Stories from a place called home — Wolfgang’s radical freedom

Yoav Goldwein
8 min readJan 18, 2021


“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.

And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

The story of the tower of Babel, Genesis 11:1–6


German bureaucracy is renowned for its inefficiency. In 2020, paper documents, fax machines and letters sent by post are common, making the system slow and daunting. Even digital or phone service often results in “computer says no” and ends up with you screaming at a recorded message…
Things are getting even more complicated if you are a new resident and do not speak the language, like me who holds German citizenship but haven’t got to learn German yet. Whenever I turn to an aloof German bureaucrat, I gather my most apologetic tone, and ask to converse in English. In response, they stare at me bewildered, as such incidents have never happened in a city like Berlin before. Then, nonchalantly, follow up (auf deutsch): “You are a German citizen, you should speak German”. Subsequently, without a blink of an eye, they continue with a set of instructions, completely ignoring the fact that I don’t understand a single word they say.

This happens almost every time, and every time I hold myself from scoffing “speaking German didn’t help my grandparents survive the 1930’s”, but I know it wouldn’t get me very far…

This type of discrimination by communication is refusing to die here, and is in contrast with the progressive and pluralist façade that Germany, or more precisely its capital Berlin, has been maintaining since World War II. From the German perspective, and this is similarly the case in many nation states, you should assimilate into their culture if you wish to be a resident of their great country.

But what is the cost of such pride? Berlin is probably one of the most diverse cities in the world, but diversity is more than just having people from different backgrounds in a bubble. It is about the richness of different cultures, customs and native wisdom all merging together into new perceptions of reality, innovative ideas and elevated consciousness.

Some might say that learning a local language is a sign of good will and respect. However, in an interconnected world, language can also be segregating and dividing. It reinforces the anachronistic structure of the nation state, reassures concepts of pride which are rooted in subjective worldviews and promotes the dismissal of other cultures.
What kind of world do we uphold when sustaining differentiation between people?


The first time I saw Wolfgang I thought he was a ghost.

My partner in crime and I were visiting one of those small deteriorating villages in rural Portugal as a part of a road trip through this neglected world. We parked the car near a small white chapel and started exploring the mostly deserted stone buildings nestling in a beautiful forest of oak trees. As I was walking into an agglomeration of small ruins, suggesting this place had probably been abandoned for a few decades already, I suddenly saw a pale face staring at me behind one of the crumbling stone walls.

My heart skipped a beat and my hands went to grab my partner’s arm, clutching my fingers into his skin to make sure I’m not the only blonde to go down in this “cabin in the woods” thriller.

The next sound was what I thought to be my partner’s squeaking in response to my claws, but it was deeper and coming from behind the wall where the ‘ghost’ was standing. At this point I just wished to casually step backwards until it’s safe enough to run towards the car screaming like the little infant that I am, hidden under thick layers of imposed masculinity.

Completely unaware of my hysteria, my partner miraculously released himself from my clutches and started walking towards the old man, who by now was clearly speaking to us in English.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
As we approached to see him more clearly, the mysterious ghost was revealed in all its glory. An old man in his 70’s who looked like he emerged from a Robinson Crusoe novel after spending 30 years in a cave; carelessly dressed with worn-out clothes, long white hair bundled into a ponytail, unkempt beard and wrinkle-carved face. His dubious look showed that he was wondering about us as much as we were wondering about him.

In a mix of English, Portuguese and German (his mother tongue), he revealed the story of his arrival to this remote piece of land after a long bike trip through Portugal 11 years ago. It was on a warm summer night when he met some folks who invited him to a party in a nearby village populated with mostly German hippies. The music, the wine and the compatriots convinced him to stick around for some time, and take a rest from the journey in one of the ruined shacks.

He has been here ever since, with no running water or electricity and with almost no neighbors. He has everything he needs, he says, and enjoys solitude as well as socializing with some friends from the area who come to visit him often. He has no papers, no contracts and no statutory rights as a citizen.

Living off-grid is a huge challenge, and it is even more radical for someone who is in the golden years of his life.
“What will you do if you need to get treatment in a hospital?” I ask. “I’ve never been to a hospital here. I never needed one.” he answers without even blinking. “I rarely even leave this village.”

I’ve seen many weird ways of living through my travels but something like this I’ve never seen before. Wolfgang is completely detached from the structures of the real world we all live in.
He has no work, no money and no security whatsoever…

“People here help me with food or anything else I need, but generally I don’t need much. I enjoy being here in my own bubble so much that I didn’t even bother to learn the language”.

I’m perplexed. How could I receive so much resentment for not learning German after 1 year in Berlin, and this chap over here, without apologizing, made no effort to learn Portuguese after 11 years of living deep in the countryside of Portugal!?

Wolfgang couldn’t help but notice the sight of a million question marks on my face, and quickly explained the idea behind his agenda. “You see, if I learn the language, I have no more excuses. I have to speak with clerks, involve myself with bureaucracy and work with a system I despise. By not speaking Portuguese I exclude myself completely from the game and able to live peacefully as I wish in this old house.”

This concept of alienation as a gateway to freedom puzzles me, but as it sinks deeper and deeper into my tired brain it eventually makes a lot of sense.
Until now I convinced myself that my refusal to learn new languages is due to my noble agenda to reduce the gaps between cultures and nations.

But Wolfgang showed me that my resentment towards learning German is not just because of my 3rd generation Jewish collective trauma, and that my inability to catch Swedish properly through my life in Sweden was not just because of lack of time and energy.

It is mostly because I never saw those places as home. I didn’t see myself growing old in those countries and becoming “one of them”, whoever they might be. I simply wanted to keep myself free of any culture or societal rules and not be tied to a system I don’t fully understand or feel aligned with. A proud…. no one.

Wolfgang is twice my age and he has no security or social welfare. Most people at his age would be terrified by the fear of being left alone to die, while he is wondering where he would move to next (apparently this village starts to feel a little bit too small for him).
It might be considered by some a childish approach, but in a way it is revolutionary: an actual freedom without the fear of being left behind and without confirming to a subjective definition of place as portrayed by its inhabitants.

This derelict old hippie sitting next to me in his dirty clothes, spitting out broken sentences in 3 different languages is probably the first REAL World Citizen I get to meet. Not in NYC, not in Shanghai, but in the middle of an oak forest in Iberia.


Two kittens are playing next to us, swimming peacefully in a pile of brown autumn leaves when suddenly a car stops up the road from where we sit. A young man steps out of the car and calls Wolfgang to join him for a beer in the village square. “I got to go” he apologizes, “this is a friend of mine who grew up in the nearby village and now lives in the city. He is visiting with his new wife.”

He quickly gets up and disappears like the ghost that he is, behind the shack’s door.

“There are so many more questions I would like to ask him”, I tell my partner as we walk up back to the car. Though his mix of words in several languages sounds sometimes like gibberish to me, so I think I mostly hear what I want to hear and not what he is actually saying.

Suddenly I feel sympathy for the German clerk behind the counter of the post office or the city administration who needs to deal with people like me. Their own frustration of miscommunication and the angry response that usually follows, blaming it on the ‘other’ but also probably blaming themselves for not knowing my language.

Eventually my alienation by choice prevents me from connecting to many of the inhabitants of my city. Especially with those who have been living there for decades, experiencing the fall of the wall, the soviet iron curtain and even the Holocaust that deeply affected my family.
Imagine all the stories we could tell each other if I only spoke German…



Yoav Goldwein

Everywhere and nowhere. Urbanist, researcher, social anthropologist and a huge fan of human humans.