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. 

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Weeks 66 and 67

IMG_20171211_092159The last couple weeks have been short but packed. We had a lovely dusting of snow, so the view outside my window became a winter wonderland, just in time for the holidays. Although I am not a big fan of the cold, I have to admit, the snow is so lovely and festive.

Also on the topic of festivities, since our window is in the very center of town, every single Saturday and Sunday since the second half of November, there have been full bands marching in the evenings down the red carpet just outside our window. I cannot emphasize how over-the-top the Christmas festivities are here, as I mentioned in my last post already: almost two months of Christmas markets, marching bands, hot spiced wine, lights, shows… I mean, it’s a small town… how can it support all of this?!IMG_20171217_172725

Speaking of shows, this last week, the department had a sort of informal variety/talent show for Christmas as well. For the first time ever, I performed on aerial silks! My awesome silks teachers set up the apparatus in the theatre, and helped me come up with a routine, although I only had time to practice it a few times before the performance. I made some mistakes during the performance, and I think you can really tell that I am a beginner, but considering I’ve only been at it for around 2.5 or 3 months now, I’m still really happy with how it went. The best part too, is that my husband, who is a musician, played one of the songs we wrote together for my performance!IMG_20171210_113242_1_2

Apart from the fun, there was also plenty of work to do the last couple of weeks. It’s probably the first time since I got here that I’ve felt actually busy. Mainly, I ended up doing four presentations, which took a lot of preparation. I don’t feel very comfortable as a public speaker, so I tend to practice these things at least 3-4 times each, and redo my slides countless times, before I feel ready. It took forever.

Tomorrow, my husband and I are leaving to go back to the US for the holidays. I’m really looking forward to visiting my family and friends, some of whom I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen in a couple of years now. I wish there were more interesting and local things to bring home as gifts, but with our globalized world, the stuff you can get here is mostly the same as at home (except for cured meat, which you can’t import into the US at all, unfortunately). I guess I’ll just have to bring home sweets.

I have to admit, I’m actually a little nervous to go back. Last time when I came home after such a long stint away was after college and a study abroad period in Russia. I remember how strange it felt being back home– like everything was the same as it had ever been, and yet completely different. After such a long time away, I remember realizing that I had changed a lot in that period after all. Now, too, I expect I’ve changed a lot. I guess I’m nervous-excited. But it’s hard to worry too much. After all, the holidays are all about family, friends, and food! It’s gonna be great.

Happy holidays from Rovereto to everyone out there, at home, in Europe, and all around the globe!

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Weeks 61 through 65

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This month has been all about hunkering down. My husband had to go back to the States for a bit while waiting on the stay permit process, but got to come back sooner than expected. In the meantime, school got busy, with tons of presentations and reports to do.

We both had a lot of good news in terms of work-related things, as well. For one, my husband’s gig is becoming salaried at the start of January. This is something he’s been working towards for a very long time, so we are both super excited. In addition, I have already started preliminary work on my internship (and hopefully master’s thesis) with FBK, a local research institute. This also becomes paid starting in January.

All of this is fantastic news, but it does mean I am about to become much busier than I have been. I may not have time to hike or loaf around as much as I have been. In the next two weeks, I also have to finish the last things left for my courses to get the last few credits I need. I have 3 presentations and 4 short reports to write up, and I have to study for a hard final in machine learning that will take place in January. I’m also headed back to the US for three weeks over the winter holidays, which I am really excited about. I can’t wait to see my family and hopefully many friends too!

In terms of exciting activities this month, I only went on one hike, but it was a breathtaking one. We went to Strada delle 52 Gallerie, just after the first snow. It was the longest hike I’ve done so far (6.5 hours and 12km I think), but it didn’t feel as difficult as some previous ones.  The hike snaked through some old tunnels built during WWI, up to the very top of the mountain. The views were spectacular, perhaps even more so with the snow. (I’m afraid these phone pics do it no justice though.) I look forward to returning another time, maybe in the spring.

By the way, the Christmas markets have also started up here. Rovereto has gone on some sort of fanatic Christmas spree: they spent over a week building wooden houses for the stalls, they brought in the most giant real tree I have ever seen, they put up projectors to light up the buildings with Christmas decor, they put up speakers playing Christmas music, they have live bands walking through the city on the weekends, and they have a red fucking carpet spread out through like half the city center. It feels really over-the-top for such a tiny town. In terms of the Christmas market itself, though, they don’t serve nearly as much hot spiced wine as they should, and they don’t pass out adorable mugs the way they did in Germany, which is a shame; however, the fried dough treats don’t disappoint.

Costs:

Splitting costs (and cooking duty) with a second person really helps.

  • €225 – rent
  • €22 – internet
  • €136 – utilities (electric/gas) including installation costs and stupid TV tax
  • €234 – groceries
  • €135 – dining out/ snacks at markets
  • €90 – last health insurance payment to AOK back in Germany (ugh)
  • €47 – phone
  • €16 – extra aerial silks days
  • €30 – fancy bike tire pump
  • €8 – misc for the apartment
  • Total: €943