Keir Edmonds’ Mr. Flamingo Goes to Berlin sees a flamingo struggling to make friends and “fit” into our weirdo, oftentimes bleak city.
Berlin can be a formidable place.
The winters are long, the clouds tight overhead—a prison from the sun, from memories of anything bright and alive. And what’s more, if you’re an expat or an immigrant or a refugee, the language is crippling: hard-edged with words that blare on into five and six syllables. For those of us privileged enough to ask, we wonder: was this the right decision, coming here? Should we have built something else, somewhere else?
For me personally, these questions are central of artist Keir’s Berlin-based children’s book, Mr. Flamingo Goes to Berlin. I came here looking for something. And for what was perhaps far, far too long, I felt the bleak cold stare of many-a jaded Berliner.
Of course, this book also holds a far different central theme: one of refugees, of rushing to Berlin to build a life out of necessity, rather than some sort of “artistic vision.” As Keir will explain in greater detail below, flamingos are found in Syria. Perhaps that puts the culture shock in even greater context.
Keir Edmonds hails from London, but has lived in Berlin for five years (long enough to know the ins, outs, the cases, how to pack up his groceries in a single swoop). He’s a remarkable artist, filling the pages of his sketchbook with views of Berlin. With Mr. Flamingo Goes to Berlin, Keir fleshes out a theme present across his sketchbooks, that of loneliness and of fitting into Berlin. Read why he chose to write the book below.
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What made you want to write a children’s story? What can you say with an illustrated children’s book that you can’t with another kind of medium?
I was arty as a child, but when I discovered partying and other shenanigans in my mid-teens, the drawing took a back seat. That was until I hit a bit of a brick wall in my 30s and had the realisation that perhaps rotting in dive bars wasn’t, in fact, the path to spiritual fulfilment.
So about five years ago, for the first time in many years, I picked up a pencil. It was like returning home and was a profoundly emotional experience. Since then, art has been a real passion and I have spent the proceeding years using all my free time drawing Berlin scenes from observation in sketchbooks. A children’s book seemed like a fun branch from this. This was my first attempt, I learned a lot and am already plotting my next one.
Why a flamingo in Berlin?
I wanted to make something with which local kids (and adults) could connect, so I figured having Berlinisch scenes might be fun. The flamingo actually represents a refugee from Syria and his struggle to fit in.
As a guy from London, even I found Berlin a bit of a culture shock, so I imagine maybe it’s harder for refugees. Recently, I was speaking to a guy in my kiez after he had failed to sell me some weed. He was telling me how he’s unable work due to bureaucratic processes and he didn’t want to be doing what he was doing. He was talking with despair and frustration about having to return home. I think that might be a common scene in Germany now.
But anyway, I think the story of looking for friends in a new place is something to which I think anyone can relate, be them a child, ‘expat’, immigrant or refugee. And the happy ending in the book has a nice message of diversity.
How long have you lived in Berlin? Do you find it to be a difficult place to make lasting friendships?
I’ve lived in Berlin for over five years now and although I still struggle with certain aspects of the city, Berlin has become a big part of me. I think it’s a great city to meet people. There are so many open-minded and cool people from all over, some of them move on after a couple of years but many stick.
Do you sense that most expats have a similarly difficult time here finding their “place”?
I think Berlin can have a certain harshness to it, and some people can’t handle it. It’s mainly because the Berlin bus drivers are the most miserable group of people on the planet. That and the fact that in Berlin the welcome can be arschkalt.
I heard a good saying which sums it up pretty well: ‘The English are too polite to be honest and Germans too honest to be polite’. But we shouldn’t forget that it doesn’t matter how nice you are, German children will always be Kinder.
Do you have any advice to fresh expats/immigrants to this city?
Try and learn German, listen to something other than techno, recycle, bring your own bags to the supermarket, don’t look for spiritual enrichment in clubs and drink at least two liters of water a day.
How do you draw inspiration for your work, generally? Do you find Berlin to have a vibrant artistic community?
Berlin has such a wonderful community of artists, native and immigrant. The march of gentrifying capitalism hasn’t quite steamrollered it yet. There are so many meet ups for sketchers and life drawing and such. I’ve met a lot of really great and diverse people, from an artist who was one of the first to paint on the East Side Gallery, to a guy who lives in a scrapyard and makes robot sculptures from junk, to urban sketchers and professional illustrators.