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U.S. Expatriate Hipsters Plug Into the Buzz of Berlin

Artists and writers say they're finding creative enrichment that has withered back home.

December 12, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The tea comes, the waitress smiles and Jason Forrest, an unquiet and happily offbeat American, tells you (oh yes, he tells you) how his life leapt off the tracks and found rebirth in this winter dark city he calls "hipster ground zero."

His artistic spirit "rudely" treated in New York, Forrest said, he sought sanctuary in Berlin. He rented an apartment, bought a bed and two tables, found a bohemian cafe (how hard could it be?) and started touring Europe with electronica concerts his website boasts "have garnered him a huge international audience, and involve much bad dancing, some blood and a few shattered laptops."

This is not Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s, unless Papa was a balding musician with a mischievous desire to rummage through cyberspace for inspiration. This is not Paris, although there is a stubby replica of the Eiffel Tower out near the train tracks. This is Berlin in a new century. A city in the midst of a jigsaw architectural revival, Germany's capital is the destination for a growing number of American expatriates -- musicians, painters, writers, performance artists and directors seeking the enrichment and creative experimentation they say is withering in the United States.

Many are young and newly arrived. Others have been here for years, witnessing the collapse of communism and the merging of east and west. They came on a whim. They came for cheaper meals and better gigs in a city whose nightlife is a miasma of galleries, Art Deco bars and underground clubs of jangled cosmic sounds. With German phrasebooks in their backpacks, they flit through a landscape of immense freedoms and niggling restrictions, where a right turn on red is verboten and black leather shimmers in the streetlights.

"Berlin is like the antidote to New York. It's all the things you want, the culture, the music scene, but none of the stress," Forrest said. "We live in a completely renovated apartment for 500 euros [about $650] a month, heat included.... The hip areas of Berlin will be flooded soon with New Yorkers. Three of my friends are moving here in January. They see it as a place of lower rents and better politics."

Living abroad, however, is not all lattes and croissants. American expats mourned from a distance after the Sept. 11 attacks. They have watched the dollar tumble and political acrimony divide their native country. They have endured Europe's disenchantment with Washington. Some said they were apprehensive about America's direction and would remain in Germany until their country became less polarized.

"I was crying for days after Bush was reelected," said Jesse Eva, a saxophonist and singer who moved to Berlin from San Francisco four months ago. "I wouldn't want to live in the U.S. while he's president. It's not like fear of terrorism, but fear of my own government."

In 1999, Berlin was home to 8,044 Americans, excluding those in the military, according to the city's Statistical Office. The number jumped to 10,000 in 1999 and totals nearly 12,000 today, including tech workers, lawyers, accountants and businesspeople. The figures don't include expats who live here a few months, leave for a while and return. All told, about 4.1 million Americans not affiliated with the U.S. government or military live around the world, according to American Citizens Abroad, a nonprofit organization.

Paris was the haunt for American artists and writers nearly a century ago. After the Velvet Revolution swept the former Czechoslovakia in 1989, Prague, with its castles, crooked, foggy streets and 25-cent beers, drew droves of American expats.

Berlin flaunted jazz and sex in the 1920s, but the Nazis, war and communism spoiled things for decades. The city yearns for its glamorous and naughty past, as evidenced by decadent parties at the KitKat Club and the recent stage production of "Cabaret."

There are, of course, those annoying quintessential German moments: the icy stare for crossing the street when the little man is lighted red, and the "tsk, tsk, tsk" awaiting those who fail to separate dark glass from clear glass in front of bewildering rows of recycling bins. But most expats consider these amusing idiosyncrasies in a city full of verve.

"There's this feeling in Berlin that something is happening," said Marc Siegel, a UCLA doctorate film student who has been writing his dissertation and teaching here for the last five years. "There's a history of gunshot holes written on these streets and in these buildings. There are illegal taverns, and the spaces in the city are alive. You feel you are part of some exciting thing and there's something precarious about it too."

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