A city that has thrived against the odds


I live with an insurance worker and his cat, I have a little identity card that allows me to eat lunch in the Bundestag, and there is new graffiti on my street nearly every morning. Welcome to my little part of Berlin, relates KATE KATHARINA FERGUSON

A LONG TIME AGO, when my mother and father were younger than I am now, the council of Europe held a schools’ essay-writing competition. The theme had to do with “Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik”.

My mother, a vivacious 18-year-old German girl from a family of nine children, and my father, 17, Irish and shy, buried their heads in their books and each penned an essay, which they sent off by snail mail to the ministries of education in Bonn and Dublin respectively.

A few weeks later, an envelope arrived on each of their doorsteps. My mother and my father had both been awarded prizes. They were invited to represent their countries at a prizewinners’ conference in Saalfelden, near Zell am See in Austria.

My mother and father met there in the summer of 1971. “Der gefällt mir” (I like him) my mother said to herself when she saw my father. He probably didn’t say much, but the feeling was returned.

At first they communicated in French, but in his final year of secondary school, my father took up German and sat the Leaving Certificate exam after just one year of study.

How strange, that if it weren’t for those essays and the politics of freedom they espoused, I wouldn’t be sitting here in my flat in east Berlin with a bottle of Weissbier and a jar of Nutella beside me. In fact, I wouldn’t be here at all.

I grew up in Ireland speaking English and German. Dublin was my home, and the town of Regensburg in Bavaria, where my mother grew up, was a pleasant place to spend summers. I remember playing with my cousins under a garden hose, and swinging in the playground with a view on to the Danube, which was dark and still. I grew up in an Ireland that my mother was constantly reminding me was “not as it had been”.

In 2007, when I was on Christmas holidays from college, I worked as a postwoman delivering parcels on a bicycle with no brakes. I liked to peek through the letter boxes as I popped the cards through. I saw magnificent Indian furniture, well-groomed dogs and top-notch baby strollers. And lots of construction work.

The following year, I saw some incomplete extensions, and one of my colleagues was a builder who had just lost his job. In 2009, my Christmas job at the post office was gone.

In my last year of college in 2010, I benefited from the “weekly madness” deals at Londis and the €3 “coffee and muffin” offer at Insomnia. I sat until closing time in the library with my boyfriend, our faces buried in literary criticism, and our lives punctuated by coffee breaks. We sent each other email updates at 4am with live feeds of our essay word counts. We worked hard.

The summer after graduation is one I would rather forget. When I look back at the sent items in my inbox, I find hundreds of emails I wrote during those months offering to work for free, applying for work experience, begging for an internship. I was under 23 and living at home, so I couldn’t claim the dole. I handed my CV into the stationery shop in my local shopping centre, which had advertised a position. The lady looked me up and down and said: “Are you in college?” “No,” I said. “I’ve just graduated.”

She took the CV and cover letter. A few days later, the sign was gone. I saw a new member of staff sitting behind the counter. He was about 16, had a rat’s tail and looked tired.

Eventually, my mother insisted I do an English-language teaching course. She paid for it. I loved teaching and got a job at the school where I trained. I worked there until February of this year. I stayed living at home and saved.

And then I decided it was time to pursue a dream. Writing, after all, was in the family. I applied for an internship at an English news website in Berlin. I got it, and couldn’t believe my luck. The recession and its pleasant side-effect, humility, had conditioned me for failure.

At this point, leaving the country was a choice, rather than a necessity. It was time to move out of home, to explore the flea markets in Berlin, to try to be a journalist.

This city has captured me entirely. I live with an insurance worker and his cat. I have a little identity card that allows me to eat lunch in the Bundestag. There is new graffiti on my street nearly every morning. I buy Weissbier for 45 cent and I drink it in the evenings while I write blog posts. At the weekends I hop on an underground and I explore a new part of town.

All around me are monuments to a terrible history, but in between them fire-breathing artists, hip hop dancers and punks with huge dogs puff energy into a city that has thrived against all odds.

My internship is drawing to a close and a familiar fear is creeping through me. What now? What next? The odds, anywhere, of making it in journalism are painfully slim. Today, during my lunch break, I handed my CV in to a language school on Friedrischstrasse in the centre of the city. The Australian lady at reception looked at me kindly and uttered an all-too-familiar phrase: “We’ll call you if we have a vacancy.”

On my way home, I bought a sack of potatoes. Tomorrow I’ll mash them up and enjoy them with a Weissbier.

I may not know where in the world I’ll be in three months but I am grateful every day for the freedom which accompanies that uncertainty.