There’s a phrase you’ll often hear Berliners saying to one another as they stroll down the Spree in the evening sunshine, beer in hand: "Alles gut" which literally translates to "All’s good!"
At the start of the year, my other half got offered a job in Berlin. I was sceptical of moving, to say the least. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t speak German, I’d only been to Berlin once before and, having had a bout of ill health, I was worried about navigating the healthcare system as a freelancer. But I've never been one to live life precariously, so I went for it, and Berlin has more than surpassed my expectations.
Some days it’s 30 degrees, there are over 3,000 lakes dotted around the city to swim in, al fresco nightclubs, more vegan eateries than LA, bars on every street corner, spatis (off-licences) where you can drink €1 beers on outdoor picnic tables, flea markets, cycle-friendly roads, boats to rent, green space aplenty and a booming creative industry. What’s not to love?
Life for Berliners hasn’t always been this 'gut'. One evening I met a man in a bar and after one too many rieslings got into a conversation about the realities of growing up here. Born and raised in former East Berlin, he told me that at 11 years old he was forced to leave school and join the FDJ (the youth movement of the German Democratic Republic) where he was taught how to use a gun. Or there’s the Berliner my boyfriend works with, who was snuck across the Berlin Wall as a baby. Everyone has a story to tell here. And it’s partly because of this very dark and very recent history that Berliners know how to enjoy themselves now. They know how to live – really live. They make time to just be, to soak up all the lovely little moments that life has to offer. People sit on benches in the sunshine, reading books; they picnic on their lunch breaks and actually sit down to drink a coffee. This might be made easier by the fact that German working culture seems to have got the balance right, with Germans working on average 26 hours per week, compared to the 32 hours worked by us Brits.
There is less pressure to be successful, less pressure to be rich, less pressure to spend money or to have the latest clothes than in London, where I lived previously. Consumerist culture is of course still apparent but the desire to spend, spend, spend is more of a mild nagging rather than a serious threat to the bank balance. And for someone who has spent the last decade as a Londoner, that is very refreshing.
Moving to a new city is liberating. It can be a chance to start again – to play out a new you. After a difficult few years in London I was more than ready for a change, sick of the rat race and the constant grind. Before we moved, my boyfriend and I came over in January to look for apartments and to get a feel for areas we wanted to live in – highly recommended for anyone planning on relocating here. It’s important to scout out the city before you make any hasty decisions. Being January, the sun wasn’t shining; it was greyer than grey and bitterly cold and the streets in central Berlin were deserted, as if the city had been sucked of life. But come April, when we moved, it felt alive. The cherry blossom bloomed, Berliners came out in force, musicians played pianos on the street, everyone had a bike and – yep, you guessed it – a beer.
Berlin is a tale of two cities, of stark contrasts and at times frustrating contradictions. Liberal yet loving of rules, friendly yet closed, modern yet lagging behind, forward-thinking yet stuck in its past. That is its beauty, and its edge. In 2003, then-Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit said during an interview that "Berlin is poor, but sexy," summing up the sentiment of the place.
In comparison to other major capital cities, Berlin is certainly cheap. I can eat a decent dinner out for under €5, buy a glass of weiss wine in a cool bar for €3, travel around the city on my bike for free and buy clothes cheaply at flea markets. People are more conscious of how they spend their money and are generally very resourceful. They make the effort to take their beer bottles to the spati to get back their eight cents.
Then there’s the rental prices. Although notoriously difficult to find a place to rent in Berlin (be prepared for this), when you do eventually find somewhere, it’s significantly cheaper than London. According to a 2015 report by Immobilien Scout, people in Berlin spend on average 20-30% of their income on rent, compared to the 49% of income that London residents pay. You also get way more space for your money and can actually afford to live in a cool part of town. I live in a converted warehouse with a balcony, three times the size of my old London pad – and it still costs me less. Germany is a rental market and 85% of people in Berlin rent rather than own. Rental laws are in favour of the tenants with rent caps in place to ensure that landlords can only increase rent by 15% over a three-year period and must justify the increase. In 2015 rent control was introduced in the city, stipulating new rental contracts could not exceed 10% of the average price of an apartment in the area.
There’s a lot to love, but as with any big life change, there have been quite a few hiccups along the way. I’m pretty outgoing and sociable, so I thought I’d find it super easy to make friends. Turns out making friends in your 30s, when you’re a freelancer who works from home, is actually pretty tough. I’ve been set up on friend blind dates by mates back home, cringing at the awkwardness of it. There’s also a lot of bureaucracy to contend with: forms to fill out, and a complex healthcare system to navigate – which is particularly difficult if you’re a freelancer with an irregular income.
And times are changing in Berlin – it’s not without its problems. Google has rented a space on the canal in Kreuzberg, much to the dismay of locals. Protests are held on the regular, and "Fuck Google" is graffitied on walls and bridges. Investors are attempting to buy up housing blocks, vulnerable people are being pushed out of their homes, Londoners and Californians are moving in with money to burn and the slow creep of gentrification is, er, not so slow. Rental prices have gone up 70% in the city in the last decade. I can’t help but feel that I am adding to the problem. Luckily though, there’s still no sign of a Pret.
My advice for anyone wanting to move to Berlin would be this:
Learn a bit of German before you get here. No matter what anyone tells you, not everyone speaks English and not knowing German can make you feel isolated. Be patient and learn to live at a Berlin pace of life. Things move slowly here, which can be a blessing and a curse. Berlin is a cash-heavy society and many places don’t accept card, so make sure you sort a German bank account asap (N26 is a really easy one to set up). Get a German friend who can help you to navigate the millions of forms you’ll need to fill out. Invest in a bike. Get stuck into all Berlin has to offer. Immerse yourself in its complex and rich history, visit the galleries and museums, eat all the currywurst and kebabs, take a boat trip, drink in the biergartens and dance to techno. Most importantly, do like a Berliner – make party, get used to living, enjoy yourself.
Alles gut, meine Freunde, Alles gut!