So, you want to live in Berlin? An expat's guide

Our former Games Editor upped sticks and moved to Germany's Capital a couple of years ago. Here's his manifesto as to why you should join him...

Feature by Josh Wilson | 03 Jan 2013

You’ve read all those stories – ‘Berlin is a Mecca of cool,’ and ‘Boho artist paradise’ and ‘crap like that.’ And so you’ve decided that maybe you’d like to take the plunge? Well, as someone that has done just that, I can give you a few tips on preparing yourself for life in Deutschland, where the booze is cheap, the language is difficult, and what do you mean it’s six a.m. already? Fuck!

Some things you need to do / probably should know before you get here

Quit your job
You can’t move here if you’re still living there. It’s surprisingly easy to do, too. Just walk up to your boss and say: “I’m quitting because life here is expensive and boring and Berlin might be fun... What the fuck else am I supposed to do with this life? Consider this my two weeks.”

Take a fucking German course
Sure. Germany is in central Europe, which means that they’ve been teaching their kids how to speak other languages for years. Yes, almost certainly most people’s English is better than your next language of choice (or... as is embarrassingly often the case, your English). But you should learn some German all the same.

Why? Well a whole bunch of people here were born before the Wall fell. Older people, for example. Older people in bakeries where you want to buy breakfast, for a more specific example. They likely won’t have tip-top English, so things can get awkward and confusing fast.

Find a wohnung
Or: Get yourself a flat! If you want to rent your own place, it’s going to be unfurnished (without even anything in the kitchen... just a sink); and that’s another mission in itself. You need to have at least six months earning in Germany; more than likely you’ll need a real job contract too.

Failing that, there are loads of flat shares on the go. But you need to convince your would-be flatmates to take you on. And the Germans take this process very seriously. Often interviewing hundred of applicants for one room for a month. Germans are not big on going by instinct.

Websites like wg-gesucht.de will help get you started, but there’s really no point until you get there. No one will take you on without meeting you first.

If you want something quick, it’s not too difficult. Cheap’s not a problem either. What’s hard is getting a place in one of the fun / nice areas. Everyone wants to live there, so be prepared for a slog.

Chill the fuck out (about nudity)
People here get naked. You won’t notice it until summer comes around again – but it’s definitely a thing. What’s also a thing is that everyone has a body! So don’t make a big deal, just go along with it and hell... you might find it oddly relaxing. No one has anything to hide when they're starkers.

Go to a park, sit, chill, sip your beer... oh wait.. what’s that in the corner of my eye? Seriously tanned old-man dong? Yup.

If you go to a sauna, people will be naked too. They’ll also be chatting away like they were neither sweaty, nor naked. They’re mixed saunas too. It’s strange the first time, but you’ll get used to it real quick (or leave... I guess). It’s fine to sneak a peek... just don’t stare too hard at all the beauties.

Get a job
It’s probably about as easy to find work as in the UK. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, so there’s lots of opportunities. And because life is relatively cheap, you can survive for a bit longer without!

There are lots of bars, and cafes, so that's option, but you’re going to need at least a bit of Deutsch for any of those. If you’re a professional / creative type, Berlin is chock full of agencies doing design-this or engineering-that. And in these jobs, more than likely, English will be the office language... 

Freelancing is expensive here (you need a lot of clients), and taxes are not small. With a compulsory pension payment as well as having to pay the full rate for health insurance. You’re looking at shelling out about €600 / month before you even earn anything. 

If you’re struggling with any of that, you could always become a student. University is free here, because the government believes in education for everyone, not only rich people. And as a member of the EU (for the time being at least), you get it free too. Isn’t that nice?

Get some health insurance
Again, Germany is in the EU... so it’s not uncivilised. Health care is provided, just in a different way. You pay a lot more directly to it. And it’s compulsory.

If I were giving advice, I’d say hang on to your UK European Health Insurance Card (what used to be an E111, apply online here); and use that until you get a steady job. But I won’t say that because I’m not sure how legal it is once you actually (legally) live in Germany. Tax is higher (a lot). But life is just better. They have a really expensive public transport system. BUT IT WORKS.

Learn table tennis
It’s a sport. It’s everywhere. It’s free (bring your own bats and some balls). It’s social (people are more than happy to come and ask for a wee game; even when you get hammered. It’s actually really god-damned fun.


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Winter is cold
Okay, Scotland is a lot higher up on the planet's list of ‘winter is shitty’ places. You might think you’re ready for everything the planet’s got. ‘Winter,’ you say to yourself every day in the mirror when you wake up, ‘I can handle that shit.’

You can’t.

As I write this, it’s a balmy seven degrees in Edinburgh. And while it’ll be wet there, and windy, things probably won’t get too much colder. Outside of my window, it’s minus seven. In one month you can easily take another ten from that. Give it another two weeks and take another ten again. Shit is cold. Buy a scarf, buy a coat. Wandering around going “I’m Scottish, this isnae winter” is a fast track way to have people think you are a) mental (and not in the good/fun way), b) catch all of the colds / die.

Buy a bike
Berlin is big. Deceptively so. You can look at a map and say to yourself, “I can walk to there”. You can’t. I still do this. I can’t. The public transport system is good, and regular, but it’s not always the most efficient way; and in summer, things can get real stinky real quick. This is where a bike is the answer. It’s fast, cheap, and just bloody lovely. On top of that, Berlin is built for cyclists — paths are everywhere — and drivers seem to be pretty well trained. Just make sure you lock the fucker up, otherwise you might have to go buy one that looks curiously similar, from the shifty people at a flea market.

Recycle like the world is ending (’cos it is)
It’s no longer acceptable not to recycle. It’s also pretty bloody easy to do. And I'm pretty sure it’s compulsory — i.e. big fines are waiting. But if you don’t, your flatmate will hate you for being an ignorant islander who doesn’t give a shit about the world. Which is fair enough really, you’ll probably deserve that. Recycling bins are everywhere, inside the courtyard of every block of flats. And when you drink the beer, you get some money back for each bottle when you take them back to the supermarket!

Stop drinking shit beer
The Germans are understandably proud of their beers. Here there are laws preventing beer from being too crap (only specific sets of ingredients can be used, all have to be above a certain standard). There’s a lot of choice. And it’s cheap.

Smoke inside
As a non-smoker this is shit. But it’s here. It may not be legal (it varies across venue types), but in Berlin at least, it’s the norm. Bring some Febreeze ’cos you’re gonna smell like all of the ashtrays after a night out.

Pace yourself
A night out really is a night out in Berlin. No closing hours makes everything incredibly relaxed, and if you’re into it, you can go clubbing from Friday all the way through to Sunday. The flip side is the great British sport of binge drinking isn’t well suited to here. You’ll peak too soon and be going home before anything even gets going here (which normally starts at 11pmish in a bar / 3am at a club).

Also it’s not really acceptable to be smashed here (or anywhere else that’s not the UK/Australia/America) — throwing up in the streets and yelling and starting fights — it’s not pretty and you’re not funny. So stop being a twat.

Drugs are readily cheap / available
Go to a park. See someone lurking in the bushes. Come away with drugs. I mean paracetamol, obviously

So yeah, what are you waiting for? A packed lunch and a kiss on the cheek? Stop being a pussy and move somewhere fun. Or don’t. I couldn’t give a fuck either way. I’ve got better things to do, I live in Berlin!


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