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Jill Mazullo, Berlin

My name is Jill Mazullo, and in August 2013 my family and I came to Berlin from St. Paul, Minnesota, to spend the year here for my husband’s sabbatical. Our three daughters attend three different schools that meet their needs, which was not the original plan, and I work from home for several clients back in Minnesota. My husband is making the most of the extensive operas and symphonies Berlin has to offer while working on his writing projects.

How did you find somewhere to live?

We found our apartment, or “flat” as they like to call it, through www.sabbaticalhomes.com before we came to Berlin. It’s a great site for people affiliated with any kind of educational institution. My husband had spent time in Berlin many years earlier, so he knew the general neighborhood where he thought we’d like to live.Before we signed anything we asked a friend in Berlin to visit the apartment and meet the owner on our behalf, to make sure it was in good shape, in a safe neighborhood, and that it would be suitable for a family of five. She was able to confirm that it was a great place and the landlord was reasonable and friendly. We were happy to know where we’d be living prior to our arrival. The only surprise in the process was that the deposit for the apartment was three months’ rent, and rent here is more than our mortgage back home.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

Upon arrival, a family upstairs was on the lookout for us, having heard about us from our landlord. They have daughters around the same age as ours, and they were eager to meet us. They had spent a sabbatical in Australia a few years earlier, and the parents’ English is excellent. They have been extremely helpful to us, particularly in our first days here. For instance, they told us that there is a local Montessori public school around the corner from us where their children go, and that our youngest daughter, who is the most proficient German speaker in our family, would be welcome there. We followed their advice and are so glad that our youngest is now fully immersed. This way she can enjoy the typical Berlin experience of walking to the local school, rather than join her sister for the 40-minute subway ride to the American school.

Meanwhile the American school is the best fit for our middle child, as she had no prior background in German. Our oldest had hoped to attend that school as well, but they had no openings for her grade, so we eventually found a place for her at a public international school.

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My husband has studied some German; I came with hardly any language skills. This has been the biggest challenge to us – dealing with the bureaucracy of life, such as school lunch providers, Internet technicians, cell phone carriers, and visa officials, all of whom only want to deal with you in German. In general, people we encounter locally in stores and cafés know some English and are able to help us if we lack the words to express ourselves. If we get stuck we tend to say something like “Entschuldigung, können Sie mir helfen in Englisch?” and that usually helps smooth the way, or they’ll find someone who can help us, or they’ll say no, they can’t help us in English, but they’ll speak more slowly.

My way of interacting with Germans socially is through my sport, rowing. Through online research and a few emails in butchered German, I identified a rowing club and started to join them for twice-weekly rows soon after we arrived. In this setting, I enjoy my own immersion experience because people are speaking German all around me, but most of them know English and are willing to translate the important things. Most of the German I’ve learned so far consists of obscure rowing terms and commands that aren’t useful anywhere else, but I’m picking up some phrases and bits of grammar from them as well. In this setting I’ve started to make some German friends.

I don’t plan to take language courses because I’m busy with my work from home during the day and I know it’s just for a year and I can get by without it. But I am considering finding some sort of conversation group so I’m not so tongue-tied all the time. For anyone planning to move to Germany, I’d highly recommend getting a head start in German before you arrive.

After two months here I don’t think that I’d be likely to make new German friends without my connection to the rowing club. Most of our neighbors keep to themselves, and even moms on the playground are engrossed in either running around with their kids or talking to other German moms. I’ve gone there many times with my kids but have never exchanged more than perfunctory greetings with other parents, and often not even that.

In the US I’d anticipate meeting parents who have something in common (kids) and possibly making friends there, but that’s unlikely here. School functions are another opportunity to meet other parents, but they are infrequent. As our children make school friends we meet their parents, but since we’ll only be here for a year, people may be less inclined to make the effort to reach out. It has been my experience that finding common ground, like rowing, is really useful to quickly move past any cultural differences and help you and the locals recognize that you have a lot in common.

How does shopping differ compared to back home?

Shopping for food is different in Berlin in subtle ways compared to Minnesota. Back in the US we would stock up on food over the weekend, buying two gallons of milk at a time, for instance. Here we would never do that; first, we don’t have a car here, and we’d have to carry all that heavy milk home; second, one-liter containers are the largest packages we’ve seen, and we’d have to buy eight of them to match what we used to buy; and third, our fridge is small and fits under the kitchen counter, so we could never give up that much space. So, we’re always running out of milk.

We shop almost daily here for food, and it takes a fair amount of time, running around to the local grocery store, the bakery, the Asian food store, and the specialty markets to buy the food we like to eat. We’d do a lot of that at home too, but in the US we’d add the errands to our commute to work, for instance. Here it requires more planning since it’s a walk or bike ride away and you can’t buy too much because you have to carry it all home.

On my blog I write a bit about how different things can be here, such as in checkout lines, for instance. I’m starting to understand that it’s simply a different business model. The first few times at Aldi I didn’t realize that after you pay you’re supposed to take your cart full of loose items and go bag them yourself at a table along the wall; I couldn’t figure out why there was no room for my things that were falling off the end of the checkout counter and why I was always holding up the line. Once you know what’s expected it’s a far less stressful experience, but of course no one is there to explain how it works when you walk in the first time. Also you need to carry around your own reusable bags or expect to pay for new ones here. And you need to carry cash as many places don’t take credit cards.

Pricewise, food is remarkably inexpensive here compared to the US. Yesterday I bought a liter of milk for 59 cents, containers of yogurt for 29 cents each, and a package of prosciutto for $1.69 – all in Euros, of course, but that’s still very little money (1 Euro is about $1.40 in US dollars). So that has been a pleasant surprise. And the quality of the food is good and there are many organic options (labeled “bio”). We have been a little disappointed in the variety and quality of fresh vegetables, but we’re finding it’s best to wait for the twice-weekly outdoor markets to buy them, where the selection is better, and we follow the advice of our local friends when they mention who has the best apples or potatoes, for instance.

What do you like about life where you are?

I find it amazing that we can get everywhere we want to go on public transportation, from short excursions to sightseeing at castles two hours away. Our teenage daughter especially enjoys the freedom of being able to meet her friends anywhere in the city and not have to rely on us for rides. Learning the subway and bus system and finding our way around the city is empowering and exhilarating, and it’s good for the kids as well as for us.

We appreciate how much we can reach on foot as well, such as hundreds of cafés, restaurants, kebab stands, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, banks, children’s clothing stores, and more. Pretty much anything we could ever need for daily life is within walking distance, or easily reachable by mass transit. We see many older residents in our neighborhood who would be far more likely to live in retirement communities in the US, but are able to stay in their apartments because they can meet all their needs so locally. As an urban planner I’m inspired by all the bicycles, street life, and overall livability of the neighborhood we’re in. I hope I can bring some ideas from our lived experience to peers back home because I think many Americans want to enjoy this same quality of life in their own neighborhoods.

Jill Mazullo blogs at Lost in Berlin about her experiences in Berlin and her adventures rowing on the Wannsee.

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