Evelyn Marsters on migration, for Impolitikal

Evelyn Marsters: Migrating as a family almost broke me

Berlin she has two faces
Be careful of her tricks
When you fall or rise above
Who knows what happens next?

She opens up her arms
And the lunatics converge
Below the white-lined skies
And endless nighttime highs

This city is a woman
A broody moody bitch
Her understated beauty
In five high storey bricks

It’s typical of the psyche of those born in a small island country to want to spend time overseas, to absorb firsthand the life we have been exposed to in our books and across our screens. Most New Zealanders move overseas during their early 20s, but I never felt the urge to live in the UK, work and live with other Antipodeans for two years and have a few short, punctuated trips to continental Europe. I didn’t want to share a double bed in a squalor flat in order to save for a Contiki tour.

Then all of a sudden, in my mid-20s I started to feel like I had missed out. I did want to dance on tabletops to Eurotrash hits. I wanted to compare my ocean-bounded, New Zealand-born Cook Islander perspective to the continental European way of life. So my boyfriend Dylan and I decided to make plans to move to Amsterdam. He was drawn to it because of the music industry possibilities, and I had wanted to work in local government; at the time Amsterdam was considered one of the most ‘just’ cities in the world. It wasn’t to be though – I fell pregnant unexpectedly at 26.

Over the next six years we had two children, got married and I completed a PhD. We moved around Auckland constantly during this time, trying to reconcile where we wanted to live and put down those proverbially strong roots. We were always moving and always confused about where to live, and how to design our life. Everyone around us – single professional workers and young-family cohort alike – appeared to have secured a permanent address, a wooden house with a handkerchief of lawn out the back. Why were we, after sketching the outline of nuclear family and working simultaneously on two careers, still feeling so unsettled?

Overthinking is what I do best, and I concluded that our separation from Auckland’s housing market was one of the reasons we felt unsettled, and at times isolated from our peers. In time the ruminating stories of house-buying, renovations, second house-buying, mortgage rates, car upgrades and soft furnishings started to affect us in two ways. First, we felt like frauds, pretending to care, when in reality we had no interest in weekends spent doing DIY. Second, we just wanted to avoid the discussions, and possibly the financial responsibility altogether, by moving away. There were other factors at play in our decision to move to Berlin of course, but one major push was that we felt the preoccupation with house ownership in New Zealand was not our dream, and that we still had other paths to follow. So, once again, we both started to look for opportunities overseas.

In mid-2013, Dylan secured a job at a music technology company in Berlin. I was in the final writing stages of my PhD, and I when I look back I don’t think I realised the enormity of saying, Yes! Let’s do it. But we both said yes, and we started the planning. Practically the relocation was hectic but straightforward; it was the emotional shepherding of our parents, grandparents to our young children, towards understanding the reasons for our move that was the hardest. The guilt was suffocating each time I saw them with the kids. We had around four months to prepare, and through that period I could read a panicked counting down on their faces. I knew I was disturbing their orbit by taking the children away from New Zealand.

Dylan moved first, to find an apartment, school and settle into his new job. The children and I arrived via a holiday in Hong Kong. My first hazy observations of Berlin were of highly organised streetscapes, a sprinkling of large, dry-looking trees, and incredibly deafening ambulance sirens. It was the end of summer, and from what I could tell people lived on a diet of pizza, ice-cream and sausages. Each night my feet had a pulse of their own as I started to break in my feet and legs to my new pedestrian lifestyle. My first significant emotional memory of Berlin is one of claustrophobia. The flat landscape and five storey high apartments in muted versions of beige in every direction began to feel like an urban cage. I couldn’t see very far into the distance before my view was obscured by a vertical, flat concrete surface. There were no hills, and no harbour to break up the monotony. I also noticed the crows, as big as dogs, which would become synonymous with my blackening mood.

I had no German language on arrival, and relied heavily on body language and observation. My attempts at communication usually failed in part because people’s expressionless, closed-off faces filled me with anxiety. If I made eye contact, it was not returned with a smile but more of a focussed recognising, and this was a main contributor to my feelings of extreme dislocation. I longed for friendly, casual, random conversation. Instead, all of my interaction had become transactional and cold. Even in the playgrounds, I was surprised at how little other mothers talked to each other. There appeared to be a social understanding that people ignored those they didn’t know in public spaces. I would say Hallo! to other parents at the school, but if they were already engaged in a conversation, or doing something, I would be ignored.

Berlin has a reputation for being a city where you can get by in English, which is true to some extent, but from the beginning of my time there I was acutely aware of how my language placed me outside of everyday life, and made me clearly visible to German people as an immigrant. Using broken, rudimentary German, body language and English, I was mostly able to make myself understood, but every interaction made me feel embarrassed, and the frustrated and disapproving faces of the people I was conversing with only heightened this feeling. I spoke English in muted tones when out with my children to avoid bringing attention to myself as I wanted to avoid what I took at the time to be judgement and disapproval. My first attempt at taking a German language course was a failure – I dropped out by the second week. Looking back the only reason I can find for not continuing with the course is that I was miserable in Germany, and that I couldn’t bear to spend my time learning and listening to Deutsch when all I wanted to do was go home.

Everyday life was painfully difficult without speaking German and I began to retreat to only known situations where I knew I could get by. For a while I only left the house to take the children to school and go the supermarket. My isolation from life in Berlin was also due to our complete underestimation of how expensive the move would be. We made some significant financial mistakes, and once our savings were gone our one income was only just covering our very basic living costs. So, here we were in Europe. It was cold, dark by 3pm, and we were broke. I didn’t want this migration experience. Three months into my new life in Berlin and I wanted out.

My mother visited at Christmastime, and discovered that our usually cohesive family were having very fractured, different experiences of Berlin. I was broken, stressed, lonely and failing miserably at trying to reassure my mother that everything was alright. Dylan was thriving at his new job, but saddled with guilt for seeing what I was going through. My son was incredibly nervous and had developed unusual behaviours. My daughter, nearly three at the time, was happy and content. When I said yes to moving to Germany, I didn’t realise that everyone in the family would have such starkly individual stories of arriving and settling, and new life trajectories. Our family was broken into different sections, and we’ve been fighting ever since to find how we all fit together in this new place. The fight has made us the tightest little unit, and for me that has been the real beauty in this adventure. It’s been nearly three years now, and the harshness has begun to unravel. Sometimes I even feel like I am being embraced by a still often severe, but nonetheless beautiful city.

I’m a Pacific migration researcher, and since arriving in Berlin I have found myself reflecting on and reinterpreting the stories told to me by many Cook Islanders over the last 10 years. I think I missed the overall point the mamas and papas were trying to pass on to me: it is good we can move, but it is a painful process that for a little while will break you. I’ve also been very aware of what is an often fraught journey and arrival to Berlin for many, as the refugee crisis has begun and continued throughout my time here. To all the people who are risking everything to walk or catch a boat to Europe – I hope you are able to find a home that allows you to put the pieces of your lives back together again.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland, and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.