What I Learned Moving to Berlin- 10 Lessons From an American Expat
When was the last time you had to begin all over again?
For me, it was last year when I boarded a one-way flight from San Francisco to Berlin. Alone and nervous. Ready yet still so naive.
I arrived on a crisp November day with two pieces of luggage, a broken heart from losing my mom to cancer, and a too-thin jacket from California. As I stepped through the falling leaves, teeth chattering in the cold, I thought to myself “Holy shit, it’s finally happening. I’m here.”
One year, a comedy/tragedy of errors, and numerous ups/downs later, I am proud to still call Berlin my home. Through it all, I’ve learned some lessons that I’d like to share with you.
Why am I writing this?
I want to help others who are thinking about moving to Berlin, or those who have newly moved to Berlin. I’ll share my personal story and advice, with focus on the psychological aspects of moving.
What this is NOT:
This is not a How-To Guide. There are already plenty of articles on the logistical aspects. As a bonus though, I’ll add some of those useful resource links at the end. ;) This is also not about moving to another European city, though many tips here could still apply.
Alright, auf gehts! (let’s go!) 🏃🏻
Here’s What I Learned Moving to Berlin
Before the Move:
- Be honest and clear about why you want to move to Berlin.
Moving to a foreign place can be difficult. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
- Why do you want to move to Berlin? What’s here that you can’t get elsewhere?
- Is it really worth it to pack up your life and start all over again in a new place?
- Or are you escaping from things in life you have to face anyway? (Reality Check: If you’re just running away from something, those problems will follow you, even to Berlin.)
I first fell in love with Berlin in 2014. Oh Berlin, my geographical soulmate. ❤ So sexy. So free-spirited. So artsy. So ALIVE. One sunny Spring day on vacation, while standing on picturesque Oderbergerstraße, I decided it would be my dream to live here one day.
For a few years, I put the dream on hold to be with my family in San Francisco. My mom was sick and home was where the heart was. However, when my mom died in 2017, I knew it was time to begin a new chapter in Berlin.
While it hasn’t been easy leaving the life I once knew, it helps that I had clear Whys for moving.
2. Do your homework. Test it out first.
If you’ve only visited in the summer and fell for Berlin’s sunny fairytale green beauty, I have news for you — it’s an entirely different city in the dark and freezing ass cold winter. It’s like having your beer goggles wear off after a hot night and waking up next to a cold stranger.
Visit in different seasons and spend at least a week here to see if it’s really what you think it’s like.
- Could you really build a life here? And afford the costs?
- Are there some viable career opportunities for you?
- What’s real life look like on the daily grind, and in all seasons?
- Can you imagine nurturing relationships, friendships, or a family here?
I had visited Berlin six times prior to moving, and on my last visit as a tourist I booked 2 weeks in an AirBnB. That way, I could observe normal daily life (not just the insane partying for which Berlin is notorious for.)
3. Do some deep introspection and self-assessment. You are your own best advocate.
We each have different personalities and lifestyles. That may impact how you plan your move and your timelines.
- Are you ready to leave things or people behind?
- Are you ok without having solid plans? Or does everything need to be planned out in detail?
- How much of the unknown can you tolerate? How comfortable are you with improvising in new situations?
- How much financial security do you need to feel safe? Do you need a steady source of income/a job before moving?
There is no one right way to make the move. Do what is necessary for you.
One of the toughest things for me was knowing that I would be leaving what was left of my family — my younger brother. After losing both our parents, I felt guilty about “abandoning” him. However, he supported my dream wholeheartedly and reminded me that he was a grown man now.
When I moved to Berlin, I had some savings and freelance communication consulting work that I could do remotely. This made the transition to Berlin feasible for me.
I’m also cool with not having step-by-step plans, and feel comfortable with improvising on the fly. I didn’t even have an apartment when I moved, and only upon arrival was I able to find a 3-month lease through Wunderflats. However, I did have a safety net since I kept my rent-controlled room in San Francisco temporarily until I was sure that Berlin could work.
Would somebody else do it differently? Probably. The point is, do the digging to know yourself and discover what you need first. Then you do you, boo!
4. Don’t be too proud to get outside help. You don’t have to move on your own.
You may indeed be highly capable, but if you’re losing sleep and growing white hairs over the stress, then get some help. There are professionals in which it is literally their job to help expats with moving to and settling in Berlin.
I tried to do it myself. I really tried. (Stubborn independence is a family trait.) Then I realized it was masochistic. It is not easy to move to a foreign country and try to get a new life set up — in a different language. One day during a breakdown I contacted an expat consultant from Expats in Wonderland who saved me. I highly recommend hiring a consultant to help with the process. There’s courage in admitting when you need help.
After The Move:
5. Know that even the best plans change. Relinquish control and trust the process.
There’s preparation…and then there is LIFE aka “the shit that life throws at you sometimes.” 💩 Even with the best planning, things change and you’ll end up rolling with the punches.
A few weeks after I arrived, I realized that my Schengen tourist visa was going to expire way earlier than I thought (Woops!). There was a moment when I thought I had to flee the country, defeated like a dog with its tail between its legs. I raced against the clock as the days expired. But by some miracle (and a ton of work), I was able to get a two-year freelance visa and stay. Thanks, Universe.
6. Learning German makes the experience 10x better.
It’s a difficult language to learn (der, die, das — what?!) but it’s worth the effort. Why?
- People are MUCH friendlier when you try to speak German
- You will be able to immerse in the culture and appreciate living in Germany better (i.e. order a beer properly #lifeskills 🍻)
- There’s A LOT of bureaucracy & paperwork to deal with. Even a little bit of German helps
I felt isolated and intimidated at first because I couldn’t speak German. As a communication consultant, not being able to communicate is like having an arm chopped off. Though many people speak English in Berlin, I still felt severely hindered.
When I finally signed up for a German class at GLS, my experience totally changed. Though I still sometimes feel like a 5-year old in class, at least I can now function at the store or bank.
You can sign up for an intensive course, learn with apps such as Duolingo, Babbel, or watch videos from Learn German with Jenny. However, the speaking component is super important, so I strongly suggest finding a class that fits your schedule.
P.S. People are forgiving about mistakes as long as you try.
7. Making friends IS possible! Find your online and offline communities.
Lots of people complain about how hard it is to make friends in Berlin. However, I’ve had a positive experience and here are my tips:
- Understand that although Germans might not open up easily, once you’re in you’re in. As a friend once explained to me: Northern Europeans are like coconuts — tough on the outside but soft on the inside. :)
- There are numerous online communities such as Berlin Expats, Toytown Germany, Berlin Reddit, and Berlin-Girl Gone International. Many of them are full of fellow expats. In these communities, you can learn and connect with others. People are usually helpful if you ask a question.
- Use Meetups, niche Facebook groups, or event listings such as this Berlin event calendar to find people with common interests. I’ve made multiple friends just by going to blockchain events since I’m a nerd and write about it.
- Leave your neighborhood/comfort zone and venture out to other areas. Berliners get stuck going to the same places in their kiez. Berlin is HUGE. GET OUT THERE and meet people!
8. If you miss home, recreate it with people or food.
Berlin is full of American expats so I barely missed America (and definitely did NOT miss Trump). However, I did miss my family and heritage.
As an Asian-American raised by immigrant parents in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I wanted to keep my cultural roots alive when I moved away. However, there’s not a lot of Chinese in Berlin. I also missed speaking Cantonese, which was a way to keep my parents legacy alive in me.
Imagine my delight when I met a beauty stylist who spoke Cantonese! Within a short time I also became friends with her blended German/French/Chinese family. Now I consider them part of my extended family in Berlin.
And the food? For many months I complained about how terribly inauthentic asian food was in Berlin. Finally one day I decided to suck it up and learn to cook it myself. On my first trip to Vinh-Loi, a giant asian supermarket, I filled the entire shopping cart like a kid in a candystore. My stocked pantry finally made my home feel like a home.
Berlin is a very multi-cultural city, so no matter where you’re from, you can find a sense of home here.
9. Accept that it is a different country with different customs. Don’t fight the differences — embrace them.
The sooner you accept the differences, the easier your life will become.
I used to dread going to the grocery store here. It’s an Olympic sport for the cashiers to see how fast they can swipe the groceries, flying at you like bowling balls at lightning speed! As you sweatily try to bag your own groceries, everyone else impatiently stares.
Initially, I b*tched about how stressful it was. But at some point I realized it was futile to fight it. I now proudly do my shopping with an IKEA bag, which has a HUGE opening for fast grocery bagging. Problem solved! :) The other day a cashier complimented my grocery bagging skills and I felt like I won Olympic gold.
Learning how to sort the trash was also a comical and confusing experience, but now I appreciate that Berlin is such an eco-friendly city.
10. Experiment and be ready to change. Let Berlin change you.
After awhile, you may discover that you’re no longer the person you once were. Berlin is a place to freely experiment and find your true self.
- Curious about exploring. People tap into their newly found creative sides, their geeky sides, and even their kinky sides. The beauty is that Berlin embraces it all.
- Open and patient during the transition.
- Ready to leave things behind that no longer serve you.
When I left America, I was an extrovert who would work crazy hours and party crazy hours. I expected to keep up that manic lifestyle in Berlin, where nightlife is world-famous.
However, I was surprised to find out that Berlin (and its winter) actually brought out the mellow introvert in me. As I stayed home more, I came to embrace it — rather than shame myself for “being too boring.”
I also became less of a workaholic. I cut my consulting hours down in favor of going to German school and working on my writing instead. In the beginning I beat myself up for working less client hours and making less money. However, over time I realized that leaving that Silicon Valley workaholic rat race behind was much healthier for my mind and body.
More than anything, I am so comfortable in my own skin now. I’m a different, more relaxed version of myself.
Let Berlin change you. It will be beautiful.
BONUS SECTION: Other Useful Berlin Resources
I hate discussing the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of moving, so I’ve avoided them in this article. However, I did want to give you some useful links. (But in return, please don’t ask me follow-up questions about them as I’m not a pro. Thanks 🙈)
Here you go:
Considering the move to Berlin or just easing in to your new home? I wish you the best of luck!
For more on Berlin, including reasons to love living in Berlin, please watch my YouTube video here and subscribe to my channel.
Jenn, A Happy Berliner