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Not just a rent thing

If you’re young or just new to the city, shared housing is a fact of life. In Germany that means WG-life, which can be a strain. But communal living also comes with great benefits, experts say.

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Photo by David Oliveira

If you’re young or just new to the city, shared housing is a fact of life. In Germany that means WG-life, which can be a strain. But communal living also comes with great benefits, experts say.

It happens in an instant. You’ve moved to Berlin armed with nothing more than a visa, a backpack, and a wish to start afresh in a new city. Besides exclaiming “Gesundheit”, you don’t speak a lick of German, you hardly know a soul in town, and you desperately need a place to live. The next moment, you’re staring at a pair of dirty shoes lying haphazardly in the middle of the hallway and struggling not to be passive-aggressive as you explain to your roommate that, as a grown-up, they’re expected to clean their own dirty dishes. Congratulations! You’ve found yourself a WG, or Wohngemeinschaft, a common apartment in which you split the rent.

While the concept of flatshares exists in cities all over the world, there is something particular about the culture of WGs. “I think what’s very interesting about a Wohngemeinschaft is that there really isn’t a good English expression for it,” says Jan Häusser, a professor of social psychology at Justus-Liebig University in Gießen. “Shared apartments or flatshares mean something slightly different, it’s just about sharing a place to live. But the Wohngemeinschaft is more about togetherness. The idea is not to just share a place and costs, but also to have some kind of sense of togetherness, and share mutual goals and ideas.”

The advantage of life in a WG is that you live in community. And the downside is that you live in community.”

Kumbaya and all aside, togetherness can be a mixed bag – as anyone who has lived with another human being knows. Our flatmates can be our new best friends as well as the bane of our existence. What childhood trauma makes a person leave their bread moulding on the kitchen table? Why is it so hard to take out all those empty Sterni bottles? And why do we put up with it in the first place? “There are two basic human needs. One is the need for attachment and the other is the need for detachment. You want to have freedom but you also want to have connection,” says Clemens Albrecht, a professor of cultural sociology at the University of Bonn. The tension between these two human needs can come dramatically to life in the WG, whereas Albrecht puts it “the advantage is that you live in community. And the downside is that you live in community.”

It’s a subject that filmmaker Reinaldo Pinto Almeida has thought a lot about. “You’re human beings who share an intimate space and by doing so you get to know each other really well,” he says. “You get to know each other’s buttons, which you can press to create moments of joy or conflict.” Armed with a decade’s worth of anecdotes and horror stories, Almeida has distilled quintessential Berlin WG life into Das Apartment, a comedic web series written and directed by himself. After a successful first run that saw the team win a €25,000 award and garner over 60,000 views, the second season was last fall on Vimeo On Demand. Brought to life by a diverse cast and crew, the show follows WG roommates Rachel from Canada, Lenni from Finland, and Chris from France as they struggle to find love, make ends meet, and put up with each other’s eccentricities and absurd habits. That means mysteriously disappearing yoghurts, putting up with your flatmate snorting illicit drugs with their friends in the kitchen when you’re looking for a quiet night in, or struggling to make small talk with your roomie’s romantic interest in the middle of the night when you catch them trying to find something to eat in your threadbare pantry.

Typical conflicts in WGs may seem petty. But they’re far from superficial, argues Almeida. “It’s actually about characters not being able to change the way they are,” he says. “By choosing to share a living space together, it makes it impossible to ignore each other’s way of being.” Even if you happen to draw the lucky jackpot in the roulette of roommate castings, you will inescapably be confronted with the fact that people have different ideas of how to do things than you do, which can be a rude awakening. “Especially for people who come from living with their families and are now living together for the first time with other people, they might realise the stuff they do is not the way everybody does it, and it’s not necessarily the way everyone should do it,” says Häusser. Almeida picked up on this too. “You might be from a family where people say ‘Whatever is in the fridge, feel free to take it.’ But, in my flatshare, for a while there was this joke of ‘don’t touch Reinaldo’s yoghurt!’ You know everybody has their own pet peeves.”

Quite frankly, even if you manage to be a pro-negotiator and make everyone reasonably happy, it is exhausting. No wonder people choose to live alone.”

If you’re in danger of your living situation escalating to the point where you find yourself dumping your roommate’s dirty dishes straight into their bed, Häusser advises to sit down and talk openly with them – advice that would make marriage counsellors worldwide nod vigorously in agreement. “The main idea here is that you first have to communicate what’s really important for you when living together. And surprisingly this doesn’t happen very often. Rather, a lot of stuff stays implicit,” he says. “The better way would be to just sit together at the very beginning and say ‘this and that’ are the things that are important for me. And then you can see how you can solve this and find ways of living together that serve all those preferences.” But this takes work. “In order to live together successfully, everything has to be negotiated,” says Albrecht, the sociologist. “Even more so than when things need to be negotiated in families, because you have to do it on the same level without any hierarchy of ages or genders.” These negotiations include all the tiny things one can possibly think of. “Does everyone have their own compartment in the refrigerator?” asks Albrecht. “Is the food in the fridge shared? Who cleans which areas of the apartment?” Quite frankly, even if you manage to be a pro-negotiator and make everyone reasonably happy, it sounds exhausting. No wonder people choose to live alone.

So is everyone running to leave WGs as soon as they can? Not quite. After all, there might be challenges, but WG life can also come with tremendous benefits. All this constant negotiation might just be making us better people. “It is undoubtedly a training ground that teaches you how to be tolerant of others,” says Albrecht. Psychologist Häusser agrees. “We can learn a lot about ourselves,” he says, as WGs serve as a kind of mirror to our behaviours and way of life. “In learning that other people do things differently from yourself, you get the chance to broaden your understanding of the world.” So WGs could even be improving the world, one pet-peeve-committing irrational flat-mate at a time: “The knowledge that you could still get along with people who behave differently than you could be transferred to other areas of living, such as your workplace or community,” Häusser hopes.

But perhaps a more convincing reason to opt for a WG is that it can also spark some of our closest friendships. According to research, just by being closely situated to others, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll become friends – no matter how different you think you might be. “They had this classical study in social psychology back in the 1950s where they showed that people are much more likely to be friends with the neighbour next door instead of the neighbour who lives just three or four doors down,” explains Häusser. “It’s totally against our typical ideas of friendship. We would always say that the basis of friendship is that we like each other and we have shared ideas of what the world is about. But this study shows that just the physical closeness is a very strong predictor of liking as well.” In a broader sense, WGs could be said to form the lifeblood of social life in Berlin. That’s true, even when you don’t live in a particular WG yourself, thanks to the magic of WG parties. Take Almeida’s experience. “Where a lot of my friends in Berlin first came from was through all these WGs of friends of friends and ending up in someone’s apartment because they’re a good friend of someone you know. I mean, you always end up in the kitchen. It’s kind of like the golden rule of WG parties,” he says. “And you’re suddenly having this pseudo-complex conversation with someone you barely know because it’s a kitchen and that’s what you do after 4am, I guess.”

Once the hangover is gone, there’s a decent chance you might see, or run into, each other again. Almeida recounts making long-lasting friendships that way. “I think that an interesting side of Berlin is that people can actually come together in a very different way, in a very rich way,” he says. “WGs are the backbone of what made the city what it is, because it is where a lot of people had time and energy to meet up and discuss ideas. These spaces are not as normative and as public as bars, so they are a really interesting point of encounter.” But all good things come to an end. According to sociologist Albrecht, WG-life for most of us still remains a phase before we eventually move in with a partner, find our own place, or decide to start a family of our own. On the other hand, particularly during our times of a troublesome rental market and declining birth rates, more and more people are opting to live in WGs well into their thirties. So while you might have moved into that first room expecting to be out by the end of your year-long visa, you could also wake up eight years later for breakfast with the same people – plus life partners and better-paying jobs. And maybe by now, you’ll be calling them the friends of a lifetime, no matter how long they take in the shower.

Das Apartment …

is a Berlin-based comedic web series about expats, by expats. It captures the humour, struggles and absurdities that go along with navigating WG-life in the city. The first season garnered over 60,000 views. The second season is out as of now, you can stream it on Vimeo On Demand in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.