Observations from a Brexile’s first year living in Berlin
I wrote a piece after my first month here with initial, fresh observations. It’s now been a year, in which I learnt (some) German, lost 21kg, started recovering from alcoholism and got married. Here’s my perspective after 12 full months of Berlin.
I will always love the NHS, but Germany’s health system spoils me
The NHS is a wonderful institution that must always be defended, but Germany has marked differences. Because the money comes from insurance companies directly (which in turn is taken directly from your salary along with your taxes) German healthcare is profoundly well-funded. Doctors here are not restricted by the incentive to save money, so you get the treatment and the attention you need. Because of the funding model there are few endless debates about what should or shouldn’t be paid for on healthcare in Germany. This does, of course, have its downsides (homeopathy is far too prevalent).
German healthcare is rated among the top in Europe, with patients being able to seek and attain any sort of healthcare they require whenever they want it. Health insurance also covers long-term sick pay, which leads me to…
Sickness is rewarded with compassion and care, not suspicion
Let’s be honest, if you take a sick day back in the UK you find yourself panged with guilt, no matter how ill you are. Your employer will tell you to get well soon, but you know they’re not happy about it. The law does not mandate companies to pay you for sick days and statutory sick pay is flat-rate and inadequate. Why are you ill?! So inconsiderate!
In Germany, your workplace is required to give you full pay for up to 42 days if you are off sick for a particular illness. This six week period resets for different sicknesses (e.g. if you’re off for flu, then later because of an injury, they come off two separate 42 day blocks). After that, your health insurance takes over and pays 70% of your salary for up to 78 weeks. The doctor is extremely liberal at signing you off work for a few days to get better, to the extent that I’ve said no before when offered.
The culture here is to get rest and get well. I have a suspicion, having been here for a year now, that this is why Germans are so productive. Restricting sick days is a false economy — ill employees take longer to recover if they don’t rest and, inevitably, infect everybody else in the office. The UK should take note.
German will take you years to learn
This feels like it should be obvious, but it warrants mentioning here because there are so so many “Learn German in 30 days!” books and courses everywhere you look. This heightens expectations, as it did for me, and I suspect the lack of perceived progress puts so many people off at an early stage.
Berlin is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to communicating. A blessing in that everybody speaks English. A curse in that this means it’s very easy to jump back into your comfort zones, especially when Berliners are so keen to switch to English to help you out.
I am currently around 10% up the German language mountain. I can largely read it, construct basic sentences in all the different tenses with the correct cases. I deliberately place myself in social situations where everybody else is speaking German to try and immerse myself. This is the hardest bit — listening to native speakers comfortably splurt out perfect German at high speed. In those moments, I look up and see the 90% of the mountain I still have left to climb. It’s disheartening. For anybody learning a language properly for the first time in a new country, it’s very easy to forget to look down at the 10% and say, “you know, I’m doing alright”.
Germany is both the worst and best place to be an alcoholic
Obviously this is a matter very personal to me, but as it affects so many people and it has been a key feature of my last 12 months, it’s going in here. Just under five months ago I admitted to myself that I had an alcohol problem. I was drinking the equivalent of two bottles of wine a night, every night. This is an extension of alcohol abuse I’ve been engaging in ever since I was in Sixth Form at the age of 16.
Living in a country where the booze is cheaper than the fizzy drinks makes this problematic. A case of beer costs roughly anything from 7 to 18 euros. After much tasting (and drinking) I found a very nice bottle of red wine being served at pretty much every store that costs 2.99 euros a bottle. Unlike in London, I could drink copious amounts of booze and not feel it in my wallet.
Conversely, Germany has some incredible alcohol-free options. My local corner store has roughly 5–6 different types of alcohol-free beer (I heavily recommend Erdinger Alkoholfrei, which is also available at places in the UK). For my wine cravings, Rotkäppchen Alkoholfrei Sekt is a lovely booze-free fizzy wine. The problem with the beer, of course, is that the alcohol-free stuff is more expensive than the actual stuff; but for someone like me, it’s an extremely helpful means to wean off dependency.
Pretty much every bar sells at least one alcohol-free option, so you are covered on your nights out as well.
Berlin is one of the best and safest cities in the world for LGBT+ people
There is no such thing as a homophobia-free city, but Berlin does pretty well. Known as a queer hotspot from as early as the 1870s, Berlin was famed for being a liberal sexual utopia, even if in the wider country, it was still illegal.
Being painfully aware I can only speak on behalf of the G in LGBT+, it’s safe to say that gay men are very well catered for. From the historic gay district in Schöneberg, with its many queer cafes, doctor surgeries, pharmacies, book shops, clothes shops, multiple bars, clubs (for partying, sex, or both — whatever your taste); to the large gay sauna in Mehringdamm; to queer spaces/clubs like Schwuz in Neukölln, you are spoilt for choice here.
Large events like Folsom (which I wrote about here), Christopher Street Day (Pride) and Berlin Leather Fetish Week attract LGBT+ crowds from around the world. Berlin is one of the few cities I can hold hands with my husband in public without anxiously looking over my shoulder.
I have no regrets
It’s very difficult moving abroad with no savings, leaving friends and family behind, but after 12 months I can say I’m as enthusiastic about this place as I was when my plane touched down. Berlin has looked after me and after a year it truly is my home.
For those of you worried about Brexit, or as I was, simply felt the need to get away from the insular island to truly experience being one of May’s despised “citizens of the world”, I cannot recommend Berlin more. The rent and the living costs are cheap, the city is a wondrous treasure trove of history and you will rarely find anywhere so uninhibited and liberal.
Ich liebe Berlin. Sie können auch!