words laura harker | images fiona laughton & Alex Godwin
Nancy remembers the time that she almost ran over Cate Blanchett while working as a scenic painter at Berlin’s Studio Babelsberg. “I mean, we didn't really nearly hit her. But we did have to hit the brakes and there were a lot of very angry glares from bystanders.”
The studio is the go-to place for Hollywood to shoot any World War film—Inglourious Basterds and The Monuments Men are just a couple from its long list of blockbusters. “We had been painting a little bit further up this track, and they were shooting in a building at the bottom of it. We were pretty eager to get home after a very cold miserable day, and drove down the track," she tells me.
"We couldn't see the runners who were standing outside, keeping people quiet, and making sure no one went in or out, so we just drove through." At that moment, Blanchett had swung open a door and marched across the road. It’s just one of the many stories that fall into the “that would never have happened had I stayed in London” category. A category of stories that Berlin’s British expats know all too well.
Many people from the UK have now relocated to the German capital, and they usually have two things in common: they’re creatives and, once upon a time, they lived in London. “I am sure that both cities have their advantages. I mean, London is a lot bigger so there's definitely more stuff," says Nancy, "and it did feel like the right place to be studying art, but I think after the bubble of university it can be a really harsh environment to find your way through.”
She continues: “In Berlin, rents are so much more reasonable, so people don't have to work three jobs to survive, which means people have more free time to spend doing what they actually like doing and being creative."
When you speak to any Brit about why they moved here, one reason that always dominates the rest is rent. Rent in London is continually sky rocketing and, with house prices at astronomic levels, young people are beginning to look to Berlin for cheaper living space.
But that’s not to say that Berlin is entirely free from increasing rent prices. The past decade has seen rents go up significantly as gentrification has taken over former working class neighborhoods, such as Kreuzberg and Neukölln. But, unlike other major capital cities, Berlin has now introduced rent caps and regulations, something which has been well-received by both locals and expats.
And, adds Nancy, "there’s also less surveillance in terms of CCTV, which is probably one reason why the street art scene is so booming."
Someone who often takes advantage of this booming street art scene is Alex Godwin. Painting under the moniker “Billy,” the artist and illustrator can often be found spraying shutters and shop fronts, but also has had work exhibited in Urban Spree. “I find Berlin very relaxed, easy, and happy with a great community of creative people working hard to make their own things happen," says Alex. "I don't think the creative scene is better than London or anywhere else, but I think the circles of creative people in Berlin are quite close-knit, friendly, and easy to get involved with.”
Money doesn’t dominate here, and if you want to test out your skills in the art, music, or even food scene, it’s surprisingly easy to set yourself up. I should know: Within a year of living in Berlin, I had co-founded a pie company along with a friend. Even without a business background—I had German and Philosophy degrees—setting up the business was remarkably easy and painless. There was paperwork to acquire and hoops to jump through (after all, we are in Germany), but we had gotten the formalities out of the way within a couple of weeks and were then free to sell our pies.
One of the main reasons why our pie company was able to thrive early on was the large British expat community in Berlin. Thanks to social media, news quickly spread throughout our target market and we were soon getting requests to take part in markets and some of the larger foodie events in Berlin. Again, this is something that never would have happened had I decided to stay in London.
While Berlin’s creative smorgasbord lures people into the city, there’s an increasingly powerful feeling among young Brits that their own homeland is pushing them away. With Britain’s politics moving ever further to the right, the Conservative government has created a barren land of austerity, leaving many feeling that there is nothing left for them at home. Lower wages, increased rents, and bleak career prospects make the plunge into expat life look more desirable than ever before.
While the British government continues to target the poor and weak in their austerity cuts, empowering the privileged, richer sections of society, Berlin shines brightly as the safe-haven for Brits. The struggle to make ends meet in London—even with a 40-hour working week—is a far cry from Berlin’s relaxed and artistic atmosphere. If there’s one other thing all us expats have in common, it’s that we won’t be returning anytime soon.