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Breaking up with Berlin: why expats fall out of love with the German capital

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Breaking up with Berlin: why expats fall out of love with the German capital
Sabrina Iovino, who left Berlin in 2008, in front of the iconic Teufelsberg spy station. Photo: Private
12:36 CEST+02:00
Berlin can cast a spell on expats. On an adventure around Europe, some plan to live here for a few months, but end up staying years, enchanted by the creativity, the multiculturalism, and the nightlife. A full 463,000 people living in Berlin last year were foreign-born.

Once the honeymoon period comes to its natural end and homesickness hits, however, the reality of living and working in the capital kicks in. The language barrier, the competition for low-paid work, and the harsh winters in this transit city – where friends come and go – can dampen the love affair.

The Local spoke to six expats who left Berlin in the last decade. Young, wide-eyed, and filled with wanderlust, they were drawn to the creative buzz, startup scene, and cheap living costs, but ultimately fell out of love with the city.

Scraping by for a living

Katya Petrova went to Berlin in pursuit of an creative career, but ended up doing a total of 19 different paid jobs here. Photo: Private.

Katya Petrova, a self-described “urban explorer,” moved to Berlin in 2011 after completing three creative arts degrees in Latvia and the UK. At the age of 25, she came to the city with a dream to work in a creative field by day and party by night.

“I was young, naïve, and quite fearless,” she says. “I thought Berlin, being so cultural, should be the best place to land a job in a creative media agency.”

But her dreams didn't materialize. Facing a lot of competition from young artists who were willing to work for very little or no money, Petrova ended up doing 19 different paid jobs. First she worked as a chef's assistant in a paleo restaurant, then as a social media marketer, journalist, tour guide, video editor, and even as a bottle collector.

“I never missed a bottle too. That's how sad it was sometimes,”  she says. In a post on her blog Avant Hard from July 2017, Petrova jokingly wrote, “How am I supposed to ever fit all this in my two-page CV? I might just change my LinkedIn title to Senior Survivor Strategist.”

She lived on €300 to €400 a month, which was enough for her to scrape by, but not enough to buy new clothes or a bus fare to visit her mother in Latvia.

Leaving Berlin isn't as simple as packing up and boarding plane. Kathleen Parker helps expats tie up loose ends and leave the city. Photo: Private.

Kathleen Parker, the founder of Red Tape Translation, which helps English-speaking expats in Germany navigate the maze of German bureaucracy, cited the main reason for leaving Berlin as finding a better-paid job opportunity elsewhere.

“I think people quite often misjudge Berlin,” Parker said. “When they move to Berlin, it seems like a very cheap city and it is generally in comparison to other places. But then funds start to run out and… self-employment is much harder to sustain financially.”

Petrova's lack of financial stability took a psychological toll, lowering her sense of self-worth and distorting her attitude to money.  Moreover, she lacked a stable social network. Although she connected strongly to other expats, spending so much time in the international community had its disadvantages.

“Berlin is like the largest European airport, where you wait for a connecting flight,” she says. “It's not a problem to meet new, wonderful people, but it's hard to keep them as friends.”

She noticed that her career-oriented friends quickly became dissatisfied with Berlin. One after the other, they moved to other destinations in search of more lucrative jobs.

Eventually, so did she.

Petrova received a job offer from Google European HQ in 2015 and now lives in Dublin, Ireland. She has no plans to return to Berlin.

Struggling with the language

Fed up with living in Birmingham, where he had grown up, Adam Fekete moved to the German capital in January 2010 and worked at an English-speaking startup as a software engineer.

Since many Berliners speak English fluently and there is a large English-speaking expat community, Fekete admits he felt less pressure to learn German. In hindsight, he wishes he had reached fluency.

“I thought I might pick it up as I go along, but it was kind of difficult because everyone does speak English there,” he says. “This made it a bit harder [to make friends] in the German community because of the language barrier.”

In her work with hundreds of English-speaking expats, Parker has noticed that the German language, while not an initial obstacle, can ultimately hinder integration efforts and turn people off the city.

“If there's one city in Germany that you would get away with not learning the language it's Berlin,” Parker says. “It's very easy to have a social circle that is pure expats, but the problem with that life is that everyone leaves after a couple of years.”

Fekete was also occasionally frustrated by the unfriendliness and poor customer service in Berlin. He remembers several times when people were rude or curt towards him, recalling a time he tried to buy a sound system at a multimedia store.

“I asked the guy in the shop to talk me through some of the products and he said, ‘just go look at them.' So, I left the shop.”

The catalyst for his return home after eight years in Berlin was the birth of his nephew. Back home and surrounded by his old friends and family, Fekete says he thinks he underestimated how homesick he would feel abroad and the toll that leaving his loved ones behind would have on him.

Yet he warned repatriates that they might experience reverse culture shock.

“It's weird being back after eight years,” Fekete says. “You're still in the group and you're still integrated, but there's an entirely different set of memories that they share and that you weren't a part of.”

Facing prejudice from the locals

Graffiti from the street where Emily Gibbons and her partner lived, which reads, “You aren't a Berliner.” Photo: Private.

Fresh out of university, both aged 22, Emily Gibbons and her partner moved from Britain to Berlin in 2010.

“When we first moved to Berlin, the novelty and excitement blocked out the negative aspects but that waned over time,” she says.

Determined to become Berliners, they tried to assimilate into local life by stepping outside of the English-speaking bubble and making friends with locals.

However, this strategy backfired when they began experiencing hostility from them. While some locals were extremely welcoming and appreciated their German language skills, they suffered verbal abuse from others.

“We had a fair share of hostility because we weren't German and this definitely impacted our time in Berlin,” she recalls. “We were regularly shouted at in the street and on public transport for speaking English to each other and some people in our [district] hung posters blaming foreigners for rising rents, so we didn't really feel welcome.”

It became harder to call Berlin their home and made them miss Britain more.

Fraying family bonds took its toll, as did the pain of missing a family milestone like a birth or a wedding.

“It was always a little bittersweet to hear about all the things we'd missed,” Gibbons says. “Grandparents getting older. And the birth of a niece was a kind of turning point.”

The couple are now living in rural Yorkshire, which they find better accommodates this stage of their lives. “It was just time for us to leave,” she says. “I think it made me appreciate living here and the availability of strong cheddar and Twirls.”

Catching the travel bug

Multicultural Berlin inspired Iovino to leave the city and travel the world. Photo: Private.

Sabrina Iovino is a German-Italian who grew up near Stuttgart in the south of Germany, where she lived until her early 20s. She moved to Berlin when she was 25.

“I remember, I just went for a weekend to Berlin and I loved it,” she says. “That was my first time in Berlin. One year later I quit my job and everything in Stuttgart. I terminated my apartment contract and just moved without a job or anything.”

With its stately architecture and smartly-dressed executives, Stuttgart contrasts starkly to the capital. Iovino found Berlin to be refreshingly unconventional, international, and cheap.

“In Stuttgart, people were so narrow-minded,” she says. “Back there, I would pay 400 euros for one bedroom and then I came to Berlin and I could afford my dream apartment.”

It was relatively easy to find a cheap apartment to rent in Berlin two decades, with the average rental price around €6 per square meter.

The city was still remaking itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall and there was a large surplus of public housing in addition to some empty houses, making it a paradise for squatters, bohemians, and young people. Berlin's reputation spread quickly and since then hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to the capital, doubling and sometimes tripling rents.

Inadvertently, it was here in Berlin – spending more time with people from all corners of the globe than with locals – that Iovino caught the travel bug. She learned English from her international friends, listened to their stories of foreign places, and tried new cuisines in restaurants around the city.

In 2008, she left Berlin, heading to India first and then Turkey. For the past 5 years, she has moved around East Asia, financing her adventures through her travel blog ‘Just One Way Ticket.'

Burdened by Berlin's bureaucracy

Rachel Bale took a creative risk in Berlin, resigning from her teaching job and launching her travel blog Department of Wandering. Photo: Private.

Rachel Bale, an Australian from Melbourne, moved to Berlin in 2013 when she was 27 years old after her partner received a job offer from Volkswagen.

“It was a difficult period of adjustment, especially the first six months away from home,” she says. “Not only are you missing friends and family, but you're also adjusting to a whole new way of life, learning a new language and settling into a new job.

Even after two and half years away from home, Bale and her partner still missed how easy everything felt in Australia. Struggling with the language and wading through bureaucratic paperwork, they were tired of Berlin.

“From getting visas, to cancelling contracts, to dealing with everyday situations like visiting the pharmacy or post office, nothing was easy,” she remembers.

They moved back to Australia in 2015, returning to the scorching summers and company of laid-back Aussies in Melbourne.

As it turns out, leaving Berlin is burdened with almost as much bureaucracy as moving to Berlin.

To leave the capital, expats must first deregister from Germany. Ideally, they should inform the authorities a month beforehand, but they have a two-week window. Once they receive a document that confirms their deregistration, they can cancel any running contracts such as their health insurance, landline, and utilities, as well as terminate their rental contract.

“There's a bit of bureaucratic chaos and you expect everything to be wrapped up quickly,” Parker says. “Quite often it takes months to get all the loose ends tied up.”

Still in love

One of the expats we spoke to, however, has not fallen out of love with Berlin.

Eager to discover more of Europe and find a better job, Virginia Head — who is originally from Minnesota in the U.S. — moved to Berlin in the summer of 2012 after spending a year in Prague.

“I was teaching English like all American expats who don't work in tech,” she says wryly. “I left the preschool after a few months because I just couldn't work full-time with kids. It was too much for me.”

Head admits that her goal wasn't to assimilate into Berlin life. With one foot always outside the city, she never committed to learning the language.

“I was a really shitty expat and a total asshole and I never learned German properly,” she says. “I used to say I wish Berlin spoke French because I would love to learn French, but I don't want to live in Paris.”

After working in a nursery, she subsequently did odd jobs here and there, considering 15 different occupations at a time and feeling professionally unfulfilled.

It wasn't until the Berlin Art Week that she turned her attention to the city's artists, who she discovered could make a living from their artwork alone.

“I remember feeling really jealous these people could work in art all the time and I wanted to be one of them,” Head says.

This episode in her life inspired her to return to America in 2014 to get her Master's in Arts Management.

Head has no bitterness towards Berlin and reminisces about all the parties she attended. “I really liked the nightclub scene, which is bananas. Partying in old warehouses and old communist buildings, I loved that.”

She says that she hasn't broken up with Berlin.

“It just isn't where my family is in Minneapolis, the U.S., and I had been away for three years,” she says. “I'm still very much in love with Berlin. I think about it every day.”

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Teresa - 04 Sep 2018 10:28
The Local should consider bringing in more diversity to its posts, e.g. non-Europeans and/or non-English speakers (of course stories would then be translated). It's easy to "go back home" when you're a short train ride away. Or when you come from a developed / advanced economy. :)
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