Berlin, Europe, Expat Living, Germany

Four Years In Berlin And WTF, I’m Still Here!?

Four Years In Berlin
(Last Updated On: December 3, 2018)

Four Years In Berlin And WTF,  I’m Still Here!?

This type of post has become an annual “state of the union” here on cherylhoward.com. It’s where I talk candidly about Berlin life, including things that happened over last year – like where I travelled, what I’ve been feeling about life abroad, and what’s changed or not changed. It’s also one of the rare times I get personal and share something different from a standard travel piece.

Recommended reading: My update from last year, Berlin Expat Life: I’ve Been Here For So Long I Stopped Counting.

I celebrated my Berlin anniversary this past week. Naturally, I posted about it on Twitter because, that’s what you do.

This makes it about six years that I’ve been living on this side of the pond and WTF, I’m still here!?

Four Years In Berlin And WTF, I’m Still Here!?

This year was the year I decided to face my fears – aka everything and anything that stressed me out – and get shit done. So from filing taxes, to getting permanent residency, to staying employed, cancelling contracts, and attending to my overall health and well being, I checked one thing after another off my list. I was so successful that I almost feel comfortable calling myself a responsible person. *gasp!*

Filing Taxes As A Permanent Employee Makes You Really Like The Tax Man

As I’m a massive procrastinator, I had four years of taxes to file at once. German taxes scare the hell out of me and I just kept putting it off, as it seemed too hard and I was scared that I’d end up owing money. I’m still traumatised from my former days as a freelancer, when it cost me about €1000 to file a mere two years worth of taxes.

I didn’t know where most of my papers were, papers I’d need to complete my tax returns. Some were in a gigantic pile in my living room, unsorted, and lying in a thick layer of dust. I hadn’t looked at them in years. Some papers were missing and I needed to contact former employers, including one that’s no longer in business. It was simply overwhelming.

Finally one Sunday afternoon, I spent a few hours sorting through it all, neatly filing things away, and putting aside items that were needed to file my returns. I made a list of what was missing and set about emailing some of my old companies. I searched online and found it was easy to file your German tax returns in English on Wundertax.de for about €40 a pop.

Within about 3-4 weeks, I received all of the missing paperwork from my former employees and filed my taxes. It was incredibly easy and I ended up with about a €1200 refund (which landed in my bank account about 3-4 months after I submitted my returns). 

Now that I know how easy it is to file taxes here (I’m a full-time employee so it’s not that complicated), I’m going to complete my taxes right away come January. I also heard that Wundertax isn’t the best, so I’m going to try SteurGo instead. 

Germany’s Not Getting Rid Of Me (Yet) Because I Have Permanent Residency

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Mural in Kreuzberg – clever caption, I know.

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 I was eligible to apply for permanent residency in January 2018, but I put this off for several months because I already had a Blue Card and there was really no rush. I was held back by a paralysing fear of the Ausländerbehörde, after having applied for multiple resident permits every time I lost my job over the years.

That Sunday afternoon that I spent sorting paperwork in my living room, I also put aside any paperwork I’d need for my permanent residency application. I started another list things I’d need and began cracking through them one by one – like a letter from my employer, a new biometric photo (which kind of looks like Nick Nolte’s old arrest photo), pension statements, a copy of my apartment lease, and more. Mid June, I walked to the post office near work and mailed in my application. Two weeks later I heard back from them, with a confirmation for an appointment 2-3 months later in September, just before I went on vacation in Canada.

Summer flew by in flash and before I knew it, I was meeting my friend at the foreigner’s office in Moabit. There was a nerve-wracking moment when I thought they were going to deny my application after I failed to provide proof of my German language skills. While the Berlin.de website says you need to have an A1 level of German, they do not explicitly say you need to provide written proof at the appointment. As was not listed as a required document, I didn’t have the certificates on me. By some miracle, they still decided to let me stay in Deutschland and I’m now a proud permanent resident.

What does this mean? I can stay as long as I want and work doing whatever I want. I could become a professional beat boxer tomorrow if I so desired (I once met a guy who claimed this was how he made his living). I’m no longer tied to one particular job or company. It’s the closest I can get to being a citizen without renouncing my Canada citizenship, which I’ll never do because I bleed maple syrup.

Being Employed For So Long Feels Weird 

Speaking of security, this is the longest I’ve been employed at one company since I moved back to Berlin. Yeah seriously, I can’t believe it either. Last NYE, I officially passed probation and while everyone was running around kissing and hugging one another to say happy new year, I breathlessly kept repeating “I passed probation” while downing Sekt like a drunken teen at a sorority house party. To put the cherry on top, my company is doing well and this marks the first time I’ve worked for a company that’s not tanking financially.

While I love not having to struggle with my existence in Berlin, the nightmare of those days are never far from my mind. I still experience panic attacks on the regular. Being positive, I can say is that work’s good overall and there’s no reason to complain. The people are nice, the job is challenging, and we get free beers on Friday. I’ll stick around for a while.

Agile Coaches Are Suddenly Hot Stuff 

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but suddenly Agile Coaches are in huge demand and recruiters are desperately contacting me like I’m a saviour who could transform a company’s unrealistic assessment of being agile into something that one day might be slightly accurate.

I’m not extraordinarily flattered as I know recruiters contact anyone with the word Agile listed on their CV, but it certainly makes my future an intriguing one as I think about what’s next in my career journey.

Achievement Unlocked: I Cancelled My Gym Membership

When I lived and worked in Prenzlauer Berg (how I miss those days), I used to go to a nearby gym. Then I moved outside of the Ring and “forgot” about my membership, even though they plucked money from my account every month. I let this happen for two years, but this year decided to finally stop being so careless with my cash.

I went to the gym and asked how I could cancel my membership. The woman helping me asked why and I said, “Well, I live and work in different areas of Berlin and Prenzlauer Berg is simply too far for me to come on a regular basis. I also haven’t been to the gym in two years.” She responded with “That’s no reason to cancel!”

Until this moment, I thought that Germans were the most logical people I’d ever known. I looked at her with my mouth wide open and asked her if she was serious and of course, she was. She told me to write a letter in the mail to their head office (because that’s how Germans roll) and request a cancellation. Thankfully, I didn’t have to kill a tree and I emailed them instead. They replied to tell me that I could cancel, but only six months down the road when my annual contract period ends. I’m happy to say that November was the last time I’ll ever have to make a payment to them.

This month, I’m signing up for Gympass through work which not only allows you to go to gyms all around the city, but offers flexible cancellation terms with only 30 days notice being required.

I Even Cancelled My BahnCard

I love travelling around Germany by train but I don’t do it enough to make the €65 I pay every year for my BahnCard worthwhile. Just like the gym contract, cancelling these card are notoriously difficult. The contract is one of those where you have to cancel at least 3 months in advance (why does this country require such long cancellation periods?) or it just auto-renews and you get charged again.

For the past 3 years, I kept forgetting to cancel but this year, I wasn’t going to let them get me. I cancelled my card this past spring and it expired just last month. I was able to use it for one last trip when I went to Poznan for the weekend.

Going To A Gynecologist In Berlin 

Here’s where I’m going to get real and talk seriously about women’s health issues, so if this grosses you out, skip to one of the next sections. I’d love if you kept reading, as I strongly believe in talking more openly and honestly about these topics.

Years ago, my gynecologist in Toronto found abnormal cells during my last pap smear. If left untreated, those abnormal cells could one day turn into cervical cancer. This led to me having a colposcopy and later on, a LEEP procedure. After the surgery, I was required to have a followup exam every six months to monitor the situation.

Unfortunately, just before I moved back to Berlin, abnormal cells reappeared on my scan and my doctor advised me to get followup treatment in Germany as soon as possible. I started off with a gynecologist in Prenzlauer Berg. After seeing him a few times, I could only convince him to do regular pap smears and not a colposcopy I needed. He never once recommended me for further treatment, always saying everything was fine.

After being in Berlin for a while, everything went terrible from a work perspective. I spent the next two+ years just trying to survive, running out of money, looking for work, getting work, applying for a visa … ad nauseam. My life seemed like Groundhog Day where the same thing kept happening over and over. The stress took it’s toll and resulted me in ignoring important things like my health.

At the end of last year, I finally went back to the doctor in Prenzlauer Berg. He lectured me for not knowing enough German (during the exam!) and when he saw a rash on my back, he called my skin ugly. I left in tears and decided to never go back, ignoring their calls and letters notifying me they’d found alarming results on my most recent pap smear. Instead, I went to my family doctor, told her what had happened, and she personally referred me to her own gynecologist.

While the road has been rocky in the months I’ve been seeing the new doctor, they’ve been able to confirm my condition is either about the same or only slightly worse. This week I finally had a colposcopy again (after four freaking years!) and I’m going back in a week’s time to discuss the results and be put on a proper treatment plan. It could be I need another LEEP or another more aggressive surgery. For now it seems that it’s nothing that serious, but I’m don’t want get too ahead of myself until I speak with the doctor. 

My Periods Make Me Want To Die

 

 
 
 
 
 
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I came to Potsdam for a silly Harry Potter exhibition but I had way more fun skipping through the autumn leaves

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 On top of everything else, my periods are so heavy and painful that I feel like I want to die. I often stay home from work to avoid the inevitable embarrassing situations and to spend the day sobbing in bed hugging a hot water bottle. It shouldn’t be this bad.

My gynecologist found something in one of my recent scans that explains everything – a myoma, which is basically a benign tumour. While there’s no need for drastic action at the moment, I’ve been told to make a decision about what I want to do. There are various options (living with it, getting an IUD, taking hormones, or even having a hysterectomy) that I need to further discuss with my doctor next week.

Let’s Have An Honest Conversation About STDs

Those years of employment/unemployment/employment left my broke and depressed and the times when I had a little money, I’d either use it to go on a trip somewhere or go out and party.

To get tested for STDs in Germany, you can expect to shell out around €120 because it’s seen by the health insurance industry as something you want to do, not something you have to do. This makes absolutely no sense, as STD testing should be something we’re all encouraged to do on a regular basis. Considering how many hundreds of Euros we shell out for health insurance every month, it seems straightforward to have the costs of STD tests covered under the umbrella of public insurance. Back in Canada, it was paid for and I’d get tested annually.

Thankfully I now have a doctor to help out with things like this and last month, I was tested, and things came back all clear. As I’m not so poor now, these tests will be annual thing for me.

Closing The Chapter On Make Friends In Berlin

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That classic shot of #Berlin

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For a while, our Make Friends in Berlin “movement” was really fun and it grew into something way bigger than we ever expected. Who would have thought that a little blog post I wrote 6 years ago would become what it did? First a spontaneous event we organized on Facebook that would draw about 10-20 people and then a full fledged Meetup group with close to 8,000 people, it transformed into one of the city’s most popular social meetups. We went to cool venues all around Berlin like the Neuwest art gallery, to House of Weekend with its kick ass view over Alexanderplatz, and classic dive bars like Dr Pong. At times, we attracted crowds of around 250 people. We also started a couple of Facebook groups for people to connect with one another in between meetups with about 2,000 people. 

The bigger the group got, the more difficult it became to manage. If we had a meetup during the week, people would complain and if we had a meetup on the weekend, others would complain. People would ask for big ticket events, while others would ask for smaller events and when we mixed it up a bit, guess what happened? They still had something negative say! People joined the group to promote themselves or their events, not to make friends. Men would troll the Facebook group looking to pick-up women. When I organized a women’s only event, one called me a lesbian (as if that was an insult?!), and started spamming the discussion thread with threatening comments. He tried to rejoin the group on at least five different occasions after we banned him. One woman claimed she was sexually assaulted by one of the meetup attendees. Another women once asked people to join her for a sexy Saturday evening at Kit Kat, because you know, it’s normal to ask complete strangers to meet you at a sex club. Hours later several men from the group showed up and were dismayed not to find her there. I received several messages saying I had to do a better job at getting people to show up at their sex club appointments. The tip of the iceberg happened after we banned a guy from the group.  He got so upset that he made a YouTube video about me, saying that I didn’t help people make friends in Berlin. He sent the video to my co-organizer Adam and threatened me with it, saying he would only take it down if I apologized, and let him back into the group.

All of this shit, combined with the fact that it actually cost us money to run the meetup, that took a lot of our time, started to become boring after three years, and that Adam moved to New York made the whole thing a burden that I no cared to assume. With a somewhat heavy heart, we closed down the Make Friends in Berlin meetup and Facebook groups in July. We had a decent run, fun along the way, and saw tons of friendships form. We’re happy to have been part of making that happen. 

Since then, I haven’t missed it one bit. It’s a huge relief to no longer have to worry about finding a venue every month and dealing with the crazy people. Without a doubt, putting it all behind me was one of the best things I’ve done this whole year. 

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

When you move abroad, you constantly find yourself questioning about whether or not you should stay put, move somewhere new, or return home. I wrote about it my update post last year:

It’s really hard to explain, but when you make a move abroad, you find yourself missing home, while still loving your new home. You often feel guilty missing out on things, be it friends getting married and having babies, or just feeling uncool as you don’t know about new restaurant openings or other interesting events anymore as you’re simply out of touch. You visit your friends … notice their greying or thinning hair, spend time with your ageing grandmother, or your niece who’s grown into this totally amazing person, and you wonder if you’re in the right place.

A year later and my feelings of missing home have intensified a lot. Being home again was great and of course, I found myself not wanting to leave. The day I left Toronto, I was crying bucketloads of tears at the airport. Does this mean that it’s time to think about relocating Toronto again?

What holds me back is that I will find myself in the exact same position – living in Toronto and missing Berlin. I try to look at another old update post of mine:

Friends … reminded me how much I loved Berlin and urged me to remember the feelings I had while standing on that rooftop on New Year’s Eve. They questioned, “Don’t you remember how much you missed Berlin when you left for the first time?” How could I forget? As soon as I got on the plane, I sat down, looked out the window, and cried for 15 minutes straight. That sadness stayed with me for the entire two years I was home and only lifted when I moved back to Berlin.

So what does this mean? A big fat nothing really. I just miss home and am honestly acknowledging that constant tug of war of wanting to be in two places that I love. Probably someday I’m going to move back. Maybe even sooner rather than later. All I know is that I’m not ready to give up on my adventure here in Berlin just yet.

My Travels Over The Past Year

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Pretending to be cool on Comino in Malta

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My travels are somewhat reduced these days as I’m a proud and enthusiastic cat mom – Izzy’s getting old and I don’t like to leave her too often. Despite this, I’ve still managed to get around a fair bit.

Last fall saw me spending a weekend in Bucharest, where I most notably fell in love with a bookstore. The winter took me to Budapest for a weekend and in March, I spent the better part of a week in Malta. In April, I went to Poland twice, once to Szczecin and once to Poznan. In June, I spent a weekend in Hamburg and over the summer I took day trips to Bremen and Lüneburg, where I visited the quirky German Salt Museum. Come fall, I made my way home to Toronto for a few weeks, also hitting up Detroit and New York City, where I checked out a lot of street art.

Bonus Q & A 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A moment of #Berlin love • • • • ❤️ ❤️❤️ Follow my travel and expat life adventures at cherylhoward.com

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I recently posted on my Instagram stories, asking if anyone had questions about my four years in Berlin. Here are a few of them.

1) Do I speak German?

I know I talked touched on this above, but I want to reiterate it again, especially if there are any aspiring Berlin newbies out there reading this. I have an A1 level of German and I barely get by. I know that my life here would be infinitely better if I improved on this one item alone. I cannot stress how important learning German is if you intend to live in Germany and not only do I write this as advice for you, but a reminder for myself as I continue my existence here.

You can choose to judge me for not knowing German after being here for four years, but I’d recommend you don’t. You never know what a person is going through in their life and what’s preventing them from learning the language. It could be that they don’t want to learn or they could be like me and want to learn, but have valid reasons for not doing so at the moment. I watch how fast and easy Germans, and even other foreigners, cast judgement and it really makes me sad. 

So an obvious message that shouldn’t have to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway – worry about yourself and less about others. Live and let live.

<Insert another fitting cliché here.>

2) Does Berghain live up to the hype?

Despite how often I’ve been out clubbing in Berlin, I’ve only been to Berghain once. It was winter, a Friday night, at about 2:00 a.m. when my friend and I hesitantly approached the doors. I was prepared, dressed all in black, wearing the obligatory weekend uniform of all Berliners. For some reason, there was no lineup save for four drunk British boys ahead of us. They were loud, rude, and disrespectful and as one might expect, they were denied entry. 

I thought “Oh, fuck. We’re never going to get in.” But yet, we did. I was so excited that I started dancing around like Carlton from Fresh Prince of Belair and my friend told me to be quiet and stand still, otherwise we could still potentially get kicked out. Yes, it’s like that. 

I only vaguely remember what followed that night, as I was already drunk when we arrived. As it was Friday, only Panorama bar was open and the tone was much more subdued than usual. The legendary dark room was closed, as was much of the club, so I don’t have any scandalous stories to tell. As I’m not a techno fan, I can’t tell you about what DJ played or if the music was good. I do remember it sounding good. It was either the incredible sound system or the vast amount sof alcohol I consumed that night made dancing feel natural. What I do recall is that we drank beer, danced, sat in some boxes and gossiped about the boys in our life, mingled with the crowd, and lost track of time. 

We emerged at daylight, walked to Warschauer Brücke where many others were either starting or ending their day, and grabbed a Döner while watching the sunrise. 

My story is pretty much the most boring story that anyone has about Berghain. Others go purely for the thrill of getting past the bouncers, to hear famous DJs play, to dance and party, to get off with the help of anonymous strangers in the dark room, to do all the drugs, and of course, to just have that quintessential Berlin experience. After being there that one time, I have zero desire to return. 

Should you go? Why the hell not? We all deserve a Berghain story of our own. Just be prepared to possibly wait in a long queue. Be ready to accept that you may very well be rejected. Know that they’ll take your phone and cover your camera with a sticker. 

Whatever you do, DO NOT buy drugs from a stranger in the bathroom and then proceed to take those drugs. When things go south, Berghain staff could care less about you and won’t be in a rush to help. It seems like they’re more interested in maintaining their status as a famous cultural institution than anything else. An American girl overdosed there not long ago and her husband claims they didn’t do enough to save her life. She died a few hours later in a nearby hospital. Let the enormity of that sink in for a moment. 

Don’t do drugs, kids.

3) Places to get fit? 

Not sure if you could tell from above, but my overall health isn’t the best and although it’s getting better, one of the reasons I feel so poor is precisely because I don’t spend enough time on physical fitness. This is something I plan to change starting this month and the advice I give to you now, is also for myself. 

In terms of gyms, be wary of signing a long-lasting contract. As I explained already, cancelling is difficult.  The good thing is that gyms are affordable and it’s pretty easy to find something for €20 a month. Many gyms now offer more flexible options that let you cancel with 30 days notice. Signing up with companies like Urban Sports Club allows you access to facilities all around the city, including public pools (both indoor and outdoor). 

Berlin has an ample amount of green space, perfect for roller blading, cycling, running, walking, and even hiking. My favourites are Tempelhofer Feld, Grunewald, and Volkspark Friedrichshain. An off the beaten path and especially beautiful one is Schlosspark Biesdorf. The prettiest pools are this one in Prenzlauer Berg and this one in Neukölln, while this one in Wilmersdorf is especially kid friendly and perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day. If you prefer swimming in a lake, Schlachtensee, Plötzensee, and Wannsee are all popular spots. Or if you fancy spending the day at the spa, consider Vabali

Overall Things Things Are Finally Better

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Fall flowers

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 So yeah, there’s been a lot about physical and mental health in this post. It’s something I obviously should have paid more attention to. But depression is a dark beast that sometimes takes control, despite all of your best intentions. For those four years in Berlin, I sat stagnant and kept wondering why I wasn’t feeling good about anything. Well, no wonder! I’m pretty amazed at what I accomplished over the past year, especially when I compare to how things were at this time last year. 

My goals for next year (written here to hold myself accountable):

1) Improve my German

2) Go to the gym two or three times a week

3) Eat better and cook at home more

4) Drink less alcohol and more herbal tea

5) Quit smoking once and for all. While I don’t smoke on a daily basis any longer, I still tend to smoke when I drink.

6) Lastly, I will try dating. I have a couple of apps installed on my phone, literally stored in a folder called “Dating”. In 2018, I managed to go out on one whole date. That’s it! This is hardly impressive, but understandable considering I have a tremendous fear of commitment. Now  I need to break out of my home/work routine and meet new people. Hopefully one of these guys will be a good one and something cool can happen. Wish me luck!

While I’m still in the midst of the journey, if I can manage to stay on track, life can only keep getting better.

Good to Know

 

 
 
 
 
 
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I miss seeing this view everyday!

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Let me help you get started with your Berlin life:

1) Find a job in Berlin

2) Learn German in Berlin

3) Moving house in Berlin

4) Best meetup groups in Berlin for meeting new people

5) Things to do in Berlin 

Find even more information in our Berlin guide

Need somewhere to stay when you’re in Berlin? Check out hotel offerings on booking.com.



Booking.com

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2 Comments

  • Reply Cynthia December 2, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    I love these sorts of posts — congrats on your Berlin-versary! What a big big year it has been.
    I have pretty much the exact feels as you do about home vs. where you live now. Last time I was back home in WA state, it was so hard to come to grips with having to get back on a plane and go back “home” – never have I been more depressed to get on a plane to Europe. But I came to about the same conclusions as you did — that’s just sort of the way this sort of life goes, isn’t it. I have had very good experiences with intensive courses to learn German quickly in Berlin – definitely recommend if you can make the time for it! I know sometimes they offer evening courses (twice a week ish).

    • Reply Cheryl Howard December 2, 2018 at 2:31 pm

      Thank you Cynthia! I’m very positive that next year is going to be even better too. 🙂

      Also nice to hear that I’m not the only one who feels this way about home. I’ll likely be choosing a school in the new year (once the expensive Christmas season passes) and already have 1-2 in mind. 🙂

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