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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Officialization 10: Leaving Germany

My first year in the LCT master is over, and I am moving from Germany to Italy to do my second year. But damn German bureaucracy… even leaving Germany isn’t easy. Having to talk to all of these offices is like knocking on a door that will never open. Their hours of operation are haphazard, and even when you get through, you just end up asking the same things over and over, hoping someone will know the answer.

Of course, the first thing I had to leave Saarland is to write a physical letter to my landlords announcing my intent to leave well ahead of time (a friend helped me with the correct wording for this). I was lucky and had to do it just one month in advance since many leases ask for up to three months notice. I ended up owing my landlords €140 for electricity over the included amount and a cleaning fee. My lease agreement covered that so it wasn’t a big surprise, but still a bit much.

Next, I needed to go back to the Bürgeramt at most one week before I was to move in order to announce to them that I’m moving and to get a leaving certificate. They needed to see my passport for this. I guess I could have done it via email, but I ended up having time in person. Anyway, it took like half an hour, so just another small annoyance.

The worst part though, is dealing with the health insurance. So, remember when I signed up for national health insurance when I first got here? Yea, it turns out, that was probably a mistake, after all.

Here’s a thing. As a student under 30 in a German university, you are required, by law, to be covered by insurance. You can waive this requirement when you enroll. Although I had a private travel insurance through my program, I chose to actually sign up for the national system anyway, thinking that that would ensure proper coverage through some of the issues that I have. The cost was around €90 a month, and as an American (our insurance system is famously fucked up), this seemed to be quite affordable.

But now that I am moving to Italy, I would like to sign up for the Italian one to make sure I am correctly covered there. My German one is supposed to work in Italy, but I’m told the local one will still probably make more sense to doctors. More to the point though, the Italian one is much much cheaper. It costs less than €200 per year. So that means if I cancel my German insurance and pick up the Italian one, I save something like €900.

But cancelling is harder than it sounds. As I said, there’s a law that requires you to have insurance as a student under 30. Because I signed up for AOK (the national health insurance) when I enrolled, and did not sign a waiver to cancel it, I cannot legally drop it until I am no longer enrolled, and I can’t just change to a private insurance either. Also, I can’t easily un-enroll, because my program automatically re-enrolls me and waives the enrollment fee, since I have to be enrolled in order to submit my master’s thesis work next year.

It sounds like the way for me to drop AOK would be to:

  1. Officially un-enroll in Saarland
  2. Provide proof from the Bürgeramt that I have moved away, and proof of un-enrollment to AOK to cancel my insurance
  3. Get a new acceptance certificate from my department for the second year
  4. Re-enroll with my same matriculation number in Saarland,
  5. Provide proof of a German health insurance again, or a waiver for the insurance

The good news is that since I literally just turned 30, I don’t actually have to do that very last step anymore, since that law only applies to people under 30.

The annoying thing is that after living here for a year, and seeing how things went, I actually think it would have been fine for me to just stick with the private insurance that LCT provided us, and soak whatever costs from the doctors visits would have been. I think it would have been more affordable and easier in the end.

I don’t have time anymore to deal with all of this in person because I am moving to Italy today, so I’ll have to keep following up online.

UPDATE:

Actually, it turns out that since I turned 30, AOK is actually supposed to automatically cancel my insurance by September 30th. Normally, this would be a bad thing, since I think would have to re-sign up with them as a non-student or else get private insurance, which would both be more expensive.

In this case though, it seems like this is a good thing, since all I will have to do now is get the Italian insurance and send it to AOK to confirm that I have something, as I believe is legally required.

All packed and ready to go!

Weeks 34 & 35

“there was a hole (there was a hole)
in the middle of the ground (in the middle of the ground)
the prettiest hole (the prettiest hole)
that you ever did see (that you ever did see)
and the green grass grows all around all around
and the green grass grows all around
and in this hole (and in this hole)…”

…there was a giant burst pipe (a giant burst pipe)…
…so they had to close off the road, the busses couldn’t run to the Uni from this side of town so we all had to walk, and they had to work for weeks on end to get it fixed.

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Quite late in the hole saga, when they had already started filling it.

The very first day of of the new semester, we all realized the busses weren’t going to the Uni, and we had to walk (I was half an hour late to class as a result, but so was everyone else). I was already kicking myself for not getting my bike fixed earlier.

On the way, we passed the hole. They had said that it would be fixed by the end of the week. To that, I said: lol.

They had dug up nearly the entire road for this thing. As the days progressed, and I kept walking to and from school, the hole actually got bigger. At one point, they began digging a second, smaller hole, near the larger one, and eventually it joined together. It’s been two weeks now, and this weekend is a 3-day weekend. I’m not sure if they work over the weekends or not, but somehow, I still don’t expect it to be done by Tuesday.

There are few busses that go to the Uni now, and those that do have to go all the way around via a different road, quite a ways away. From where I live, I would have to walk back the other direction into town to catch one of those busses, so it makes a lot more sense to just walk the 40 minutes to school (30 minutes if I go fast).

Speaking of walking, I twisted my ankle at a climbing/bouldering class yesterday. It’s not horrible, but if the road isn’t fixed by Tuesday, it’s going to be very difficult for me to get to school. I actually did just get my bike back though (sure wish I’d had it these last 2 weeks while the road has been closed). I could probably ride it… it seems like it would be less stress for the ankle to ride the bike than to walk all that way.

Before this accident, a bunch of us went hiking to the Saarschleife. I have been there once before, at the start of the year, but this time we hiked all the way up and back (around 16km total). It was really awesome to just hang out with friends, and chat about whatever. On the way, we saw a really cool WWII bunker (I guess that’s another type of man-made ground-hole). I’ve never seen one of these before. The only way to get in it was through a little hole in the front that you had to climb through. There wasn’t a normal door into it, although there was what looked like a hatch on the inside. It also had all of these signs on the inside about what to do with the lights and what to watch out for with the air intakes and such, and it was large enough for probably like 10 people.

Anyway, the new semester has started, so I’m back to hard work and stress, and I’ve spent a bunch of money buying some of the things I lost when my stuff got stolen, and overspending on food due to laziness. I guess I’ve sort of thrown frugality out the window, as I have tried to replace some of my discomfort with material possessions and carbs– neither a healthy nor effective strategy. =\ I need to try harder in this regard.

I already have a lot of studying to do, including learning Italian, since I am moving to Italy in September (or sooner).  Just like last semester, there are cool computer science classes that I can’t realistically take because I don’t have enough background in math to pass them, even though I would learn a lot, so I haven’t quite decided on what I will take.

It looks like software engineering, and semantics are pretty firmly on the docket. Statistical natural language processing, a seminar on semantic parsing (programming project), a seminar on TensorFlow (programming project), and information theory are all strong contenders. Other classes still in the running are a seminar on minimalism (syntax), a course on language technology, which covers various topics including machine translation, and what I would call a remedial math course (but hey, there’s no shame in not knowing things and needing help to learn them).

My original goal was to take it easy and to do just the bare minimum that I had to this semester, but so many of the classes are interesting. So once again, I have to carefully consider what I realistically have time for. I might end up just sitting in on some classes, but not actually taking the finals in them.

Costs:

  • climbing classes: €45
  • snacks: €20
  • groceries (including for a dinner with friends where I cooked): €135
  • dining out: €30
  • clothes: €65
  • pens: €8
  • Total: €303

Weeks 32 & 33

The last two weeks have just been a whirlwind of emotion, I guess. My family came to visit me in Europe, and although it started out great, there was definitely a theme of misfortune throughout much of it. One of the stress points was that I was the only one that spoke any languages, so I had to translate/coordinate things, while also trying to keep my family from panicking. Another stress point was my family’s near pathological avoidance of planning. But those were minor things. The hardest part to deal with was the theft in the second leg of the trip… but let me start from the beginning.

My family landed in Paris. The weather was great, we hit up all the big sights, went to a bunch of museums, and ate a lot of delicious food. Unfortunately, my husband got kind of sick the first couple days, so we didn’t see much of him (at least he had seen Paris with me earlier), but he did manage to join us near the end for a couple things he hadn’t seen before.

The next place we had on our itinerary was Switzerland. As mentioned, my family has some sort of strange aversion to finalizing plans. Thankfully, my mom had ordered accommodation for us near Paris, Geneva, and Munich for the trip, but she hadn’t planned on how to get from one place to the next. We actually weren’t even staying in Geneva or Munich itself for the second and third parts of the trip, but quite far away by public transport in both places, so my parents intended to rent a car once in Geneva and to use it for the rest of the trip.

We took a train from Paris to the small town we were staying at near Geneva (actually in France). The only affordable train that was available by the time we were making the booking would come in after 22:00. Like most small towns, this one didn’t really have a public transport system that late at night, which meant we ended up waiting around for a long time for 2 separate taxis to take us to the house we were staying at.

Then, the next day was completely wasted on trying to get that rental car. We had to split up into 2 groups. One group went to rent a car at a nearby place for the duration of our stay near Geneva, and the second to the Geneva airport (via 3 busses) to rent a different car to Munich. We had to do it this way because the rental car agencies that rented internationally had no cars available since we didn’t reserve ahead of time. Suffice it to say, this was a very stressful and frustrating day for everyone.

The day after, my big brother got sick, and I later caught it as well. (By the way, I’ve been sick 7 out of 8 months I’ve been in Europe.) I was actually expecting to get sick since my family had traveled on planes, so I wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. Also, one of the days, my husband ended up having to work so we didn’t see much of him again. But Switzerland, eastern France, and the Alps were beautiful, so we managed to enjoy our time there nonetheless.

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We had to leave quite late on our last day in Switzerland, because we had to do a lot of driving back and forth to drop off the old car and pick up the new one. On our way out, we stopped by Lausanne. My family went to the cathedral, and my husband and I went to visit with a friend.

This is when it all went to shit.

We were having a great time, right up until my big brother called to tell us that in the hour or so that they had been away from their car, it had gotten a window smashed. My husband’s and my backpacks were stolen. These were the only two things in the car cabin (since we didn’t have space for them in the trunk), and so they were the two things that were stolen. Thankfully, nothing else was taken, and everyone’s passports, money, and phones were safe as well. Also, thankfully my friend was willing to waste an entire night with us at the police to help explain the situation, since although I speak French, I would still have trouble with the whole process. Most importantly, no one was hurt.

However, we lost the rest of the day and night to this, and we had to rent a hotel nearby to stay the night as well. Even though it was just mine and my husband’s stuff, we lost a lot of expensive things to this theft, as well as a lot of small things that are just annoying to have to collect again. In my case, I lost my backpack, which had basically my whole life in it (I don’t have a lot with me in Europe). Here’s a summary of the major things:

  • Both of our house keys and my husband’s car keys (~$60 for me to replace, ~$800 for him to replace the electronic car key)
  • My husband’s expensive MacBook Pro (~$1700)
  • Much of my husbands collection of Netrunner cards, along with his winnings (promo cards, special tokens, etc.) from championships (~$350)
  • A brand new Nintendo Switch my husband had just gotten me as a gift with the new Zelda game (~$350)
  • My backpack which I had spent 6 months finding to be exactly right for my needs (~$100)
  • My work laptop that I just bought a few months ago (~$600)
  • A huge external hard drive with a bunch of pictures; thankfully I have the pictures backed up elsewhere (~$100)
  • Almost all of the clothes I own including my nice button up shirt, my travel towel, my toiletries (~$170 I guess)
  • My glasses case with a spare pair of glasses, and most of my glasses cleaning cloths (~$200)
  • Chargers for everything, including my only USB Type C to Type C for my phone and my US extension cord for all my appliances
  • All the little junk I carry in my backpack (e.g. a pocket knife, a combination lock for when I go to hostels, a pen+stylus, plug adapters, my key chains, etc.)
  • My Blizzard authenticator, so I guess I have to figure out how to cancel that
  • All the little souvenirs I had just bought from Paris (magnets/postcards)
  • Around 6 months worth of my thyroxine prescription meds that my husband had brought me from the US

So yea… after this, the vacation got less fun (and of course the two days after I come home are Easter vacation days in Germany, so I can’t even buy replacement clothes right away). I am very lucky that I was with my family during this time though, because they really helped me out. My big brother and dad generously generously offered me their laptops (I ended up taking my big brother’s). My mom bought me some clothes, my dad bought me some chargers and a cheapo backpack, I bought my husband a full collection of Netrunner cards… Basically, all the stuff will be replaced eventually.

After all that, what were we to do, but continue on with the plan? We drove to our AirBnB near Munich. We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, I climbed up to the top of a cliff to catch the sunset, we ate more amazing food, and eventually, we said our goodbyes.

It’s gonna sound weird to say, but despite all of that shit, I had a good vacation. Even though so many frustrating things happened, I didn’t realize how much I had missed my family, and of course my husband (who is still living in the US). And as for the stolen stuff, well, it’s just stuff.

Lessons learned:

  • Keep your passport/money/phone on you. This saved our bacon.
  • Don’t leave stuff in the car cabin. This makes you an easy target..
  • Don’t bring expensive stuff on trips. Then it hurts less to replace.
  • Leave a few pairs of shirts at home so you have clothes for when you return.
  • Have great friends and family. I don’t know how to do that, I just got lucky.

Costs:

  • rent – €225
  • replacing some of my things (should be in the mail soon) – ~$250
  • the gift of an entire Netrunner card collection for my husband – $350
  • souvenirs (most of them now stolen) – €33
  • transportation – €129
  • lockers to store stuff at the train station – €30
  • food (my family paid most of the time) – €60
  • cold medicine/cough drops – €8
  • Total: €404 and $600

Officialization 9: Getting a HiWi Job

Officialization TOC

A HiWi Job

IMG_20161217_013302A HiWi (hilfswissenschaftler) job is a research assistant internship that you can do through the university. It is classified as a mini-job, and as long as you work 9 hours a week or less, you have no extra tax burden. The pay scale is set for these jobs. With a bachelor’s degree, 9 hours a week gets you 450 euro/ month.

I found mine through one of my professors. One of them mentioned that they were looking for a HiWi, and I emailed them that very night. I got accepted right away.

In terms of bureaucracy, you really just have to go to the secretary on campus that deals with HiWis (your employer should be able to tell you their office), and provide them with all the required documents. One important thing to note here, is that you need a Rentenversicherungsnummer (pension insurance number). Your health insurance should be able to give you this number, but you have to specifically ask for it, so give them a call/visit before you go to the HiWi secretary.

Once you give them the documents, you have to sign a bunch of paperwork, and it is in German only, but it’s all fairly standard stuff. When I went, there was one lady that could translate some of it in English, but some of it, I just had to puzzle through. I guess it’s possible I signed away my soul, but unlikely, since like I said, this is all fairly standard documentation.

US Citizens should also be aware that you need to inform the US government that you are making this income as well. The HiWi job sends you a W-2 at the end of the fiscal year, so you can just include that when you do your US taxes. You shouldn’t have to pay any US taxes, because the amount you make in total will fall under the minimum for when you have to pay.

Make sure to bring these documents with you to the HiWi secretary:

  • Address (you should have a place to live by now I hope!)
  • Identifikationsnummer (tax identification number)
  • Rentenversicherungsnummer (pension insurance number)
  • Name of health insurance company
  • Copies of high school certificate and university degrees
  • CV (They accepted my normal resume)
  • Matrikelnummer (immatriculation number from the university)

 

Note: This post was backdated, since I failed to get it up back when I was doing all of this.