Expat Living: Kathleen Parker in Berlin Germany
Our expat living interview series has really taken off lately and we couldn’t be happier! Our next feature introduces Kathleen Parker in Berlin, Germany. Kathleen’s a fellow Canadian who grew up in Australia and eventually made her way to the German Hauptstadt.
Kathleen tells us about life in Berlin, where she works as an opera singer and operates a business helping fellow expats like Natalye Childress.
Expat Living: Kathleen Parker in Berlin Germany
Born in Canada and raised in Australia, I’m now based in Berlin. Here, I’m an opera singer, singing teacher, copywriter, translator, and interpreter. I’m married to a lovely German man and we’ve one young daughter, Elise.
I sing operatic roles in European and Australasian theatres. My favourite role to sing (at the moment) is Senta in the Flying Dutchman. I also teach singing from my home studio in Berlin.
I run Red Tape Translation, an interpreting and translation service geared at helping English speaking expats deal with life and language in Germany. It’s been going for four years in Berlin and I’ve just expanded to Munich. There are plans afoot to service other major expat hubs in 2016 as well.
The other thing I really love to do is write, and my creative copy is featured on websites and brochures in San Diego, Sydney, London, Berlin, and Sweden.
Where are you from?
I was born in Winnipeg, Canada but I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. That’s home for me.
Where are you living now and how long have you been there? Do you plan on staying?
Did you move there alone or with family, friends, a significant other or even a pet?
I came on my own, just before Christmas in 2009, and was quite anxious that I’d be alone rocking in the corner. Not the case (I ended up hosting a lonely expat party that got a bit out of control).
What brought you to your new home? Tell us your story.
I won a scholarship in Sydney. The prize was a full-time contract at Opera Cologne. I always wanted to come here to work as an opera singer because my voice is a great fit for German music.
When I arrived in Berlin I got straight into doing German courses and I just happened to meet my future husband about seven days after landing. Oops.
What do you do work wise? Is finding work in your city easy? What are the visa requirements like?
I’m an opera singer, but like many bright-eyed artistic expats in Berlin, I had to add a few strings to my bow to make sure I could pay the rent and stay in the country. Auditioning and travelling costs a lot of money and very rarely results in a job. There are usually around 5 vacancies in all of Germany for my type of voice per year, and they could be anywhere from Aachen to Eisenhüttenstadt.
In Berlin, there is so much great stuff going on in the music scene but it’s all so terribly underpaid, if it’s paid at all. I turned to the freelance path and diversified by starting Red Tape Translation. It paid off – it wasn’t a rapid growth, but a slow and steady one.
As for work permits and visas, I’ve held just about all of them: tourist, Working Holiday, language learning, employment, freelance, and family. I’m only missing permanent residency and then my collection will be complete! For now, I can breathe easy: I get to stay at least until my little girl turns 18.
How do you “blend in” and be accepted by locals?
My German is fluent and my accent is good – that’s a great start. When it comes to interpreting for English speakers, I’ve gotten quite good at gauging the vibe in the office as we step in, and warming things up if it’s a bit chilly in there. It might be just finding something small that I have in common with the case worker – perhaps they have a north German accent and I can mention my family in Oldenburg. Or they have a calendar with a picture of Ayer’s Rock on the wall. Or a drawing done by a small child around my daughter’s age. Something to break the ice.
I still get really frustrated by the Berliner Schnauze when I’m out and about though, trying to get customer service at the post office or some decent advice from a salesperson. It stings particularly badly when I’ve just come back from a trip to Australia, where they’re all “no problem, Kathleen, is there anything else I can help you with today?”
How did you make friends? Are you friends with locals or with other expats?
Working in German theatres is great for meeting German and international musicians, but they’re transient beings. You get close to a group of people and then the show ends and they all disperse. You always run into them, sometimes years later, and pick up where you left off.
Kids are a great way of bringing people together. Most of my friends in Berlin these days have kids around my daughter’s age: we met through parent groups or via my daughter’s Kita. A good mix of Germans, locals and expats. I certainly don’t shy away from hanging out with expats: chatting in my mother tongue is a pleasure and sweet relief from my work.
What has been the most shocking thing you learned about the local culture?
That they expect you to pay for dinner on your birthday! What the?! I asked my German boyfriend if we could go to a birthday dinner at Ars Vini, a fancy fondue restaurant in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg on my 29th birthday. When it came time to pay, I was more than a bit miffed when he generously offered to split the rather hefty bill. Turns out he thought he was doing ME a favour.
Did you have to learn a language? What learning methods do you recommend?
I had intermediate German when I got here, but having a German boyfriend really got things going, so to speak. German pillow talk is an art all on its own, though learning on the job is fun. Secondly, reading tacky horoscopes is a great way to learn future tense.
I should also pay tribute to the German English Stammtisch where I actually met my future husband in the first place. It’s in Kreuzberg at Travolta Bar on Wienerstr. and it’s still going strong after around 8 years, every Tuesday night, rain hail or shine.
Del Keens from Misfit Models is responsible for keeping the party going. I met a lot of fantastic people through that Stammtisch and made lasting friendships.
What do you love the most about your new home?
European life keeps me fit, and that’s great. If I was in Australia, I’m sure I would drive everywhere and get takeout a lot. Partly because it’s such a big country, and partly because it’s so bloody hot all the time. In Berlin I don’t need a car. I walk and bike most places. I buy fresh food on a daily basis, just what I need, instead of stockpiling once a week.
I also LOVE the distinctive seasons. I love that Autumn is so crisp and red and all about pumpkins, and that in Spring you must celebrate white asparagus with wild abandon. I love the Christmas market time with the Grünkohl and Brussel sprouts, and that summer in Berlin is so exciting and colourful. Where I grew up, it’s just hot all the time.
What do you “hate” the most about your new home?
The people can be distant and seem rude, particularly in Berlin. You have to fight through layers of unwillingness and buck passing to get things done, and sometimes I feel like I’m always on the defensive, fighting for my rights in situations where I am used to being helped and supported.
It irks me too that such grave importance is placed on pieces of papers. I feel like other countries are better at recognising potential based on experience and achievements, rather than excluding you immediately if you don’t have the right piece of paper.
Finally, the resistance to change drives me up the wall. This applies just as much to the archaic bureaucratic procedures at the Bürgeramt as it does to the school system which is in need of a serious overhaul.
Kathleen’s Favourite Things in Berlin
Pakolat Kaffeerösterei on Raumerstr. in Prenzlauer Berg: cute, cosy, amazing cakes (you can see them being baked through a large glass window at the back) and croony jazz music. I’m told the coffee is good but I don’t drink it myself.
It takes a special outing into the centre of town, but I can’t go past Dussmann, particularly for their music scores collection.
The Turkish markets in Kreuzberg are heaven for cheese, breads, dips, hummus, and Gözleme. You just have to be OK with the vendors chanting “Tomaten, Tomaten, Tomaten, Tomaten, lecker lecker lecker lecker” over and over again.
I have real trouble finding clothes and shoes that fit in Germany. I do all my clothes shopping just about anywhere else: I have much better luck in Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK.
Prater Biergarten is perfect for big groups and kids, which is more my scene nowadays.
Things to do?
It’s simple and free – on a beautiful sunny day, a really long stroll through quintessential Kreuzberg from the Oberbaumbrücke (the famous bridge from Run, Lola Run) through Kreuzberg to the Landwehrkanal, then along the canal until we hit Admiralsbrücke. There’s a fabulous pizza restaurant there and an overcrowded ice-cream store. The bridge is always buzzing with barefoot bohemians toting guitars and 80 cent beers, and people selling dodgy bikes. Everyone is eating ice-cream. If it’s winter and the canal is frozen over, we just walk on the canal itself instead.
Get Social With Kathleen
- Websites: http://kathleenparker.info and http://www.redtapetranslation.com
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/redtapetranslation
Expat Living Information
If you’re interested in reading more interviews like this one with Kathleen Parker in Berlin Germany, check out my Expat Living section. You’ll find posts about why Berlin is so cool or tips for finding a flat in Berlin through Facebook Groups.
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