Many urban dwellers fantasize about a rural lifestyle, especially right now. But leaving city life behind is easier said than done.
Her window looks out onto woods. "The nearest house is about 200 meters away," Bianca Berlin's says on the telephone, sounding happy.
Between the two lockdowns, she and her family moved to the German countryside, to a village of 400 people in the Uckermark region, around 100 kilometers north of Berlin. Having access to nature, especially during the pandemic, has been priceless, the 34-year-old mother of two explains.
"The girls can build dens and climb trees without fear of coming into contact with other people," Berlin says. "During the first lockdown, in the city, I only went to the park at eight in the morning. In the afternoons there were so many people it looked like a festival."
The family of four is still living in an annex at the moment. Their house, with access to the lake, should be ready at Easter. "It's good that we made it here before the second lockdown," she says.
Many families would envy the Berlins. According to a survey of 2,700 city dwellers carried out last November by the polling institute Civey, around a third dream of a life in the country. For 25%, this is a long-standing wish, while for 10% it has been sparked or strengthened by the coronavirus pandemic. Home-working is opening up new possibilities, and during the pandemic, life in the cities can feel a bit grim.
"We're seeing more movement away from cities than towards them," confirms demographer Matthias Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge, who studies internal migration at Germany's Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB). "Since 2014, we've seen a trend towards suburbanization, with people moving away from city centers."
It wasn't meant to be.
Since 2004, rents in large cities have risen by 32%, while in the countryside they've risen by only 22% on average. "All major German cities, even smaller cities such as Erfurt and Halle, are losing people to the surrounding countryside," says Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge.
In 2019, the states of Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein saw the greatest population rise through internal migration, while Berlin was one of the biggest losers. The capital's population grew by 30,000 inhabitants, but that was due to immigration from abroad and new births.
Sociologists predict that the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate this trend. "Crowding in the cities, fear of infection, lack of access to green spaces, these are all factors that make people want to move to the countryside," says Heiko Rüger, sociologist and head of the Job-Related Spatial Mobility research group at the BiB.
This is an international phenomenon. In the UK, The Guardian reported that last year the population of London fell for the first time in 30 years, by 300,000 inhabitants. In New York too, residents "are fleeing to the suburbs," wrote the New York Times, reporting as early as last August that house sales in the suburbs had gone up by 44%. Some people were even buying houses without viewing them in person, having only seen video tours on Facebook.
On second thought
But whether the moves will prove to be long-term is another question. Anne Dirfad from Hamburg fantasized for years about moving to the countryside, and when her husband, who works in advertising, got offered a new job in 2019, they finally took the leap. But things didn't turn out they way they'd hoped and expected.
"It wasn't meant to be," she now says.
Her husband moved first, into a house in the Taunus region, where she and the children joined him that summer. "Unfortunately we didn't have a great experience," says Dirfad. "We had a lot of trouble making friends. Families there kept to themselves, and children in the neighborhood often went to their grandparents' in the afternoon."
Willkommen to Herzsprung, Uckermark — Photo: Ra Boe
The Dirfads only met other people at their children's nursery and primary school. "We didn't really make friends, and it was very difficult for us." The playgrounds were empty, as everyone had their own yard.
Dirfad also found it very isolating. Her interior design blog wasn't doing so well, and the lockdown in March last year was the last straw for the family.
"When I picked my daughter up from school, it was so hard to see her sitting all alone in the playground," says Dirfad. "I realized how much I missed the city, the cafés, the inspiration of seeing other people and shops."
And so, last summer they packed up their belongings once again and returned to Hamburg and their old apartment, which they had been subletting. A study by the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography suggests that the Dirfads aren't the only family to backtrack on a big move. Between 2001 and 2014, researchers found that around a fifth of people who moved away later returned to their original area.
"The decisive factor for a successful move is whether all family members can integrate into their new area," says sociologist Heiko Rüger. "People underestimate two things above all: To keep their job, at least one partner often has to commute into the city. That can be stressful. And if someone's moving for their partner's work, they often have trouble finding a new job in the countryside, which can cause conflict in their relationship."
In the long term, families who moved to the city tended to be more satisfied with their lives. Rüger puts this down to better career opportunities.
Embracing village life
Bianca Berlin, nevertheless, stands by her choice to leave the city behind. In normal times, she would commute once a week from Uckermark to the capital, where she works as a writer and lecturer in marketing and communications. The drive is an hour and a quarter. At the moment, the pandemic is playing into her hands: She is teaching via video link, and her internet connection in her village in Brandenburg is good.
There's a richer cultural life than most people think.
Her husband travels a lot for his work in the grocery trade. In pre-COVID times he was often away for four or five days a week. That was another reason for the move: Berlin grew up in Uckermark.
"I wanted to be closer to my parents," she says.
Bianca Berlin is a country girl. Her husband, however, grew up in Eisenhüttenstadt. He had to get used to village life and learn the rules: That you say hello to people you pass on the street; that you help out at the nursery when the garden needs weeding in spring.
Every year the villagers organize three or four festivals. There's a richer cultural life than most people think. "The festivals include theater and music, there are readings and there are lots of artists who have moved from the city," says Berlin.
Although they are happy to be living in the countryside near their grandparents, the children — and their parents — miss their friends in the city. They also have to go without certain conveniences.
"We wanted to order our weekly shop and collect it from supermarket chain Rewe, as you can't get groceries delivered in the countryside," says Berlin. "But to go to the collection point, we would have had to leave the Uckermark region, which we're not allowed to do at the moment."
But that is only a small downside. Berlin's older daughter started school in summer and had already managed to make some friends before the second lockdown. Berlin is also still in touch with her own school friends. Without these contacts, it would have been difficult to find the piece of land by the lake.
"Families stay here. There aren't many houses standing empty," Berlin says. "In the village it's all done by word of mouth."