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

Times Staff Writer

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.”

Berlin has a buzz, but it’s more of a pleasant drone than a cacophony. With public funding for culture much higher than in America, the city coddles more than it exacts. A reverence for alternative art keeps nightclubs hungry for new acts, so musicians such as Eva can concentrate full time on her band, Vanishing, rather than on waiting tables and looking for couches to sleep on.

Eva sat the other day with her drummer, Brian Hock, in the morning light of an apartment carved out of an old Berlin industrial building. Their music as described by Hock (with immediate subtext by Eva) is a “hypnotic noisy darker-side dancing music that also goes in tropical marching band directions.”

The two have been performing together for six years and were tired of struggling with finances and a California music industry more enamored with packaged stars than with alternative zeitgeist.

“San Francisco started feeling really oppressive,” said Eva, a woman with ripped stockings and a penchant for black clothes who has played shows in France, Italy, Austria, Spain and Hungary. “I’m really fascinated by the history of Berlin and I had the feeling it was a supportive, nurturing place for a musician.”

Lindy Annis moved to west Berlin in 1985. U.S. soldiers patrolled the streets, and a wall divided the city. Ronald Reagan was president; the dollar was strong. The galleries and clubs that would eventually expand like an exotic mosaic through the Mitte district were nonexistent, and the bohemians were part of an outcast scene, a buttress against the Cold War.

“I was living in New York and doing art was not financially feasible,” said Annis, a performance artist who also works in experimental theater. “I visited Berlin and I stayed. There’s an environment to accept exploration of new forms.... It’s culturally a new frontier. There’s Russians, Chinese, French, Italians and British.”

In some of her earlier material, Annis used satire and agitprop to decipher the U.S. One of her most recent projects, “An American Tragedy,” taken from the title of the Theodore Dreiser novel, asked artists to create their vision of the American dream. Much of Annis’ work has been more personal and tries to elucidate the world’s chaos since Sept. 11, which altered the shape of the New York she knew nearly two decades ago.

“To me, going to New York and not seeing the towers is a scar,” said Annis, a mother of two. “The people living in the U.S. worked through the grief and loss. But somehow it’s harder for me. I don’t get used to it. The towers were my compass. When I’d get out of the subway, I’d look to them to find south. When I visit New York, I still expect to see the towers.”

The tenor of American politics over the last few years has troubled Siegel, a film teacher at Berlin’s Free University and co-founder of a troupe of actors, musicians and dancers known as CHEAP. He said he wanted to teach at a U.S. college but was worried about the parameters of free thought and speech in a country he viewed as strikingly conservative.

“Cultural and intellectual work are not as valued in the States as they are in Europe,” said Siegel, whose dissertation is on gay film and video. “I would have continued in a more conventional academic fashion had I not come to Berlin. I think the politics in the U.S. is definitely bringing more people to Berlin.”

A mercurial man wearing a zip-up sweatshirt, Forrest walked to his favorite cafe in an ethnic east Berlin neighborhood near Mitte. The place flickered with candles and whispered conversations. Forrest grabbed a window seat and sipped tea in the dusk. He mentioned that he liked the prices in Berlin. Drinks are inexpensive and his rent is less that half of what it was in New York, where, as his sculpture and photography dreams faded, he became a late-night disc jockey and began editing and composing music.

“I worked the 2 a.m. shift and the show went out internationally,” he said. “So I began dialogues on the Internet with people all over the world.” That led to his recordings -- a mix of electronic and rock digitally spliced on a computer -- and international tours to promote his CDs, including one of his more recent, “The Unrelenting Songs of the 1979 Post Disco Crash.”

He brought his wife, an illustrator, to a show in Berlin in 2003 and the couple decided to move here. Sometimes, he says, it’s hard to believe that a guy from Rock Hill, S.C., who has been known to work under the name Donna Summer, wakes up in Berlin in a bed from IKEA.

“I think in Europe people are living more fulfilling lives,” he said. “In the U.S. there’s this ‘Super Size Me’ mentality. I began to realize that it was really malaise. People were consuming things because their lives were empty.”

He finished his tea. He was off to see his wife and then he was biking to check his e-mail, pedaling over drizzly streets once haunted by communist spies but now the domain of real estate speculators.