Author and Exberliner blogger Jacinta Nandi’s latest book is a Berlin survival guide covering everything expats need to know: from posh Spätis and church tax to why everyone loves dogs and hates babies.
We met her to discuss dating in the Hauptstadt, culture wars and why learning German is a luxury.
This is your fifth book. How did you first get into writing – you were an English teacher when you first moved here, right?
Yeah, but I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first romance novel at 16, on a second-hand typewriter my dad had bought me that didn’t have an exclamation mark. I guess maybe you need a few exclamation marks when you’re writing a romance novel! Then I came to Berlin and I was always writing, I was always like, I’m gonna become a writer. Back then, you had to send things off with the post, remember? I wrote for zines, I can’t remember the names of them now. And then in 2007 or so I started blogging for Exberliner, first the AMOK Mama blog and later WTF Berlin. The first book I ever published was Deutsch werden: Why German people love playing frisbee with their nana naked in 2011. All my books have got such tacky titles! I think my latest book might be the tackiest of all, but it’s a tacky book so it’s really fitting.
People say ‘oh, your book is slagging off Germans’. But I’m German now. I’ve been here for 22 years, so they can suck it up.
You write in the book that “making Germans think I hate them is basically a sexual fetish of mine”. Is it awkward as an expat talking to Germans about how they’re different and analysing their culture?
People say ‘oh, your book is slagging off Germans’. But I’m German now. I’ve been here for 22 years, so they can suck it up. Berlin has changed a lot since I arrived here and I’m always going on about it. But sometimes I do think we’re a bit precious aren’t we, as expats who’ve been here a bit? Always going on about how much rents cost in 2003. Compare the changes we’ve seen to what the Wende must have been like for the old Ossis [East Germans]! That must have been more of a shock. I got here in 2000, and the expats who had been here longer talked about the 1980s and 1990s: that was the real Berlin and I’d missed it. People would also talk about the Wende times when the Wall had just fallen and say you’ve missed everything. So there’s this sense in Berlin of always having missed everything. Lauren Oyler writes about this in her new book, Fake Accounts.
Do you think Berlin has got more conservative over the years, less liberal?
It’s just got a lot more expensive, hasn’t it? Back in the day, it felt like you could go out with €5 in your pocket and then someone would open a trap door and you would climb down and there would be all these punks or even Roma people and you’d be like ‘where the fuck are we’ and then someone would give you MDMA for no money and then you’d be gone for a week. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, do you want to go for vegan pancakes? Do you want to go for vegan Sex on the Beach?’ I like veganism, I wish I was a vegan, really, but Berlin is so posh, so vegan now. It feels like it’s got a bit more like London where for a good night out you need to spend ₤100. It’s not just me going to posher places, is it? We’re posh now.
And what about this new phenomenon of posh Spätis? And they call it ‘Späti World’. You can sit outside and have a ‘Späti Erlebnis’. You know I paid €7.50 for Pommes the other day? When I came here there was the Deutsche Mark and everything was so cheap. Döner kebab was like one DM and stuff. And a Mark was like 30 cents. I’ve turned into a GDR granny in my old age. I’m at the till shouting with pure shock when the cashier tells me how much I have to pay. I don’t know how the actual GDR grannies are surviving? Hopefully they’re shoplifting a bit!
I don’t know how the actual GDR grannies are surviving? Hopefully they’re shoplifting a bit!
WTF Berlin is a “survival guide” for expats in Berlin from Anmeldung to Zug and everything in between. What are your top tips for surviving the city?
Just make sure you don’t pay church tax and you’ll have a great time! Try not to spend more than €2500 on a one-room apartment. Don’t get pregnant. The book also has loads of tips for learning German. But you know, I didn’t write this book because I think people have to learn German. I actually don’t think people should learn German because they think it will make their lives better or easier. I don’t think it works. There are literally loads of people in Berlin who can’t speak a word of German and are much richer and happier than me!
There are all these skinny high earners sitting in their home office in Kreuzberg doing whatever people do, these rich people with proper jobs. They don’t need to learn German. People in Berlin don’t need to learn German. Fuck, even a lot of Germans in Berlin aren’t speaking much German anymore. This book is not about learning German because you need to. Learning German is a luxury. It’s about learning German because you want to. Because it’s fun. And if people aren’t judgy or snobby about German people’s English, then I don’t think they’re losers if they’ve been here 10 years and they can’t speak a word of German. I really don’t. To be honest, I think you’re a bit of a loser if you can speak German and you’ve been here over 20 years and you’re still an impoverished single mum living in Lichtenrade.
There’s a section on dating in the book. What’s your advice to expats arriving on the dating scene here?
Okay, so my best advice is: You know you’ve been friends with a German guy for ages and he keeps on asking you to really specific events? Like super specific events, like Hungarian cinema festivals and stuff. He’ll say to you: ‘You seem to me like you would really be into Hungarian cinema!’ I spent 20 years thinking I gave German men the impression I was into Hungarian cinema and stuff, but actually, they are asking you out on a date. That’s how German boys do dating. They go, ‘do you like Hungarian cinema? There’s a Hungarian cinema festival on.’ And you’re like, ‘No? Why would I like Hungarian cinema, I just like normal cinema.’ So that is my literally only advice and it took me 20 years to work this out. The more specific the event they invite you to is, the more likely it is to be a date.
You also talk about “integration” in the book…
Oh God, I don’t know what integration means. What does it mean? I have no idea what it means. I also don’t know what the point of the Ausländerbehörde is now that everyone’s in home office. What’s the point? Just get rid of the Ausländerbehörde, we don’t need it. Now literally everyone who arrives in Berlin is working home office. Their company is in Singapore, they could be in Berlin, Rome, Barcelona or London. They decide to come to Berlin because someone told them how great our vegan pancakes are, what’s the Ausländerbehörde got to do with it? They’re just totally made irrelevant. So yeah, fire them all, all the Beamte at the Ausländerbehörde. Send them to Bali, the tiny bit of work they still have to do they can do in Bali! They can all have a work-cation in Bali.
With this whole shitstorm culture online, do you still feel like you can write anything – or are you self-censoring more?
No, I don’t think I self-censor that much. But I feel more and more, like, do I need to have an opinion about everything? I feel like it’s just exhausting for people: someone in America does something and then everyone in the world has an opinion, you know? I can remember a few years ago East German boys, they didn’t know who Jennifer Lopez was and stuff. And now they know everything. Everyone knows everything. They know that there’s campuses in America where white people with dreadlocks aren’t allowed in, they know all these details about every shitstorm and people are exhausted. We’re just in the middle of a culture war, and I don’t want to take part in it. I’m on the side of the oppressed, I am, but I still don’t want to take part in every single fucking shitstorm. I want to be a good ally and everything, but I even don’t want to jump on the J.K. Rowling bandwagon, you know? I’m not going to buy her books, but I just hate the culture wars and I don’t want to take part in them.
I can remember a few years ago East German boys, they didn’t know who Jennifer Lopez was and stuff. And now they know everything.
You talk about life in Lichtenrade in the book and how there are no Spätis there. How did you end up living there?
My real name’s Jacinta Nandi-Pietschmann and I applied for all these flats just as Nandi-Pietschmann and I didn’t get any flat viewings. And my middle name is Marie, so then I called myself Marie Pietschmann and I applied for flats, and then Marie Pietschmann got the same amount of flat viewings in one day that Jacinta Nandi-Pietschmann got in three months. I was so pissed off. I was still living with my ex, in his flat, with my kids, it was such a fraught, tense time in my life. So I wrote to the Wohnungsbaugesellschaft and said ‘you’re dicks’, and they phoned me up and said, you know, ‘Where does your son go to school? Where do you want to live?’ and then they showed me the flat in Lichtenrade, and they didn’t show anyone else that flat. It’s really nice, I got a balcony. I love Lichtenrade. But I’m also commuting the whole time, like, there’s nothing there. Well, there’s people there and forests, but there’s nothing to do. All the Mexican food, Greek food, Italian food, it’s all like 2006, 2004 even. Lichtenrade is like some kind of weird time loop place.
Is it becoming gentrified?
No, honestly mate, they don’t even know what gentrification is. But in Mariendorf, there is some graffiti on the side of a kindergarten: ‘Protect trans kids’. So someone’s speaking English, not just me. And they know about trans kids! And want to protect them. So, I guess we’re not in a total time loop. You know, when people get too nostalgic about the olden days in Berlin, they’re forgetting how bad the food was. Because I remember – and I’m not a foodie – it was just awful. It was just all coated in this grease of Germanness. There was nothing to it. It was like eating a plate of nothing. The food’s so good now. It’s really okay now. I mean, compared to what it was.
You know, when people get too nostalgic about the olden days in Berlin, they’re forgetting how bad the food was.
So gentrification has its benefits?
No, it’s terrible, I hate it… but also, I don’t wanna eat some of the chickpea curries I ate in 2006, they were really bad. They really traumatised me. I don’t get why you can’t have nice things to eat and cheap flats. You know what I want for Lichtenrade? All I want is one café that a mum with another mum could go to during the day when she’s dropped the kids off at Kita. And it’s actually a café with all that café stuff they have. We don’t need to be Neukölln, we don’t need vegan pancakes. I want us to become Schöneberg. Not even Schöneberg, I just want us to have one Schöneberg café there with all these nice little bits of food. And Aperol spritz.
What is the real Berlin to you?
Lichtenrader Damm. Dönerladen. Shall I start inviting journalists to this really shitty döner kebab laden on Lichtentenrader Damm? You can get alcohol there and then I can turn it into a posh, hipster döner kebab club. It’s already half gentrified because ‘shop’ is in English. That’s the only thing that’s better in Lichtenrade than the rest of Berlin, that all the kebab shops sell alcohol. Well, no, there’s two things. Number one, the flat prices. Number two, you can always buy alcohol at a döner kebab place.
WTF Berlin: Expatsplaining the German Capital by Jacinta Nandi (Satyr, 2022) is out now.
The WTF Berlin book launch takes place at The Word on Friday, May 13 at 8pm. Willmanndamm 4, 10827 Berlin.