My name is Rhea Boyden and I was born in Ireland in 1975 to American parents and spent much of my childhood moving back and forth between Ireland and the United States. When my parents separated, my mother left Ireland and was always a bit of a wanderer, ever in search, in her fearless way, of new adventure, bringing her kids with her on her travels. She lived in various cities in the U.S. and also Alaska. She even lived on the South West Turkish Coast for a few years where my younger sister was born. My two other sisters went to school in Turkey and learned to read and write in Turkish before they learned English. In the summer of 1990 my mother had made quite a few German friends in Turkey who encouraged her to move to Berlin with them in the autumn of 1990.
Like mother like daughter
My mother and my three younger sisters moved to an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg in the former East Berlin in 1990 but her German friends who she had met in Turkey lived in West Berlin and at first could not understand at all why she would want to live in that dark, abandoned and run down neighborhood. Little did they know then how upscale, trendy and gentrified Prenzlauer Berg was to become. My mother seemed to sense that Prenzlauer Berg was a good place to be after the fall of the Wall and she was among the first wave of English speaking expats to move there. She networked well, made a lot of friends of all nationalities and taught English, raising my three sisters as a single parent in a fairly small apartment with a coal oven for heat and a toilet in the hallway. She was always busy with creative projects and she founded an English language magazine in Prenzlauer Berg in 1993 that was published quarterly for several years.
I first came to Berlin to visit my mother and sisters in 1991 with my brother when I was 16. We were living in Ireland with our father and going to school there, but over the next few years we came to Berlin frequently during school holidays.
From the beginning I was very taken with Berlin, first and foremost because I loved languages.
I loved my French class at school in Ireland and now I was being given the chance to learn German in the exciting city of Berlin. I always kept a diary of my adventures and had a lot of fun going out to clubs and bars in my late teens and early twenties hanging out with all sorts of interesting people and learning as much German as I could. After studying in the United States and also doing a year at the University of Tübingen in Southern Germany I received a degree in German and I then moved to Berlin permanently in 2000.
A generation later
My main job here in Berlin the past 14 years has been working as a freelance English teacher (just as my mother did here before me). I have worked in many companies all over Berlin and it has been a very fulfilling career. I still live in Prenzlauer Berg not far from where my mother and sisters lived before they all finally left Berlin for other adventures. For the past couple years I have been writing for the online English magazine Slow Travel Berlin. One article I had published with the magazine is about my family’s history in Prenzlauer Berg. I also helped write a lovely Berlin guidebook with the magazine, which was such a fun and fulfilling project. Many friends have noted how funny it is that I am doing the same jobs here as my mother, a generation later: magazine writing and teaching. I suppose I am quite similar to my mother!
Friends, homesickness and more
These days I have a lot of different friends of all nationalities, but in 2000 when I was 24 and first living here in my own apartment and working my first job after university, I was very fortunate to become close friends with a girl my age from former East Berlin. She took me under her wing and introduced me to her family and her whole circle of friends. I was the only non-German in this whole group and for a few years I spent practically every weekend with her and her people. They invited me to their weekend houses outside Berlin and we went swimming in the lakes. We had game-playing evenings, cocktail parties, club nights and garden parties. This happy situation was of course, perfect for learning German. These lovely people even assisted me with the dreaded German bureaucracy, which has caused me some headaches over the years, especially considering I am a freelancer.
After some years, I grew apart from this group of people as my friend got married and started a family and various others moved away for study and work. It was then that I started spending more time with other expats. I began meeting more and more interesting English speakers who started flooding to Berlin. I have met many artists, musicians, writers, teachers, and so forth over the years and I have hosted many dinner parties and cocktail parties in my apartment. It has always been important for me to have, apart from my good German friends, a good network of English speakers. We do, after all, all share the same challenges when it comes to living in Germany away from our native countries. I do feel the bonds that I have made with some of these friends are stronger and somewhat different to the ones I would have made had I stayed at home. And while I have been mostly happy in Berlin, it would be a lie to say that it has all been perfect. There have been times that have been very difficult, times where I have felt very homesick and unsure of what I am doing here. Fortunately, I have been able to go home to Ireland frequently to help cure my homesickness. I love Ireland and I miss it a lot.
The Irish vs. the Germans
The Irish and the Germans really are quite different. I remember once I was able to compare the cultures very starkly on one day, about 8 years ago and it is an incident I will never forget: I was sitting in Cork Airport waiting for a severely delayed flight to Frankfurt. I went to the bar to have a drink (as did most other people who were waiting for the flight). When I walked up to the bar to order a drink there was a charming Irish man sitting there and he looked at me, winked, smiled and said hello in a very sincere way. He was not flirting with me, he was just being friendly and we had a nice chat for about 5 minutes. I then flew to Frankfurt and was sitting in the cafe waiting for my connecting flight to Berlin and I sat down with my coffee and there were about three or four German men sitting right near me and suddenly I felt it would have been nice to have a friendly chat with someone just like I had had with the man in the airport bar in Cork, but none of them so much as smiled at me. I suddenly felt so unbelievably homesick and lonely and felt like getting on the next flight back to Cork.
I have had this conversation many times with my German students: Why are the Germans, in many cases so unfriendly to each other in public? I am half American, and the Americans are also chatty and cordial to people in public, just like the Irish. I do get it when the Germans tell me that it takes longer to get to know Germans, but once you know them they are your good friends for life. I agree with this. I have some great German friends who it took me a long time to get to know, and they are there for me and will be my friends forever. But I do get defensive when yet another German says ‘Oh, but Americans are so superficial’. It is nice and courteous to be polite and friendly in public. Why does this have to be branded as superficial?
The doors are open
Having said that, however, there are very many fantastic things that have kept me in Berlin for so many years that I could not have experienced in Ireland or the United States. I have had the best of all three worlds keeping Berlin as my base and travelling to Ireland and the United States every year. I have very much kept my ties to Ireland, and especially since I have, in the past few years, stopped going out to parties, bars and clubs. I have, with maturity, withdrawn from nightlife and have been happily spending a large portion of my time at home reading, writing and working on my blog. I only write in English so it has been even more important for me to network in Ireland and The United States via Facebook and email for publishing purposes. In 2012 I had a lucky break and had an article about my experiences of 10 years of dating in Berlin published in The Irish Times Magazine ‘The Gloss’. This was very exciting and opened many doors for me. The past few years I have spent a lot of time going to art exhibitions, theatre and opera in Berlin and have been writing reviews for my blog and various magazines.
I really feel that I have lived many different lives in Berlin and that this city has offered me plenty of opportunity to reinvent myself over the years. The writing life is a passionate adventure for me and I never know where it will lead me next, with Berlin having no shortage of fantastic things to write about.