Nomads in Berlin: Capital city life between the driver’s seat and the exhaust pipe

Driver's seat instead of armchair, baseboard instead of carpet: There really are nomads in Berlin. Their mobile vehicles 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 apartment visits.

Nomads in Berlin: From the shared apartment to the car

Petros parks his red van on a street in Rummelsburg. Engine off, quickly make a coffee, and the tour of his 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 Ivecomobil, in which 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 not doing it anymore."

After his Lichtenberg shared apartment was converted into a condominium, he fulfilled his big wish. He gradually optimized his new home just a few meters from his former apartment: "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 to 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."

Most of the time he spends the night in traffic-calmed streets in the city. He regularly changes positions, and in between he goes to the countryside to "recharge his batteries a bit." Occasional jobs save money for travel or the further expansion of his 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 moves people who live in cars, mobile homes and other vehicles?? And how much free choice is in this dropout life?

Alternative lifestyles have been part of Berlin's DNA for decades. Until 2020, Rummelsburger Bucht was home to the utopian floating caravan "Neu-Lummerland". 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 evicted in October, also resisted displacement, gentrification and speculation for decades.

But it's not just in politically motivated circles that the demand for unusual models of existence has risen in recent years. According to a recent "Livee" study, 80 percent of single German households would be interested in alternative living arrangements. Around 13 percent could imagine living in a Tiny House, according to the Expert:in. The main reasons are the desire for minimalism, the dream of owning an affordable home and the goal of living more sustainably.

The 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 are "recognizing the need to turn to a green economy". This "changing cultural habitus" is manifesting itself in new alternative movements that would 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 evictions from their apartments. 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 stove.

The Nomad:innen limit themselves to the bare essentials. Often there is not even a toilet, shower and stove. Nevertheless, people are consciously making this choice. The renunciation of materialism expresses itself in a feeling 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 just 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 be 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 paragraph 12 of the road traffic regulations. The passage of the law states that overnight stays in the car are allowed for the purpose of "restoring physical fitness to drive". If the vehicle is parked in the same place for a long period of time, fines may be imposed. Petros, however, has never had any problems with the police, he said.

Berlin Nomads: Rest areas at Tempelhofer Feld

It rarely happens 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, he says, is unjustified stereotypes. The neighbors are afraid of waste, urine, noise and the alternative life itself, although Petros says he always behaves inconspicuously, disposes of his garbage properly, is usually on the road all day and only stays in his Iveco to sleep.

Christian Berg, spokesman for the Neukolln district mayor, says there are rarely complaints from residents, as the Nomads are for the most part exemplary in their behavior.

A walk through one of the streets in Neukolln where the carts are parked is also somewhat oppressive. With taped windows, peeling paint and moss-covered roofs, some vehicles look like they haven't been moved in years. Suddenly, living in a car is no longer a lifestyle dream, but a last resort from homelessness.

Doors remain firmly closed, no matter how often knocks are made. Many involuntary Nomad:innen seem to be ashamed of their precarious living conditions or are afraid of being sent away despite the general tolerance.

Nomad Ulli prefers to be mobile than lonely

In a Ford Transit sits an old, smoking man with a short gray haircut and a black fleece jacket. 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 his own home, but in old age and without work, it suddenly became lonely in his social housing in Dusseldorf. In the end, he says, the retiree was drawn back to the road.

Being alone is not so bad if you can at least drive around. The pension is just enough for gasoline, groceries from the supermarket and occasional showers in public swimming pools. In Berlin he will stay only a few days, where he will go afterwards, he does not know yet. Ulli does not want to tell more. A cursory glance through the fogged 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 there is sometimes a great sense of solidarity when, for example, people regularly put deposit bottles and donations in front of the battered vehicles. In rare cases, however, Nomad:innen would have to be sent away if garbage and noise got out of hand. For several years, for example, a homeless man had repeatedly lived on Oderstrasse in his small car and, as a "classic collector," had blocked two parking spaces every day with deposit bottles, garbage and scrap metal. In such cases the office of order must be switched on then already.

Overall, however, there is no interest in scaring away car dwellers, as long as everything remains within the framework, 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 in their cars and don't get any complaints."According to his own perception, the number of inhabited vehicles around Tempelhofer Feld has remained constant in recent years. However, there are no concrete numbers or statistics on the nomad:in phenomenon yet.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the housing shortage and rising rents, especially in the big cities, could drive more people to live in their cars. At the same time, Christian Berg, the 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:innen 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 probably no one would want to live voluntarily.

Nomads in Berlin: a networked scene

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

For nine years he has been constantly on the move, often going surfing on the Atlantic coast. In the summer, Bene usually stays in Germany, where he builds backdrops for alternative music festivals. He prefers to spend the winter in warm Portugal. Since a permanent home would only keep him away, he can't imagine anything other than a mobile home at the moment.

All in all, there has been a networked scene in Berlin for many years. "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 has also largely reacted positively to the radical change of life. "A lot of people thought it was a bit crazy at first or couldn't imagine it, especially when I'm standing in the city like that, but now they celebrate it and come to see 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 people pay millions for a plot of land, but then they are tied to it. You can just drive on."

Nomads in Berlin: The aftermath of the storm

Does one want after the life on the street at all again back into the world of the normalos? For Berlin nomad Mathias, time spent in a caravan has 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 at gyms, used public restrooms, 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 camper roof suddenly didn't feel safe anymore. Returning to normal life, to a Charlottenburg apartment to be precise, was a major challenge: "Three quarters of a year later, I still had virtually no furniture, just a mattress on the floor, because I was so used to this minimalism."

In between, Mathias continued to spend the night in his car, partly out of nostalgia, but more often for practical reasons: "If there were any parties in Friedrichshain, I could 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 life in a car promises was too great. However, the stressful work and being a nomad could no longer be reconciled: "Getting water, taking away sewage, going to the laundromat… At some point it's just too much."

Although he has since become accustomed to settling down again, wistful thoughts of the special time remain. "Back then, it all still felt so free. Now I'm a few years older, child, wife, full of the average German life. I was still in the mood for departure, always following the sun. But that's what others do and they do their blogs about it. I like to watch that too, but somehow it was just over for 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 says. "If I sleep in an apartment from time to time because I can't sleep in the car, I don't go crazy either. 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 imagine that yet. First enjoy the freedom, travel around and then see," he says.

Then he gets into his mobile home and drives down the street. Everything wobbles and clanks, for a brief moment you just want to get in and go with it, wherever it goes. Then you suddenly think of Ulli again, who sits lonely in his van and chain smokes. There is a huge contrast between self-determined dropouts who live their dream and travel the world, and homeless people on the side of the road who have nothing left but their car. Images buzz through your head: Bene on a breathtaking beach in Portugal and Ulli, stuck in a life between dashboard, beer can and curbside.