‘Berlin surprises people’

Anna Winger, 39, is an Anglo-American writer and photographer. Her first novel, ‘This Must Be the Place’, was published in 2008 and is due to be turned into a film. She also created ‘Berlin Stories’, a series for American National Public Radio in which writers read short pieces about the city. She has lived in Berlin with her German husband, Jörg Winger, a television producer, since 2002. They have two daughters.

I grew up in Massachusetts and was educated in Manhattan. My parents – an English mother and an American father – are anthropologists and so we often lived in places like Kenya and Mexico. But before I met my husband, in Chile, it would never have occurred to me to live in Berlin. I was raised in a Jewish community and my family and friends were surprised when we settled here. But I have come to love this city as my own.

My husband grew up with American culture – and films, especially – all around him. That’s the way it was in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. But, of course, our movies were then, and still are, dubbed for German audiences. So when I met my husband, in the early 1990s, he had never seen a Woody Allen movie in the original. In Santiago de Chile we went to see Manhattan Murder Mystery and it was the first time he’d heard Woody Allen’s real voice. His response? That he sounded better in German.

I found the gap between the success of Hollywood stars and the rather more prosaic lives of the Germans paid to be their local voices interesting. It is where I got the idea for my first novel: This Must Be the Place is about Walter Baum, a Berlin actor who is the German voice of Tom Cruise. He is down on his luck until he meets Hope, a lonely American woman who is new to the city. Through their friendship, these two damaged people begin to reconstruct themselves – much like the city around them has had to do.

The plot of my first novel drew little from my own life, beyond my observations of the city. But the novel I am writing now draws on my experiences of living in Mexico as a teenager and later, again, in my 20s.

Living here, I miss New York, but I miss Mexico more; the culture and, of course, the climate. But I recently read a novel called Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (the late Chilean novelist and poet) whose descriptions of Mexico City captured something familiar. And I often return to the political writing of Alma Guillermoprieto.

Berlin surprises people. It doesn't immediately fulfill any romantic fantasies but it consistently exceeds expectations. If your background is Jewish, these tend to be low to begin with but, let’s face it, Berlin doesn’t have the greatest reputation. This Must Be the Place is my answer to the question “how can you live there?”.

The truth is that once you get used to the language this is a very nice place to live and an easy place to be a foreigner. Germans are not friendly like Americans or social like the Brits but they are curious. They like to travel and they read a great deal, and what the locals lack in a sense of humour they make up for in loyalty and a kind of earnestness that is rare. There is a real bookstore culture, a busy arts scene and, recently, a boom in German films, some of which have found an international audience, like The Lives of Others and The White Ribbon. It isn’t all about Hollywood here any more.

This is the only city outside the US that has a local American National Public Radio (NPR) station. Berlin Stories, the series I created for NPR, provides a view of Berlin through a literary kaleidoscope. We have contributions from Americans but also from British and Irish writers; all personal pieces. Because of the internet, people can listen all over the world.

I live in Charlottenburg, in what was once the centre of West Berlin. It’s not trendy any more. In fact, it’s pretty quiet, because since unification a lot of businesses and nightlife moved to Mitte, in the former East. Twenty years on, the merging of the city is almost seamless but I love riding the S-Bahn [Berlin’s elevated train] because from above the layers of architectural history reveal themselves like the strata in an archaeological dig. I tell first-time visitors the S-Bahn ride from west to east and back is the best introduction to the city.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to see this city when it was still divided. In the summer of 1989 I travelled around Europe with my college boyfriend. We got to Munich, where we went to see Dachau, but decided not to continue to Berlin. The Wall came down a few months later. If only I had known.


Schools and property

We own an apartment. Berlin real estate strikes foreigners as a good deal and it is much cheaper per square metre than many other capital cities but there are some things you should know. First, the buyer, not the seller, pays the agent – and the fee is 7.14 per cent of the purchase price. Second, if the place is shown by more than one agent, the agents do not have to split the fee but rather each can claim a full fee. Much to our chagrin, we had to pay two agents when we bought our place, one as the nachweissmakler, or person who told us about the place; the other as the vermittlungsmakler, or person who handled the deal. A third point to remember is that the property tax and notary fees that must be paid at purchase time add up to another 5 per cent of the price. And finally, unlike the US, if you are filing your taxes in Germany, costs and interest related to any real estate that is your primary residence are not tax deductible.

Getting schooling is very easy, since there are a lot of English-language options, both state and private. My daughter attends the John F. Kennedy School, a free German-American school. It is 60 years, which is a long tradition in Berlin terms. It has a bilingual, bi-cultural curriculum.

Overall, in business, people tend to be more cautious and less ambitious than in New York, where I lived before, and sometimes that can be really frustrating. But just as the boom that took place in other cities never really reached Berlin, nor has the bust.

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