One year ago today, on March 15th 2018, Christian and I got on a plane with a bunch of luggage and our bikes boxed up in the cargo hold and left San Francisco for Berlin. When we arrived, jet-lagged and hungry, the weather outside Schönefeld airport was absolutely miserable. Nevertheless, we had to schlepp all of our luggage and boxed bikes to find a van-taxi to take us to the Airbnb in Kreuzberg we had arranged for our first month of living in Berlin. The taxi driver spoke no English and tried to charge us extra for our bikes. I'm pretty sure Christian used his best Danish/German-hybrid-language-knowledge to argue otherwise and before I knew it we were at the apartment. It was tiny but warm. It was a Friday. It was almost dark. The tap water tasted gross. We got settled and laid down for a bit in a futile attempt to counteract the jet lag but everyone knows that never really works. Totally groggy, we got ourselves together enough to venture outside into what felt like the coldest weather my California face had ever faced to find some dinner. Just around the corner from our new apartment was a cozy Italian spot selling piadinas, which we learned were like flatbread pizza things that weren't amazing but also weren't horrible. We both had some wine and the entire meal was so cheap I couldn't believe it, something like €15. The same quality of meal in the same sort of place in San Francisco would've cost double that. What was this freezing, dark place with funny-tasting tap water and super cheap food and wine? Where on Earth am I? I thought. At that point, I didn't really care and just needed to go to sleep. After dinner, we walked, wincing from the cold all three minutes back to the apartment. Then we got into a new bed that was really somebody else's old bed that we were pretending was our new bed and fell asleep. And that was our first night in Berlin.
After that I definitely went through a bit of culture shock; I didn't have a job and I didn't know any German. We didn't have a permanent address or phone numbers that worked in the country we were in. We needed to get bank accounts, German tax ID numbers, and register our arrival with the authorities. We needed to find an apartment and figure out how the public transportation worked. I needed to learn where to buy groceries, how to get around a new city, and how to get a residence visa before the authorities kicked me out of the country. Also, where's the post office? An ATM? The drug store? The list of things we needed to do in the beginning was never-ending and definitely overwhelming at times. But that's moving to a new continent I guess and it's so awesome to look back on that time now and know that we made it through all of that. Today we are here, settled, working, comfortable, happy, and know where (most) things are, like where to get a delicious steak. Hint: Not the grocery store.
I knew moving to Europe would be a challenge and would be very different from living in California but I also knew I didn't know exactly how those things would manifest themselves in reality. Basically, one can't know what they don't know. Obviously it would be different in Germany, but how? These differences I would discover were, and continue to be, always a surprise. They aren't the obvious things, they are the things that you don't notice or care about as a tourist but must reconcile with daily as an immigrant to a new place with a different culture. The food in the supermarkets is different, the traffic rules are different, the educational system is different, the job market is different, the architecture is different, the money is different, the etiquette is different, the cars are different, the government is different, the measuring system is different, the fashion is different, the climate is different, the voltage is different, the doctors are different, the holidays are different, the flora and fauna are different. Everything is different, even the water, which doesn't just taste different, it tastes straight up bad. Some of these differences are helpful and make me feel lucky to live here, like how awesome the public transportation is and how everything I could possibly need for my pregnancy and childbirth is all 100% covered by the normal, basic health insurance. Some of these things I don't really care about either way, like how freely people drink alcohol in public here or that bars and nightclubs don't really have a closing time. And still other things just plain drive me crazy like all the indoor cigarette smoking and the poor quality of the vegetables in markets. And still, after acknowledging all of those adjustments, there lies still perhaps the biggest difference: The language. Berlin is in Germany where, naturally, the national language is German. Some people think that enough people in Berlin speak English so you don't really have to learn German to live here. But I most definitely disagree. Maybe in the tourism or hospitality space this is the case and English is as prevalent as German. But at the bank, the doctor, the butcher counter, German websites, all official state mail, or even just interacting with your neighbors, German prevails. You will not be understood if you speak English, and you won't know what's going on unless you understand at least some German. More and more young people are learning English in Germany but anyone born before 1975 most likely doesn't speak fluent English. The language barrier is connected to these other consistently surprising things, but it is such a significant single hurdle to living abroad, it really must be taken into consideration on its own. It is incredibly isolating and frustrating when you can't communicate to or understand the people around you. But even that has gotten easier as now I'm at a solid intermediate level of German, work for a German startup, and speak a very fluent Denglisch—the German word for Deutsch mixed with Englisch— at work. I still have a long way to go to master the language but compared to where I was a year ago, with no knowledge of German at all, I'm pretty proud of myself. Ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen! (That says 'I can speak a little German!')
I know I have expressed on this platform more than once that Berlin is flat and that I miss the mountains and forests of California. And yes, this is still true—glorious peaks covered with massive redwoods and glacial lakes did not sprout here overnight. And no, I still haven't figured out how to go camping in Germany, but, make no mistake, I'm quite happy here. I consider myself lucky to have this opportunity to live abroad, to learn new things, expand my world view, and meet people from all over the world, some of whom don't even know where California is (losers). I've learned so much about the rest of the world (and what they think about Americans) in such a short amount of time that my pre-Berlin brain seems so limited and confined now. Being here has also given me the distance and perspective to see that I come from a very unique place and that I'm proud of coming from that place. Wild California is a part of me and part of my DNA. The mountains and forests will still be there for me to enjoy when we go home to visit family and friends and they will still be there if we ever decide to move back. This helps me sleep at night or feel less homesick when I watch things like Free Solo. But for now, I've invested my time, energy, and remaining brain capacity on adapting to life in Germany and I'm happy to report that after one year, I've moved that much closer to feeling slightly less foreign. And I've even gotten used to the way the tap water tastes. Now that's progress.