Years pass by, things change, but the shame is constant

tempelhof sunset

Most pictures of sunsets are metaphorical but I assure you this one is not

Hello everyone. Yes, here I go again, sheepishly squirming my way back onto this blog after another long period of doing other things. Let’s just forego all the apologetic excuses and dive right in.

For the last few months I’ve been off working an actual Full Time Job. This is the first Full Time Job I have had since 2015 when I left my old role of buying underwear for a large American man. This is also my first ever professional post as a proper actual front-end web developer. But most importantly this is my first ever proper job in a GERMAN office.

So then, of course, this immediately opens the door to the potential for thousands of blog posts about office culture over here in Berlin. What’s different? What is the same? What have I learned that makes me feel enlightened and wise about the nature of work itself? Frankly, there is so much material to be written about. I could write about what startups are and contrast that with what they claim to be, now that I am in one. I could write about how the Berliner Schnauze (the term fondly used to describe what is essentially the universal irritated rudeness of Berliners) manifests itself in a work environment. I could write about what it is like to work all day in your non-native language and simultaneously have to write code in another language which only computers speak (it’s exhausting, by the way). This is what I think about all the time: what shall I write about?

And that is the block that keeps hitting me time and time again when I discover a new thing to write about. After so long living in a new place, you lose the sense of what is an interesting intercultural experience and what is just you, a strange and insignificant person, encountering a small selection of other strange and insignificant people. Is my new work an example of Berlin office culture, or do I just happen to work with a few people who think it’s okay to say ‘fuck’ in a meeting? And if I can’t be sure of that, how can I say anything about my experiences? Can anyone say anything about a place without being glib, ignorant, sensationalist?

I like to think that one of the keys to a good life as a good person is to imagine others complexly, as the YA writer John Green always says. That means not to assume that the people you encounter are as difficult and contradictory and interesting and thoughtful on the inside as you believe yourself to be. So when I wrote about those punks trying to kick me off my bike, and I used that experience to make generalisations about punks in this city, I was deliberately ignoring the fact that those punks might also be really into hand weaving, and have difficult relationships with their own self-esteem, and love their dad but sometimes think that he could have treated their mum better before she moved to Belarus to be with that ceramicist. So of course I am plagued with guilt about this blog, because often it simply boils down to me failing to give individuals their due credit for being individual. Do not unto the punks as you would not wish they do unto you.

AND YET. Possibly the most entertaining part of my new work is the fact that I am the Novelty English Person in the office. Whatever I might have to say about Berlin office politics is nothing compared to the delight I give others in fulfilling their notions of English people enjoying weak tea with milk in it. Jokes abound about how rainy weather must make me feel at home, and how Brexit breakfast something something joke about Boris Johnson. I brought scones into the office and got better feedback about those small, bland bakery products than I have ever received about any of my actual projects (although, in general, project feedback tends to come in the form of a swift verbal backhand – I’m learning…). And in turn my colleagues will accept light-hearted comments about sausage and beer and being on time with good nature and often will be in full agreement. We are all quick to accept both the adorable quirks and somewhat testing idiosyncrasies of the cultures we have absorbed by sheer dint of growing up in a specific place. Hell, in a multicultural environment it’s a great icebreaker.

Nonetheless, talking about culture is and probably always will be a minefield of near-misses where one must be hypervigilant and careful. Even more so when the place and people you might wish to talk about could easily find your blog, hack it using their elite programming skillz, and somehow use their hacking ability to turn your hair into a kind of spongy mushroom (I think that’s how hacking works? The news seem to give the impression that hackers are like the world’s most evil magicians so it must be true). It is boring but I am afraid that the old SJW trope of being careful never to offend anyone is perhaps the best and most compassionate path to take. Let us hurt people’s feelings if and ONLY IF they are douchebags to us first. And when we have to accept the more boring, careful, safe course of action in this one regard, this means we need to be more creative and come up with new things to say which are exciting, edgy and risqué. This is the challenge we expats face as we navigate the weirdnesses of a city that is unfamiliar to our ingrained habits and expectations.


Rose T