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What I’ve learned from five years of living in Berlin

From dealing with the unexpected and embracing culture to the hell of German bureaucracy and flat-hunting, here's what The Local's Rachel Loxton has learned from live in Berlin.

People walk in Berlin's Tempelhof airfield, with the TV tower in the background.
People walk in Berlin's Tempelhof airfield, with the TV tower in the background. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

I didn’t plan to move to Germany the day after Burns Night – the celebration of the Scots poet Robert Burns on January 25th – but that’s how it happened. My family made the traditional haggis, neeps and tatties as a send-off, and I headed to Berlin the next day. 

Somehow five years have passed and I’ve been reflecting on a few things I’ve learned along the way. I hope a few of you will relate, or find my experience helpful. 

Things don’t always go to plan… 

My plan was to see how it went in Berlin for six months. That’s manageable, I thought. Six months turned into a year, and here I am five years later. As a reaction to the Brexit vote among other things, I’d come to Berlin for an adventure, to see what was out there. I was lucky enough to have saved some money so quitting my job as a journalist in Aberdeen to go freelance in Berlin was scary but I had that financial cushion.

But then I tried freelancing and realised how hard it was. Germany is particularly savage towards freelancers who aren’t earning loads (just look at the cost of health insurance for the self-employed).

I needed a new strategy. So I signed up for a course to teach English as a foreign language and managed to get a freelance contract teaching people and businesses. It wasn’t well paid but it was consistent and it allowed me to write on the side.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about becoming a freelancer in Germany

…but that’s not always a bad thing

I learned a lot from teaching. The thing I liked most was that I got to spend time with Germans. The kind of Germans who didn’t necessarily speak that much English and were simply getting on with their lives. I love that Berlin is international and full of creative type, but it was a real pleasure to meet down to earth people. There were no hipsters on a ‘gap yah’ in sight. I loved going to Brandenburg to work at a factory where they ended up teaching me some German at the same time. 

Passengers wait for a train at the Berlin main station.

Passengers wait for a train at the Berlin main station. It’s good to get out of the city sometimes. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

I liked heading to the offices at the new BER airport (which was at that time still in its delayed closure phase) to chat to original Berliners, or the dude from Cologne, the woman from Hamburg. They taught me a lot about life in Germany that I’m not sure I would have been able to access so easily by staying inside the Berlin ring. They were friendly, open and welcoming which I appreciated. 

You need (some) German

It can seem at times that everyone in Berlin speaks English and a lot of people do.

But I really do think you need to have basic understanding of German at the very least. For life admin, like having to call up the Finanzamt (tax office), utilities services or even at the supermarket if you want to have small talk with the cashier (I’m joking, why would you try this?), speaking the language is such an advantage.

It’s not about being the best speaker, but it makes a difference when you try to learn. And Germans are so happy when people give it a go. 

READ ALSO: 12 ways to improve your life in Germany without even trying

Flat-hunting is hell 

Almost everyone who has ever tried to find a flat in Berlin wants to talk about how bad it is because we are traumatised. If you’re lucky enough to get a flat viewing, there could be a hundred other applicants there. That’s the reality; there are not enough flats. Or perhaps there are but there are not enough reasonably priced ones.

Those who are safely tucked away in state-owned apartments paying €300 a month for a three room place with a beautiful balcony will tell you that it wasn’t always that way. Or that you might get lucky! These people are annoying. Trying to find a flat in Berlin is so bad that one developer made a computer game about how depressing it is. 

Flats in Berlin.

Flats in Berlin. Finding a decently-priced flat does feel like the treasure at the end of the rainbow. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Gerald Matzka

My advice? If you plan to stay in Berlin for longer than a year, try and skip the sublet and sort out your own contract even if it takes time to find a place. Looking back, I wish I had done that, and maybe I’d be paying lower prices now. But listen. It’s hard out there. So we can only do our best.  

There’s no getting around German bureaucracy

I sometimes say that I will drown in a pool of German bureaucracy but I’m only half joking. I am in awe at the amount of letters I get from German companies. 

I heard someone say recently that in Germany, people on the whole are polite and welcoming – but institutions are not. That’s my experience. There’s a very aggressive business-like culture and that shows in the language used in letters and the way they do things.

Take the rent debacle. After the constitutional court ruled that the Mietendeckel – rent cap – was void, many people received a letter from their landlord demanding that the rent arrears were paid immediately, even though tenants had no say in any legislation in the first place.

At the end of the day, though, if you live here you have to accept it. Yes, you may end up having a massive filing system in your 30 square metre apartment full of letters that could have been emails or phone calls. But this is Germany. Things might be changing with the slow move towards modern technology but fax machines will always be held in high regard.

A fax machine.

The dreaded fax machine is still a thing in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Study the details 

One thing I’ve learned is that it pays to read the small print, and to inquire. Despite the aggressive letters, sometimes having a phone call with a real person from the Finanzamt turns out to be a not-terrible experience and they can help sort things out with little fuss. 

Big life changes are difficult abroad

Despite being in the very privileged position of choosing to move abroad, when life takes a turn for the worst, being away from home can feel awful. Whether it’s a break-up, losing a job or struggling in general, it can be hard to be away from family and friends.

During the pandemic, a major aspect for people living abroad is that we can’t travel home so easily. This hit me especially hard when Scotland brought in the hotel quarantine which meant I couldn’t get back unless I paid a lot of money and spent 10 days in a hotel room. I started imagining that something would happen to family members and I would not get to see them. It sent my anxiety spiralling. 

READ ALSO

Embrace German life…

If you had told me five years ago that I would actually enjoy going to a nude spa, I would have laughed in your face. But, yes, I have discovered the joys of visiting the sauna “textilfrei” (literally textile free or nude). I am still a little giggly and British about it all but I am learning to embrace the German ‘don’t care’ attitude to bodies.

Similarly, I am 100 percent on board with Abendbrot (yes – bread and cheese does make an evening meal!), the Wegbier (drinking a beer on the go – yes please) and Germany’s better work-life-balance, at least compared to the UK. I like that politics here is less dysfunctional than Britain, and that cycling is encouraged.

A selection of Brötchen (rolls).

A selection of Brötchen (rolls). Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

I love that you can travel easily to other countries from Germany when the pandemic allows.

I also love the variety of things you can do in Berlin, and the food, which ranges from Turkish to Vietnamese to Eritrean.  It is such a culturally rich city in many ways. 

READ ALSO: How Germany’s marvellous bread helped me overcome food anxiety

… but stay true to yourself

You don’t have to like everything about Germany. There are some things I’ll never get on board with, like the EC “electronic cash” card. No, I don’t really understand what it is and, no, I will never have one. 

As well as a good moan, I’ve found it helpful to be myself even if it goes against the German – or at least Berlin – way of doing things. I will try out small talk with people sometimes even if they ignore me because I miss that culture from home. 

I also like to surround myself with things I’m familiar with now and again. Perhaps that’s why I was so excited to get what’s known as a ‘Burns supper’ recently. Haggis, neeps and tatties in a Berlin bar seemed like the perfect way to mark five years of living here.

Member comments

  1. Totally on board 100000 million percent Rachel. And the company attitude is hitleresque! You get more bees with hiney than with lemons

  2. EC card is a debit card that can only be used in Germany and only offline. It is was cheaper for retailers and banks to deal with (as they don’t have to give a cut to Visa or Mastercard) – so it’s very common.

    1. EC card is being replaced by V-pay. Still a debit card, still offline (is it?). but at least international.

  3. My constant struggle is the lack of response when I send an e-mail. German businesses seem to expect a phone call, always…

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

PODCAST: The big problem with the German school system and can you pass a citizenship test?

Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.

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