I arrived in Berlin as an aupair on August 18th, 2011.
Berliner Dom at night
Kids were never especially my thing, so you may wonder how this happened.
All year I had been dating a German woman, whom I met during a Eurotrip the previous year. My plan was to move to Berlin to see if it could work with her (and because I like Berlin). A month before my flight takes off, however, we break up. With memories of my Prague failure in my mind, and the recent breakup throwing off my envisioned plan, I decide I need a new solid plan in place before stepping on the plane. Cue aupairing.
My ex had been really into kids and criticized me for not liking them during our relationship. At this time I am 24 and much less self-aware. Everyone around me wants babies some day, and in my irrational post-breakup state I feel afraid that no one will ever stay with me if I don’t want to have kids. The criticism from my ex made me question myself, so I figure I’ll give it a try and spend some quality time with children.
This wasn’t totally out of the blue. I had worked a summer camp job with middle and high schoolers for three summers and really liked it. I figured aupairing couldn’t be so different. So, after exchanging many messages with various families, one accepts me. Off to Berlin I go, or well, off to Brandenburg. The job I land is in a German suburb just over the border in a neighboring state, about a 15 minute bike ride from the nearest S-Bahn station.
A nearby plot of land, next to one of the bus stops down the street from my aupair family’s house. Just to emphasize how not in Berlin I was.
I make it exactly three weeks as an aupair.
I am responsible for three boys, ages 5, 9 and 12. My tasks are to wake up at 6:30am and prepare breakfast for the family, take the youngest to Kindergarten by bike, prepare snacks when they get home from school, and do the family’s laundry.
Seems okay, right?
By this point, I am 24 and already lived in three countries by myself. I am used to doing my own thing and living away from any sort of parents. As the days go on, I still have no solid schedule or specific days off, and I start feeling the family just wants me on call.
It never quite works out taking the youngest to school by bike without the mother there. He always zooms ahead and I don’t know how to get him to listen. I tell the mother I’m afraid to take him alone because I don’t want him to cycle in front of a car under my watch. I can tell she is not pleased.
Hoping for some sort of defined schedule, I make a meeting with the mother to talk about expectations. By the end, it’s still unclear exactly what they want from me. I start to cry in my room every night, and I feel isolated. The only people I know in the city at this point are my ex, whom I’m no longer talking to, and a couple of acquaintances.
The last straw is one late afternoon at play time.
I bring a plate of apples as a snack to the youngest and his friend, under orders to make sure they wash their hands before eating. They refuse. I turn around and tell them that they won’t get any snack until they wash their hands. The youngest proceeds to run out, spit in my face, and stab me in the eye with a foam sword. I explain this to the mother, who tells me it’s my fault.
At this point, I am done. I understand the kid is five years old, and with that comes certain challenges. However, growing up, I certainly would not have gotten any apple slices in a similar situation.
Some people have the power to walk into a room of screaming children and make order. I admire those people.
I am not one of them.
I tell the mother it won’t work out, and she asks me how long I need to get everything sorted. We agree on two weeks, and I start looking for other jobs and places to live. After two days, she changes her mind. She tells me on a Wednesday that I need to be out that Friday.
My move to Germany is certainly not off to a good start.
By this point I have lots of other aupair friends I met in a local Facebook group, and 90% of them are also unhappy at their jobs. I furiously browse the German flat search website WG-Gesucht for anywhere affordable to live, and send out applications to English language schools. Luckily I get a two-week sublet in Kreuzberg near Schlesisches Tor while someone is traveling. I use that time to decide what comes next.
During this time, I get in an argument with my former aupair family.
Fun fact: Aupairs are only required to be paid 260€ per month by German law. Of course, this includes housing, food and often a German course, but for live-in help this, to me, is not so much. Although I work three weeks, when I leave, the family tells me they will only pay me for two. Yes, this family in their huge, expensive house in a fancy suburb, apparently can not find it in their hearts to pay me my last 65€.
Now, while working there, the family had given me an old Blackberry phone sitting in a drawer because my phone died while I was there. Or at least, I thought they had given it to me. They text me after I leave saying I should send the phone back. I tell them I’m happy to meet up to exchange the phone for my last week of salary. They threaten to report me to the police, so I send it back in the thinnest envelope I can find and decide to cut my loses. Lesson learned: Make sure you seriously research your aupair family before flying there.
In the midst of all this, I need a job. I reconnect with a language school I applied to a year ago during my Eurotrip, who told me to get in touch once I actually live in Berlin. Turns out they urgently need an English teacher for a three-month intensive course. The class is for future ticket controllers in Rostock, up north near the sea.
Now I just need the work visa. Fast.
Luckily, I had spent the entire previous year researching visa laws and reaching out to several alumni of my university who were living in Germany for advice. I had also begun teaching myself German out of a workbook called German Demystified while I traveled the previous year, allowing me to skip straight into intermediate German courses as an auditor at my old university while back in the US . At this time, there is not much information about visa laws in English, and most jobs want me to speak at least a bit of German, so my year of preparation pays off.
As part of the freelance work visa application for Germany, I need letters from at least two companies offering me work. My new language school writes one, and another company I interviewed at writes another. I never hear from the second company again, but the letter is enough to get my foot in the door.
The next challenge is insurance, another one of the freelance work visa requirements. I browse the Toytown English-language forum for Germany and several expat Facebook groups, but everyone seems to disagree about what I need. Worse, the language on the immigration website is vague. Someone online recommends a free insurance broker who can help me sort out my health insurance, I write him and a week later I have my insurance! It’s a shitty international plan that ends up being a pain in my ass, but it’s cheap, about 100€ per month at the time.
Documents ready, I prepare to make an appointment, only to realize there are no open time slots for over a month. Thus, I need to show up and try to score a walk-in appointment at the Berlin Immigration Office (Ausländerbehörde). I’m instructed to get there at least an hour before they open at 7am.
I arrive at the immigration office at 5:30 am, and there are already a handful of people in front of me.
At 7am the door opens and everyone rushes in to grab one of the limited waiting numbers. It’s confusing which floor I need to go to, and the adrenaline is flowing. I manage to grab a number and take a seat. Three hours later they call me in for the initial review of my paperwork.
Again my German comes in useful, and I am able to explain my documents to the lady behind the counter. My whole life is nicely lined up in a binder with a table of contents in the same order as the online checklist on the immigration website. I have my CV, health insurance, job offers, a screenshot of my savings account, my residence registration, my TEFL certificate and diplomas, and a monthly forecast of what I expect my earnings and expenses will be.
The woman behind the counter seems happy with this. This is my first indication of how far a skill for nicely organizing paperwork in binders will get me in Germany (hah). They tell me to go sit down again while they make a decision, and I wait anxiously for another hour. They call my number again and I’m handed my passport with a shiny new work permit in it. Next, they give me a card and tell me to go pay the fee downstairs. It seems like such an unremarkable interaction for something that affects my life so much.
A few days later, I catch a train to my teaching job.
Unfortunately, there are more challenges ahead. That year Germany waived the army requirement for men, and there’s an adjustment affecting when Germans are eligible to leave for university. This means there are three years of people beginning university at once. I cannot, for the life of me, find a temporary flat to live in Rostock. Thus, I spend my first month in hostels in dormitories, working all day and lesson planning all evening.
The job is a shock. I never taught full-time before. While my company gave me all my teaching materials, I go through them faster than I expect. Soon I realize I will run out of material. Luckily I have a much more experienced teacher colleague with me who takes me under his wing. After I write him in a panic, he suggests I do some trivia with them each day, and plan more of my own activities to supplement the course work.
My teaching improves rapidly over these three months.
The students are into the trivia and albeit some interpersonal drama between them, we get into a routine. By the end, I can put my lessons together in record time. I plan scavenger hunts with the students, and we go on field trips to the train station to work on train words. It’s still one of the hardest jobs of my life, but I start to feel proud of my work.
I actually find it easier to make friends in Rostock than in Berlin. I reach out to a few people via Couchsurfing, and immediately have a group of friends. Luckily, my two colleagues from Berlin are awesome too. Mostly my Couchsurfing friends are new university students in the area, but I am only a few years older than them, and we’re all new in the area. They take me to a club on a ship, and we check out the local Küfas (Küche für Alle, where you pay a few euros for a simple meal at a squat, housing collective or other left-leaning alternative place).
Outside of work,I still have some issues to deal with.
Before leaving for Berlin, I opened a German bank account and ordered a debit card so I could be paid. Unfortunately, before even getting to me, both the debit card and PIN are promptly stolen from the mailbox. I end up with -2000€ in my account. That same week, my US account informs me that one of the websites I bought something on has been compromised. They cancel my card and send another to my parents’ address…in the US. So, all my bank accounts are shut down and I have no access to money. Great.
This all leads to my first experience with the German police. I’m told I need to take a weekend trip to Berlin to file a police report and statement with my bank in order to get the money back. After a panicked call to my US bank, they agree to open my account long enough for me to run to the nearest ATM and take out enough money for the next few weeks. Crisis averted.
Around this time, I manage to escape the hostel.
View on a foggy night from my host’s flat in Rostock, Germany
Posting some housing requests on an English-language expat forum for Germany, someone responds and connects me with a local German woman, who agrees to let me sleep in her living room. I figure out, however, that the two women know each other from church. I’m pretty sure my new host thinks I am also religious. She invites me to her local bible study each week, and I don’t want to be rude to this kind woman who took me in, so I go.
She doesn’t charge me any rent, which, while incredibly kind, makes me constantly terrified that I’m too much of a burden. I decide not to mention that I’m gay those last two months, just in case. She is very nice, and I’m grateful, but I feel guilty the entire time I live there.
To make matters more awkward, I accidentally break her shower head right before I leave. I can’t explain myself well enough in German, so she thinks I tried to hide it. Without better words in my arsenal, I decide to make up for it with bribery. I buy her a chocolate gift basket, leave a note attempting to describe my appreciation, along with 20€ for the shower head, then leave for Berlin.
Rostock is near the Baltic Sea in Germany. Here’s the view on a stormy day at the nearby Warnemünde beach
I survive the English course and head back to Berlin with 6.000€ in my German bank account.
TV Tower at Alexanderplatz in Berlin during the Festival of Lights
Visa and money issues sorted, I now need to find a place to live in Berlin. The flat search in Berlin is notoriously competitive, and I struggle. I go through a couple more sublets and many strange flatshare castings. I meet all kinds of people, and get interrogated on my habits by many a stranger. Some flats want to share everything, and no one has their own personal room. For one viewing, they invite all the potential flatmate to a party specifically for that purpose, but this ends up feeling more like an episode of Survivor than a potential roommate get-to-know-you session.
Finally, I am accepted into a flatshare in Kreuzkölln with three other women, three cats, and two dogs. Quite early on, one of my flatmates tells me the names of ex-boyfriends I am not allowed to let into the flat. This same flatmate also frequently gets in long, screaming arguments with her boyfriend. Always in front of the bathroom. I hold it in and resolve to find another flat. In the meantime, I attempt to spend as much time outside the flat as possible, which means I party pretty hard. This is Berlin, after all.
I grew up a nerdy, sheltered overachiever, the idea of a nightlife is still quite novel.
Capitalism Kills Love Sign in Berlin Mitte. Typical. 😉
I go to lesbian parties in warehouses and dance to 90s rock, and I hike through the woods to attend a rave in a former Russian spy station with fire-spinners and techno. At one especially memorable party, an anti-fashion organization throws an event where we are asked to exchange our money to the party currency at the entrance. In this warehouse, I walk into the first room to find people wearing all white high up in the ceiling spinning human-sized spider webs with white yarn. The next room is filled with plastic sand and assorted colorful garbage, and a photographer to take your picture. There’s a room with only three old TV sets with flashing technicolor images of dogs, and another with old clothes and sewing machines, where you can up-cycle some clothing to participate in the Trashion Show on stage.
View from the top of the aforementioned Russian spy station, Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain)
A few of my friends live in massive flatshares, and I attend a house party with lofts built up into the ceiling and rooms separated by theme. There’s a chai tea relaxation room, a bathroom filled with shoes hanging from the ceiling, a live music room, and a room with porn projected onto the wall (Raspberry Reich, in case you were wondering).
To make friends, I start hosting a queer meetup through Couchsurfing and soon I have a little posse. We go out dancing every weekend, have dinner parties, and take trips to break into interesting abandoned buildings in our free time.
How to find work as an immigrant: Complain about your life on Facebook.
The company I taught the intensive English course with in Rostock offers me work back in Berlin. However, it’s for traveling Kindergarten lessons, pays two euros less per hour, and involves spending most of my time commuting all over the city.
You’d think I’d have learned that jobs with kids are not for me at this point.
You’d be wrong.
A few days of training and I am set loose on the kids to teach them English. It’s a mess. No matter what I do, I cannot bring order to my classroom. The night before each teaching day, I’m unable to sleep due to anxiety. Additionally, with all my travel, I spend more money on transit than I am earning.
I hand in my resignation and hope to find better work.
Now, this whole time, I am venting my fears and failures on Facebook. It’s TMI on there, all the time (sorry not sorry Facebook friends!) It turns out, a friend from college knows a couple people in Berlin, albeit never visiting the city herself. She writes them a message and connects us. One of them, miraculously, agrees to hire me as an intern doing data entry at a business school offering an executive MBA for creatives.
Back to the Ausländerbehörde I go to request permission to work in a new field, as my current visa only allows English teaching. I receive permission to assist with English-language marketing and I’m back in business. I go on to work with this university for 20 hours per week for two years, eventually getting a promotion to do some light internet marketing and serve as the Admissions Assistant.
It takes about a year into my move to Berlin, but things are finally stable in my life.
Graffiti from a trip to break into an abandoned ice factory in Berlin with friends
A friend, whom I met on Livejournal in college, is also looking to escape her current living situation in Berlin. We decide to look for an apartment together, and after eight months of searching we’re finally offered our own place.
Now I have my own flat, without a screaming roommate. My job earns me a steady (enough) income that allows me to live frugally, and I pick up other freelance work here and there. I live on about 800-1000€ per month for the first few years. My rent is 350€ with all bills, my public transit pass 65€ and my health insurance about 100€, so this is doable.
I even get so good at the visa stuff that I write an eBook about it and offer consults to others, who would have thought!
Cycling the Fahrradsternfahrt with friends in Berlin – a major cycling event that closes the local Autobahnen for cyclists for the day
I joke now that the first year was my initiation to see if I really wanted to live here.
Certainly, if it was not the right city for me, my turbulent first year would have scared me away.
A lot of people ask why I decided to move abroad to begin with. I can’t say it was ever a conscious decision those first few years, and I never once thought, “I will move away from the United States forever!” early on. It was more an unconscious feeling that I didn’t want what I saw around me back home, which caused me to seek alternatives. It’s a good question though. The internal, emotional side of how I ended up an expat is for one of my next posts.
Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin – an airport turned park where you can cycle down the former runway!
Getting stretched out or yoga’d somehow by some random friend of a friend in Tempelhofer Feld. Typical summer shenanigans.
I’m only a well-informed and successful expat due to an insane amount of trial and error.
This graffiti basically sums Berlin up.
My main motivation for writing this post is that everyone constantly tells me how good I am at making it work here. They assume I just innately have some skill that allows me to thrive abroad. No one sees the hours I spent suffering over German flash cards every night for 10 months, hating my first couple jobs crying every night, and going to endless, horrible flat viewings. Am I a resourceful person? Yes, definitely. In all honestly though, my move here was still a blind leap. I did prepare by learning German, doing research on visa laws and saving money, but it was mostly naivety and a false sense of security in a job I thought I had that got me here.
Are you an expat, too?
I’d love to hear a bit about your reasoning to include in a future post. Did you make a conscious decision to leave permanently, or did it just sort of happen? I know for me, I always think each move abroad is going to be forever, but somehow never think too far in the future either, until recently. I’m curious to hear about your own path! Feel free to send me a message or let me know in the comments.
Are you considering moving abroad and want to ask me something? Wondering how I deal with something? Let me know what you’re curious about, and I might cover it in another post!