(Editor’s note: This post on Berlin is the fifth in a series looking at the best countries in Europe for American expats. See links below for information on moving to Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands. You can see the introductory post here.)
As an American who fled NYC for Berlin during the height of pre-election pandemia in 2020, I often hear from curious friends, “Would Germany be a good place for me to move to?”
My answers are:
A). Yeah, totally
B). No way
C). I don’t know, man
A: Yeah, totally
Berlin is great. You should be here. As the cultural capital of Europe, there is so much going on here, endless things to see and do and heaps of fun to be had. This city is buzzing with fascinating people making and doing cool stuff. For me, Berlin is pure joy.
Even if you speak zero German and come to Deutschland all by yourself, if you move to the capital and are willing to be a little outgoing, finding your niche is not that hard. “Berlin is not Germany,” my work colleague, a native Berliner who we’ll call Caro, told me on my second day in the city. This was a phrase I’d come to hear again and again from Germans and Expats alike and one that perfectly echoes a very similar statement heard in the USA: “New York is not America.”
There’s some truth to this: Berlin’s population is noticeably more international than the rest of Germany and the city has a diverse, energetic hum on par with the world’s other major cultural capitals.
Pretty much everyone speaks English and there’s a ton of folks who have come here from far away to take part in a very international scene. Ride a train two hours in any direction however and suddenly everything gets much quieter and much more German. Like German-only, German. Like, nobody-wants-to-speak-English-with-you-Das-ist-Deutschland, German.
Berlin is a city filled with expat enclaves, little bubbles of people who somehow made it work here despite being Ausländers. There are many English speaking companies and universities and tons of meetup groups and events on Facebook. Oddly, learning German can actually be tough in Berlin because everyone speaks English, and many Germans will switch to English when they hear you struggling.
This is cool at first, when one is an absolute beginner and struggles to ask things like “Where is the Discotheque?” Frustratingly, unless you work for a company where you are totally immersed in the language all day, learning German can sometimes feel like participating in an extracurricular activity, like lawn bowling.
Just like NYC, Berlin is a colorful place with a diverse native population where lots of young people move every year to get away from their boring suburban roots and make some noise. There is a pervasive sense of “We’re not like ‘regular’ Germany, that’s why we’re here in Berlin.”
It’s also one of many cities feeling the mounting pressure of a crisis-level housing shortage, gentrification and resultant rising rents with no actual solution to the problem other than the circular firing squad of blame on the yuppies/hipsters/tech companies/landlords/politicians/ Amazon. Which brings us to answer B.
B: No, don’t
Are you crazy? Do you know how hard it is to find a place to live? Even if you are a native German with a solid job contract, finding a flat in Berlin can be incredibly difficult. The housing shortage is real: there are just not enough apartments available and the competition is fierce. One can wait months or even years bouncing around from sublet to sublet, going to fruitless and crowded group viewings of apartments where it seems like there’s always a more qualified tenant ahead of you.
And if you do find a flat, by the time you read this, the price tag may very well have increased. In just one year (2021-2022) rents in Berlin have risen 40 percent. According to the International Rent Index, published by the rental group HousingAnywhere, Berlin is now the sixth most expensive city in Europe with the average rental price for a one bedroom flat at 1,393 euros. As a 16-year veteran of the insane NYC rental market, my initial response to this was “Hey, that’s still not bad,” but a wise and frugal wanderer should pay attention to the handwriting on the wall: Berlin just isn’t dirt cheap anymore. You can still find a deal, but be prepared to be very patient and persistent.
While there is much truth to the provincial cultural posturing that Berlin transcends its national identity, I can say with great certainty that Berlin can be (surprise) very German. Why, just the other day I went to the supermarkt (pronounced zoopermarked) and almost all the food labels were written in German and all the people who worked there spoke German too. My whole transaction was in German. WHOA. So many people here are German and they speak in a crazy sounding language with words that are so, so long. Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language” is required reading for anyone considering moving to Germany.
To get set up here with a proper Visa requires lots of interconnected paperwork and a visit to immigration, all of which is in German. Try to speak English at the Ausländerbehölder (Immigration office) to the wrong person and you might have a very rough day.
While successful American expats in Berlin can hide safely in their shelters of English speaking jobs and social scenes, there is one unavoidable sector of life that involves direct contact with real Germans, which brings us to the No. 1 American complaint about life in Deutschland: “The customer service is appalling!” Facebook expat groups are rife with commiserations and contentious comment threads decrying German service.
Depending on where you are from in America and what your work/education background is like, one might find the public facing personnel of supermarkets, banks, cafes, bars and restaurants to be a bit abrasive. Some might be shocked to realize that the people who are paid to serve others are also imperfect human beings who have things like moods, emotions, personalities and maybe even dreams.
Here is a fun list of yes or no questions to help you in your decision to emigrate to Deutschland:
• Do you think because you have the power to buy things that people must be nice to you?
• Do you believe that your role as a shopper of goods and services and a spender of hard earned money grants you a social status higher than the people who are working in front of you?
• Do you believe it is part of a public facing job to perform a role of forced cheeriness, to maintain a monastic level of patience with a plastic smile and to give ultimate deference to whatever unique and quirky customer need/preference/recommendation/complaint you might possess?
• Do you find it offensive to bag your own groceries at a reasonable speed and not freeze in shock at the trauma of learning that milk cartons and other hard, square shaped items should go in first?
• Would you miss ordering a “Double Skim Iced Mochaccino with two pumps of caramel syrup, one pump chocolate, a half pump vanilla and four ice cubes?”
• When you are in a store, do you become an adult baby?
If you answered YES to any of the above questions, you probably shouldn’t move to Germany.
Customer service means different things to different people all over the world. In Germany, one should be satisfied with the simple act of rendering a service, nothing less, nothing more. No chit chat, no fake smiles, no feigned emotional coddling if something goes wrong. In stark contrast to America, German customer service is NOT PERSONAL. Think of it like any other service like water, heat or internet. If you get what you paid for, hooray!
People in retail stores act like regular humans. Sometimes they might not pretend to act like they are incredibly happy to see you. And that’s ok, right?
I, like any human, appreciate good customer service and almost every encounter I’ve had here has been just fine. I truly believe that most of the time you get back what you put out. The cafe in my girlfriend’s kiez makes amazing cappuccino. I don’t care that sometimes the barista is a little sour and grumbles “what you want?” He makes a mean coffee and I’m on the go, his mood is none of my business. He’s cool and plays guitar, I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND.
Salty people scanning goods at supermarkets are also not my concern. “They had the toilet paper I was looking for, and here I am buying it. What a glorious world,” I thought in line the other day.
Yes, you are expected to bag your own groceries and yes, you are expected to be fast. This is fine, because when you pay, it is then totally acceptable to count out tiny amounts of coins for however long you want; this is a German cultural birthright and now your adopted custom as an emigre.
And If you don’t like winter, Germany will be hard for you. If you’re like me and constant sunlight is not necessarily your jam, then the winters here are perfect for you. Nothing lifts my heart more than a daily blanket of gray sky for seven months out of the year with a faint glow behind it that is rapidly disappearing. Winter sun here is sort of like a perpetually almost-out-of-battery smartphone and for some reason, maybe because I grew up blasted by heat in the Southern California desert, I enjoy this.
I don’t know, man
Only you know whether Deutschland is the right choice for you and before you make any big jump you should definitely come visit and check it out. I recommend a ten-day visit to Berlin. During that time frame, take a day trip to some surrounding cities like Potsdam or even Dresden so you get a sense of how different the vibe is outside the capital.
My own decision came from a strange place of deep intuition that I sensed in the middle of societal unrest in America. I first visited the city eighteen years ago and the feeling was remarkably similar to the first time I set foot in New York City. “One day,” I thought, “I’d really like to live here.” When that day finally came, I created a logical plan of entry using film school and my internationally transferable skills as a cocktail bartender as a launch pad for a visa. Also, English stand up comedy is booming here and I was able to plug right into that social scene.
So the big question is: Do you have a plan?
When I decided to experimentally explore coming to Berlin I found that a plan began to unfold for me fairly effortlessly. Maybe because it was meant to be? Maybe because Germans are stereotypically known for being good planners and I somehow connected to this cosmic energy of organization? I’m still not sure. Berlin is the perfect city for me, and the longer I’m here the more simultaneously crazy and logical the decision to come to Germany seems.
If I were you (after your visit of course) I would run this list of some main deterrents in your head.
Here’s some common ones for example:
1. Finding a flat is tough.
2. Winters are rough.
3. People are sometimes a bit gruff.
If you are like me, your response to these criticisms could be a hearty “DUDE, I DON’T CARE, LET’S GOOOOOOOOO.” But some folks need more sun and more smiles than others and a housing situation that’s a bit less like solving a rubix cube and playing jenga at the same time.
Berlin is fantastic. You might love it. You might hate it. You might have a combination of both these feelings and like all long term major world city dwellers, learn to find that delicate sweet spot between the two energies.
As an American considering a move abroad, you’re like a surfer: you’ve left the others on land and you’re looking to find your wave. Many people will tell you you’re crazy, while they watch you paddle out on the sea, secretly wishing they were doing the same. Which wave you catch, be it German or otherwise, is a deeply personal choice and entirely up to you.
So, intrepid explorer, if you do decide to journey forth to Deutschland, do as the Germans do: get organized and make a plan.
You can see information on moving to Spain here.
You can see information on moving to Italy here.
You can see information about moving to France here.
You can see information about moving to the Netherlands here.