were the first to close in the second lockdown. Bars and cafés, museums and galleries were all abruptly shut. For the majority of my time as a resident of this city, coronavirus restrictions have only permitted meeting with a maximum of five other people from a maximum of one other household - even outdoors.

Naturally, I was aware that in the digital age, the internet also offers plentiful opportunities to establish new connections. As soon as I had unpacked in Berlin, I joined a number of Facebook groups created for the very purpose of helping people with common interests or backgrounds find each other in this city of nearly 3.8 million. I joined groups for international women, for Brits in Berlin, for people looking for tandem partners with whom to practice their German.

Before the pandemic, and over the summer last year once lockdown easings allowed, these groups would hold regular real-life meetups in a park or meet in a pub for a classic Stammtisch. From November, these too were no longer possible. As the second and then the third waves of the pandemic set in and we were all called on to reduce our contacts and work from home, I ended up spending more and more time in my flat - and less and less time with other people.

Doing everything by yourself isn't as romantic as it looks in the movies

Almost three years to the day before I sat down to write this piece, I graduated from university in the UK with a degree in German. Every now and again, I imagine being able to go back in time to tell my freshly-graduated, student debt-laden self that within just a few years, she wouldn't just be living in Berlin, one of her favourite cities, but actually working in a dream starter job too - and how happy she'd be to hear it. So why do I so often find life here so hard?

Of course, the pandemic alone would offer a valid explanation for the loneliness I frequently feel here and which has gone hand-in-hand with the last 18 months for many others too. But I still often end up blaming myself for winding up in this less than ideal situation.

Over the years I've taken problem-free solo trips to several cities previously completely unknown to me; I'm also not a person who constantly needs to be in the company of others. But it turns out constantly doing everything by yourself, whether it's a walk in the park, a visit to a museum or eating in a restaurant doesn't feel as romantic or enigmatic as the movies often make it look. Over time, I've encouraged myself to pursue digital avenues to establish connections with others. But it also turns out even Zoom can't solve everything.

In February of this year I signed up to an Irish language course which was to take place digitally over the course of 10 weeks. I thought it would be fun to surprise my Irish grandma with a few phrases over the phone - and even better if I could make some new acquaintances in the process. The 10 weeks were a lot of fun - Irish isn't an easy language, but it was good to have a regular fixture in my diary outside of work, especially one where you could expect to see the same faces every week. 

How does small talk work again?

But the online classes were still lacking in casual conversation, a bit of banter and light chat, or craic, as the Irish say. Even after being in this pandemic for the best part of 18 months, it's still undeniably the case that an important element of communication gets lost from one side of a screen to the other, as good as digital platforms may be.

But things are changing now: the lockdown rules are still there, but are hardly noticeable in comparison to the first few months of this year. Being vaccinated or having an up-to-date negative test makes life in the city free and relaxed again, it expands the horizons of what's possible to do here. The Facebook groups I joined in September are slowly starting to plan meetups again - all of them outdoors. It feels a bit like coming out of hibernation. We are now entering a new phase of the pandemic which hopefully won't end in another wave of corona infections and a new lockdown in the autumn like last year. So what do I do now?

Some things are coming back to normal, but something feels different too. The whole process of getting to know new people and establishing friendships feels totally unfamiliar. The long months spent largely at home have changed everything: how even is small talk supposed to work? The many weekends I spent only having to plan around my own needs and what I wanted to do have become a routine that's hard to break.

Even if a majority of Berliners are excited about the city opening up again, I suspect it will take several months before spontaneous, casual socialisation with new connections feels comfortable again. And how many people are even looking to establish new relationships at the moment? Or are most just keen to spend as much time as possible with those existing friends they haven't been able to properly spend time with for months now?

Blame it on the Schnauze

Are there cultural differences holding me back? It's a truth universally acknowledged that Germans just are much more direct than Brits - even after almost a year here I'm still occasionally taken aback by the notorious Berliner Schnauze. Over the last few months, several neighbours and work colleagues have made the friendly offer that I can get in touch any time I'm facing another weekend without plans and fancy meeting up. But that's something I'm not really used to either. I have rarely taken up these kind offers, despite the fact they mean a great deal.

In the UK, most people cling to the stiff upper lip and constantly make out that they're fine, even if you feel like you've never been worse. Asking people how they are is a common casual greeting - but it's not socially acceptable to burden anyone outside of your close friends and family with an honest answer. And there was me thinking I was a citizen of the world who can feel at home anywhere and can communicate in a bunch of foreign languages. Turns out I've still got the mentality of a neurotic Anglo-Saxon island dweller. Shaking off this introversion will take time. 

I've never found Berlin to be a city where one needs to be constantly surrounded by other people in order to enjoy it. I'm also perfectly capable of enjoying a morning alone in a café or an afternoon relaxing in the park. But it's a lot more fun when you have people around you with whom you can experience this city and the crazy things that go on here. 

So where are all the cool, creative types who've also spent years longing to come to this city, just like I have? I'm beyond ready to finally connect with these like-minded Neuberliner - and can only hope that there are others out there who feel the same as me. And that we find each other, somehow.

This piece first appeared in German in the Berliner Zeitung am Wochenende. Read the original here and subscribe to the weekend edition here