Moving to Berlin

It’s been 5 months since we moved to Berlin; I’m still astonished we pulled it off as a family. Here are some things we did and learned along the way:

  • We have 2 kids, a young puppy and a recently purchased home. We also had 2 interesting jobs, 2 leased cars and lots of other “stuff”. That’s a lot of leave behind but frankly we sought adventure and thought a move to Europe would enrich our kids far beyond the helicopter level parenting we were providing at the time.
  • I began exploring the CTO role with SoundCloud back in August of 2016 and it took 3 months for us all to make a decision and another 2 months to plan and execute the move. Unlike most others, this wasn’t an expat package which abstracts away legal and tax implications. This was a lock, stock, and barrel move along with residency (Die Anmeldung) and employment authorization (EU blue card).
  • We could not have pulled it off without SoundCloud’s support, an Expath consultant who was helping us along the way and without my wife preemptively quitting her job and juggling countless complexities of this move for 2 months.
  • Here is a quick and very high level guide on what could be entailed with such a move. Expath has their own version of this as well.
  • As we offer to all employees moving to Berlin, SoundCloud provides 4 weeks of corporate housing while you search for a permanent apartment. My wife and I decided that we wanted something much more stable for our young kids. This meant that we’d be setting up our arrangements in short travel bursts and remotely … maddening but it worked.
  • We had a total of 2 trips before our final move. The first trip was to interview and get acquainted with Berlin. And the second was to arrange most of the details prior to our move: finding an appropriate school, getting the residency squared away and finding an apartment - in 5 days.
  • We looked at a range of English speaking schools like Berlin Metropolitan School, Berlin Cosmopolitan, Berlin British and a few others. We decided to go with BMS based on advice and the tours we’ve done at all these schools. Most of these schools are private and the primary language is English, however, German is taught daily.
  • Our expath consultant then helped us view a bunch of apartments we scouted on immobilienscout and after seeing 10, we settled on a place in Prenzlauer Berg, the Park Slope of Berlin if you will, a lovely family-oriented neighborhood just 10 minutes away from our offices in Mitte. If you haven’t got a family, you’re probably going to settle in much cooler and apocalyptic Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain or Neukölln but that’s pretty subjective of me.
  • When you’re going for your very formal appointment at the Burgeramt to get your Anmeldung (residency), do bring an Expath consultant or someone who speaks German.
  • Opening a bank account with Deutsche Bank was fun and way more grand than opening a bank account in US. We did this on Unter den Linden, a few steps away from Brandenburg Gates, in their magnificent offices, in a private room with 2 bankers who for an hour walked us through everything including starting your credit history in Germany.
  • The apartment we rented is in a new building and the kitchen wasn’t installed. In Berlin, it often falls on you to install your own kitchen; crazy. We did this remotely with IKEA (you can also consider OTTO) and the help of our expath consultant. IKEA would come and measure things and then run remote VC sessions to discuss options for installation.
  • Schedule your internet installation as soon as you secure your apartment because in Berlin in can easily take several weeks. Thankfully for us, we were still away in US and someone had just come into the unit and did the work. Skip Telekom in Berlin, their coverage, pricing and speeds aren’t great. We chose Vodafone Cable; ADSL and VDSL seem arcane. Vodafone is €24/mo for 400Mbps ⬇️ and 25Mbps ⬆️ + Basic TV with 40HD channels + wifi router + DVR. Prices double after a year
  • We remotely purchased washer/dryer and had that installed as well. The only thing we didn’t have in the apartment was furniture so we decided to rent some for couple of weeks while waiting for our furniture to arrive from US. We left the house in US completely unpacked and only prepared a few suitcases; the rest was efficiently packed without us and arrived 6 weeks after.
  • We rented out our home in NJ and retained a property manager to help us with all maintenance details after we leave. This has been invaluable and absolutely worth the money.
  • We had 2 leased cars and used SwapALease to find folks who would take the leases over. Some automaker banks make the lease transfer effortless. It took just a few days and sufficient incentives for me to settle into commitments and another few weeks to finalize the transfer paperwork.
  • Hire a company to move your pet. Initially you’ll likely brave it alone but will soon discover that the paperwork and airport procedures are absolutely overwhelming.
  • Choose a fantastic moving company that really knows how to do intercontinental moves and has a great counter-part in Berlin who won’t mess up your delivery.

That’s it. I don’t mean to sound cheeky but it’s actually completely doable and only seems daunting in principle. Once you’re executing, you’re operating a checklist, it becomes all about unwavering project management. The biggest deal breaker for us was the school and it worked out rather well.

I’ve got a ton of early impressions and can only spew them out in random order:

  • Travel becomes effortless. With 28 vacation days and short distances, travel is fun again. My daily commute from NJ to Manhattan was longer than my vacation trips to France or Netherlands. Long weekend getaways are miraculous at first but you get used to them quickly. Air travel in Europe is most often laughably cheap if you know how to look for the right deals.
  • Weather is depressing. I’ve got a small sample size but have talked to enough folks to be convinced that 9 months out of a year are overcast and gloomy. I remember a stretch of 4 weeks with just 1 day of sun in between. Berlin is much cooler than NY in the summers and not particularly colder than NY in the winters yet somehow the stretch from Dec to May is disheartening.
  • Summers are absolutely glorious, at least so far. The evenings are cool and nobody has Air Conditioning installed here. Sun sets at 10pm in the Summer and that really prolongs your day. You do pay for it in the winter with sun sets at 3:45pm.
  • Berlin isn’t pretty. It’s gritty, dirty and still recovering from its DDR period architecturally and culturally. But a few months in, you start understanding it and falling in love with it. It’s not a rationalization and making do with what you’ve got yourself into, it’s about actually understanding that folks here detest polished, clean, prim & proper look and manufacture grittiness because it’s more interesting.
  • It’s much calmer and slower than any other major European city or NY. It’s a major capital and it’s huge in size but somehow, quite mellow and relaxing.
  • Everything is incredibly cheap unless you live in Prenzlauer Berg. People flock to Berlin because it’s such an affordable city.
  • It’s a remarkably kids-friendly city. The playgrounds are absolutely fascinating. At first, they appear a bit gritty and industrial but it only takes a few days to understand how unique and cool every one of them is. There are a ton of kinder cafes, where you can sit down to have your cappuccino and kids have their separate play area where they all congregate and give you space and peace. Finally, in Berlin, there is a mental model of letting kids be kids instead of the helicopter parenting approach in US. Kids are allowed to roam and even commute to school by public transport as early as 7–8. Oh also, you get paid to have kids in the form of kindergeld.
  • It’s a city where bicycling is the preferred mode of transportation. Second to bicycling is the mass transportation system which works better than anything I’ve seen; extremely reliable, consistent and fast. Owning a car in Berlin is probably a mistake aside from occasional need to get to a nearby lake in the summers.
  • Berlin is reasonably a safe city but looks much edgier than it actually is.
  • Really strong expat community and effortless to make friends and get together. We have a busier social life than back home.
  • You can walk around with an open container and enjoy your beer anywhere on the street. Feels wrong for the first 15 mins but you get used to it quickly.
  • Takeout is surprisingly well developed in Berlin between Foodora and Deliveroo.