A Berliner and his Brexit : No man is an island

Mark Espiner on what it feels like to be left in Europe, as his homeland Great Britain decides to cut itself off.

Mark Espiner moved from London to Berlin in 2009.
Mark Espiner moved from London to Berlin in 2009.Foto: Thilo Rückleis

There is large house that stands on Brunnenstrasse, close to the Rosenthaler Platz Ubahn exit. I first saw it shortly after I arrived here in 2009. And every time I cycle past it, it makes me think. Written in massive white neatly painted letters, in contrast to the graffiti tags that emblazon most other buildings in Berlin, it covers the whole of its facade with the provocative slogan: This house used to stand in another country. Dieses Haus stand früher in einem anderen Land.

Berlin, the divided city. Germany, the divided county. This house belonged to the DDR. An idea and a place that no longer exists. I could kind of relate to it, I thought back then, because of the massive changes I had seen going on in London. Naively and shallowly, I likened it to gentrification in Camden, my London kiez. My favourite pub, an Irish one called the Stag’s Head, where you could drink Guinness until 3am and which held the community together around its beer mats, had sold up to a property developer and had recently be turned into up-market flats. For me the heart of Camden had been ripped out. It wasn’t the same any more. That must be how those former East Germans feel, I thought. I could relate to their familiar places being taken, changed and gentrified by others. I made a promise to myself, regardless of any Berliner Schnauze, to be sensitive to that.

Now that I am confronted by the idea that the United Kingdom is soon likely to be a divided one, the sentiment of that house takes on a whole a different meaning. The country I left behind no longer exists. I go back there regularly, in fact I was only there last week when Jo Cox was murdered, before the UK’s very own Wende. And I can hardly describe the feelings it has created. 

Emails started coming in at 4am on Friday from friends and relatives. What is going on? Later in the day as the truth set in, I had friends and family crying on the phone. “Why can’t we have a leader like Angie?” said one. It was true what someone said about this Brexit vote: it’s civil war without the muskets. But the most upsetting one was from friends and family saying to me: “You feel further away.” I do.

Values we used to have in the UK too

When I moved to Berlin, I talked to people back at home about how great it was here. While my brother paid nearly a thousand pounds a month for his childcare for his 18-month child, we paid 30 euros including lunch with three brilliant former DDR erziehers. The train to the airport cost three euros, not twenty quid. Rent was a third of London prices. I put this all down to European ideals, but it is in fact just solid German social policy. Values we used to have in the UK too.

There were lots and lots of reasons why I moved to Germany. But the main one was love. I met my Lebensabschnittsgefährtin (I love those great German compound words) in London when she was a German immigrant, working as a teaching assistant in a Hackney school. She is from the south and she loved London despite the endless “jokes” and references to the war. Despite her 10 year old daughter being held personally responsible for the Blitz in her history class. Despite the weather. After a work trip to Berlin I suggested we moved there. She jumped at being back “home” (although there isn’t quite the Schnauze where she is from) and we swapped our immigrant statuses. 

Now I was the one “out of water”, but I was always dimly aware of what I thought was an affection for the British. Most people speak English to me. We talk about music, not the war. 

I often felt and feel homesick. I love London, as those who have read some of my writing in this paper will know. But I began to feel more and more European and the sense of a common bond with you Berliners and the Germans grew. I was beginning to integrate (heck! I even have a Schrebergarten now) but also I had a sense of something else: a shared idea of exchange that goes back to the Enlightenment and which was being progressively developed. And the EU helped to foster that. I could pick up and work hard here, get healthcare, pay tax all so much more easily than my American, Australian and NZ colleagues who struggled with work permits and tax issues.

You could say that the EU brought me love too. I would not have met my LSGP without it. Or be building a life here. Yesterday, I read this from a despondent young person in the FT comments section. “The younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages, and experiences we will be denied.” It hit the nail on the head and brought a tear to my eye.

I’ve experienced hate too. Some of it ugly. But we have so much more in common, I believe, than things that divide us.

The Divided Kingdom

Now I feel all confused. The DK (the Divided Kingdom no longer the UK) doesn’t want the EU. By implication, it doesn’t want Europe. Where does that leave me? 

The only thing to do in such a situation is go to a mixed-sex sauna. What a mark of how far I have come from being a reserved Englishman to sharing a hot steamy room with naked Germans. One woman, hearing me speak in English remarked on the vote with sympathy. She had an English boyfriend and she was worried too. Should he get German citizenship? Another said he had made a fortune on the money market today, before expressing real sympathy and concern at where it could all lead. 

No amount of hot saunas or cold showers could sweat out or wash off the quiet unease I felt. In the supermarket, speaking on the phone, I suddenly became aware I was speaking English and felt uncomfortable in a different way. Were the people who could overhear me less happy, less well-disposed towards the British in the light of this vote? Had their affections changed?

When I got back to my flat and turned on the TV to see Boris Johnson, I had to a laugh. He looked scared. In fact he reminded me of the two theatre impresarios in The Producers musical who try to come up with a musical failure to cash in on the insurance of a flop. Instead they create the musical Springtime For Hitler which unexpectedly becomes a massive stage hit. That’s Boris Johnson right now. Blinking in disbelief at what he has done. Or to give you a more cultured German allusion, he looks like he’s thinking what Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice said in panic. “The spirits I have summoned up I now can’t rid myself of.” Although there’s another quote from Goethe that might better apply: “Patriotism ruins history.”

Poor but sexy?

Boris the former mayor of London. Booed in streets by Londoners. London which will, over the next few years, be most likely be able to claim the title of being poor but sexy.

Despite Boris and others in England reassuring us to the contrary that the drawbridge is not going up and that the UK is still part of Europe, it nevertheless feel isolationary. 

I first came to Berlin to find out why so many British people were moving here. Then I moved here myself. Now, as my homeland cuts itself and drifts off into the Atlantic I am starting to put aside my initial feelings of shock and sadness and turning to Europe in the hope it can stay together in these difficult times. It has been quoted a lot recently in what was Britain, but the words of the English poet John Donne are worth remembering here. 

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

I am sure, if it could talk, that house in Brunnenstrasse would agree.

Mark Espiner is a freelance writer and theatre director who left London to live in Berlin in 2009. He has contributed to the national press in the UK including the Guardian, FT and Sunday Times, and to the Tagesspiegel and Deutsche Welle in Berlin. Please find a German translation of his Brexit piece here.

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