material culture, migration and everyday life

Tag: Berlin

A city of remembrance

In Memories of a Nation, the author Neil MacGregor argues that “German history is a composite of different, sometimes conflicting, local narratives”. He goes on to give the example of Frederick the Great of Prussia – the kingdom of which Berlin was the capital from 1701 until the unification in 1871 -, whose war and territorial gains were often won at the expenses of other German states. He goes on to say that if Frederick the Great could be considered something of a national hero in Berlin, in Dresden he would be considered a villain for having destroyed and captured the city during the Seven Years War.

In contemporary History, conflicting narratives become very local to Berlin. In the III Reich, the city became capital and headquarters of the Nazi Regime. Hitler had plans to completely demolish and rebuild the city, transforming it in the megalomaniacal capital of the Nazi Empire after the intended victory in WWII. However, much of the city ended up destroyed, not by Nazi bulldozers, but by Allied heavy bombing. By the end of the war, an estimated forty per cent of the population of Berlin had been forced by persecution or deprivation to resettle elsewhere; many thousands were forcefully deported and killed by Germany under the Nazi regime.

Today, silent reminders of the devastating consequences of war can be seen everywhere in Berlin. I am not speaking about the dozens of erected memorials, but of the buildings that were intentionally left destroyed by the war, like Kaiser Wilhelm Church or other public interventions which were made more recently like the thousands of Stumbling Stones spread across the city’s pavements.

The Stumbling Stones are brass stones engraved with the name and the fate of individual victims of Nazi Germany, placed in the pavement in front of their residence. This ongoing project by a German conceptual artist has been adopted by several cities in Germany and other countries in central Europe, albeit not without controversy: some argue that it is disrespectful to place the small memorials under our feet and doubt the stumble effect, questioning how many people stop to consider and pay respect to individual victims; others argue that it brings closure and power to the survivors and communities involved in the process and that the passer-by shoes have a polishing effect on the copper giving it shine throughout the years.

Five Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) outside one apartment building in the district of Mitte.
The former Anhalter Station bunker now houses the Berlin Story Museum.

From war to division

In 1945, Berlin became spoils of war and was divided between the winning Allies. The city became permanently occupied by the Soviets in the East, and by the English, French, and American in the West. With the advent of the cold war, the division of the city became not just ideological but physical as well, with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Neighbours, friends and families remained separated for almost 30 years by a 100 metres ‘death strip’.

The fall of the wall in 1989 became a symbol of the triumph of western freedom over eastern totalitarianism. In the nineties, parts of East Berlin were seen as uncharted territory by Western squatters and vanguard artistic movements. However, for Eastern Berliners, the fall of the wall meant mass unemployment, salary inequality and overall discrimination by the wining West.

Today, squatters are in the forefront of protest against capitalism and sky-rocketing property prices; and the founders of the Love Parade – a techno event born from the pacifist motto “peace, joy and pancakes”, which stood for disarmament, happiness and end of hunger – have dissociated themselves from it, disillusioned with the commercialization of the event.

When I visited the Berlin Story Museum, I was very unimpressed by the building: a concrete dilapidated square which was built as to be an air-raid shelter during WWII. Over the entrance to the bunker-turned-museum, there is an even less attractive graffito, translating “those who build bunkers, throw bombs”, very likely done during the eighties when the area, in the district of Kreuzberg, stood on the west margin of the Wall and was home to Turkish and Kurdish exiles, Punk and Hip-hop communities. These more politically aware and subversive communities  are in the genesis of the bohemian spirit of today’s Kreuzberg.

The 1940s bunker and the 1980s graffito have thus been preserved throughout the decades as a testimony of History. I see the ensemble today as the perfect expression of the paradoxes of war and division in Berlin. Whether due to their size, location or because they seem to be displaced or dissonant from the surroundings, these kind of monuments  – the Bunker as well as the Stumbling Stones – confront even the most distracted passer-by, away from the frenzy of the touristification of History.

As Neil MacGregor puts it, in Berlin as in Germany, monuments don’t have the purpose of celebrating national victories but are “uncomfortable reminders of failure and guilt [which] proclaim a moral message: that the past offers lessons which must be used to shape the future”.

Interview with Tiago Pais: «The Portuguese immigration in Berlin is much younger and much more qualified, but much less united»

Tiago Pais is a name that quickly becomes familiar to anyone coming to Berlin today and looking for a Portuguese presence in the city. President of the association Berlinda and director of the only Portuguese-language newspaper in the country, the Portugal Post, Tiago agreed to sit down with me and talk about his migratory experience and to share his impressions of Berlin and the Portuguese community.

The engagement with the community was not an end in itself. With a young but consolidated career in public sector management, Tiago Pais decided to move from Lisbon to Berlin in 2010 to pursue postgraduate studies in his field.

«In the first year of the Masters, I had no contact with Portuguese people and I think this is very much the experience of the Portuguese who come to Berlin, there is no contact with other Portuguese. […] Berlin, in contrast to the rest of Germany, did not have a Portuguese immigration wave in the 60s and 70s, because it was a divided city and had no great job opportunities. It was a city with poor economic development, which attracted only a handful of Portuguese for essentially ideological reasons. In this sense, Portuguese immigration in Berlin is much younger and much more qualified, but much less united because there was no need to create mutual support systems like the ones needed in the first and second generations, which came at times when contact was more difficult because of the language barrier, because making ties was more difficult, leaving the country was more difficult, and because the worldview was narrower. […] Still, Berlin had some Portuguese association in the 70’s and 80’s, and a soccer team, but it was short-lived. Today there are two, more modern, associations: Berlinda and 2314, which organize projects more around culture, not so much about socialization and conviviality »

Tiago also considers that the dispersion of the Portuguese in Berlin is somehow related to the geography of the city.

The city is geographically very dispersed. There is not a” city center “, as in smaller towns and villages, where there is a different centrality.»

Tiago’s first major exposure to the Portuguese community was through his employment at Caixa Geral de Depósitos’ representation office. At the Portuguese bank, he worked with Portuguese clients who resided not just in Berlin, but throughout Germany, and who were mostly from these early generations.

In the meantime, he became involved in Berlinda’s activities, and through the association, he began to contact those who, like him, had recently come to Berlin. Due to Berlinda’s more focused orientation towards cultural dissemination, the public was made of artists, designers, musicians… the kind of occupations that Tiago considers are still dominant among those who arrive in the city.

«As a city, Berlin has an athmosphere and a philosophy that is very appealing to more alternative and creative folks. It is a space for experimentation.»

When, in 2016, Berlinda’s founder and first president left to return to Portugal, Tiago took over the presidency of the association. Shortly thereafter, he would also take over the Portugal Post, founded in 1993 in Dortmund. According to Tiago, although they appeal to different sections of the Portuguese immigration, there is a complementarity in the work of the two organizations.

«Berlinda is not just about the Portuguese community, but about culture in the Portuguese language. Therefore, it blurs borders between Portugal, Brazil, and the Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Berlinda has an online magazine with mostly cultural content, and that is where I saw a synergy between Berlinda and Portugal Post. If we think about the transversality of the projects today, I end up having a much broader contact with the Portuguese community than I had before, because the newspaper is much more aligned with the Portuguese community I was contacting with at CGD and which is much more traditional and scattered immigration across the country, a much larger audience outside Berlin, which is the newspaper’s subscribing audience»

Portugal Post is distributed by post to its approximately one thousand subscribers, and it is sold at three hundred outlets located all over Germany, mainly at train station kiosks. The newspaper is also distributed to consulates.

«The newspaper has a role as a company element, especially in relation to older immigration in Germany, to whom it is a point of contact with the language. The newspaper has undergone a major editorial change from the moment I took over and is it is perhaps a little more demanding than previously both in the content and language used. But even so, people have not abandoned reading. One thing that is also highly valued in the newspaper is the fact that there is a social information section, where information about life in Germany is explained, such as pension systems, support for disease … very practical things that people like to read for information. Access to this type of information is often difficult because it is accessible only in German through official channels. In this sense, the newspaper is a very relevant point of information.Berlinda also has a practical information section – how to live in Berlin, how to look for a home, a list of Portuguese-speaking doctors, Portuguese-speaking accountants … Then there’s a promotion of Portuguese culture that I think attracts people who like to see good things being done in Portuguese. There are interviews with painters, musicians, sculptors … »

The wine business

Prior to Berlinda and the Portugal Post, Tiago Pais is interested in Portuguese wine. He owns 7 Mares, a shop and wine bar located in the cosmopolitan district of Kreuzberg, where this interview took place. Although most of the clients are German, Tiago also sees the business as a way of getting Portuguese immigrants – who do not fit into an “old Portuguese community” – to make themselves known and share their culture in the more international environment within which they move.

«My first venture is the wine business. This has to do with a Portuguese sociocultural tradition, clearly, and I think there is a lack of knowledge about Portuguese wine, so I think it is a mission to increase the notoriety of Portuguese wine. The wine business attracts the younger, more qualified, more interested and more independent sections of the community. The interest of this audience is to show off their culture to their friends who may be German, Chinese, Italian… to make Portuguese wine known, because we also have wine tasting and cultural events. »

Berlin and the return to Lisbon

As an entrepreneur with work and business experience both in Portugal and Germany, Tiago feels that it is easier to manage a business in Portugal, where it is possible to make many contacts with the public administration through email or online forms and applications. He tells me this is an important factor in his long-term future prospects and in considering a return to Portugal, which is however not yet scheduled. However, Tiago is quick to list what makes Berlin a good city to live in:

«In Berlin the transport system is well designed, and the green spaces are brutal and everywhere, by the way, I think the visitor is always perplexed because they think Germany is gray, but Berlin is much greener than most Portuguese cities: there are trees on almost every street, there are parks everywhere and people enjoy the street more, they “live” the street more than in Portugal. There is also an important neighborhood life, however this also has to do with how the city grew – it was by annexation, it was not by organic growth, so the areas that were annexed were already central and that centrality remains until today, as there was no convergence to a single center. This leads people to live more in their neighbourhood, to shop more locally and there is less consumerism in terms of going to a big shopping centre and make big purchases for the month; you buy more on a daily or weekly basis at the corner store when you return from work. This turns out to be nicer. »


«Lisbon has great things, is nearer the coast, has a brighter light … and Portugal has an extraordinary cuisine. I have these things here in another form: it is much more enjoyable to ride a bike, there are lakes that allow swimming, there is a different Nature experience. But for those born in Portugal there is another affinity with the beach and the cuisine, there is no way around it … »


Letters from the field, Berlin #4: neighborhood life and shopping

On an evening spent at home, at the beginning of my stay in Berlin, I felt like eating something sweet. As I had nothing decadent enough at home, I decided to pop to the nearest Späti to buy a chocolate bar. The Späti, or in its complete formulation, Die Spätkauf, is a kind of convenience store in Berlin that stays open out of hours.

On the way there, I took the time to make a phone call. I entered Späti while still on the phone and was taking time to choose the chocolate I wanted. At one point the gentleman behind the counter started to speak at me angerly, and with gestures seemed to send me out and finish the call on the street. I interrupted the call and exchanged a few unsavoury words with him, before leaving the shop with my chocolate because I had no alternative place to buy it at that time in the evening.

When I got home and told my German co-inhabitants what happened, the answer I got from them was that my attitude had been disrespectful, as “in Germany, people behind the counter want to be treated as people” and not ignored, as was the case. I realized that even though I said a distracted and perhaps barely audible hallo! when I entered the shop, having been on the phone all the time without trying to make a casual conversation with the Späti’s attendant, had been an attitude that was beyond impolite, too impersonal for what would be expected in this context. My idea that anonymity and impersonality would be normal in a city the size of Berlin turned out to be unmistakably wrong.

The Späti is a convenience store where we can buy newspapers and magazines, the lottery, the occasional soda or beer, a packaged snack, or collect our DHL parcels. Both the store itself, and the person behind the counter – who usually owns the store -,  are viewed as a neighbourhood institution.

Going back to that night, as I continued my account about the unpleasant exchange of words between the Späti and myself, one of my interlocutors stared at me with some shock and disbelief, as if I had committed heresy and said “oh no, you don’t want to mess with the Späti”, further proving the symbolic power of this institution in Berlin society.

The outside of a Späti (which is also a DHL parcel shop) in my neighbourhood.

I have observed that, despite being a big city, Berlin has in its neighbourhoods the centre of the daily life of its inhabitants. One of the things that stands out when strolling through the various districts of Berlin is that there is no clear separation between residential, work, shopping and leisure areas. I have also been observing in the neighbourhood where I live that the street remains dynamic throughout the day, animated whether by traditional commerce and small businesses or by the infrastructure that enables people not to have to move far from building where they live to carry on with daily life in all of its dimensions.

A focal point in my neighbourhood, with the fenced playground and ping-pong table in the background and a sitting area in front of the pharmacy.

The interaction between neighbours in public space is constant. The green spaces mark the urban landscape. In gardens and parks, people sit and talk while sipping a beer bottle or sharing a bottle of wine; birthday parties and barbecues take place on the lawns among larger and noisier groups. Playgrounds with swings and a sand area, spot every corner, and are the meeting place for parents and young children: children play barefoot with shovels and buckets in the sand while parents sitting on benches or the floor talk to each other while watching over the children. The pavement outside the ice cream parlours are also popular places for parents and children to hang out.

Geladaria em Prenzlauer Berg.

Another traditional area of ​​the neighbourhood is the bakery, in German Bäckerei. This is where one buys bread and rolls daily. The bakery also sells a variety of cakes – slices or the entire thing -, serves coffee, juices, and quick meals for breakfast, such as eggs and sausage. Essential goods that a Berlin home cannot miss, such as eggs, milk or butter are also available. There are less traditional, more gourmet bakeries in more affluent or gentrified neighbourhoods, which announce the sale of the fashionable sourdough bread, the use of organic ingredients, and offer the same kind of small meals as traditional bakeries, but made with rarer and more expensive ingredients such as avocado

The neighbourhood shopping network also includes the pharmacy, pubs selling drinks and the occasional schnitzel, cafés where small groups can be found enjoying their Kaffee und Kuchen, small restaurants and hairdressers… This network seems to be highly valued by both older and younger residents, both Germans and foreigners. The attendants, who often own the business, exchange greetings and short but friendly conversations with customers. These exchanges are a good source of neighbourhood news.

The inside of a bakery in Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.

Leaving the heart of the neighbourhood, in only a few minutes we can reach one of the main arteries of the district, whatever is the district, where commerce gains another dimension. These busiest streets and avenues are what the British call the high street. There we find the drugstore, a reference in everyday shopping in Berlin. DM and Rossman are the most well-known drugstore chains. There is at least one – oftentimes more – in every main street. There, toiletries and household items can be bought. There is also the make-up section, photo development section, an area for baby clothing and other baby articles, and a section with some organic packaged goods such as biscuit, cereals spices, teas and sauces, usually cheaper than in organic supermarkets.

The supermarkets are also located on the high street. With or without car parking facilities, the truth is that walking or cycling is privileged in Berlin, because in this continuity between residential and shopping areas, the distances are never long. The types of supermarkets are varied: from discounters like Netto, Penny, Aldi or Lidl, to the more regular ones like Edeka, Rewe or Kaufland. With hygiene products purchased at the drugstore, grocery shopping in supermarkets is usually limited to food items.

The already traditional Turkish supermarkets, located in both residential and main arteries, usually have a colourfull and attractive fruit and vegetable stand outside. Inside, products from the Middle East, fresh bread spreads, and thick Turkish yoghurt, along with fruits and vegetables, attract non-Arab clients.

The outside of a Turkish supermarket in Treptow.

Organic supermarkets can also be of a smaller size in the heart of neighbourhoods, or they may belong to a chain, and these are usually located in the high street. The best-known chains are Bio Company, Denn’s, Alnatura or LPG. In these supermarkets, fruits and vegetables are privileged by buyers, as well as dairy products and eggs, not only because they are of biological origin, but also because there are regional and local options available.

Regional tomatoes in a bio supermarket.

It has been interesting to observe and talk with our participants about how this neighbourhood and shopping culture and dynamics influence the consumption habits of Portuguese migrants in Berlin. So, to learn more about this, stay tuned to TRANSITS.

Until next time!


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 take and, 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.


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 neighborhood 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 neighborhood with the largest first and second generation migrant population.
As I hopped off the bus and followed the path suggested to me by google maps 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 favorite 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 bottle of wine.

The day I arrived, my landlady was kind enough to take me around her favorite 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.



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 apartment 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,

Stories of migrants in Berlin – by Reuters

«More than 1 million people have come to Germany as migrants since 2015 under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy.»

However, Merkle’s policies and views on migration have made her unpopular amongst the most conservative and the increasingly powerful far right,  both in Germany and in the EU.

On the eve of the CDU voting on Angela Merkle successor for the 2021 Germany election,  Reuters published in its photojournalism website “The Wider Image”, a piece that tells the stories of three migrants in Berlin:  Ali Mohammad Rezaie from Afghanistan, Haidar Darwish from Syria and Joseph Saliba, from Syria.

They are stories about their own personal pathways to integration in the city of Berlin.

Read it here!


Berlin: Portuguese migrant population with little female representation

According with official statistics, in 2017, Berlin had a population of over 3.5 million, of which a quarter was foreign.

The most represented countries were Turkey (11.4%), Poland (11.4%) and Italy (4.9%). Originating from the European Union countries were 49%  of immigrants, and Portuguese were 1.7% 

Berlin was the fifth German state with the largest EU migrant population and the fourth in terms of the lagest Portuguese population, with 10.2%, – or 14 905 out of the total of 146 810 – of all Portuguese living in Germany.

Portuguese migrants have traditionally settled in the more affluent and cosmopolitan German states of the south-west of the country, whose industrial centres imported most of the Portuguese workforce that arrived in the country during the 1960s and 1970s under the “guest workers” program (Gastarbeiterprogramm).

As for Berlin, the city has seen its Portuguese population grow steadily since the fall of the Berlin Wall and until 2017, when, already in the recovery of the finantial crisis which triggered unemployment in southern Europe, the number of Portuguese migrants tripled. However, while the female population doubled to 3 210, the male population quadrupled to 11 695, causing the female population to represent only 22% of the total number of Portuguese migrants in Berlin. The proportion of migrant women is significantly higher in the total immigrant population and among Germans.

The recent significant increase of the Portuguese population in Berlin, as well as the low representation of the female population, are relevant data in the characterization of the Portuguese population in Berlin. These findings open questions and raise hypotheses to be tested in the course of our investigation.

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