your guide to leaving americaGetting Out | October 26th, 2006
It took some time hunting through Europe’s capitals before I found the place I wanted to settle. London and Paris were economically unviable. Amsterdam too Amsterdam. Barcelona a lot of beach and fashion but aside from its architecture, doesn’t add much that’s new in the way of culture. Prague too small. Then I found Berlin, in many ways the ideal spot for an American expat.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Cosmopolitan and village-like, historic and gentrified, urban and filled with parks, vastly spread out and navigable entirely by bicycle: Berlin offers a balance of lifestyles, not to mention a thriving youthful atmosphere, that makes it easy for a foreigner to sink in temporary roots.
Each neighborhood – from gallery-filled Mitte and the immigrant and counterculture base in Kreuzberg, to funky Friedrichschein and Parisian- styled Prenzlauerberg – has a distinct flavor. Like in New York, folks in Berlin stick mainly to their own “Kietz,” with an endless stream of exhibits, concerts, films, theater and other cultural venues that draw them out into the city. You’re free to work or not to work, nobody bothers you here, and it’s this laid- back, do-what-you-want atmosphere – combined with one of the hippest arts scenes in the West – that continues to cause the rush of expats into the city.
Affordable housing is another big reason. Take, for example, the two-room, 85-square-meter apartment with balcony that I share with my girlfriend in Prenzlauerberg, which costs just over â‚¬400, or about $500 a month. Fresh produce is cheap. Restaurants are cheap (four to five dollars for ethnic cuisine). About the only thing that isn’t cheap is transportation, which can run you up to $80 a month. All in all, count on living a modest and comfortable life for around $1,000 per month.
House in Berlin
Beware, however, of the Berlin winter: it’s long, cold and dark, and in many apartments (like mine) burning coal provides the only source of heat. Language is another hurdle, though it’s not as bad as you think – first, because most Berliners and other foreigners speak English, and second, because after three to six months of regular Deutsche courses (100 Euros/5 weeks at the state-run Volkshochschule), you’ll find yourself miraculously speaking, understanding – in extreme cases even enjoying – this language that sounded to you like militant, garbled nonsense a short time before.
Inside the Reichstag
Maybe the toughest thing about Berlin is finding work. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent, and given Germany’s tough restrictions on issuing work visas, you might have to scramble under the radar to pay the bills. That means bringing your salable trades and skills with you: teach yoga, guitar or English; babysit or tutor; freelance as a journalist, translator, computer tech, whatever. Moving overseas means being creative, not only with your time but often with your career.