The Berlin Diaries: Living on the Breadline

By James Alston | Thursday 22nd February, 2018

And so, I find myself potentially homeless, nothing but a two-week-old carton of almond milk in the fridge and an even older box of cornflakes in the cupboard to consume, spending my last seven euros eighty-five on a fresh pouch of tobacco and a sharing bag of Lays. (They’re like Walkers, but the European version.) My German language skills still too bad to find a ‘real’ job, I have what feels like an endless two-week wait until my next invoice comes in, which essentially means until it gets processed there’ll be no new books, no lunch at the university cafeteria and, alas, no more beers. That is, of course, assuming my invoice is paid on time, and assuming I don’t succeed my overdraft limit by then. What’s my problem? I’m a freelance writer. (Honestly, though, Berlin’s going great.)

In a desperate bid to continue financing my two-year stay in this wonderful capital, I’ve been applying to as many freelance jobs as is possible while staying on top of my essays. Of course, this means not only does the work deteriorate, but also I have to be willing to sell my writing for much less money than it’s worth. The companies know if I turn down their work, some other Schleimer will always come along and write for them for peanuts. Unfortunately this often means debasing yourself with content you know isn’t very good (like the article I wrote for an anonymous company recently about an extremely boring Facebook post that went viral) or writing content you are happy with for, like, £1 every 100 words (like the dire listicle I wrote of products nobody wants to buy for a different anonymous company, which actually turned out being pretty funny, if I may say so myself).


Needless to say, it’s not the most stable job in the world. Thus, it gets a bit tough when your university mates want to go out drinking every other night, take you to a weekly football game, visit the multitude of galleries and museums that litter the streets of Berlin, or travel to Gdansk for a weekend away. Some of us have to consider feeding ourselves and making sure we can make the rent first.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its upsides. Who wouldn’t want to write articles about trade credit insurance or compile a list of '10 Fun Facts About Parrots'? No, I don’t know what trade credit insurance is either, and the parrots—well, don’t ask. In fairness, these pieces, while less fun than writing about what a shitstorm Brexit has been for the last 18 months or why Berlin’s the greatest city in the world, do pay quite well. And when you’re in my position, you can’t really afford to be picky with what you write.

But I’m not complaining—I mean, I am, but I shouldn’t be. I actually get to do something I love, and make enough money (most of the time) to buy the groceries every week, regardless of what the content is actually about or whether I can actually understand what the packaging on the food I’m buying says. I’d gauge the majority of people can’t say that. And on the plus side, I know a hell of a lot about kakapos. (It’s a species of parrot. They’re critically endangered. It’s all very sad.) And when the money does come in, it’s the best feeling in the world. £150 for less than a day’s work? That’s not to be sniffed at, and the more you write, the more you get recommended to write for other companies.


Funny story, though. My mate Jon and I went to a football game a while ago, a derby between a very socialist club (the one we like) and a not-so-socialist club (their supporters have been accused of being Nazi sympathisers, and there are videos of them doing the Hitler Salute at football games.) We wanted to go to yell Arschloch at their fans, and, if I’m really honest, part of me wanted to see some fascists get punched, though I’d never normally condone, let alone get my rocks off to, people getting their clocks cleaned.

Anyway, there wasn’t any violence, we had to travel two hours to some East German backwater to a stadium in which we couldn’t even drink, and our team lost four-nil. But my point is this: Jon works for a German news organisation in the football department, and he filmed the day as a kind of tongue-in-cheek documentary for them, using yours truly as his protagonist. Because it counted as work, he got paid a full day’s wage to drink some beers on the train and watch a football match, though admittedly a disappointing one. But because I ‘starred’—and I’m playing fast and loose with that term, believe me—he gave me €150. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but that sounds like it might be a better way to earn money than what I’m doing.

Unfortunately, until a job comes along on Gumtree with the description ‘Get paid to get filmed at football games!’, I guess I’m still Down and Out in Berlin. God, I’ve missed being a student. Send a care package if you get a chance.