Expat Essentials

Laura Kaye’s complete expat guide, Pt. 1: Understanding the dichotomy that is Berlin

BRANDENBURG GATE (Photo by Terry Boyd for Dispatches)

Guten Tag und herzlich Willkommen to my alternative introduction to expat life in Berlin.

In this ongoing series, I’m going to share some of the wisdom I’ve acquired (through a lot of trial and error) during the five and a half years that my family and I have been lucky enough to call this city home.

During this time we’ve set up home, had babies, got to grips with German healthcare, begun to get to grips with German bureaucracy, embraced the German love of the outdoors, overcome our apprehension of life in the bike lane, figured out where to eat (especially when all the shops are closed on Sundays), made a whole lot of friends, and perhaps even an enemy or two (I’m talking about you, mystery neighbour, who likes to discipline us through the medium of anonymous letters!)

So sit back, relax, grab a Weißbier and, after waiting patiently and obediently for the Ampelmann to turn green, continue to enjoy this guide for what to expect when you’re expecting to move to Berlin.

WILLKOMMEN IN BERLIN

The first time I set foot in Berlin was on a snowy January morning in 2014. My husband and I had packed up our small apartment in an unseasonably warm Atlanta, and flown across the Atlantic with our dog, to an unusually cold Berlin. With the forecast predicting a chilly -14°C that day, we realised that we were woefully unprepared and planned a trip to the Jack Wolfskin store the following day to buy some practical, reliable, German-made winter gear.

After shuffling as quickly as possible into the arrivals terminal to escape the cold, one of our first thoughts was to question whether we had actually landed in the right city.

READY FOR BOARDING

Because, whether new residents touch down at Schönefeld or Tegel, arriving into Berlin’s “underwhelming” airports can be confusing for first-timers, as they doubt they really are standing in the capital of the “powerhouse of Europe.”

As serial expats and seasoned travellers, we’d seen our fair share of airports, and Tegel airport looked more like … well, I’ll let these passenger reviews from airlinequality.com sum it up for you:

“Without any doubt the worst airport in Europe…It reminded me of airports in the old communist Europe in the 70s” (Lucas, Poland)

“This is one of the worst airports I have been through…Only one toilet! Third world! So much for German efficiency. Never again” (David, UK)

CREATIVE DISSONANCE

What I didn’t yet understand at the time, was that this was actually a very fitting introduction to the dichotomy that is Berlin. The city’s no-frills, dated airports, bursting at the seams as they struggle to keep up with the demands of the millions of people who pass through them each year – artists, techie millennials, loud stag and hen parties, history-buff tourists, businessmen and women, the creative, the cool, the colourful, the innovative, the intellectual, and the downright weird and wonderful – all juxtaposed against the decaying, grey, concrete jungle that is Tegel Airport.

Berlin, I have since found, is a city that embodies contradiction. In many ways it is at the forefront of cutting edge technology and innovation. With its bustling startup scene, the city is one of Europe’s leading tech hubs. And yet, when we first arrived in 2014, we struggled to find Wi-Fi, couldn’t apply for anything online, and were repeatedly caught off guard by the strange cash culture that had us apologetically dashing out to cash machines before leaving restaurants.

Furthermore, despite utterly deserving its reputation as a capital of culture and creativity – a magnet for artists of all kinds  – aesthetically speaking, a great deal of the city itself has a face only a mother (or Berliner) could love.

The contrast between the contemporary and outdated is surprisingly stark. Because whilst the city is growing and evolving at an astonishing rate, the city’s budget and its overstretched services and infrastructure are desperately struggling to keep up with the tide.

BACKSTORY

To understand why this is, you only need to know a little of Berlin’s history. Once a city of more than 4 million, the Second World War decimated the German capital. And the subsequent decades spent divided during the Cold War further stunted its recovery. As of now, the population still hasn’t recovered to pre-war figures, but it is currently hurtling back towards the four-million mark at a remarkable speed.

“Why is this relevant?” you might ask. Well it’s only relevant if you want to understand exactly why you’re struggling to find somewhere to live, or an office space, or a GP, midwife, Kindergarten or school place … because, as you’ll see, the issue of supply and demand will be a recurring theme in this series. At present, despite the fact that Berlin has SO much to offer, there isn’t always quite enough to go around.

But wait!

If I’ve sounded unfairly critical thus far, try to stick with me a little longer. There are so many reasons why this serial expat has stayed put in Berlin for more than five years and why I have no desire to leave any time soon. And I’m not the only one. Berlin is booming, and I’ll tell you why.

LESS POOR, MORE SEXY

Berlin is often described as the capital of cool. And whilst I’m probably not best qualified to judge that myself (cool is not an adjective many people would use to describe me), it’s easy to see why the German capital deserves its reputation.

In the decades following reunification, the low cost of living offered in Berlin made it a magnet for artists from across Germany and the wider world, giving the city an alternative, hip, liberal vibe that remains to this day. And in 2003, then-mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described Berlin as “poor but sexy.”

In the years since then, that same low cost of living has also been a huge attraction to those looking for a base to get their budding startups off the ground. Forced out of London by the ever increasing, eye-watering living costs (and more recently by the farce that is Brexit), the tech crowd has been flocking to Berlin in recent years. But unlike Berlin’s struggling artists, this crowd has a few more euros to spend!

BOOM TOWN

The city’s huge popularity has encouraged a boom in investment, and with it, of course, rising living costs. Whilst prices in Berlin remain much lower than other major German cities and popular European capitals, they are fairly rapidly increasing.

Gentrification is a word you’ll hear often in Berlin, and whilst not everyone is happy about it (remember those struggling artists?), the city is quite clearly on the up-and-up.

As you wander around Berlin, it would be difficult to throw a stone without hitting a construction project as new apartments shoot up to cater to Berlin’s rapidly multiplying residents (though, as you’ll find out in part two the apartment blocks aren’t going up quite as quickly as the population.)

And we’ve personally witnessed a lot of changes in the city in the five years since we moved here. Our 2014 Wi-Fi problems are a thing of the past, and despite the fact the German attachment to cash transactions persists, at least our local supermarket now accepts actual credit cards rather than just German EC (debit) cards.

We’ve even seen contactless payments take off in the last year. It’s almost like living in the future … or the present at least.

And remember those “Third World,” “old Communist Europe” airports? They’re finally set to close too. After repeated delays, plans to open a fancy new airport might finally go ahead next year. OK, perhaps it’s best not to hold your breath for that one ….

But I digress, the embarrassment that is the BER airport project is a story for another day.

Okay, so you’re already sold on Berlin’s cool, creative vibe. You’ve pre-purchased your practical footwear, googled cool co-working spaces and started to grow out your hipster beard.

Now you’re wondering what you need to know to figure out how to build a life here:

• Is it a good fit for the whole family?

• How about the food?

• How do Berliner’s spend their free time?

• What’s the expat community like?

• How are you going to find an apartment when it seems like every Berliner and his dog is competing for them? (I should mention that Berliners really like dogs).

So join me for part two where I’ll give you the low-down on finding your new Berlin home: Which neighbourhoods might be a good match for you and your family and how the hell to actually secure an apartment before someone else does. I’ll also introduce you to your new neighbours – both fellow expats and life-long Berliners – and let you in on the best places to start making connections and getting answers to your burning questions before you even arrive.

Bis zum nächsten Mal! Until next time!

LAURA KAYE

About the author:

Laura Kaye is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work focuses on social and development issues, parenting and family life.

Originally from the Wirral in the United Kingdom, she is a serial expat now happily living in Berlin, Germany.

More posts by Laura Kaye

Collected wisdom from my years as a Britsh expat in Germany

Dear undecideds: Are you really willing to live with the reality of a no-deal Brexit?

Berlin’s struggling Kita educators are underpaid and overwhelmed

Broken Kita system leaves parents frustrated, stressed

Everyone loses – employers, families and kids – as Kitaplatz waiting lists grow in Berlin

Having a baby in Berlin: Medicine, rather than modesty, is the aim of the game in Germany

Having a baby in Berlin, Pt. 2: Learning German whilst pregnant so we’re not ‘those expats’

Having a baby in Berlin, Pt. 3: A Berliner is born, and the German benefits you need to know about

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