“What has always made Berlin such an interesting place are the many different characters that come and go as well as the the fact that this city is always changing.”
Being a relative newcomer to Berlin, Katerina Oikonomakou found an interesting way to explore the city and meet its colorful people. She started an online magazine called Berlin Interviews which is all about talking to strangers who happen to be artists and thinkers whose work she finds stimulating. But Katerina is no stranger to journalism, she is editor-at-large for the online fashion magazine ladies & gents, as well as a contributor to the Greek monthly “the books’ journal.” S2S wanted to find out more about Berlin Interviews and what brought Katerina from Athens to Berlin.
S2S: Katerina, you are usually the one who asks the questions – how does it feel to be the interviewee vs. the interviewer?
KO: A little strange. I’m tempted to put some questions marks here and there!
S2S: Prior to coming to Germany, you worked for the Greek daily national newspaper Eleftherotypia, doing the weekly Ideas Interview with noted intellectuals and policy makers of the international community, and you were the deputy editor-in-chief of the Greek edition of “Marie Claire.” How did you get into journalism?
Katerina Oikonomakou: I had never really wanted to pursue any other profession, so after studying at the university I simply jumped into it. There was an opening at the Athens News Agency, I applied and got the job.
S2S: Now you live in Berlin. When did you move to the German capital and what inspired your move?
KO: I moved here two years ago, as a European Journalism Fellow at the Free University, in order to research the life of Estrongo Nachama, a Greek Jewish Holocaust survivor who had stayed in West Berlin after being liberated from Auschwitz. He was a brilliant singer and went on to become the chief cantor of the West Berlin Jewish Community.
S2S: Thinking of the amazing photos by East Berlin photographer Manfred Paul who you interviewed, did you ever travel to the East before the wall came down?
KO: No, I have only visited that chapter of the city’s history through photographs and literature.
S2S: On your site you proclaim that Berlin is the most exciting European capital. I am sure some people would disagree with you, maybe especially those who have lived here for years and don’t like the way it has changed. Do you think it is true that there is a little bit of a divide between newcomers and old-time Berliners? What do you like the most about the city?
KO: I understand how old-time Berliners may feel their city used to be much better, more exciting in the past –and judging from all the stories I’ve heard I am sure they are right. On the other hand, it looks like what has always made Berlin such an interesting place are the many different characters that come and go as well as the the fact that this city is always changing.
S2S: I will borrow two of your questions you asked the Japanese artist Soichiro Michara: “What was the first thing you did upon arriving in Berlin and do you have a favorite spot in the city?
KO: The first thing I did was to take a very long walk in Mitte, without the help of a map, so that I could get a first feeling for the city. I was smitten, right away. As for favorite spots, I have many by now, but I guess the Invaliden Friedhof makes the top of the list.
S2S: How long have you been doing Berlin Interviews? What is the motivation behind the project?
KO: I started Berlin Interviews just a month ago, but I had been thinking about it since June. The motivation? This city is full of talented, smart people with good stories and an interesting perspective on life and art. I was curious to get to know them. So, you see, I had missed my job (and all relevant job offers are targeting strictly “native” English speakers).
S2S: Who are some of the people you have interviewed for the site? By what criteria do you pick the visual artists, writers and performers you interview?
KO: I recently interviewed a comics artist, a film critic, a performance artist with a wicked sense of humor…And of course as I go along I am always enriching the list of people that I’d like to talk to. Sometimes it can be a single work that catches my attention and makes me want to meet the person responsible for it. My personal curiosity is what guides me. But the thing is that I have been doing this job for so many years, I have been following the Berlin arts’ scene very closely for the last two years, so no choice comes completely out of the blue. However, one important point is that I tend not to pick the most obvious person of the moment, since newspapers and magazines do that already.
S2S: How do you conduct your interviews? Do you always meet in person with your subjects, record and then transcribe the interview? How many interviews have you conducted for Berlin Interview at this point?
KO: Yes, I always meet the people in person, record our conversation, transcribe, edit take the picture. I’ve uploaded nine interviews so far. The plan is to upload one interview every week.
S2S: I find that unlike many interviews one can find online nowadays, you are not just looking for sound bites but really spend time with your subjects to go deep. Do you ever limited the amount of questions you ask or when do you know you have found enough out about a person?
KO: I do prepare before every interview and try to be thorough and exhaustive. I have a long list of questions –not too many, though- but always listen to what the interviewee is telling me so that I can do follow-up questions. That’s the point, after all. The plan is for these interviews to remain relevant for a very long time. If somebody happens to read them two years from now, for example, they should still be not only interesting but also a rich, valid source of information about a person.
S2S: What makes a good interview? What do you find most gratifying about interviewing people? So far, who were some of your favorite people to interview and why?
KO: The best thing about doing interviews is that one gets the chance to meet some brilliant, kind people. Among my favorite interviewees from the time I was still working for a Greek newspaper a few years back? I’d say it was the philosopher Avishai Margalit and the writer Philip Roth.
S2S: If you had the possibility to interview anybody in the world, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
KO: Dead or alive? Oh, that would be such a long list! OK, if I can only pick one dead person then it would be Josephine Baker. I cannot bring to mind a more inspiring person than this very gifted woman who refused to bend to her times’ social norms and playing by her own rules. Josephine Baker not only was a highly successful artist but also a civil rights activist and a truly adventurous woman who lived life to the full. I’m sure she must have been a warm person and a joy to interview.
S2S: Because of the Berlin – NYC relationship, I especially enjoyed your interview with the photographer Gundula Schulze Eldowy who documented her life in East Berlin in the 1970s – 1980s and later in 1990 was invited by Robert Frank to live in NYC. How did you first find out about her work?
KO: I was amazed when I first saw her pictures at a big retrospective of her work at the c/o, in Berlin. It was a major event, and rightly so.
S2S: What has been the reception of Berlin Interviews? Who are your readers? I did not see any advertising on the site. How is the project financed and how do you make a living?
KO: I’m running a one-woman-show here. It’s just been a month that I have been online so I am still considering all sorts of options.
S2S: In your interview with the author Jeet Thayil who wrote Narcopolis, you ask about his addiction to opium. Have there ever been questions you would have liked to ask but didn’t, because they would have been too personal or for other reasons?
KO: No, Jeet Thayil has been very open about his addiction and I asked all the questions I meant to ask. In general, if something is too personal, I feel that it is not necessarily very interesting for the readers. When it is interesting, it finds its way into the person’s work so you get the chance to talk about it anyway.
S2S: Apropos, full disclosure – you and I have a mutual friend Mihalis Gripiotis, a Greek journalist who has lived in NYC for many years. Mihalis and I are always joking about German-Greek relations but I think because we both live on ‘neutral territory’ we have a healthy distance to the subject. Have you experienced any hostility from Germans in Berlin because of your Greek heritage or encountered any criticism from your family or friends for living in Germany?
KO: I’ve never experienced any hostility in Berlin and I’ve never met someone who’s been rude to me because of my nationality. And it’s not like I avoid to talk about politics, I’m fine with any subject that is up for discussion. As for my friends and family back home, they simply ask exactly the question you just asked me – and they feel relieved by the answers I give them.
S2S: Is there a Greek community in Berlin? Do you have a network of Greek friends?
KO: There is one, sure. I know some Greeks, but it’s not like I am an active member of the community. There are people from all over the world here, I tend to be interested in their different perspectives – and I jump at any opportunity to brush up on my German.
S2S: One of the complains I have heard from foreigners who live in Berlin is that no matter how fluent they are in “Deutsch” the Germans will always answer in English. Have you been in that situation?
KO: Yes, many Germans rush to answer in English while I am making such a try to speak their language. I suppose they just mean to be polite and spare me the struggle – but maybe they just prefer this to wasting time trying to help a foreigner do some “Übung”? I’m not sure…
S2S: Most cities in Germany are economically better off than Berlin but Berlin is considered “poor but sexy” – do you see any similarities between Athens and Berlin?
KO: Athens is “poor but sexy,” too. But maybe too poor, lately.
For the most current interview on Berlin Interviews click here.