“What are you going to do about a job”, she asked “You can’t even speak German”.
This was the repetitive, daily conversation I had with my mum about six years ago once we had arrived in Berlin. You see the thing is, we never really planned to stay. And I mean really. We had a round the world ticket that was supposed to bring us back to Sydney in January of 2011.
It is now mid-August 2016.
A post sharing a non-exhaustive, randomised list featuring what I have learned about life in Berlin and Germany as well as the deutsch along the way.
Before we arrived in Berlin at the end of April 2009, the GFC had hit Sydney. And hard.Unlike most other GFC refugees lamenting in Sydney, applying for new jobs or already having a stroke thinking about how they were going to describe the gaps between employers on their CVs, we decided to be wild, free and reckless and take a 12 month sabbatical in Asia and Berlin.
So we threw in the towel, sold our car and other possessions,and booked an around-the-world ticket. We rode the 36 hour Trans-Mongolian railway from Beijing to Ulan Bator whilst acquiring a new appreciation for ear plugs and sleeping tablets during our stay in a traditional Mongolian ger with local families; swam with baby sharks and lived off green papaya in Thailand; hiked the Great Wall of China with tennis shoes and then observed the strange outdoor eating and drinking rituals on blue plastic groundsheets known as hanami (cherry blossom season) in Japan.
We had landed in Berlin, penniless and clueless, grateful for the refuge that was my mother in law’s apartment.
These are some of the things that I have learned the last six years:
- Germans still pay church tax. Yes, if you are Catholic or Protestant, a portion of your hard-earned Euros goes towards supporting cassocks, candles and congregations unless you willingly “ex-communicate” yourself from either of these institutions with a formal application form. In 2015 my husband,as a good,confirmed Catholic decided he’d rather work at a children’s charity or donate this money to refugees than to the world’s richest organisation. A move I whole-heartedly supported.
- Germans pay solidarity tax. Post 1990, in a bid to re-construct the neue Bundesländer (Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Mecklenburg-Pommerania, reunified Berlin and Brandenburg) a portion of every person’s income is taxed accordingly and the money goes towards building new roads,schools, hospitals in the east.
- It is really hard to find a job in Berlin. Like, really hard. The city suffered as a result of history, division and politics so that there was little industry here, and still is. The gap is slowly being filled, however, through a salt-and-pepper-smattering of start ups (milking free labour through clueless interns), american companies like Airbnb or Google or itinerant professionals who come to stay for a few months, (much to the chagrin of anti-gentrification Berliners who claim these international expats are ‘ruining’ the city). Post WW2, most industry and banks moved to Hamburg or Frankfurt (that is where the stock exchange is). Berlin was left like a phoenix amongst the dust and started literally from scratch. The automotive industry turned Bavaria from a provincial backwater into the California of Germany. And Berlin economically lost out big time, but emotionally, the Berliners never.
- See 3 above. You take pride in adding several job titles to your Linked in profile and any other social media platform. As a new arrival, I too learnt to cobble together whatever jobs I could. That is why most professional nomads work 3 or 4 jobs with one of your titles definitely including writer, editor, back-end developer, graphic designer. Former mayor Wowereit’s mantra that Berlin is “Arm aber Sexy” (poor but sexy) didn’t do much to inflate the city’s ego and current unemployment stands at 11 %, Whilst high, it is actually the lowest level in 23 years (article in German)
- You need to find a co-working space to feel relevant and professional. Likewise, working in a café is completely legitimtate but not as cool as co-working. Everyone does it and you don’t feel like a loser prentetnding to write a novel when you are in fact trawling through Facebook inbox messages.
- Life in Berlin is /can be cheap. A decent coffee will cost around 2€. Having said that, you have to know where to get the good beans, this is after all still a die-hard drip-filter type place.
- The Australians really did bring good coffee to Berlin. Fact.
- You can still rent an apartment for 300€ per month in some parts of the inner city.
- If you don’t learn German properly (as in, more than being able to order bread at the bakery or a flat white), you’ll just be another expendable,annoying Anglo expat who increases rents and annoys locals with your rollable suitcase.
- You will learn to be as creative as hell to get ahead. This city practically coats you in cement every day so you are as tough as nails for every job rejection, every annoying assumption about what you do/will do. Everyone else gives up, or blames the expiry of their visa for leaving.
- The office for aliens in Wedding (the “LABO” as its affectionately known) is probably the most miserable place in all of Germany- the place where foreigners come to be reminded how much of a Gast they are. I, and thousands of others, have shed many a tear in there feeling that your destiny hangs upon the mullet-bearing, pale-denim clad, tattooed case manager sitting before you. But on my most recent visit to renew my residency visa a few months ago, I landed an ace case manager who actually cracked a few jokes and gave me an 18 year extension.
- There are around 4 million Turks in Germany and about 200,000 in Berlin, the largest Turkish diaspora outside of Istanbul. Not all of them are döner kebab owners or taxi drivers. Many are doctors, lawyers, journalists and brilliant ones at that- but there is still not enough being done to encourage migrants to take on a profession and the debate about Germany being an ‘immigrant’s country’ (unlike the US,Canada or Australia) is never-ending. Conservative politicians tow the predictable line that Germany never has been nor will be a migrant’s country, while lefties say that Germany needs to accept it’s status as a place for migrants, refugees, economic refugees and the like.
- Since the school system largely discriminates against migrant kids, because at age 11 they are told by their teachers if they will go to Gymnasium (which leads to university) or to a real school (which leads to a trade). Most migrant parents work full time and don’t have time to sit at home with their kids to help them with their homework (unlike good German Muttis) as the average school day ends at 1pm. So when I go to give my lectures at Humboldt uni or Freie Uni, I have seen for myself the by-product of this educational apartheid : there’s still mostly German, middle-class university students on campus, apart from the odd international student.
- Most people get their first paying job at age 30, particularly law students.
- It’s a right of passage to do at least 2 or 3 Praktika (internships) before you get a “proper job” – basically a praktikum is an incredibly unique style of German work efficiency where you go years without remuneration for your work.
- Germany never had a legal minimum wage, up until January 2015. It is now set at 8.50€ per hour.
- Social freedoms are in full force in Berlin yet there some stark contradictions: you can drink beer in Berlin without hiding it in a brown bag, people don’t binge drink or vomit on the street like back in Sydney. Alcohol (becks beer costs around 1€ per bottle) and cigarettes (between 3-5€ per packet) are cheap. You don’t need to ride a helmet if you’re on a bike. There is no CCTV surveillance on the streets,except at a few train stations and synagogues. BUT there is no on-going, national public debate about gay marriage – it is strictly between heterosexuals. If you’re having fertility issues and want to get reproductive assistance, to qualify you need to be a heterosexual, married couple.
- If you are a working mother, chances are you’ll be referred to as a “Rabenmutter” (a raven mother i.e. a mum who abandons her child) by other mothers. Family and social policy is at the heart of everything in this country – women are still viewed in their traditional roles as home- makers, you just need to look at ads for Persil or other cleaning products showing mums still doing the cleaning and washing.
- German dads are very emancipated – they take parental leave, cook, take kids to school, clean, even take on their wife’s surname and want their kids also have the surname of their mum.
- Germany, despite being the wealthiest country in the EU and a member of the G8, has one of the worst record’s for women in executive board positions in the EU and OECD (19%) As of 2016, there will be a compulsory quota for DAX-listed companies (German article) that need to ensure a quota of 30% of female board members is in force.
- When your kid turns 3, in Berlin you pay 23€ per month for full-time child care at pre-school/Kita. No where else in the Bundesrepublik offers such a generous child-care support subsidy.
- Petrol/gas is ridiculously expensive – as in almost 2€ per litre.
- Germans love the white phallic vegetable known as white asparagus during May.
- Likewise, the strawberry season lasts about 8 weeks and you’ll find little huts everywhere in Berlin selling these oral orgasms.
- Summer nights in Berlin are really long – sunset is often at 10pm. This is when Berliners are at their most cheerful, so in total about 40 days out of 365.
- Winter is the worst. Absolute worst. Starting around early November till around early May, this is when the Berlin Schnauzer (rude attitude) really comes into its own. See above.
- The wall may be down, but there is still very little social interaction even between Berliners – I have friends from Friedrichshain (east) who have never been to Schöneberg or Charlottenburg (west).Likewise, friends from Zehlendorf (in the west) who have never been to Pankow (in the east).
- Most Berliners like to think of themselves as Peter Pan or Ariel the Mermaid. It’s totally ok to be 50 and still party at Berghain or Watergate.
- In terms of the coolness/exoticness of Anglo expats, it goes something like this: Australians, Kiwis,Canadians, South Africans, British, Americans.
- Most Germans, particularly Berliners, have never been to Poland, their neighbouring country but more have been to Spain or Italy.
- There’s always talk of the next “hotspot” – first it was Kreuzberg, then Neukölln, now it’s Wedding. But the ironic thing is, the people who make these lists up are never actually Germans or hard-core born and bred Berliners.