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Scene in Berlin

Communal living becomes a social experiment in Berlin

Berlin is known throughout Germany for its "WG" communal living arrangements. Part socialist throwback, part progressive social experiment, the city's denizens are known for carefully picking their fellow WG inhabitants.

Scene in Berlin

I've lived in Berlin for more than a year now. While that in no way makes me a veteran of this strange and protean city (I'm sure I've only just begun to grasp the scope of the oddness which fills the place), it seemed to me a convenient way to mark a new segment of my life here.

So I packed my bags and moved from my modern, warm and well-lit apartment share in Pankow to a more adventurous one in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg.

The building could use a good deal of repair, and on the hike up five flights of stairs one is confronted with graffiti scrawled by past and present tenants and smells ranging from cooking to must. The thick apartment walls hold a chill, and drafts form under the high ceilings of the rooms.

With nothing but a dilapidated coal stove and gas heater, I'm anticipating a grim winter.

Communal lifestyle

But I'll be okay though, thanks to the concept of the "WG" - or "Wohngemeinschaft," a uniquely German living arrangement that has been perfected in Berlin. Partly a stylish way to live, partly a socialist throwback to the times of pooled communal resources, each WG features its own group dynamic. They range in size from two to 10 or more occupants.

Members of a WG eat together

Eating together is part of WG life

As is the case with most good things, finding a WG which suits you well can be surprisingly difficult - unless you know the right people. Searching via wanted ads can be a daunting experience, complete with several rounds of interviews and competition with over a dozen other candidates.

In my experience, the wrong approach is to simply present yourself as someone who works, can therefore pay the rent, and is simply looking for an uncomplicated place to eat, sleep and spend some time on the weekends.

No, you need a real back story... you're a preeminent practitioner of some obscure art form, a political radical, a survivor of some incredible persecution. Whether or not you can actually pay the rent rarely comes to the forefront of the conversation.

The main thing is for you to bolster the dynamics of a WG by contributing something unique. Berliners treat these living arrangements as social experiments, and delight in tinkering with the parameters to observe the results. This phenomenon - which to some degree can be observed throughout Germany - is taken to an extreme in the German capital, where it's common not only for students but for people of all ages and professions to live in WGs.

Plenty of benefits

Beyond the obvious cost benefit, there are a number good reasons to choose life in a WG.

It's true that living under the same roof as others requires a good deal of flexibility. Whatever people's habits may be, they are sure to be a source of conflict at some point down the road. But putting yourself in a situation where you're forced to adapt and share can be a good thing for us natural egoists. You're forced, however uncomfortably, to put your life in perspective and divert your attention away from yourself. You become part of a community.

Finding a good WG to live in is also a perfect way to meet people when first moving to Berlin. The more people in your WG, the more people you'll get to know as a result.

I'm curious to see how my new life in a WG turns out. Without a doubt, it's associated with certain risks every day. One roommate could find a psychotic girlfriend; another might discover a passion for cooking with obscure spices and another may decide to take up the drums. But, no risk, no gain.

I tend to think of myself as slowly wading into the adventure that is Berlin. For now, I've traded my life in a comfortable apartment in Pankow for a WG in Prenzlauer Berg. And who knows? Maybe by next year I'll find myself living in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood which takes Berlin's character to an entirely new level.

Gerhard Schneibel is neither an origami expert nor a political radical, but is a superb WG member and never leaves dirty dishes in the sink.

Editor: Kate Bowen

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