Why don’t you like Berlin?

“But why don’t you like Berlin?”

I don’t like Berlin for the same reasons I don’t like most big cities. It’s dirty, expensive, and full of people. The streets smell like cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and literal shit. There’s rats. There’s no easy access to nature–

“What do you mean? Berlin is one of the greenest cities in the world!”

A park full of trash is not the same as nature. And as for the lakes and hikes within easy travel distance, well, they are packed to the gills on summer weekends, so they don’t really provide an escape. Anyways, there’s not many opportunities to try, since it’s just cold and grey and rainy for 7+ months out of the year.

“Ok, but there’s much more to do here. Why don’t you check out some of the bars or clubs nearby you?”

Well, I’m not a big drinker, especially when it comes to beer. I mean, it’s true, that if you are into clubs, techno, graffiti art (some of which is awesome, but the vast majority of which is trashy), drugs, beer, and punk atmosphere, then Berlin is definitely the place to be. However, since my interests don’t intersect with any of those, I don’t find much to do here. There are some things I like about it, though. the nice public transport, the museums, the varied food choices, the easy access to anything you may need, including many different hobbies… but for me, the positives don’t outweigh the negatives. There’s nothing wrong with liking Berlin, by the way. It has a lot to offer to some people. I just don’t think it’s for me.

“Maybe there isn’t much around your place. You should move to a nicer neighbourhood.”

Moving to a different part of the city doesn’t change the fact that I am still living in the city. Actually, I kinda like my location. There’s not much just nearby, but I have a pretty nice apartment, and it’s well connected. I am just a few minutes away from two of the more interesting areas in the city, and I roam around on weekends, exploring different areas. I haven’t seen anything that stands out to me anywhere around the city. Like I said before, I’m not really interested in the types of things Berlin has to offer.

“You don’t speak German, do you? You’re not trying to connect to Berlin.”

Actually, I do speak German. Not completely fluently, but it’s a start. No one here speaks German to me, though, even when I start in German. Many people here are from all over (which is one cool thing about living here), but it means that English is a very common language. People quickly switch to it when they hear an accent. In any case, I do have some hobbies I participate in, but even there, everyone is too busy to take time to connect. We all just move from one task to the next, always in a rush, sometimes without even speaking to one another. I don’t blame people for this; that’s just life.

“You’re just not giving it a chance! You should look on the bright side. Berlin is a place you can have freedom, which is not something ubiquitous. Some places are much worse.”

Yes, there are many worse places. There are dictatorships. There are also starving children in this world. But there are also many wonderful places full of clean air and nature and a healthy lifestyle. Much of the West, at least, and many other places too, have freedom. Freedom is important and we shouldn’t underestimate it. But freedom in and of itself is not a reason to like Berlin, in particular.

“You’re just too pessimistic. You need to change your attitude.”

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Staying In

The last month didn’t get any easier. The weather was still cold, gray, and often rainy. Sometimes, the sun poked through the clouds, but it didn’t life my spirits. I spent most of the month working and playing video games. We did spend a couple of days visiting Szczecin (where the pictures in this post are from), a small Polish town close to the border. We also happened upon a cool exhibit of super old Mercedes-Benz while we were there. Finally, I bought a bike, and this got me out a little bit, which was very good!

I bought the bike from a great little second-hand bike shop in Berlin called Bikeopia. They were very attentive, honest, helpful, and they gave me a big discount, even on top of the sale they were having. The sale was set up for Women’s Day in the first week of March. Their motivation for the sale was that women still make less than men on average in Germany, so this was their way of bringing awareness to the issue and recognizing women. In fact, Women’s Day was also big topic around the office this year. Tensions had been running high for a while, and this seemed to be a catalyst for a culture clash. The same arguments we’ve probably all heard were thrown around time and time again. Mostly, there were some arguments between the men about how best to recognize the women in their lives, and of course, some men, that felt excluded by not having a “men’s day” for themselves.

I wasn’t shy about my feelings on the topic:

I feel the point of Women’s Day is to raise awareness of the inequality women still face around the world, e.g. lower wages, lack of career choices or even being barred from some professions, experiencing gatekeeping in activities outside of work, lack of control over their own bodies, shame in and/or objectification of their bodies, lack of female role models in high ranking positions, etc., and especially, being silenced when speaking out on such issues. Of course, everyone likes tokens of appreciation in general, but I think on this day, women typically don’t really want to be given those things, so much as they simply want these issues to be acknowledged. In the long (or preferably short) term, they want to be treated as equals by default– neither as less-than, nor as somehow on a pedestal– so that we no longer have to bring these issues up. At least as a woman, that’s what I want.

For me, it feels strange to still be having these conversations. Of course, I’ve faced plenty of sexism in the past, but because I’ve lived in pretty liberal places in the past, it was always easy to find a bastion of normal people to hang out with. When I interact with colleagues, I feel that their gender rarely comes into consideration for me in regards to how I behave with them. But since starting to work here in Germany, I have had to adjust my tone a lot, depending on who I’m talking to. Actually, I’m not sure if it has to do with gender, the STEM field, or my particular situation. All I know for sure, is that it is exhausting.

Costs:

This month looks more normal (my husband covered the groceries this month, which is why they aren’t included below). April is gonna be bad though, since we’re headed back to the US to visit family.

  • 1166 – rent
  • 150 – utilities (including final costs from Italy, wtf!)
  • 220 – bike
  • 150 – dining out
  • 25 – internet
  • 25 – phone
  • 40 – misc
  • 32 – electricity
  • 60 – entertainment
  • Total: 1868

Hunkering Down

Street art in berlin
Street art in RAW-Gelände.

I guess you could say I’m still settling in. Or maybe I’m hunkering down. In any case, this month has been far from exciting. I haven’t been getting out as much as I should, and I can feel myself slipping back into those old bad habits. I’m busy with work, and indecisive about my future plans.

These last few weeks, I have spent long days at work, mostly just programming some infrastructure (as opposed to researching as I would like to). I’ve been staying much later than I intend to, because it’s hard to get anything done when things are going on in the office. It’s a little easier to focus once people are gone. Furthermore, last time I went to aerial, I guess I injured my thumb somehow (twisted it or something), so I’ve just been waiting around for it to get better. Of course, I should exercise at home while I wait, but I don’t, so I’m just getting lazier by the day. I did make it to some doctors this month to address some issues, but they weren’t particularly helpful, so I have to make an effort to find someone better.

Making an effort in anything sounds like the hardest thing in the world right now. This fact in and of itself frustrates me. Therefore, I have made plans to go bike shopping this coming week. I think that if I finally get that bike I’ve been dreaming of for two months, I’ll feel better. I’ll be riding every day to work (except maybe the rainiest days), which will give my body the boost of exercise it needs, and hopefully bring me out of this funk I’m in right now.

Mauerpark

In terms of the future, I haven’t decided yet if I want to settle in Berlin, but if I stay here 21 months (less now) and pass the B1 exam, I can get permanent residency in Europe. This is very appealing, because then I’ll be free to travel around between Europe and the US. I’m just not sure yet that I want to tough it out here for 21 months. Berlin is not particularly nice, in my opinion. If you’re into clubs, street art, and punk atmosphere, then you’d probably be happy in Berlin, but I’m not really into any of those things. I’m starting to miss Rovereto, because although living there was hard in some ways as well, at least I was greeted every morning by beautiful mountains, fresh air, and vibrant colours. In Berlin, everything is flat, grey, and smells like smoke. In any case, I have to consider my longer term life goals, but it just feels very overwhelming to think about, let alone make plans.

Although I consider myself somewhat analytical, I’ve never enjoyed making any sort of plans. For example, I’d rather arrive at a destination, and start walking, than make an itinerary ahead of time. But I’m not sure how a person can achieve their life goals, if they always put off the planning phase. I’m going to have to master my repulsion towards planning if I want to get anywhere. Otherwise, spring is arriving, crocuses are blooming, and I am just sitting around doing nothing productive.

Costs:

Astronomical. First of all, plane tickets to the US for vacation in April and other travel has been super expensive. But the worst has been dining out. I went out with friends, coworkers, and my husband probably more times than we cooked. This month can be taken as a cautionary tale of what happens when you fall off the wagon.

  • 1166 – rent
  • 81 – monthly rail pass
  • 30 – phone
  • 26 – aerial
  • 144 – utilities
  • 209 – groceries
  • 527 – dining out
  • 2000 – travel (including tickets to the US for me and my husband in April)
  • Total: 4157

Moving to Berlin

A few short weeks after graduation, while I was still traveling after a conference, I realized that I would be moving to Berlin to start a new job in machine translation. All of this happened so quickly– much quicker, I think, than I was mentally prepared for. But now the frenzy of bureaucracy is finally slowing down, and I’m looking forward to a trip home for the holidays. I’ll be starting work in January. In the meanwhile, I’ve been working on getting a visa and finding an apartment. I’ve also visited a few of the Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets). The one in Charlottenburg was by far the best, with tons of craft vendors and all the usual delicious street food you can expect (although the one in St. Wendel is still the best one I’ve been to).

Getting a Visa

Two years ago, I moved to Saarland to start my master’s in computational linguistics. Last time I was applying for a study permit, and the process was such a headache, that I had to make a flow chart for myself in order to understand everything I had to get done. This time I’m applying for a Blue Card for me and my husband, which allows both of us to work in Germany. The process is nearly the same, that is to say, just as annoyingly complicated.

The problem with the German system, is that it seems like there’s some sort of circular loop on the documents that you need to get a stay permit. For example, to start working, you need a visa. To get a visa, you need an apartment. To get an apartment you need funds. To have funds, you need a bank account with money in it. To open a bank account, you need to be registered at an apartment (you need an address). You also need to be working to have funds. Like I said, to start working you need a visa. It’s a headache that no one fully understands. In practical terms, the flow chart I created last year is still pretty accurate (replacing the school enrollment documents with a signed work contract instead).

The boss at my new company was under the optimistic impression that I could get all of the documents and appointments completed in around 2 weeks in November, and/or that we might be able to skip a step here or there. I was also being optimistic when I estimated that, with the backing of my company, we could get it done in around 4 weeks, before I left for the holidays at the end of December. In the end, it did take right around 4 weeks, so my optimism was not misplaced.

Unlike last time, when I had to figure all this stuff out mostly on my own, this time, my company helped me with filling out and collecting many of the documents, signing me and my husband up for national health insurance (this time with TK, but it’s similar to the AOK I had before), and they even came along with me to the appointments at the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office).

Finding an Apartment

The main task that was left to us was to find an apartment. There are a number of websites available, but I found Immobilien Scout to be the most useful in this task, whereas, if I was searching for a WG (shared flat), I would have probably looked on WG-gesucht, like I did last time in Saarland. Temporary places and shared housing can also be found on Facebook groups (e.g. this one), but you just have to be extra vigilant for bullshit. To apply for apartments, we needed a number of documents proving that we would be good renters, including:

  • A positive SCHUFA (German credit check). It costs around 30 euro to get from the official website, but there are some possible hidden fees on there. If you get it from Immobilien Scout, you get a premium account for a month which helps in the apartment search (just cancel it immediately), and you get an option to download and print a PDF immediately, which you don’t get from the official website.
  • A work contract or pay slips with your net income, which must be 3x the monthly net Kaltmiete (cold rent, which excludes heating/utilities).
  • A letter from your previous landlord stating that you don’t owe them any rent. We were able to use the receipts from our AirBnB, combined with a bank account statement instead (since our last landlord didn’t speak German or that much English). 
  • A Selbstauskunft (typical application form, which the landlords will provide you). 
  • Your passport for identification.

People say that Berlin is cheap, and maybe it is cheaper than cities like NY, Paris, London, SF, etc., but I think people underestimate how much costs have risen. The market is definitely not in favour of renters at the moment either. Basically, any apartment that is reasonably priced is besieged by 30 or more people (literally– there was one we visited, where there were 30 people there on that day alone). Berlin is also separated into different districts, which makes it quite difficult to figure out where to live. I don’t know the city that well, but it seems like Prenzlauer Berg and Charlottenburg have a lot of families, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are nice for young professionals (and may be undergoing gentrification), and Neukölln is the more gritty immigrant/artists area. I’ve only been here a few weeks though, so I can’t talk too much about these and the other areas.

Another peculiarity of looking at apartments in Germany, is that many of them don’t come with kitchens. Essentially, renters tend to buy their own kitchen (such as at Ikea), and then move it around from apartment to apartment, so when a renter leaves, they often take their kitchen with them. Some may try to sell their kitchen (and other apartment “upgrades”) to the next owner, or at least to get the owner to accept the state of the apartment as it is (i.e. with the upgrades). They have to do this, because otherwise, they need to revert the apartment to the state it was in before they began renting it. We really didn’t want to deal with the hassle of buying and installing our own kitchen, so we only looked at apartments with an Einbauküche (built-in kitchen). 

We ended up looking at 20 apartments in the span of around five days, 15 of which we viewed in just three of the days. Our top choice of the ones we saw was apparently everyone’s top choice, because it got snatched up by someone who had probably already had the application in before we even went to the viewing. It makes sense, since this apartment was cheap, at around 800 euro Warmmiete (rent with heating costs), in a good location, and only missing a fridge.

Our second and third choices were both renovated apartments with a Kaltmiete (rent without heating/utilities) of around 1100 euro. One was in a fancy new sky-rise building, literally across the street from Ostbahnhof train station. There’s nothing in the direct neighbourhood except the stores in the station (which includes a nice Rewe grocery store), but getting to my work is incredibly fast. The other was a bit cheaper, and in a neighbourhood with schools and families, but far away from transport and grocery stores. The second choice had the closer location to my work and Rewe. Since I had to travel one hour on multiple transports each way last year,  I’ve gotten really fed up with commuting. We also liked the kitchen at the second place better, since it was much bigger and opened up to the living room, in a more typical American style (in Germany, many apartments have the kitchen in a separate small room). Although the second choice was missing a washing machine (which is also pretty typical here), we still decided to go for it based on the other factors. We signed the lease a week later, and another week after that, I am happy to say, that we have a place to rest our heads now!

Unfortunately, we failed to understand one more thing the second choice was missing– light fixtures. Yes, apparently light fixtures, like washing machines and kitchens, are considered “upgrades,” which don’t come pre-installed. Actually, we did notice that there were no lights in the apartment when we saw the place, but we figured that since it was a new building this was something that was still being worked on. We asked the person showing us the apartment about that, and she said “they will install that.” We assumed that meant that the building company would do this. It was only after we signed the lease that we realized we were wrong (and/or she said a small lie to get us to sign). We did try to install one of the easy-to-reach light fixtures ourselves at first, but we quickly realized we’d need a lot more tools and time to do the job properly. This is obviously rather infuriating. In the end, we decided to contact the Hausmeister, and ask them to come in to install lights. The cost of the light fixtures and the installation will probably total around 100 euro more. Obviously, this is infuriating. On top of that, we still need to buy the washing machine, all the furniture and all the stuff a livable place needs, that people tend to forget about (cleaning supplies, trash cans, kitchen supplies, etc.). Fortunately, I’e found that sleeping on a semi-firm mattress on the floor is actually my preferred sleeping situation in terms of comfort (we did it this way for 3.5 years in Portland too, and it was really the best sleep I’ve ever gotten), so at least my bed is cheap. But in the end, this is becoming a very expensive apartment.

To be honest, in retrospect, I think we might have done this whole move wrong. The better way might have been to rent a short term (1-3 months) place, and look for a more permanent place in the meanwhile. However, I’ve heard that Berliners themselves have been having trouble finding a good place, with some people spending even up to a year searching (at their leisure though). In addition, in order to get a work visa before the end of the year and be able to start working in January, we needed to have registered our apartment at the Bürgeramt (administrative citizen’s office). We could have done this with some temporary apartments, but felt it would be easier to be done with as much bureaucracy as possible early on. So I think we should be happy that we did find something suitable after all, and even managed to get our visas done before the holidays. (I actually have one more step left, where I have to renew my expiring passport, so I can get the final Blue Card, but I already have an appointment to do this set up.)

At the end of the day, what helped us the most in being able to make this sudden move was having liquid cash ready to be used. I’m not the biggest saver, and I tend to splurge on expensive things now and then, but I still try to keep a saving mindset when I can. I’ve also been lucky to have a lot of parental guidance and help over the years. These factors have allowed me to have a small bit of cash saved up for these situations. I know many other people would be in a much more difficult situation. I guess that’s partly why I feel a bit uncertain about our decision to go with a somewhat more expensive apartment– I don’t like cutting into that hard-earned cash that I have, for fear of not being as prepared in the future; in particular, in case things don’t work out here, and I just have to move again. Nevertheless, I hope that, in the end, it will pay off in sanity and a convenient living arrangement, leaving me to focus on improving my skills in my new job. Time will tell.