Transits

material culture, migration and everyday life

Month: April 2019

Letters from the field – Berlin, week 1

12 April 2019

It has become common place to say that the ethnographer’s self is very much a part of ethnography and ethnographic writing. I argue that this statement is truer for the ethnographer who has to move from her country into a new country and city in order to do research, here about migrants… specially if those migrants have moved from that same country and into that same new city, albeit for different reasons.
The ethnographer in question is me. I was born and raised in Portugal and moved to Berlin last week in order to do ethnography with Portuguese families living in Berlin. If we exclude the personal variables of motivations, objectives and, off course, length of stay, I, as an ethnographer am following the steps of the migrants who will participate in the research.
Furthermore, when your intention as an ethnographer is to understand material culture and consumption, a dimension of your subjects’ life which is probably present in a similar way in your own life, putting yourself in your subject’s shoes becomes a fairly easy exercise. Just like the migrants I am about to meet, I too had to pack; I had to select what I wanted to takeand, upon my arrival I had to find the things that I cannot envisage myself living without on my everyday life.
Thus, for the purpose of this blog post, I am going to write about myself and the choices I have made regarding my traveling to and settling in Berlin.

Moabit

Upon arrival at Tegel airport, I took the TXL bus. Direction: Alexander Platz. The destination: my neighborhood, Moabit. As I approached the end of my ride, the bus entered Turmstraße, a very densely commercial street, filled with burger, pizza and doner kebab restaurants, Turkish coffee shops, small supermarkets with fresh vegetable street stands. I could also spot some organic/natural/biologic trendy supermarkets.

Turmstraße, a main street in Moabit.

A quick online search had already taught me that Moabit is a neighbourhood of Mitte, located in the west side of the central district, bordering Charlotteburg district, and was adjacent to the former Berlin Wall. For this reason, Moabit has always had a peripheral status, whether because it was where unified Central Berlin ends or West Berlin ended. The internet also told me that Moabit has historical working class roots, which combined with its peripheral yet central location makes it affordable and attractive for newcomers. Statistically, Moabit is Berlin’s neighbourhood with the largest first and second generation migrant population.
As I hopped off the bus and followed the path suggested to me by googlemaps to get to my new home, I entered an area in Moabit known as Westfälisches Viertel (or Westphalian district), a more bourgeois residential area, south of Turmstraße, bordering the Spree river and Tiergarten. Shops became more scarce and more expensive: bistros and bakeries mostly.

A view over the Spree river to Westfälisches Viertel in south Moabit.

I arrived at my destination and met my landlady in whose elegant house I will be renting a large and very comfortable bedroom for an affordable price. “I know how researchers struggle” my landlady points out. Indeed.

My things

In my bag, I had packed, of course, some clothes, shoes and personal hygiene and beauty products, but I decided to buy some hygiene and beauty products in Germany because I was told that they are cheaper here. For example, I had packed some rose water, which I can get for a cheap price at home and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to find some here. However, I discovered they are a very common item in Turkish shops. I also brought many packs of carob-porridge, which I was sure I wasn’t going to find here. Although this porridge is sold under an international brand, the production and selling are exclusive to Portugal. I also packed a bottle of wine to present to my landlady. With wine being a usually appreciated national product, I felt I couldn’t go wrong. I chose from my own collection of favourite wines a bottle from the region of Alentejo, a region known for its please-all wines. I didn’t pack olive oil, which I wanted to do but wasn’t sure about the correct way to store it to avoid spillage. I wish I had dedicated the time to find a way because olive oil (good quality like the one that is produced where I live) is much more expensive here!

Bags of carob porridge, rose water and a botle of wine.

The day I arrived, my landlady was kind enough to take me around her favourite places to shop in Turmstraße. So on that first outing I bought the essential hygiene products I had purposely not brought: toothpaste, soap, shampoo, conditioner and night cream. I bought them in a DM shop, which is a chain with many shops across Berlim that sell hygiene and beauty products, household items, healthcare items, healthy food and so on… Then, in a Turkish shop which my landlady recommended for their fresh vegetables and fruit street stand, I shopped for food essentials: eggs, milk and flat bread. I also looked for instant coffee, which I later found out is as scarce product, specially in a Turkish shop, since Turkey is known for their particular method of coffee preparation. I instantly regretted not packing some instant coffee as well.

Fruit and vegetable street stand of a “turkish supermarket”.

Despite these minor glitches in my anticipation of the type of products available and their pricing, I was happy to be returning home from my first outing with enough products to have a shower and cook some eggs for breakfast on my first morning in Berlin.

A bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and face cream.

Eggs and milk.

 

Mobility

My next priority for my days in Berlin: mobility. I had done some online scouting for information about public transport in Berlin and had been told about how efficient it was, with its integrated system of U-bahn, S-bahn, trams and buses. However I couldn’t help but notice the amount of bikes circulating at all times, as well as how cycling infrastructure seems to be a priority in the city. There are bike lanes and bike-parking places everywhere I look; my own building has a bike garage! Bikes are allowed inside public transport without charge, and meters away from my door are two shops that sell new and second hand bikes, and also do bike maintenance.

Bicycle parking.

A bicycle “garage” of an appartment building.

On my first days in Berlin, the weather was almost20ºC. There was an atmosphere of spring celebration in the air, the trees blooming in small pink and white cherry blossom flowers, kids playing in the parks and adults simply sitting down on benches or on the grass, enjoying the sun. I walked around my district, and went further to adjoining districts. When the time came to using public transport to reach more distant areas, I found myself wondering why so many people cycle in Berlin. I spoke with my landlady about it, and she said that using a bike is easy in Berlin, since the city is flat. Furthermore, I could observe that even on weekdays and peak hours, cars are at a minimum, which could only make cycling in Berlin safe. On considering that I would need to move around the city to get to know it and to meet participants in the research with more distant districts being at least a twenty minute ride away, I decided to enter one of the shops near my house to investigate the price range for bikes. On my second visit, I was happy to leave the shop with a second hand bike in mint condition for the price of 3 months of the BVG monthly pass. Hopefully the bike will make it easier to get to know this huge city.
Until next time,
Diana

Letters from the field: Lisbon #1, Cityscapes

Image of a stylised map of central Lisbon; Source unknown

In my previous 2 blog posts on Lisbon, I introduced migration in relation to tourism, and in relation to colonialism. In this post, I will introduce you to Lisbon as a city as I undertake the ethnographic fieldwork as part of this research project, TRANSITS. Being new to the city and indeed the country, having moved here late last year, I offer the personal impressions of a migrant.

Lisbon is the capital of Portugal, though perhaps not as busy as many capitals around the world. In fact, life here moves at a slow pace, a pace at which having a coffee is perhaps more important than being on time for a scheduled meeting. This can be beautiful, while simultaneously baffling for an outsider. One gets used to it, and learns to appreciate these mundane aspects of everyday life in this growing city.

The city itself is part of a broader region or district, and appears to grow out from a small ‘downtown’ area as the River Tagus kinks inward. This downtown area is replete with leg-aching slopes and beautiful views from which one can appreciate the cityscape. This area itself is hardly lived-in, save for the tourists replacing each other in drones, and the numerous new upmarket (‘hipster’) cafes and eateries. Here, there is much shopping to do, and many pictures to take.

  

Images by author (Sinead D’Silva)

Along the coast, inward, the officescapes of ‘Expo’, or Parque de Nações, reflects a different commercial area of Lisbon – it is not as dedicated to tourism, but reflects some amount of the hustle and bustle expected of a capital city. As the city sprawls outward to the Atlantic Ocean, residential buildings become more commonplace. A mix of purposeful houses built during the Estado Novo and new developments greet you, a shift from downtown’s quaint old iconic buildings.

Further out on the train within ‘Greater Lisbon’, residential landscapes become more visible, sometimes in need of upkeep; and the hustle and bustle of the city fades away. Further on still, you notice a change in landscape telling of class differences. If you go North from here you are greeted by quintas (farms) and mountains. You are in Sintra. If you continue along the coast, you find yourself in Cascais, a trendy seaside location. From my perspective, you also spot a hint more money in the air, sometimes observable through attire and accents. It is also interesting to note how ethnically diverse the city as a whole appears to be, which for European cities does seem surprising. Though when the city rests, the different places people call home hint at a class-race disparity.

Images by author (Sinead D’Silva)

This is the cityscape of Lisbon, and already I have found that others have navigated it differently.

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