What Living as an Expat in Berlin is Really Like


Hey guys! Welcome back to American Expats, a series that shows you what it’s like to live as an expat in cities around the world.

Our latest interview is with Natalye, a California native who lives as an expat in Berlin with her German husband and son. Here, Natalye describes public nudity, her obsession with German baked goods, and tips on how to score an amazing apartment in Berlin.

Natalye’s background:

I’m originally from Santa Rosa, California, and I’ve been living in Berlin since July 2011. Shortly after moving here, I met my husband who is an Ur-Berliner (a native Berliner), and four years ago we had our son. I work as a freelance copy editor and copywriter.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On the weather: We like to joke that in Berlin summer is three months long and the rest of the year is grey. Spring and fall are rather glorious, but the summers are hot and humid. We don’t have air conditioning in homes or in many offices, so it can be quite unbearable.

Winter gets super cold, though it’s gotten milder every year since I moved here and it seems to snow less and less.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On finding a roommate in Berlin: The best way to find a roommate in Berlin is on wg-gesucht.de, a popular roommate finding site. The process was relatively simple; after moving to Berlin, I created an account on wg.gesucht.de, sent maybe 20 emails, had four “interviews” and got invited to live at two places.

Craigslist is often major scammer territory here, so it’s best to look elsewhere.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On learning German: Because so many people speak English in Berlin, expats can get by without knowing German, and I know plenty who do.

I moved to Berlin in part to improve my German, but in hindsight, I see that living in Berlin (or any major city) is not the best choice if language proficiency is your goal. Since so many people speak English here, locals will often switch once they realize you’re not a native speaker. You really have to be persistent and power through in German.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On beer: Each region of Germany tends to pride itself on a particular kind of beer, and Berliners love Pilsners, so you’ll see a few different local brands (Berliner Pilsner and Berliner Kindl) most everywhere.

That said, craft beer has taken over in recent years, so there are quite a few local breweries and specialty shops selling all kinds of beer from Germany and beyond.

On international food options: One of the things I love about Berlin is the huge variety of non-German foods. Some of my favorite kinds of food you can find here are Sudanese, Lebanese, Arabic, and Vietnamese. We also eat a lot of pizza and ice cream, and the occasional Brammibal’s doughnut.

On baked goods: Bread and bakeries are a big part of everyday German life. One of my favorite baked goods is the Splitterbrötchen, which reminds me of a slightly sweetened croissant bun. A Franzbrötchen is another delicious pastry, which tastes like a cinnamon roll.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On making friends: After eight years here, making friends remains my biggest struggle. Unfortunately, Berlin is a very transient city, with lots of people leaving after a few years. I meet people all the time, and I have a lot of acquaintances, but actual close friends? I have maybe two or three.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On feeling safe: I absolutely feel safe in Berlin. Pickpocketing and bike theft are probably the most common crimes, but as long as you’re street smart and pay attention to your surroundings, safety isn’t really an issue.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On public nudity: For many people, the German mentality about nudity can be shocking. Children regularly strip down to nothing at playgrounds and lakes, and adults often lounge naked on the beach.

Seeing other people naked doesn’t bother me — bodies are bodies — but I do have my own hangups about letting it all out in front of other people. But I appreciate the German approach of not sexualizing naked bodies and being comfortable in your own skin.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On German health insurance: Germany has a multi-payer system, and what you earn determines how much you pay for healthcare.

Generally speaking, health insurance costs 15.5% of what you earn, but employers will pay 7.3% of that, and the remaining amount comes out of your monthly paycheck. It’s a compulsory system, so technically everyone is supposed to have health insurance, but some people who fly under the radar.

I think the German healthcare system is very concerned with preventative care, and this attitude toward investing in people in advance is really wonderful. I’m not saying health insurance here is perfect, but I think it’s worlds better than the broken healthcare system in the US.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On using a “reseller” phone plan: For my phone plan, I use a reseller, which is what many people here do. This means you’re using the “main” networks for a fraction of the cost, but you pay month-to-month and aren’t locked into an ironclad contract. (As with most contracts in Germany, breaking a phone contract requires a three-month cancellation notice in writing).

My current phone plan costs €9.99 a month and includes unlimited calls, texts, and 3GB data. I buy my phones directly from the manufacturer, as they come unlocked that way.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On not having a car: We don’t have a car and I don’t miss it. I do have my German license, which I had to do from scratch because there is no reciprocity with California. I’m glad to have it as a fallback but I will say that I haven’t driven in Germany since I got it.

Biking is also easy and comparatively safe. Berlin still has a long way to go to make the roads safe for bikes. The city has finally begun to invest in improving infrastructure so it’s slowly moving along, and hopefully one day we’ll catch up to model cities like those in the Netherlands.

Living in Berlin: What it's really like

On the excellent public transportation: Public transportation here is great. The train system takes you anywhere you need to go, and there are buses, trams, and even ferries in Berlin. Some lines run all night on the weekend, and when they don’t, there are always bus replacement services so you can get where you need to go.

Thanks so much, Natalye!

P.S. What Living as an Expat in Hamburg is Really Like and The Real Truth About Dating as an Expat.

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4 thoughts on “What Living as an Expat in Berlin is Really Like”

  1. wow, living as an expatriate has its interesting side, especially when it comes to knowing a new culture, adapting to it, and even come to love it, I need the way you tell the story of Natalye, it’s a pleasure to read. greetings from Mexico!

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