Alex relocated to Berlin almost exactly a year ago. She moved to Berlin with her husband and their two children between Christmas and New Years! Yikes! (We’ll hear about that in the interview).
The family originally from London lived in Copenhagen for three and a half years before making the move to Berlin last year. In this interview we talked about the ups and downs, the challenges of moving to Berlin, issues you are faced with as a trailing spouse, finding a community and making sure the children are happy.
Q: Alex, you relocated to Berlin almost exactly a year ago. That must have been quite a challenge moving between Christmas and New Year. If you recall back, can you tell me how were you feeling this time last year?
A: “Very anxious. We had just left Denmark and gone to the UK for a brief Christmas. It was right between Christmas and New Year that we were moving to Berlin, not a great time of year to move. Also it was difficult to move with two children, Cece being just a baby, seven months. But on the plus side, it was amazing walking into the apartment that you and Nick had found – an old building, owned by the church, high ceilings, big staircase, and right in the middle of Berlin. That made everything feel quite exciting.”
Q: Being experienced with relocation, what were your strategies this time to ensure a good experience for you and your family?
A: “This time felt very different from our move to Denmark. Having a baby who couldn’t walk or do anything on her own made everything more challenging. Our main priority was to make Charlie, our six year old, feel as settled as possible. Nick, my husband did everything he could to make sure Charlie’s room was finished first. We made sure he had his toys around him, his bed made up, just to make it as cosy as possible for him. It was a very difficult and confusing time for him leaving Denmark. In the time between Christmas and New Year we just tried as much as possible to enjoy the few days together as a family. We explored a bit of Berlin, walking around Museum Island, seeing some of the local areas. We tried to make it like an adventure as we were very conscious of our son in particular needing lots of encouragement for what we were doing.”
We tried to make it like an adventure as we were very conscious of our son in particular needing lots of encouragement for what we were doing.
Q: How is it for your son, Charlie, now in Berlin?
A: “He’s actually loving Berlin now. But it has taken quite a bit of time. It took him several months to settle in his school, and there was a lot of: “Mummy when can we go back to Copenhagen? When can we move back to London?” It has been quite a challenge, he has also been quite resistant to learning German. But now, he has friends from all over the world (because it’s an international school) and he also has lots of German-speaking friends, I think he feels much happier now. He certainly has much more freedom here than he would ever have in London. In Berlin, going to an adventure playground is a part of the school programme (which appears crazy to most British or Americans). They even go ice skating every Thursday, and just stuff that he would never get to do in the UK. So he is actually beginning to realise, it is pretty good here.”
Q: Is your son starting to learn German now?
A: “Yes and he has a lovely teacher at school. It is not actually a bilingual school, so that’s why it’s taking longer than I’d hoped.”
Q: How does your relocation to Berlin compare to your relocation in Copenhagen?
A: “It was definitely tougher. This is a bigger city. Not speaking German, I have found it more of a challenge than not speaking Danish, as in Denmark everyone speaks excellent English. Although most people here do speak English, not everyone does. Communication with our “Hausmeister” is a challenge, for example.
I also found the bureaucracy here a very big problem. I could not have done it without you, Emily! In Denmark, everything was online, which seemed a challenge at first but once you had this special number you could do everything – go to the doctors, go to the library, find the schools, it was easy. Whereas in Germany there are wads of paperwork. You can’t get a bank account until you have your address registered, you can’t get a mobile phone if your bank account is too new. I found it overwhelming. I even wrote a blog about Berlin bureaucracy vs. digital Denmark.”
Q: How do you find the bureaucracy now that you are more settled in Berlin?
A: “It’s ok now and I haven’t received much paperwork for a while. I think in the beginning it’s overwhelming. I found it surprising for a country like Germany, you would expect it to be cutting edge, but it’s not. And that was quite frustrating.”
Q: How was it finding a School for Charlie?
A: “School was the defining factor of where we were going to live, and Nick and I did that on our own. We flew to Berlin in September 2016 and looked around various schools and in the end, settled on an international school in Mitte. It was between that and Dahlem. I felt personally that if I had lived out in Dahlem, with the baby, I would never have come in to the city and I would have found it harder to find a network that wasn’t just the school network. The hardest thing was that where we came from in Denmark, parents were very, very friendly and invited you over. At first I have found it tougher in Berlin to make the same parental friendships.”
Q: What about Kindergarten for your Daughter, was it hard to find a Kita spot?
A: “With the Kindergarten we were incredibly lucky because we were able to get Cece into the kindergarten that is attached to our son’s school and it’s fantastic. She started in August and it has been absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. She has two German teachers and one American, so hopefully, she will at least be able to understand a lot of German. She loves going. But I think the Kita situation in Berlin is very difficult now, and I know we have been very lucky to secure a place.”
People seem very busy here, and I think because it’s a bigger city, it takes more time to meet people.
Q: What has been the biggest Challenge about your relocation to Berlin?
A: “Making true friendships can always be a challenge in a new place, and I found it very hard at first. People seem very busy here, and I think because it’s a bigger city, it takes more time to meet people. When you are trying to settle everyone in, it’s quite hard when you don’t have a network to fall back on.”
Q: What was essential to ensuring your relocation to Berlin?
“A fantastic relocation agent.” *we both laugh (I’m her relocation agent)*…then Alex continues…”No, seriously, that’s really true. We spent quite a bit of time looking for relocation agents.
When we moved to Copenhagen we had a Danish woman who was very nice but she was set in her ways, and she didn’t like that we would sometimes challenge her. We felt this time we wanted somebody who would understand it from the expat’s point of view. Nick found you online, and after skyping with you, we thought, let’s go with you rather than going with a corporate company. It seems to be a bit of an issue in Berlin, trying to find decent people that are committed and put the time in.”
Q: Were there other cities you were considering? What was the reason you chose Berlin?
A: “Yes, there was talk of going to other cities but in the end the company was very keen for my husband to work out of its Berlin office and we were relieved! It’s in Europe, in a way, similar to Copenhagen and I wanted to be near home (the UK) because of friends and family.
I also felt that being a journalist, Berlin is such an important city politically, it seemed much more exciting than some of the other places we could have relocated to.”
Q: I want to talk about your position as a “trailing spouse.” You’re a career woman Alex, what did you have to take into consideration moving to Berlin in respect to your own career?
A: In Denmark, I was able to freelance for international news networks like BBC World and I was doing corporate work for companies. So I was excited that Berlin is such an important city in Europe, and in the World. That was a very appealing factor.
Q: How have you found getting your career started in Berlin?
A: “Harder than it was in Denmark. Partly because of having a baby and getting her settled into Kita this year too, which was a big deal. But not being able to speak German feels much more of a barrier than not being able to speak Danish in Denmark. Growing a network has also been more challenging. Copenhagen is quite small, and everyone in one industry knows everyone else, and once you’re in it’s quite easy (as long as you are a good networker) to meet people. But here, even though I have been given some very good contacts, it is harder and takes longer.
Not having childcare set up for several months has also made it more difficult. I am really just getting started now that Cece is settled in Kindergarten. My husband has also been away a lot more than he was when we lived in Denmark, so that has literally left me ‘holding the baby.’”
Q: How have you been able to create a network and integrate into the community?
A: “I’m very grateful to have found the MumsLikeUs Network that you put me in touch with. In the network there are other mums, similar to me that are desperate to work, have had good careers and have had to move here, and have also had children. They have had to make sacrifices so it’s nice to meet these people and to know just because you’re a so-called “trailing spouse” you don’t have to give up everything. MumslikeUs has really helped.
I was also given some contacts before I moved. For example, there is a good journalist network here. Groups like Expat Babies on Facebook are helpful but they are so enormous, that you don’t really know who is on there. I just wanted something smaller.
I’ve also tried to be proactive in organising mums’ nights out with mums from the school and Kita, and parents’ evenings.
Q: What have you found most challenging in regards to meeting new people?
A: “There is no central meeting point, which I think makes it tough. Things are so spread out in Berlin. Everyone is running and rushing. I have some good friends now, but it did take a while and I do feel you need to be quite proactive about finding friends here.
Most parents are from all over the world, and these international families are more open. Many German families already have their network and may be conscious that as expats we might leave again.
Organising evenings out is a great way to meet people. It also encourages children to be social and make new friends. Charlie is very good and proactive about making play dates.”
Q: How important is it to you to learn the language? Are you taking German lessons? How do you find learning German?
“Very important. But very hard. I have been having lessons since I arrived. Even when I had the baby at home, I would have somebody come to my house, during her lunchtime nap, which was a challenge in itself but it was the only way I could do it. And now I have teamed up with a friend and we have two lessons a week of intensive German. I did do a course, but I didn’t find it particularly helpful because people were at different levels. Where I live (in Mitte) there is a lot of English spoken and that makes it hard to practise.
I will soon start working in a bilingual newsroom so I have to improve my German – fast! I also want to be able to say to Charlie, ‘Mummy is having lessons’, so I can encourage him to learn as well.
Q: Have you found work in Berlin? Do you feel you are at a disadvantage in Berlin because of your field and not knowing the language?
A: “As I said, I’m about to start working regularly for a German broadcaster, broadcasting in English. Then I am hoping to start focusing on corporate work as well. I have been asked to do some work for British broadcasters, but I feel I need to know more German. I don’t want to go into a news room and have to ask someone else what is being said.”
I am so proud of what we have all achieved. There were times in the year when I was finding it really tough.
Q: Looking back on the year, do you feel your relocation has been successful?
A: “I am so proud of what we have all achieved. There were times in the year when I was finding it really tough, particularly when my husband was away at short notice. I can’t say that I absolutely love it here – yet – but we have definitely turned the corner.
When I think of friends we have back in the UK, I don’t think they could have done what we have done, especially not with a baby. I think we have proved that we are quite a resilient family. And I feel closer to my son as we have had to rely more on each other and have bonded through the experience.”
Q: Looking forward to 2018, what are the challenges you are still facing?
A: “I feel quite positive about 2018 actually. I feel we have got through the worst and now we can relax a bit. But I am anxious about how my work will affect the family. Will the childcare work? Will I be able to sort out healthcare payments and taxes? There’s a lot to sort out. But I feel confident we will be fine.
I think when you’re in the middle of all this chaos and trying to sort everyone else out, and you have to do everything from scratch, it is really important to remember yourself and to give yourself a break. You can’t just be doing paperwork 24hrs a day! We spent a lot of money on babysitters, but that was really important to me to be able to get out with my husband. My advice to other people would be to get a babysitter and have some fun! You have to give yourselves a break.”
It is really important to remember yourself and to give yourself a break
Q: What are you looking forward to in 2018 in Berlin?
A: “I am looking forward to being able to understand German, being able to actually make full sentences in German. I’m looking forward to working, getting back in the newsroom, seeing if I can cope with that challenge. I am also looking forward to exploring more of Germany.”
Q: What advice would you give for others relocating to Berlin?
A: “If you’ve got kids, above all you just need to get the kids settled first. Everything else will follow. I also think one parent has to have the time to deal with all that comes with relocating. There is so much stuff to sort. Also, try to get a babysitter asap and be kind to yourself and yourselves by making “me time” and date nights.”
You can read more about the Ups and Downs of Alex’s first year in Berlin on her blog.
Emily is Managing Director of Archer Relocation. As your Relocation Consultant she is your first new friend in Berlin. Originally from Australia, Emily lived in Melbourne, Sydney and Barcelona before moving to Munich in 1999. Resident to Berlin since 2003, Emily has now been in Germany for more than 18 years. Emily founded Archer Relocation early 2015 desiring to use her first hand experience and professional skills to assist fellow expats moving to Berlin. Archer Relocation offers the services you need to make your arrival in Berlin a smooth one, including home search, bureaucracy, immigration, and family assistance.