Photos by Veronica Jonsson
Ask any straight woman over 30 and she’ll tell you that the odds of finding a committed man in this city are about as high as unearthing the Holy Grail. Is there any hope for the single Berlin female?
Emilie is a peppy French thirtysomething with big girly eyes and a roaring laugh that’s quite contagious. She’s doing well in the marketing department of a big German magazine and owns a small flat in Mitte. All in all, one of the last people you’d expect to have trouble finding a steady date. And yet: “Only in Berlin was I single so long! Three consecutive years...” She’s in a relationship at the moment, but calls it “confusing”.
Coming from France, where men do flirt, to encounter the legendary passivity of German men was a crushing blow. “I thought I had turned ugly! Do you know the song, ‘Aurélie’? That was exactly it.” It wasn’t only that. Once Emilie got over her culture shock, “I noticed that the only guys that seemed interested in me were married or in a relationship or something. I remember being on date with a nice Swiss guy and then just as he started to kiss me, I stopped and asked: ‘Do you have someone?’ Of course he did – back home.”
“Do you know the joke?” she continues. “Men are like toilets. They’re always occupied, and when they’re not – they’re full of shit. Well, welcome to Berlin!”
Men are like toilets. They’re always occupied, and when they’re not – they’re full of shit. Well, welcome to Berlin!
It’s no secret that finding love in a big city isn’t easy, especially if you’re a woman who’s looking to settle down. But Berlin has its own special factors that make this already difficult goal nigh-on impossible. Call it a perfect storm of singledom.
Of course, single in Berlin doesn’t mean celibate. Take it from sex columnist Dr. Dot: “Getting your leg over in Berlin is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Especially if you’re a female, even remotely attractive. Waiting at the bus stop, ordering a coffee, in the elevator, grocery shopping – it is literally raining dick. You can find a man anytime, anywhere. Keeping one is the problem.”
And stories are legion. “I’ve been here for three years – three years single!” exclaims Simona, a 29-year-old from the Czech Republic who works in the film business, with a jaded smile. “Sex or casual affairs are no problem, but when it comes to relationships, forget about it!” “I made up my mind,” she adds, only half-jokingly. “The day I really want a relationship, I move away from Berlin.”
Beating the odds
Any unattached, heterosexual woman in Berlin – Germany’s singles capital – is fighting an uphill battle from the start. There are 596,900 women here who identify as “alleinstehend”, outnumbering men by 7900. Altogether, there are nearly 60,000 more women in this city than men, and in the crucial 25-40 age bracket within which most women start thinking about settling down, men are outnumbered by at least 4600.
Focus on available, straight men in that age group, and the pool of prospects shrinks dramatically. “I asked a friend of mine if he had any friends in Berlin he could set me up with, so he scrolled through his phone contacts,” remembers Sarah, an American musician in her late twenties. “He had to go through at least 20 names before he found someone who wasn’t taken or gay. It was his plumber.”
The few eligible men get snapped up with alarming speed. “You have to fight for them,” says Sarah. “I was at a party – mostly girls and couples; the few single guys there were total nerds. Then ONE good-looking, interesting guy comes in. Suddenly, all the girls were all over him. Most of them looked pretty cute. Lucky guy!”
Anna, a 35-year-old freelance illustrator from Spain, can’t count her experiences with ‘taken’ guys. “I had this one guy who still lived with his wife although they were separated – for the kids, he said. You go along with it for a while... until you get sick of it. And back to square one!” She is now in a relationship with a man who split up with his wife but hasn’t divorced yet. “She’s out of the picture, they haven’t talked in years, but her stuff is still in his flat. That’s the thing with guys here, especially Germans. They always have that ex or that former relationship in the background, whether it’s vorbei or not.”
‘Occupied’... or artists
As for the men who aren’t tied down with current or former romances? They’re nonetheless occupied – with themselves.
“The problem is there are too many people in this city who are just too busy with their own lives – and good luck with getting included in that,” says Silvia, an attractive, gregarious brunette from Argentina. “I was with an artist for four or five months. We got along very well, I thought. But then I realised he would never invite me to his openings. There was his art – he was very ambitious – and his circle of friends. I was not included. When I asked him about it he answered he needed ‘his space’. The next thing I knew, it was over.”
Another typical feature is letting non-committal relationships drag on and on. “Lack of commitment in Berlin is a real disease! You date this one guy forever, see him on and off, have a great time every time. But it never goes anywhere. You really feel they want it all: to be with you and be free, no strings attached! Of course after a while you just get a little tired and a little confused,” says Charlotte, a 34-year-old from Belgium who lives in Prenzlauer Berg and works for a startup. “And then if you happen to confront them about it, just try to understand where things stand – that’s the WORST thing you can do. You immediately fall into that monster-pushy category, maybe a husband-hunter or baby-desperate.”
For the inward-focused ‘creatives’ and non-conventional types drawn in by Berlin’s reputation as an artistic and party Mecca, commitment is about as desirable as a non-alcoholic Jever. They’re here to stretch their wings, not to start nesting. Silvia acknowledges: “I know I get attracted to the wrong guys” – but then, as an expat and a Neuköllner, it’s hard for her to meet anyone else. “That’s the problem with those artist types. They’re attractive, but in the long run, they’re not sustainable.” She says she had to drop out of a two-year relationship that got her frustrated time and time again.
“They might love you in their own way, but their notion of commitment is really fuzzy... It might involve going for a three-month trip to South America – and you’re not invited. And meeting your parents is just too much of a drag. All too bourgeois!” Silke, a tall, beautiful 38-year-old Berliner architect, says she decided to leave her infatuation for creative types behind. “You know, the cool guys, charming but no real job, no ambition really. It is hard to imagine a future with a guy when you’re the one to foot the bill every time you go for a drink.”
All you can eat
But there are other reasons for not settling down in Berlin, where the panoply of available options extends to more than just creative ones. “Berlin is like the Vegas of Europe. People come here to play,” Dr. Dot says. “For most of them, a relationship is too much work. Many men prefer to just rub one out before they go out, to take off the edge so they don’t do anything stupid like fall in love.”
“It’s like a candy store, or better – a buffet,” says Alice, 36, a cheeky, smiling freelancer from Scotland who, although she says she could write volumes on her decade-long experience of dating in Berlin, still sleeps alone in her king-sized bed.
I know I get attracted to the wrong guys... That’s the problem with those artist types. They’re attractive, but in the long run, they’re not sustainable.
“Berlin is full of pretty girls – look at the streets of Neukölln, hot 25-year-olds everywhere. Why set your heart on one when you can have an endless supply?”
“People have no patience,” concurs Silvia. “In Berlin, you surround yourself with ‘a family’ of friends and WG partners who will cover everyday emotional and practical needs.” Sex and romance come extra and are interchangeable and easily replaceable. “Relationships are more about friends here,” she concludes.
“Maybe in a smaller city, it makes sense to be in a relationship – there’s nothing to do, so you stay home and watch TV together,” says Maria, 27, from Italy, who extricated herself from an entanglement with a man with a girlfriend only to wind up with one who “just got out of a relationship” and didn’t want to get serious. “Berlin is like Paese dei Balocchi, you know, that island in Pinocchio where you do whatever you want and nobody will tell you not to.”
As the single Berlin man grows older, however, the pertinent storybook changes from Pinocchio to Peter Pan. Whereas women tend to become more committal as they grow up, men, with no need to stick to a biological schedule, run in the other direction.
“In my experience, guys in their twenties are so much more romantic. They’re so sweet, and gentlemanly. They make an effort for you!” says Silvia. “Older guys feel the pressure of getting older. And NOT settling down with a woman makes them feel freer, younger or something...”
Alice knows something about that: “I was in a six-month relationship with a German man in his forties. One day he told me he was leaving because he felt he was still young and still had so much more to experience.”
Silvia herself has had no shortage of experiences with Peter Pan types. “I met this guy on OKCupid. I liked the way he wrote; he sounded humorous and intelligent. We had dinner and he invited me to a party afterwards. I told him I was tired and it was a weekday, but I was ready to meet again. I went home. A couple of hours later, I’m in bed and I get an SMS: ‘Funk funk funk. Great party. Coke off the toilet seat. Get your ass here!’ The guy was 38 years old!” exclaims Silvia, who says she’s got a problem with all those ‘big boys’ still into playing with drugs, as if that were a girl’s biggest turn-on. “It’s hard to spend one evening with a cool guy without him mentioning drugs off some sorts.”
Going out with a 30-year-old feels too ‘grown-up’ for these men.
American artist Sam has a rule of thumb: “The ideal is half your age plus seven.” He’s now 40 and will not date a girl past 30. “I can make a slight exception – but 35 would be stretching it.” Basically, having a girl your age means you’re desperate.” He’s also picky in terms of looks: women must be thin, fit, have great teeth... He describes his current love life as a series of “confusing affairs”.
Wrong time, wrong place
Male or female, it might all come down to the fact that there’s no better place to live a comfortable and unencumbered single life well into your forties than Berlin. “In most places, if you’re past 35 and don’t have anyone in your life and live in a WG, you might feel like a bit of a loser,” says Emilie. “Not in Berlin. Here, you blend in perfectly!”
In addition, cheaper rents make the lone-wolf lifestyle infinitely easier in Berlin than in other European capitals.
I was in a relationship with a man in his forties. One day he told me he was leaving because he felt he was still young and still had so much more to experience.
“In Paris, getting into a relationship can make life easier and better. As a couple, you can upgrade to a better flat, share expenses... Here? Everything is already so easy; who needs to get a partner? Living with someone ends up being more of a liability – an infringement on your great, free lifestyle.”
Jeremy, 41, is a good-looking American with an academic background and an attractive social life – the type that doesn’t leave girls indifferent. Yet, surprisingly, Jeremy has never had a proper relationship. Not interested? “Ideally, I don’t want to be single. But I am picky. It would have to be a very special person, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing if at all.” In 12 years in Berlin, she hasn’t crossed his path.
As men grow picky, Berlin’s independent, career-oriented thirtysomethings lose their patience, refusing to waste time with losers who might think they’re ‘the one’, but aren’t sure. “I’m so busy all the time these days,” says Inge, 32, an office administrator fresh from a go-nowhere fling with a co-worker. “After that ended, I decided I don’t have time for anything silly.”
Forget about that dream dude
Are Berlin women digging their own, solitary graves? Some say if you can’t hook ‘em, join ‘em: “I’m not obsessed with looking or finding anymore,” says Silvia. “I try to just enjoy meeting people. And maybe after all, that monogamous relationship thing is not the way to go. Maybe I have to change and accept it won’t happen and enjoy my life as it is with my friends... and sporadic relationships,” she adds, somehow unconvincingly. Really? “Of course deep down, I wouldn’t say no to true love!”
Dr. Dot would tell her she’s looking for love in the wrong places: “Ask, listen and learn. If that person isn’t available when you are, move on. That is one great thing about Berlin; there are thousands of opportunities. Of course, some men DO love to be in love and will go after a woman they can’t live without. They’re out there, just not in bars or dance clubs. You wouldn’t hang out in a lion’s den if you wanted to find a sheep, innit?”
The last word goes to a 47-year-old male encountered on the streets of Neukölln: “There are tons of men here. Look at me!” says the man, an American DJ and musician. “My words of wisdom for success to those girls? LOWER YOUR STANDARDS!”
Originally published in issue #128, June 2014.