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The kindness of strangers

Nobody tips in Berlin... or do they? As it happens, there are ways to base your entire livelihood mostly or entirely on gratuities. You might have to get a bit more creative than waiting tables, though!

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Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Nobody tips in Berlin… or do they? As it happens, there are ways to base your entire livelihood mostly or entirely on gratuities. You might have to get a bit more creative than waiting tables, though!

The profession everyone traditionally associates with tipping won’t get you very far here. “I would make, on average, around €7 [in tips] a day,” says Lydia*, who worked last summer as a waitress in a small café on Schloßstraße in Steglitz. On her typical six-hour shift, that came out to just an extra euro an hour on top of her minimum-wage (€8.50) earnings. “There’s definitely not a huge tipping culture,” she says, but it’s rare to get nothing at all. “Most times people would at least give 20 cents: if the coffee was €2.80, they’d give you three and be like ‘keep the rest’. Once there were five people who ordered a huge menu, and they tipped about €2 in total.”

Berliners might not show much generosity if you’re already making minimum wage, but it’s a different story for other gigs. Take Keith*, who works for a company that offers nominally free guided tours around Berlin: “What I say is ‘pay what you think it was worth’. And so at the end
I stand there awkwardly and I see what hap- pens!” And what usually happens is a respectable amount of cash: on average, between €5 and €10 per person. With groups ranging in size from five to 20 people, that can mean anything from €20 to €200 for three hours of work. The company takes €2 per customer (“though if I get stiffed they’ll waive that”), and the rest is his to keep.

You think, ‘Oh Jesus, I could be your fucking dad, and yet I’m going to hope you give me a tenner at the end of the tour.

Unlike Lydia, these ‘tips’ actually do constitute the bulk of Keith’s income; his other pursuits include writing, music and farming, but it’s the tours that pay the bills. “I can earn very well from it,” he admits, despite the irregular cash flow – a group of nine American students once paid him a grand total of 92 cents. It all depends on your lifestyle: “I don’t need an awful lot. I’m not interested in owning my own house, I don’t want a car. As long as I can buy a couple of records a month, keep myself stocked up with cheap booze and a little weed, and my wife and our daughter and I can eat well, then I’m pretty happy.”

However, he can’t see himself doing this for life. “It’s a young man’s game, to be perfectly honest. You’re taking people out and they’re 19, 20, and they just want to go out and get shit-faced that night, and you think, ‘Oh Jesus, I could be your fucking dad, and yet I’m going to hope you give me a tenner at the end of the tour.’” Keith has ghostwritten a book which he hopes will be published later this year to give him a more concrete source of income. “If not, you can phone me up in 10 years and I’ll still be a fucking tour guide, and I’ll be begging you for money!”

No such long-term plans for Oisín Dempsey and his two brothers. The Irish street musician trio has been busking in Mitte for five years now with considerable financial success. “It’s a four-hour week,” Oisín says with a laugh. They play in two or three two-hour stints, each of which rakes in around €200 in winter and €400 in summer. Not a bad deal, coming out as it does to as much as €60 an hour per brother. Any downsides? There’s the odd drunk or attempted robbery of their earnings once or twice a year, and it can get as repetitive as any job. “Some days it can get you down – if you’re standing there, you’ve played four songs and haven’t made a penny, it’s really hard to get involved in it. But once that first note hits the bag, you start playing a lot better.” And, of course, the better they play, the more money they earn, and the wheel keeps turning. Unlike Keith, who declares everything he earns, the Dempseys don’t trouble with taxes, nor do they hold a busking permit. Oisín dismisses the latter point: “I don’t think we’ve ever been asked – they don’t enforce it so much.” With none of them possessing a German bank account, their landlord is paid entirely in cash, often in piles of coins and small notes; they make a habit of frequenting grocery stores with self-cashiering machines into which they can dump their small change. Still, it’s hard to deny the allure of a four-hour week. And they don’t just get by either, says Oisín: “We live in a big yuppie flat in Prenzlauer Berg, we eat fresh food every day and have big dinners. We’re living a good life!”

Another tipping situation familiar to any Berliner: the Klofrau or Klomann who sits and glares outside the toilets in shopping centres and department stores, just daring you to walk past their plate without leaving a coin behind. Become a Klofrau at a gay bar, though, and you might
find yourself earning more than just coins. That’s what Celia* did while studying fine arts in Berlin, working from 11pm until 7am. This was pre-minimum wage and she only earned €7 an hour from the bar itself, but on good nights she could supplement that with as much as €200-250 in tips – over four times her official earnings! “I was supposed to give up 50 percent of my tips, but I often kept more. I slipped the notes into my bra.”

The best tippers were either couples going into the toilet to make out, or else people in bad shape: “They needed, let’s say, some assistance after drinking too much, or taking too many drugs, or they got dumped by their boyfriends and had a meltdown in front of me.” On several occasions, she was handed a €50 note for these above-and-beyond services. “It was one of the most demanding but fun jobs I’ve ever had,” she recalls. But having to balance the night shift with her studies eventually proved too much, and she only worked there for eight months.

So making a living on tips is clearly possible 
in Berlin – but making a career, perhaps, is not. Between the inconsistent flow of income and the tax dodges, it seems unlikely that these professions would ever make enough to settle down
on; even the carefree Dempseys admit that it’s impossible to really save anything. But in the meantime, if you’re strapped for cash, you could do far worse than grabbing a guitar, finding an empty street corner and relying on the kindness of strangers.

Originally published in issue #145, January 2016.