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What moving to Berlin as a British exchange student during the pandemic taught me

Bennett wearing a face mask on the U-Bahn. Photo courtesy of the author.
Moving to another country is a stressful experience at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. Eve Bennett reflects on the struggles and the rewards of coming to live in Germany in such an unprecedented year.

If you’d have told me at the start of 2020 that I would be writing this piece in an apartment in Berlin, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

I study German and Spanish at university in the UK, meaning I am required to spend the third year of my course working or studying in countries that speak my target languages.

The opportunity to spend a year abroad and immerse myself in new cultures was the reason I chose my course, and I’ve been dreaming of being able to pack a suitcase and leave my normal life behind since I first learned to say ‘Guten Tag‘.

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But although I was excited to embrace the chic, cosmopolitan European lifestyle, I was not expecting to come to Germany until 2021 at the earliest.

I had devoted a lot of time to brushing up my Spanish, having planned to spend the second half of the 2020 studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

But just three months later, as the coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise and borders began to close, my perfectly planned year abroad evaporated overnight.

READ ALSO: Opinion: What it feels like to be an American in Germany during the coronavirus pandemic

A spontaneous decision

It soon became impossible to leave my own house in the UK for non-essential reasons, let alone to leave the country. Those university students already living abroad were forced to fly home and there were talks of scrapping the year abroad entirely for the following year.

Thankfully, as lockdown measures began to show results and case numbers began to drop, it seemed I would be able to make the big move anyway, even if it was not quite in the way I had originally envisioned. 

In Berlin over the summer, it might have been hard to tell there was a pandemic. Photo: Eve Bennett

I made sure to follow the global situation very closely during lockdown, scouting out countries safe that would be enough to travel to. It soon became clear that Latin America would remain out of the question, so I turned my search closer to home.

Ultimately, Germany seemed like the safest bet. Compared to the delayed and disorganised response of the UK, an early lockdown and clear government messaging ensured that the country came out comparatively well from the first wave.

Inspired with confidence that the country had the situation under control, I decided to bite the bullet and move to the German capital seven months earlier than planned. 

READ ALSO: How Germany's international residents are affected by the coronavirus pandemic

A strangely normal start 

Anyone who has moved to Berlin will know that the flat-hunt is far from easy during normal times, let alone under the current circumstances. The difficulties of online-viewings and limited vacancies were compounded by the constant fear that a second wave would stop me in my tracks.

After what felt like an eternity spent on WG-Gesucht and eBay Kleinanzeigen, I eventually found a place to live and hopped on a flight not long after. 

Packing up your life and moving to another country is enough to make anyone feel anxious, and despite stabilising case numbers, the risk of coronavirus remained very real. 

But from the moment I got off the plane at Schönefeld I knew my confidence in Germany had not been misplaced. 

Despite moving from a normal-sized town to a bustling capital, I felt safer than I had ever felt at home. Coronavirus testing was readily available for all arrivals at the airport (a novelty coming from England) and hygiene rules were well signposted and strictly enforced.

As I explored the city, I also noticed that people were generally more observant of the requirement to wear masks on public transport and in shops than they were back at home, which helped put my mind at ease. 

In fact, there were days where the pandemic almost entirely slipped my mind – the glorious summer weather made it easy to forget the difficult months of spring and enjoy a few weeks of relative normality.

READ ALSO: 'There needs to be a complete lockdown again': How well is Germany handling the coronavirus second wave?

Easy adjustment period?

I also felt more secure in the knowledge that Germany’s coronavirus response was far more organised than the UK. 

The country has a working contact-tracing app, sufficient testing capacity and a clear, no-nonsense set of rules, all things that the UK government are yet to achieve. 

The Europeans’ love for outdoor living and dining also made building a support network here far easier than I had expected. 

My fears of being unable to meet new people due to social distancing regulations dissolved when I realised just how many opportunities there were to meet in a safe way.

Whether it was sipping Radler on the banks of the Spree or watching the sunset at Tempelhofer Feld, there were plenty of outdoor spaces that were perfect for building new, long-lasting friendships.

Even the nightmare bureaucracy I had been told to expect when arriving in Germany was made easier by the pandemic. The notorious Anmeldung process can now be done online, saving me a long queue at the Bürgeramt (and a great deal of stress). 

Sudden changes

Initially it felt fantastic to be in Germany, knowing I had escaped the chaotic situation in the UK. I received countless messages from friends expressing their jealousy that I was living the continental dream. 

READ ALSO: Why is Germany doing better than the UK at fighting a resurgence of Covid-19?

Of course, adjusting to life in a new city takes some time, even when you aren’t still struggling to acclimatise to the reality of a global pandemic. But once I had overcome the usual mental and administrative hurdles, I finally felt like I was finding my feet. 

And then, out of the blue, my district in Berlin was named as a ‘risk area’ by the German government. 

Cases in the capital began to skyrocket as the weather got colder and the days grew shorter, and it wasn’t long before various federal states banned tourists from risk zones staying in hotels.

The author enjoying a bit of normalcy in a Berlin park over the summer. Photo courtesy of the author.

Soon after, the 11pm curfew on bars and restaurants was introduced, and the bustling city I had come to love grew even quieter. 

Normally, a short trip home to see familiar faces and indulge in home comforts is enough to help you when you’re feeling stressed or alone, but growing travel restrictions soon took this option off the table as well.

Far from home

Moving away from home can be an isolating experience, and in recent weeks it has been hard to shake the feeling of being increasingly trapped.

But despite the ever-changing circumstances around me, the pandemic has also enriched my time here in ways I didn’t expect.

The inability to travel around Europe as I had originally planned was initially hard to swallow, but the current travel restrictions have led me to explore places I would never normally think of visiting.

When my planned trips to Vienna, Prague and Dresden fell through, I decided to visit the town of Szczecin in Poland whilst the country was not a risk area, and I was blown away by how much it had to offer.

I have also used the free time I had set aside for travelling to get to know Berlin on a much deeper level, which has made me realise that you don’t always need to go far to make amazing memories. Sometimes, there are incredible things lying just under your nose.

The last few months have been challenging in many ways, and the move to Germany was far from what I was expecting.

But as we head into a difficult few months, I am more certain than ever that I chose the right country to stick out the winter in.

 

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