Photo by Viktor Richardsson
Multilingual, creative and 100 percent Berliners: the children of the Prenzlauer Berg baby boom have grown...
It’s 6:30pm and Lily’s* back home. Every day a 45-minute U-Bahn ride takes her from her international high school in Schöneberg to her Prenzlauer Berg flat. On Tuesdays, she stays for after-school activities – like “technical Lego” – and then heads for a swim, or to a friend’s in Mitte to work on school projects. Today, she biked by the local supermarket to get some snacks for tomorrow’s lunchbox. “I got a couple of Squeezies and Würstchen... and also, some chocolate Riegeln,” she says in fluent english.
At 13, Lily is a happy, well-adjusted teen. Born to a French mum and a German-American dad, she switches from flawless French to proficient English as effortlessly as she navigates her neighbourhood. But her German won’t have you mistaken: she’s a real Berlinerin, born and bred right here in the Kollwitzkiez. If you ask Lily about her identity, she’ll give you a Gallic shrug or roll her big eyes. If you insist, she’ll say that despite her German passport, “I don’t feel German, really. I don’t know Germany so well.” Anyway, in 40 minutes her piano teacher will be there, and if we don’t mind she needs to take a quick glance at a solfège exercise, she says, reaching for some sheet music with French writing on it. Yes, she’s learning piano in French; yes, it’s her preferred language; yes, she reads in French mostly. Anything else? “Je suis Berlinoise!”, she says impatiently. She won’t elaborate further.
“I often joke that my daughter is the most provincial trilingual kid ever,” says Lily’s mother Natalie*, a bilingual academic who moved here from London in 2002. “I sometimes feel that if we had to move to a different part of town, she’d feel terrible Heimweh (homesickness). She’s so attached to her Kiez, it’s ridiculous!” The teen’s rootedness in her native ‘hood contrasts with the rootlessness of her parents. Lily is a well-travelled kid with family in Ireland, the US and France, whom she visits every year. Yet she can’t imagine living anywhere but Berlin. “No way! This is my home,” she says with unusual determination.
Her friend Lou* comes over, the daughter of a DJ/photographer and a designer. She’s a cool-looking kid, also from Prenzlauer Berg, also 13, and also bicultural... with a French dad and a German mum who herself grew up in Canada before moving to Berlin in the 1980s. Since primary school, Lou has attended one of Berlin’s public, bilingual Europaschulen. Although her French betrays some foreign roots, she’s perfectly fluent. “When I’m in France I feel French. When I’m here I feel German. But all in all I’m a Berliner, 100 percent.”
Life on Pregnancy Hill
Both girls are the product of the infamous Prenzlauer Berg baby boom of the early 2000s. It’s hard to imagine now, but after reunification in 1990, P’Berg was the place to be. All those clichés about Berlin in the 1990s – incredibly low rents, wild nightlife, a sense of freedom – they were all true here, and they drew hundreds of expat creatives who swarmed to the eastern district looking for the perfect place to live out their dreams. Yet time marches on. From the place to create, it became a place to procreate. A generation of bourgeois-bohemian first-world migrants from abroad and western Germany took over the large Altbau flats with palatial ceilings, bargain rents and plenty of space for offspring. A whole infrastructure – from bilingual, parent-run kindergartens to amazing playgrounds and a plethora of bio- shops – sprouted up out of the grey concrete to meet the needs of the new families.
At Lily's sixth birthday party, we invited about 15 children from her school and the young daughter of a neighbour. As Lily introduced the girl, she said, 'This is Hanna, my friend who speaks only German.'
With a 66 percent increase in newborn children in the area from 1995 to 2005, the country watched in bewilderment as birthrates spiked around Kollwitzplatz, overnight renamed “Pregnancy Hill”. Jokes about pram traffic jams and “bobo” parents abounded. The German press invented terms like “Bionade Biedermaier” and “Latte Macchiatto Mamas” to describe the well-off yet alternative-minded denizens of the area.
The “Pregnancy Hill” myth was later debunked – the fertility rate (i.e., number of kids per woman) didn’t actually go up. But reality remained: births spiked because a high percentage of women of childbearing age moved into the neighbourhod at that time.
And the baby boom continues to this day. Pankow, to which Prenzlauer Berg belongs, has boasted the most births of any district every year since 2006. At last count in 2013, there were almost 4500 (up from 3067 in 2000), more than in immigrant turf Neukölln.
Today, Prenzlauer Berg has more children under six than any other Ortsteil (neighbourhood), counting a proud 11,098. The high number of births is reflected in the fact that Prenzlauer Berg is also the Ortsteil with the most primary schools (51) and pupils (17,801).
“My daughter is a pure product of the baby boom,” says Natalie. “It was all totally unplanned. Within months of moving here with my boyfriend, I was... what? Pregnant! I often joke that it must have been a virus or something,” laughs the Frenchwoman. “Somehow it felt disappointing to be part of a trend. Being pregnant felt so special – so unique. But truth be told: looking around, I could see I wasn’t the only one.” As a matter of fact, Lily was one of the 3248 babies born in the neighbourhood that year.
Now, Natalie reflects, “All things considered, I don’t think I could have found a better place to raise a child. Sometimes I get sick of Berlin – but then I remember that as parents, we’re totally spoilt here.”
From parent-initiative kindergarten to public Gymnasium, Natalie was able to provide her daughter with a bilingual education from the beginning, tuition-free. “Speaking to other parents in London, New York or Paris, I understand how lucky we are. We just happened to be right there when a critical mass of educated and dedicated international parents started to worry about their brats’ upbringing – in a part of town where there was nothing but good old Ossi schools!
“At Lily’s sixth birthday party, we invited about 15 children from her school and the young daughter of a neighbour. As Lily introduced the girl, she said, ‘This is Hanna, my friend who speaks only German.’”
Many were freelancers, which means they had the time and flexibility to get together, and they started the bilingual schools. I’m so grateful they did!” says Natalie who confesses that her 50-hour weekly schedule (including the odd weekend) wouldn’t have allowed her to take over the responsibility. “I did help paint one Kita wall though,” she smiles.
Ursula Fuentes did a lot more. “The great thing about being here was that it was possible to create the type of education that you wanted for your children,” the mother of two explains. A Spanish-German who had lived overseas, Ursula moved to Berlin in 2000 to begin a new job with the Green Party, together with her Australian husband Bill, also an environmental activist. That same year, she became pregnant with their first daughter, Elsa. “We hadn’t realised it, but all of a sudden Prenzlauer Berg had little parks and playgrounds filled with kids. There were cafés with kiddie corners. And then I noticed that a kindergarten [Berlin Kids, on Wichertstraße] had popped up down the road.”
But soon enough she started to worry. The city’s international schools, such as the JFK school and the Nelson Mandela school, were located in far-western neighbourhoods like Zehlendorf and Wilmersdorf, an hour away. “There were only typical East German schools in the neighbourhood. But it was important for us to have a truly international, bilingual school for our children. We joined the association that started Berlin Kids and realised that so many other parents wanted the same thing.” Their non-profit Pfefferwerk Stadtkultur GmbH was able to found the elementary branch of the Berlin Bilingual School in 2007. “It took us three years – we had difficulties navigating the bureaucratic requirements. For example, we had to prove there was a demand for bilingual education. Also, finding a location proved quite difficult. We finally got that dilapidated Plattenbau on the Prenzlauer Berg-Friedrichshain border – only a 15-minute ride from our home. It meant getting together, rolling our sleeves up and renovating.”
Having sent their eldest daughter to Nelson Mandela bilingual state school in Wilmersdorf for one year, the mother reflects that the western school experience was much more German than their Prenzlauer Berg community. Many parents were diplomats or came from more traditional backgrounds, and the school system felt a lot more conventional, less conducive to creativity. “It was only in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, with so many open-minded international parents, that we could start something like this from scratch for our own children.”
Now Berlin Bilingual is a big school with about 300 pupils and long waiting lists. More private bilingual schools have followed in its footsteps – Metropolitan and Cosmopolitan in Mitte, Phorms in Wedding and Platanus in Pankow – in order to cater to the new generation of international Berliners. Ursula’s daughter is one of the 48 pupils to attend the secondary school opened by Berlin Bilingual in Lichtenberg in 2012. Next year there will be 75, at a new location Ursula won’t disclose yet.
A creative atmosphere
For Martin Silbernagl, an ex-consultant turned “inventor and technologist”, raising his children in an atmosphere where they could be free and creative informed his decision to move to Berlin – specifically, Mitte’s Brunnenstraße, a stone’s throw from Prenzlauer Berg. “It was important for us to raise our sons Nemo and On in this Berlin atmosphere. Things are far more relaxed here than in New York.”
Together with his friends Liam, 12, and Dylan, 14, Nemo created the band ABC No D. Every week on Tuesday evenings, they rehearse in their recording studio, located in the basement of Nemo’s house. Drummer Liam, who lives near Kollwitzplatz, has a Serbian/ Hungarian mum and American drummer dad. Just in their early teens, they’ve already played some major Berlin stages, like Mitte’s Bassy Club at last year’s Torstraßenfestival, effortlessly embodying what so many come to this city for: creative opportunities.
All I know is that they aren't living in a bubble. They are real, down-to-earth Berlin kids.
Martin and his wife Claudia, a textile artist, moved to Berlin in 2008 when Nemo was six years old. After 13 years, they were exhausted by the money-driven New York way of life. “The artistic New York that many seek or remember doesn’t exist anymore. They couldn’t have a practice room like this back there, and it would be far more difficult for them to have this outlet for creativity. The money there somehow shelters children from their true potential. Here, the kids were able to meet other like-minded children and start a band, and look how far they’ve come.” The Metropolitan school, where Nemo attends class, is located down the road from their home.
“It’s great, they skateboard down there everyday,” Martin explains. “I remember one time in New York, a woman called the police on Claudia for letting Nemo play just 10 metres away from her in Central Park. This type of ‘helicopter parenting’ that is considered normal there just isn’t conducive for them.”
“It’s really safe here,” Natalie agrees. “Lily takes the U-Bahn or bikes to friends’ places on her own. Most parents let their kids do the same. I’m not sure I would if we lived near Kottbusser Tor!” There is crime in Prenzlauer Berg, but it’s mostly things like break-ins and bike theft.
Photo by Viktor Richardsson
Too good to be true?
Elisa, a 40-something Swedish painter, moved to Berlin from Barcelona in 2006 with her Italian husband Fabio, who works as a sculptor, and her two daughters, now aged 14 and 16. The kids speak a total of five languages fluently. “I speak Swedish to my daughters, Fabio speaks Italian to them. They speak Spanish to each other, as it is their mother tongue, and Fabio and I speak English to each other,” explains Elisa, showing a picture of the two girls on a recent family outing to Charlottenburg. They’re smiling in their winter parkas, jeans and wrap-around scarves. "They're wonderful, not too eager to grow up, interested in this and that. They don't have boyfriends. They go to the mall or out to eat with their friends. They get good grades and do their homework on their own." Yet Elisa remains a bit sceptical. "All of their friends are the same as them, well behaved, etc. But I sometimes wonder if the fact that they haven't been brought up with strong heritage or roots could possibly come back to haunt this generation when they are older. Will the fact that they speak in so many languages confuse them and cause them to become lost souls when they’re 40?”
Natalie is torn. “Yes, I have read all the theories about the problems and dangers of multicultural parenthood. People gave us books warning us against the 1001 things that can go wrong with bilingual, let alone trilingual, kids. But I think it’s such a narrow-minded, typically Western approach. So many people I know from Africa or the Middle East grew up speaking multiple languages. Lily never thought that knowing three languages was strange and it didn’t uproot her in any way. The fact that it was so normal here, that every child spoke three or more languages, only grounded her more in her Berlin identity.”
Case in point: “At Lily’s sixth birthday party, we invited about 15 children from her school and the young daughter of a neighbour. As Lily introduced the girl, she said ‘This is Hanna, my friend who speaks only German.’ It wasn’t said in a mean, disparaging way at all. She was literally the only monolingual kid at the party!” Continues Natalie, “What I’m a bit more sceptical about is this ‘wonderful’ creativity bubble they live in. It all feels so easy and happy-go- lucky here. She and her friends spend their free time composing songs on the piano and setting up house shows, or drawing and playing complicated board games...”
With such idealistic upbringings in safe, supportive environments, it all begs the question: are these children sheltered freaks?
“I think they’re lucky kids, and I would like my daughter to understand that,” says Natalie. “But sheltered? From what? Growing up in Russia with a nanny and a bodyguard, that’s sheltered. Or growing up in Paris or New York in elitist private schools, that’s sheltered. Here most parents are not wealthy with bucks, but with books! Most come from highly educated, often artistic or politically progressive backgrounds... I guess that’s real luxury. All I know is that they aren’t living in a bubble. They are real, down-to-earth Berlin kids – many go to public schools and their parents are definitely not rolling in money. And, well, at least for now, they seem to have a good head on their shoulders.”
Like Elisa’s daughters, Lily shows no interest in boys. “She’s got her gang of girls and couldn’t care less about dating or anything. Compared to her cousins in France and Ireland, it feels like a very different reality!” One of Lily’s best friends moved from Berlin to France last year, and only a few weeks later, Lily got a WhatsApp message with the big news: she had a boyfriend! In the meantime, Lily draws comics, knits, crafts new ‘inventions’ and loves building complicated Lego stuff. She says she wants to be a chemist or an engineer. “I want to be an architect!” says her friend Lou as she sits up straight, wearing a long-sleeved purple shirt with a butterfly on the front. “But my parents told me that there are so many talented people in the world, and how difficult it is to really be the best in your field, so I know that it won’t be easy.”