Welcome to a New Life in Berlin
I came to Berlin in October with
a 3-month tourist visa, one suitcase, and no idea what
I was doing.
To most of my friends and family,
Berlin seemed a random and slightly insane choice for
starting my post-graduate life. But to me, it was the
only choice. In 2013, I had traveled through France,
Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany on a writing grant
from my college. In Frankfurt, for the first time, I
met the family of my grandmother who had passed away
when I was a baby. My great-uncle, aunt, and cousins
were so kind and welcoming to me, and yet before long
it became clear that not speaking German was a barrier
to getting to know each other. I needed to learn German.
With my bachelor’s degree in English and headstrong desire
to become a writer, the intense and inspiring art scene
of Berlin made it the natural choice.
Before I left, I booked a cheap hostel
for five nights, thinking this would be adequate time
to find a place to live. I was sorely mistaken. October
is just about the hardest time to find a place in Berlin,
since so many students are arriving for university. Additionally,
it’s hardest to find a place when it is also the first
time you arrive in Germany. Without a German bank account
and Schufa (i.e., German credit score) people are less
likely to rent to you. But you can’t get either of those
things until you have a place to live! Dealing with such
closed circles can be frustrating, to say the least.
I spent hours sitting in the bar
of the hostel (the only place with Wi-Fi) sending out
hundreds of messages inquiring about rooms. After almost
a whole month at the hostel, I finally landed
a place. I found it on Facebook. It was a short-term
sublet of one room, sharing an apartment with one other
guy in Wedding. I occupied a part of it called a “Durchgangzimmer.”
In English, this translates roughly to “walk-through-room.”
My flat-mate had to walk through my room in order to
get his room, and my bed was technically just the couch.
Not very glamorous, but without any previous connections
in Berlin, no German, and only a limited supply of money,
my options were limited.
|Badstrasse in Wedding.
After signing the contract, I was
able to go to the Buergeramt and get my Anmeldebestaetigung.
This little piece of paper proves that I’m registered
as living in Germany, and is required for just about
everything else (e.g., opening a bank account, signing
up for language classes, getting a transportation card).
It turned out to be a great decision.
At first, living with a stranger was awkward, and we
tiptoed around each other without ever engaging. But
after a few weeks, my French-Canadian flat mate and I
bonded spectacularly over our "North Americanness," our
love of 90’s pop divas, and our drive to master the German
The "Artist" Visa
|Street Art in Friedrichshain.
There is no way I would still be
in Berlin if I hadn’t asked for and accepted help right
from the beginning. A chatty American at the hostel told
me about the "artist visa."
“It’s for any type of freelance artist—musicians,
deejays, graphic designers, writers. I met
a guy who went into his appointment
with just 1000 Euros in his bank and an amazing portfolio
and he got it on the spot. Three years.”
This was what I needed.
The only problem was that I had never actually worked
as a writer, beyond typing obituaries for my college
magazine and writing two measly articles for my grandma’s
I made my appointment at the Auslaenderbehoerde,
and was given a date three months later. (Since my tourist
visa was going to expire before my appointment, this
meant I had to leave the Schengen zone on a few short
trips in order to add days. The Schengen Zone includes
most of the EU, excluding the U.K.)
The Auslaenderbehoerde (i.e., foreigner’s
office) is a one of the unfortunate aspects of being
a foreigner in Berlin, as is the Buergeramt (i.e., citizen’s
office). Legally living in Germany requires much paperwork
and waiting in line. It also requires some basic German.
The office workers at the public offices in most cities
do not to speak English, so if your command of German
is nonexistent, bring a friend or hire a translator.
Once I had registered my apartment
and set the date for my visa apartment, I signed up for
German classes. I chose the Volkshochschule, which is
a public college that offers cheap language classes—and
classes in just about everything else. Unfortunately,
the A1.1 level German classes fill up quickly, so I was
on a waiting list for a month and a half. During that
time, I focused on collecting the required documents
for my visa and getting to know the city, but made little
effort on my own to learn the language. My flat-mate
reminded me why I had come to Berlin in the first place.
“If you want to learn German, you
need to make German a priority. You should be on DuoLingo,
Babel, whatever. Make flash cards, practice. If you don’t
make the effort, it’s never going to happen.”
People have suggested to me that
as a location Berlin was not the optimal choice to learn
German. A massive English-speaking community exists in
the city. Start with all the expats from English-speaking
countries, then add in all the other foreigners who speak
English better than they speak German, and then on top
of that you have the bi-lingual, as well as not-so-uptight
Germans who have no problem speaking English with you.
In fact, a lot of them would rather speak English than
help you stumble through your toddler-level Deutsch.
It just saves time for everyone.
It is a hard language. The
first several times I ordered coffee or asked for directions,
people couldn’t tell at all what language I was actually
speaking. But the only way to improve is to practice,
even though you might feel like a fool initially. You
have to be willing to accept the fact that some people
are going to be rude to you and may even laugh at you.
And such might always be the case, even when your German
I’m still in my intensive course
at the Volkshochschule, every Monday through Friday from
8:30 AM to 12:45 PM. There are about 18 of us from all
over the world. I am the only American, although there
is one Canadian, and an English girl. It’s exhausting,
especially since I’ve started working, but it’s incredibly
rewarding. Every conversation with a cashier or someone
on the U-Bahn feels like a tiny victory.
Getting around Berlin is fast and
easy. Within Zone A and most of Zone B, you’re almost
never more than a 10-minute walk from a U-Bahn or S-Bahn
station, and bus stops are even more frequent. Two different
companies run the main train systems, the S-Bahn and
the U-Bahn. Deutsche Bahn, a company that operates trains
across the rest of Germany, owns the S-Bahn, which includes
the Ring-Bahn that circles around Zone A at the very
middle of the city. The U-Bahn is essentially the subway,
and is owned by a company called BVG. Both are interconnected,
and when you purchase a day ticket or other long-term
ticket, it works for both S-Bahn and U-Bahn, as well
as buses and trams. Berlin also accommodates bicyclists
well. Just remember to buy a bell and a good lock.
Unlike the transport in almost every
other part of the world, in Berlin (and other cities
and Germany), you ride the train/bus/tram on the honor
system. At every station or stop, there is a machine
to buy tickets—with instructions in a dozen different
languages—and a separate place to stamp them. But you
don’t have to scan or swipe anywhere before getting on
the train. It’s quite possible to walk onto the train
with no ticket, and ride to your destination.
My second day in Berlin I rode the
U-Bahn to a bookstore in Neukoelln. I paid my E2.70 for
a 1-way ticket, stamped it, and went all the way to my
stop. On the way home, however, having just spent 12
Euros on books, I asked myself a question: Why should
I waste three more Euros on a ticket I don’t even need? I
stepped on the train and leaned inconspicuously against
the wall in the wobbly place that connects the two cars.
A girl about my age stood next to me, and across from
us was a man in a puffy black winter coat. We briefly
made eye contact and then I put in my headphones. I
can do this. No problem.
All of the sudden, after one stop,
the man in black threw open his coat and pulled out a
mid-sized computer, black plastic and severe. “Die Fahrscheine,
bitte.” Oh no. Everyone around us started retrieving
tickets from pockets and purses, and I became awestruck
at the sheer number of law-abiding citizens. Every other
person on this train had a ticket. When he came up to
me, I rummaged through my bag out of instinct, and pulled
out my old ticket. First, I apologized for speaking English,
and then I feigned confusion over the mistake. The girl
who had been standing next to me also had an expired
ticket, but she was debating in a loud London accent
that the ticket machine had given her incorrect information.
For all her shouting and all my timidity, we both were
hit with 40-euro fines. I’ve since gained a new appreciation
for the honor system.
You Are What You Eat
When I was growing up, my mom constantly
talked about the virtues of organic food, but saw it
as more of a luxury item rather than a staple for our
diet. Personally, I hated most everything aside from
pasta and McNuggets.
The first time I came to Europe,
one of the first things I noticed was the M&M’s.
They tasted different. Better. I checked the
label, and realized the difference. Sugar. I’d never
tasted an M&M made with real sugar.
Germans care a lot about
the origination of their food. In general, most of them
are skeptical (to put it mildly) of genetically modified
crops, and put more emphasis on free-range and organic,
or “bio” choices. There are bio-shops all over the place,
and regular grocery stores carry bio options for everything.
Even the food at McDonalds looks and tastes different:
no dyes, and fewer artificial flavorings.
The good people of Berlin have opted
for a more multi-kulti culinary scene than traditional
German cuisine. There are dining options from every continent,
and prices are generally reasonable. A dinner for two,
including drinks, can easily be had for under 40 Euros—under
30 if you’re not that fussy about ambience. And, of course,
there are always Doener kebaps and Currywurst available
for less than 5 Euros.
Berlin is world-renowned for its
street art, which is something I didn't discover until
I was alongside it. Walking through Kreuzberg one morning,
a friend of mine made us stop and turn around. Across
a vacant lot were two enormous black and white murals.
On one, two cartoonish figures reached for each other’s
faces, pulling at the masks they were wearing. On the
other wall, in the same style, was the just torso of
a man with hands raised across his chest, wearing bright
yellow watches that doubled as shackles.
“Those were painted by an Italian
artist, and those two guys symbolize East and West Berlin.
There used to be a huge squat here in this lot, and now
they’re thinking of tearing the buildings down.”
That was in late October. In the
beginning of December, I sat at my desk, scrolling through
my Wordpress reader to see images of the walls completely
blackened. Most of the articles said that the murals
had been painted over on direct orders from Blu, the
artist. He claimed he didn’t want his art to be used
as a means to sell apartments and make profits for rich
The primary reason Berlin became
such a center for art was due to the low cost of living,
which is ideal for artists and students. But artists
and students tend to make an area extremely cool, and
before long, everyone wants to be there. Wealthy investors
see an opportunity, and rent prices climb. After a while,
the people who lived there initially are forced out by
the soaring prices.
I had vaguely understood the concept
of gentrification before coming to Berlin. At the risk
of sounding naïve and superficial, it had never occurred
to me that it might be something people would want to
fight. What are currently the "hippest" neighborhoods,
such as Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, are only so hip because
they used to be incredibly poor. After the Wall fell
in 1989, there was an entire decade during which the
city was so affordable that the art movement, techno
scene, and anti-authoritarian vibe flourished like mad.
Artists and students came in droves. The city earned
a reputation. Berlin was wild, fun, and what the mayor
would eventually call, “poor but sexy.” Foreign investors
capitalized on the cool factor and bought up huge amounts
of the city.
|East Side Gallery.
Gentrification is an uncomfortable
topic for me—a white, female, American writer. I feel
a bit like a product and a symptom of the disease. I
pay rent knowing it was not this price six months ago.
It still seems cheap to me, thinking in terms of New
York or London. Again, this is part of the problem. Berlin
is not New York or London, and who would want
it to be?
The Day of Reckoning
As my visa appointment drew closer,
I became more and more certain that I wanted to stay
and keep learning about this fascinating city. Yet no
lust for German life would magically get me my visa.
The stress was enormous. Everything would come down to
one bureaucrat at the Auslanderbehoerde, who would get
to decide whether I remain in Germany, living and working
legally, or whether I just wasted all my savings on a
fruitless—even frivolous—three and a half month expat
According to the application guidelines,
I needed to compile at least two letters of interest.
The guidelines were incredibly vague, but from what I
gathered by talking to other people who’d gone through
the same process, I needed job offers or letters from
potential clients in order to show that I would be able
to support myself in Germany. All the letters needed
to be from German-based businesses.
Ultimately, I collected five letters,
written in a mix of German and English, in varying degrees
of specificity, all from firms or individuals registered
as working in Germany. One tutoring job I found on Craigslist.
One copywriting job I landed after meeting some people
in a bar. One came from a citizen journal, and one from
an unpaid city-blog. One last one was just a short email
correspondence setting up a job interview for the following
week. I put all my paperwork in a black folder marked
with tabs, and bound a hardcopy of my writing portfolio.
I booked a professional interpreter, put on a blazer,
showed up one hour early, waited three hours in total,
and then it was done.
I obtained my visa. For the next
two years—at least—I get to call this phenomenal city
Resources for Moving to Berlin
Translation / Interpreting / General
Red Tape Translation
Ebay is a website for buying or selling
everything, but they have a great section
about apartment rentals. The entire site
is in German, but sometimes a picture, a
price, and a half-decent translation app
is all you need. kleinanzeigen.ebay.de/anzeigen/
as of this writing such as “Berlin
Startup Flats and Flatshares” and “wg
zimmer wohnung in Berlin” are
great. People post when they have a room available—usually
in German and English
strongly suggest reading Anna Funder’s Stasiland to
learn what it was like living in Berlin during
the GDR, and how that affects the city today.
Genevieve Van Voorhis is
a freelance writer and editor, living and working
in Berlin since October of 2014. Her other full-time
job is learning German, and she can usually be found
in cafes and libraries around the city, crying into
her Woerterbuch. She is originally from upstate New
York, and plans to remain in Berlin for the foreseeable