Meet Natayle, the next person to be featured in my Expat Living Interview Series. Originally from California, she now lives in my other home of Berlin.
All About Natalye.
I am a California girl living in Berlin. When I’m not cooking and baking vegan food or exploring the city via road bike, I’m tutoring college students, running music website Berlin Beat, and awaiting the release of my memoir on Microcosm Publishing.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in the Central Valley, aka the Bible Belt of California. At 14 I moved to Santa Rosa, a city about an hour north of San Francisco, and (if you don’t count the brief stints in Sacramento for university) basically lived there until I moved to Germany.
Where are you living now and how long have you been there?
I have lived in Berlin, a city of approximately 3.3 million people, since 2011. My flat is on the edge of former West Berlin, in Kreuzberg, which is one half of a bigger area known as Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. This area is like a city unto itself, with nearly 300,000 residents, making it the most population-dense borough in all of Berlin.
Have you lived anywhere else around the world?
Before Berlin, I was a true California girl.
Do you plan to stay in your current location or move somewhere else in the future?
I am married to a Berliner, and all of his immediate family lives in the city as well, whereas my parents and siblings are all over. So it’s quite likely that we’ll stick around here, since we both love the city (except during the six months of winter, when we regularly daydream about owning a vacation home someplace warmer…)
What’s your personal story? What made you decide to take the big leap and leave home?
After finishing my MA, I wanted a fresh start that would push me out of my comfort zone and open me up to new experiences. Berlin happened to be one of those “right place at the right time” kind of things.
Do you ever miss home? What do you do to cope?
I don’t miss “home” in the physical sense of a place, but I do miss particular aspects of California. For example, I have a hard time being away from the ocean; although I don’t feel landlocked like I expected, the ocean was always a place I could go to collect my thoughts and reenergize, and I struggle with not being close by the coast.
Luckily, however, I define home more based on the feeling of security, comfort, and familiarity I have in a place, which means Berlin is definitely my home (something that is definitely reinforced when I return to the city after a journey elsewhere).
As for missing actual people, it has been a challenge, and I have lost touch with some people along the way. But while some friendships prove too weak to last, others only grow stronger with the distance, and the punctuations of care packages, thoughtful emails, and words of encouragement from close friends and family make it so that I don’t really get homesick.
How do you blend in and be accepted by locals?
To be honest, it’s a constant struggle. On the social front, when I first moved here, I told myself I wouldn’t hang out with native English speakers, but that hasn’t quite worked out. Making friends with the Germans who live here is not easy when you’re in your late 20s, because everyone is already pretty comfortable in their friend group, you know? Plus, in a city like Berlin, people are constantly coming and going, which makes it more complicated to foster something long-term. And when you are settled down and not always looking to party, that also severely limits your ability to meet people.
However, on the everyday life front, I don’t really have an issue. I do all of my day-to-day tasks in German and it’s not a problem for me at all – in fact, I get a lot of people noticing my accent and asking where I’m from. But rather than setting me apart, it helps me feel more at home, since one-third of the people in Kreuzberg also come from immigrant or ex-pat backgrounds.
I also live in a wonderful Kiez (a self-contained neighborhood) that has everything I need, so the people who own the cafes, man the produce stands, and work in the stores all tend to know me by face or name and wave or smile when I’m walking down the street. In that way, the city feels quite small and personal, which I like.
Did you have to learn a new language? If yes, what? How did you go about learning the language and how long did it take you to become fluent?
As part of my graduate school requirement, I had to do two years of a foreign language, and opted for German, so I moved to the country with a basic grasp on and understanding of the language.
Since then, I have taken classes, first at the public “Volkshochschule”, and then at an amazing little leftish language school in Kreuzberg called Babylonia.
To date, I have finished C1, the second-to-last level before “fluency.” But rather than take the last level, for me personally I feel it’s more a matter of learning through doing and regular, practical application. I recently got a library card (finally) and am enjoying exploring the city libraries and reading “classic” German books for kids and young adults. This is definitely helping my vocabulary grow.
Overall, I would say that within the next six months to a year I will be able to say with certainty that I am fluent in the language.
What has been the most shocking thing you learned about the local culture?
There are definitely some interesting quirks I have learned about Germans, such as the bedding they use and their grooming/bathroom habits, but more than anything, the biggest shock was the “invasion of privacy.” It’s kind of a contradiction in that Germans are private people, but many of them have no problem sticking their noses into someone else’s business. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have either seen or experienced firsthand a German stopping and butting into someone else’s conversations or interactions to tell someone what he or she is doing “wrong.” Moreover, it’s more likely than not that the “offender” is doing something that has zero effect on the person calling him or her out on it, which is rude and entirely unproductive. Of course I am overgeneralizing here, but this abrasiveness still takes me aback regularly. Luckily, I have my own coping mechanisms/reactions, which is often to be an ass right back. Germans seem to love confrontation, so when in Rome… right?
What is your number one tip about how to live life as an ex-pat?
It’s said over and over again, but that’s because it’s important: learn the language. It’s not only the respectful thing to do, but it will enrich your experiences (and your life) so much more.
What do you love most about living abroad?
Of course I love the proximity to so many other parts of the world and how much cheaper it is in general to travel.
But the obvious aside, what I love the most is the challenge. I moved as a way to kickstart personal growth, and I think I not only achieved what I set out to do, but also continue to grow. I love that I am not comfortable all the time but that I still am able to continue meeting new people, seeing new places, and learning new things in spite of that.
Did you make the move solo? Or are you with a spouse or significant other, other members of your family, or friend(s)?
I am most definitely the crazy cat lady, in that I moved 9,000 kilometers away from home and brought my three cats along with me. But they were champions on the flight and acclimated to a new time zone and lifestyle almost immediately. They also have their own passports so I can continue to travel with them in the EU and back to North America, although I wouldn’t want to subject them to that unless it was absolutely necessary – they are much happier staying at home and sleeping. Still, their jetsetter lifestyle (by other cat standards) is a bit of a claim to fame, and around our house we call them the “ex-catriates.”
What do you do work wise? Did you have a job before you arrived or did you look for work when you got there? If you didn’t have a job, how did (or do) you land work?
If I’m being totally honest, my work situation is the one area of my life where I am not completely satisfied. I have been fortunate to have a job in the states that I can do from anywhere in the world – I say fortunate because finding a paying job in Berlin is not easy. While Germany’s unemployment rate is somewhere around 7%, Berlin’s is above 12% (as of January 2013). Factor in the smaller job pool for non-natives and it can be rough.
As for me, I tutor at the aforementioned job and am lucky to have freelance work as an editor and writer that is steadily building. I am definitely interested in landing a full-time job here if something is available and the right fit for me, but being a work-from-home freelancer is also appealing for other reasons. Of course, where working in a German-speaking job was not an option when I first moved here, that is another possibility I can pursue if I want.