On Economics in Our Relationships – The “Exchange Office” at the Deutsches Theater
On 1 May the “Exchange Office” opens up on the forecourt of the Deutsches Theater – a project bringing together new and old Berliners, somewhere between a play and a speed-dating session.
“Are all our relationships determined by economic factors?” That’s the question at the heart of the “Exchange Office”. The project, run by the Junges DT in conjunction with the Berlin Mondiale, aims to bring together people whose paths wouldn’t necessarily cross otherwise. They started the year with an appeal for participants and have put together a wild mix of about fifty people. Many refugees came to the project via a partnership between the DT and the Trachenbergring temporary home, and through German courses run on a volunteer basis by DT staff since last September. The project premieres on 1 May, launching ten encounters on the theatre forecourt, in which participants and audience face each other in short one-to-one situations.
“From the very beginning, our idea was to bring new arrivals together with more established Berliners, not only in a theatrical space but before and after. The aim is encounters and perhaps even friendships. That way, the ‘Exchange Office’ can spill over into real life,” says Ruth Feindel, in charge of artistic direction along with Frank Oberhäußer.
At rehearsals, which are more like workshops in character, that has worked pretty well. Questions come up such as “What would you miss most if you had to leave it behind?” “What are you better at in love: giving or taking?” or “Have you ever exchanged sex for something else?” – creating an instant connection between the participants, and giving an idea of the different worlds they live in.
Konstantin for example is half Greek and half German, and has just moved from Munich to Berlin. “In Munich, I found out next to nothing about the refugee situation at first hand. It seemed unnatural. So when I saw the DT’s call for participants I thought: I’m new here, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I’m going to do it.” Fernanda comes from São Paulo, has been in Berlin since February and doesn’t want to go back to Brazil. Jan moved to the city from the Rhineland region five years ago. And the brothers Ayman and Ayham, aged 19 and 20, came to Germany without the rest of their family. “Our parents didn’t want to leave Syria because they live in a relatively peaceful region on the coast. We would have had to join the army, though.” One of the four boys in the family has already died in the war. The brothers were students in Syria but here they are forced to do nothing. Their first goal is to learn German. “I want to learn the language as soon as possible to get into university,” says Ayman. Praised for his language skills, he counters: his German could be better, faster. “It’s important for me to be in contact with Germans, for the language and for everything else.” Ayman doesn’t have to think for long about what he’d miss most. “My phone. Losing it would be awful. It’s my connection to home and it contains the only reminders, photos and documents I have left.”
The question of economic factors in our relationships posed by the “Exchange Office” plays only a minor role in the current debate – perhaps too minor. What if we were to see the refugee situation more as an exchange, a kind of trade-off? What if it were about what the various sides have to give, different people have to offer, rather than what the so-called accommodating society can afford? Perhaps the “Exchange Office” won’t provide answers to these questions. And yet it’s important to ask them.