Now that the 30-something, latte-drinking generation has finished colonizing central Berlin, it's set its sights on the backwaters of Brandenburg. Jane Paulick wonders if the provinces got the short end of the stick.
It's been eye-meltingly hot in Berlin for the last few weeks, and everyone who can is escaping the city whenever they have a free moment. As luck would have it, receding Ice Age glaciers left literally hundreds of lakes scattered around the Brandenburg countryside outside Berlin, and this summer, I've been struck by the growing number of people who've acquired their own private waterside retreat.
Brandenburg, it seems, is to Berlin what the Hamptons are to New York - only it's not, because a summer house on Long Island is a luxury financially far beyond the reach of mere mortals, whereas a dacha in the hinterlands of the German capital can still be had for a song.
So while I've been kidding myself that the city's many outdoor swimming pools are actually quite nice places to be on my days off - despite the fact they're overrun by teenage gangs and there are fries and fag-ends floating in the water - most long-time Berlin residents simply wouldn't dream of spending a weekend in the city.
Paradise on Berlin's doorstep
It's not that surprising that so many of the Ossis (East Germans) I know own country abodes. Many of them inherited houses from their parents or grandparents, while others who grew up with Brandenburg on their doorstep were snapping up bijou property bargains in its untamed, sunflower-filled lowlands long before these reached the radars of the hordes of West Germans who only moved to Berlin in the last decade.
Until recently, these denizens of hip neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Kreuzberg wouldn't have set foot in the Prussian provinces. But it seems there's been a shift in perceptions, and Brandenburg is no longer considered such a final frontier.
My suspicions were confirmed when, last week on the tram, I saw someone reading a book by Swiss TV personality Dieter Moor about his attempts to run an organic farm near Werneuchen, northeast of Berlin - and later that day while flicking through the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, I noticed it was number three on its bestseller list.
Then there's cabaret singer Rainald Grebe, currently satirizing urbanites' sudden love affair with what used to be the badlands of Brandenburg in his new show at the Maxim Gorki Theater called "Back to Nature." His conclusion is that it's just another form of consumerism.
"These fantasies of bucolic living are nothing more than complete greediness," he said in a recent interview with Berlin's bi-weekly listings magazine Tip. Not that he's blameless - he also dreams of the simple life.
"It's about having it all; living in the city; being networked and having your finger on the pulse - but also having a house in the country. It's not as though I actually want to weed, milk cows and grow tomatoes," continued Grebe, "It's just some feudal fantasy of being a landowner lording it over the locals. All I really want to do is sit in the sun, drink a latte macchiato and enjoy a view of a lake."
Sounds good to me. Never immune to the vagaries of fashion, I too have started dreaming of a lakeside getaway I might call my own.
My first step has been to overcome some prejudices. Admittedly, Brandenburg doesn't have the best of reputations. It's associated first and foremost with neo-Nazis, failed industry and a mass exodus of young people and doctors - and after several weekends spent driving around scouting for empty property, I can personally confirm there really are no doctors: One day when I realized I had an inflamed tick bite, I was sent by the friends I was visiting to get an antibiotics prescription from a veterinarian.
"The White Ribbon" was filmed on location in Brandenburg
As for the neo-Nazis, I'm assured by the same friends that the locals are salt of the earth and highly unlikely to vote far-right. Fair point. State elections last September actually saw more than two thirds of the population vote either for the Social Democrats, the Left party or the Greens, and the region's most famous daughter is none other than the ever-moderate Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Templin.
Other exemplary Brandenburgers include 19th-century writer Theodor Fontane - who paid its rural charms loving tribute in his novels - and Prussia's most famous architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who left his mark in the form of countless palaces, villas and village churches.
Of yuppies and yokels
If you've seen Michael Hanecke's Oscar-nominated 2009 movie "The White Ribbon," then you know what a Brandenburg village looks like: wide, cobblestone avenues that time seems to have forgotten, lined with chestnut trees and low farmhouses dating back at least 100 years.
Needless to say, it's this historic, pre-communist architecture that appeals to Berliners seeking scenic rustic tranquility, many of whom I've encountered at the various public viewings of houses for sale that I've attended in the last few months. I've even seen people I recognize from my local organic supermarket, although I've never seen anyone who looks like they might be interested in buying something more permanent than a holiday home.
Few people want to live in Brandenburg full-time. One property valuation report I leafed through referred to the mass unemployment and inadequate infrastructure that characterize the region. None of these factors matter much to the affluent Berliners who can jump back in their SUVs on Sunday night after a relaxing few days in their converted barns.
They can't be accused of pricing out locals, because locals are leaving in droves anyway. But the way these townies are colonizing the countryside is a little unpalatable. It's obvious what's in for them - but what's in it for Brandenburg? I hope that sooner or later, it might at least start to reap some benefits from gentrification - even the g-word would be better than defunct train stations and empty school yards.
Author: Jane Paulick
Editor: Kate Bowen