Nomads in berlin: life in the capital between driver’s seat and exhaust pipe

Driver's seat instead of armchair, baseboard instead of carpet: there are indeed nomads in berlin. Their wheeled undercarriages make them a mobile home, almost like in the oscar-winning U.S. Film "nomadland". Who are these people who no longer live domestically – and to what extent is this lifestyle freely chosen?? A few visits to the apartment.

Nomads in berlin: from the shared apartment to the car

Petros parks his red van on a street in rummelsburg. Switch off the engine, make a quick coffee and the tour of your mobile home begins. The cypriot music therapist and sound engineer wears oversized wooden earrings and comfortable everyday clothes. Long dreadlocks fall over half of his torso. In high spirits and with a charismatic accent, petros presents his old ivecomobile, where he has been living for five years now.

"I've always traveled a lot by car, and for a long time I toyed with the idea of just never stopping."

After his lichtenberg shared apartment was converted into a condominium, he fulfilled his big wish. Just a few meters from his former home, he gradually optimized his new domicile: "I knew a lot of nice places and good parking options in the area, so I stayed there for the time being." Nevertheless, it was difficult at first to get used to the lack of distance from passing cars, barking dogs and loud conversations. "In an apartment you don't get all that, in the middle of it you sometimes scare yourself with rain on the roof."

Mostly sleeps in traffic-calmed streets in the city. He regularly changes the pitches, in between he goes to the countryside to "recharge his batteries a little bit."Casual jobs are used to save money for travel or the further expansion of one's van. He can also do his music therapy online, which makes life in the car much easier.

Alternative lifestyles are part of berlin's DNA

What motivates people who live in cars, mobile homes and other vehicles?? And how much free choice there is in this dropout life?

Alternative lifestyles have been part of berlin's DNA for decades. Until 2020, rummelsburg bay was home to the utopian floating caravan "new lobsterland. Here, artists, dropouts, activists and former homeless people lived together. Peaceful, self-determined and free from rent mania, social constraints and pressure to perform. The left-wing construction trailer settlement kopi 137 in mitte, which was forcibly evicted in october, also resisted displacement, gentrification and speculation for decades.

But it is not only in politically motivated circles that the demand for unusual models of existence has increased in recent years. According to a recently published "livee" study, 80 percent of german single households would be interested in alternative living arrangements. According to the experts, around 13 percent could imagine living in a tiny house. Main reasons, he says, are the desire for minimalism, the dream of owning an affordable home and the goal of living more sustainably.

Empirical cultural scientist lisa maile defines the "tiny house movement" as "an expression of criticism of the political system and the accompanying consumer and growth society". Due to climate change, many people would "recognize the need to turn to a green economy". This "changing cultural habitus" manifests itself in new alternative movements that focus on sustainability.

In this year's oscar winner "nomadland", director chloe zhao follows modern nomads as they travel across the united states. The protagonists tell of strokes of fate, acute financial problems and sudden apartment cancellations. The car becomes the last refuge and a remnant of the previous life.

In the U.S., the popularization of the nomadic lifestyle resulted primarily from the 2008 global economic crisis, which caused many citizens to lose their jobs, pensions and home loans. In germany, the broken housing market often leads people to move into their cars.

Nomads in berlin: cat washing instead of bathing

Life on wheels embodies one of the most radical departures from socially established living: cat wash instead of bathtub, camping stove instead of electric range.

The nomads limit themselves to the bare essentials. Often there is not even a toilet, shower and stove. Yet people make this choice consciously. The renunciation of materialism manifests itself in a sense of freedom, independence and mobility in a unique flexibility, says petros. That outweighs the disadvantages. "If a job is offered in another place, you just go there. Or if you have to be somewhere early, you simply spend the night nearby," says the nomadic cypriot.

The proportion of male nomads seems to predominate. Possibly this phenomenon results from socialization. Whether in the cult film "easy rider" or the moving story of "into the wild," guys used to have a lot of male role models who wanted to get free on the road. The fascination with cars is also strongly male-dominated.

The regular change of location is necessary to take advantage of a legal gray area. A gray area that opens up in section 12 of the road traffic act. The passage of the law states that for the "restoration of the physical fitness to drive" it is allowed to spend the night in the car. If the vehicle is parked in the same place for a long period of time, there can be fines. Petros, however, has never had any problems with the police.

Berlin nomads: rest areas at tempelhofer feld

Only rarely does it happen that residents are obviously bothered by vans and their occupants. "At times like this, I feel uncomfortable and am sometimes approached directly, but then I just go somewhere else," says petros. The reason for this is unjustified stereotypes. The neighbors are afraid of garbage, urine, noise and the alternative life itself, although petros says he always behaves inconspicuously, disposes of his garbage properly, is usually on the road the whole day and only stays in his iveco to sleep.

Christian berg, spokesman for the neukolln district mayor, says that there are rarely complaints from residents, as the nomads largely behave in an exemplary manner.

A walk through one of the streets in neukolln where the vans are parked, however, also has something oppressive about it. With taped-up windows, peeling paint and moss-covered roofs, some vehicles look as if they haven't been moved in years. Suddenly, life in a car is no longer a lifestyle dream, but the last resort before homelessness.

The doors remain firmly locked, no matter how often they are knocked on. Many involuntary nomads seem to be ashamed of their precarious living conditions or are afraid of being expelled despite the general tolerance.

Nomad ulli prefers mobility to loneliness

An old, smoking man with a short gray haircut and a black fleece jacket is sitting in a ford transit. The pensioner ulli worked as a truck driver for almost 40 years. He does not want to be photographed or recorded. Ulli never thought much of family and home ownership, but in old age and without work, it suddenly became lonely in the social housing in dusseldorf. In the end, the pensioner was drawn back to the street.

Being alone is not so bad if you can at least drive around. The pension is just enough for gasoline, food from the supermarket and occasional showers in public swimming pools. In berlin it remains only few days, where it is to go afterwards, does not know it yet. Ulli does not want to tell more. A cursory glance through the fogged-up windows reveals a yellowed mattress, empty liquor bottles and dozens of beer cans.

Tolerance and solidarity from residents and the district

Christian berg, who himself has lived in the schillerkiez for six years, says that in some cases there is a great sense of solidarity when, for example, people regularly place deposit bottles and donations in front of the more battered vehicles. In rare cases, however, nomads have to be sent away if trash and noise get out of hand. For example, a homeless man had been living in his small car in oderstrabe for several years and, as a "classic collector", had blocked two parking spaces every day with deposit bottles, garbage and scrap metal. In such cases the office for order would have to be switched on then already.

Overall, however, there is no interest in scaring away car dwellers, as long as everything remains within limits, says christian berg. "As a district and a city, we can't stand for freedom, individuality and diversity and at the same time take action against people who sleep here in their cars for a while and receive no complaints about them."According to his own perception, the number of occupied vehicles around tempelhofer feld has remained constant in recent years. However, there are still no concrete figures or statistics on the nomad:in phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it would be conceivable that the housing shortage and rising rents could drive more people to live in cars, especially in big cities. At the same time, christian berg, an expert on local political developments, suspects that the change in traffic, with parking and car-free zones and bicycle lanes, will make berlin's nomad:inner life much more difficult.

A visit to another street that has been a magnet for nomad:ins for decades. Some vehicles are clad in wood, brightly painted and look like prototypes from "vanlife" blogs. In between, there is a packed station wagon with the seats folded down, in which presumably no one would want to live voluntarily.

Nomads in berlin: A networked scene

Just a few meters away, bene, a young carpenter, parked his car. On top of a pickup truck, he has built a handsome wooden hut that sleeps several people, has heating and a spacious kitchenette. Sitting quietly in the entrance, he raves about spontaneity, freedom and independence. Bene wears wide yoga pants and exudes a lot of poise with his warm voice.

He has been on the road constantly for nine years, often going to the atlantic coast to surf. In the summer, bene mostly stays in germany, where he builds backdrops for alternative music festivals. He prefers to spend the winter in warm portugal. Since a firm dwelling would only prevent it, it could imagine straight nothing else than a mobile home.

Overall, there has been a networked scene in berlin for many years, he said. "The buses back there have been here for 30 years. There are many exciting stories and a good community. People share and help each other."After initial doubts, his social environment also reacted positively to his radical change of life. "At first, many people thought it was a bit crazy or couldn't imagine it, especially when I'm standing in the city like this, but now they celebrate it and come to visit me."

Bene is looking forward to the winter in portugal, to old acquaintances, the mild weather and traveling. "When I'm on the road, it's just a dream. You put your home somewhere on the beach, some pay millions for a plot of land, but then they are tied to it. You can just keep driving."

Nomads in berlin: the aftermath of the storm

After life on the road, do you even want to go back to the world of normals? For berlin nomad mathias, the time spent in a caravan left its mark: after a serious breakup, the KPMG employee took refuge in his ford nugget, where he lived for a year. This step was necessary to deal with the loss of the familiar and the painful end of the relationship. Mathias, a business analyst, doesn't wear dreadlocks or yoga pants, but smart suits. He showered in gyms, used public toilets and took his suits to the laundry. The other KPMG employees admired the preservation of an alternative lifestyle despite a serious profession.

After hurricane xavier dropped a huge branch on a friend's car in october 2017, sleeping under the RV roof suddenly didn't feel safe anymore. Returning to normal life, to a charlottenburg apartment to be precise, was a major challenge: "I still had virtually no furniture three quarters of a year later, just a mattress on the floor, because I was so used to this minimalism."

In between, mathias continued to sleep in his car, partly out of nostalgia, but more often for practical reasons: "if there were any parties in friedrichshain, I could just crash on the bus. That was cool of course."The apartment was not meant to be a permanent solution, the longing for the freedom, flexibility and independence that living in a car promises was too great. However, the stressful work and being a nomad could no longer be combined: "getting water, taking away sewage, going to the laundromat… It's just too much at some point."

Although he has now become accustomed to being settled again, wistful thoughts of the special time remain. "Back then, it all felt so free. Now I'm a few years older, child, wife, full of the average german life. There I was still full in the departure mood, always after the sun. But others do and they make their blogs about it. I also like to watch this, but somehow it was just through with me."

Nomads in berlin: bene on the beach, ulli on the street

Petros and bene are not planning to give up the nomadic life for a long time yet. "I've been doing this for five years now and I've decided to live this way," petros explains. "If I sleep in an apartment from time to time, because it does not work in the car, I do not go crazy. Now I get a heater and then I'm ready for the winter."

It's a similar story for bene: "maybe I won't do this forever and move back into an apartment someday. But now I can not yet imagine. First enjoy the freedom, travel around and then see," he says.

Then he gets into his mobile house and drives down the street. Everything wobbles and clangs, for a brief moment you just want to get in and go with them, wherever they go. Then suddenly you think of ulli again, sitting lonely in his van and chain smoking. There is a huge contrast between self-determined dropouts living their dream and traveling the world, and homeless people on the side of the road with nothing left but their car. Images flash through your mind: bene on a stunning beach in portugal and ulli stuck in a life between a dashboard, a beer can and a curb.