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 84 through 93

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How long has it been since I’ve posted one of these types of updates? There’s been a lot going on. Spring and summer, for one! Everything is green and beautiful now, and there are flowers everywhere, although it has also been raining a lot. I wish I had more time to enjoy this season, but things have been more than a little busy. A massive family vacation took a chunk of time, but was, of course, very worth it. Then, as soon as I got back, I learned that I had many deadlines, and all of them were due around the same time:

  • a poster presentation for the LCT meeting
  • a master’s thesis proposal for the “master seminar” course at Uni Saarland
  • a presentation on the thesis proposal for my adviser at Saarland
  • a report of the work done at my internship plus a ton of documents for Uni Trento
  • a master’s thesis outline for my adviser at Trento
  • edits on a paper for a conference that my group at FBK wants to submit to

This all, by the way, in addition to normal work, which should theoretically continue as usual. In practice I had been focusing almost exclusively on the reports and presentations, and very little on actual work, which is a problem because I really  need to make progress on my master’s thesis research if I want to actually be able to write the thesis.

Speaking of the thesis, I had a bit of a heart attack last month, when I found out from a friend, who found out from a friend, that I had to fill out a “Title Registration” form for University of Trento. This was a simple form with some basic information, but we needed the signature of our thesis adviser on it. The problem is that my intended adviser was gone at a conference that week. He had told me he would be hard to reach, and he had warned me ahead of time to check deadlines and get signatures from him. I had checked the deadlines I knew to check, but not this one, because this was a situation of “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I got lucky and was able to contact my adviser after all, but I if my friend hadn’t told me about this requirement, I would have gotten all the way to September, and wondered why I couldn’t graduate on time for no apparent reason.

It’s hard being a foreign student, but I get the feeling that this is a difficulty even local students have to deal with. No one sends any emails about these deadlines. We have coordinators here at UniTN who should theoretically be involved with us, but they don’t seem to care that much about us. They don’t know our detailed situation, they forget some basic details about us as well, and they seem more concerned with their own work than anything else. It doesn’t feel like there’s anyone who is actually there for the students, in particular the LCT students, who are on the outskirts of the program at UniTN.

I’m also a bit upset because now that summer is here, my aerial classes have been cut down to just once a week, so I need to find an alternate form of exercise to avoid losing too much muscle. I’ve worked too hard so far to let myself atrophy.

On the plus side, the weather has warmed up, and we managed to get three hikes in, all with beautiful wildflowers, breathtaking views, and lovely company. These have certainly been the highlight of the season.

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Costs:

Ok so I’m going to cheat, and lump everything into one big pool over the last few months. I’m sorry I fell behind keeping track of this here by month.

  • 705 – rent
  • 165 – internet
  • 100 – phone
  • 600 – travel
  • 300 – dining (also during travel)
  • 300 – groceries
  • 160 – sports
  • 40 – fixing glasses
  • 120 – clothes (for hiking)
  • Total: 2,490

 

Conspiracy

I woke up early today, from the howling wind. My cheap window panes rattled wildly in their frames as the wind thrashed the bushes outside against their screens. This shuddering and screeching mingled with my half-realized dreams as I struggled to bring myself into consciousness. The last threads of dreamworld lingered before my eyes, causing the waking realm to swim and dance confusingly before my eyes.

Steadying myself, I stumbled into the shower. Bouncing from stone to stone, across a river of stranded thoughts, I finally managed to complete my morning routine on autopilot. Ok, it’s time to get to work. I have some Chinese content development ahead of me today, followed by a large bulk of Russian sentence stimuli creation. I also have some errands to run and clothes to pack, but that can wait for now.

If only life were that easy: sit down, do some work, pack your bags.

The first hitch in the plan comes half an hour later, when the rest of the household wakens, and accosts me with talk of a lost adapter. In a rat-hole like this, the miracle is that this adapter was categorized among the “found” at some nebulous period in the past. The fact that this adapter was also mine is a happenstance not worthy of particular note.

The second hitch in the plan comes an hour later. I’m already in a bad mood, so little things are beginning to bother me. First it’s the annoyance of finding a way to type a particular character on Windows (there has to be a better way!). Next it’s a frustrating email from a project collaborator on one of the many things I’m involved in. Finally, like a lion pouncing on its cornered prey, the adapter discussion resurfaces once more.

I’ve had enough. I angrily force the buzzing flies of madness from my mind, turn my background music up to 11, and allow at least the semblance of peace to return to the sanctum which was once my work space. Back to work–!

That’s when the gardeners come. The uneven roaring of weed whackers and lawn mowers outside my window mirrors the red roar of fury bubbling in my heart, as I flee helplessly from my room, laptop in tow.

The world has conspired against my getting any work done today. “But these are dragons that we can take on.” Maybe Starbucks will provide a safer haven.