Finding A Better Work-Life Balance In Berlin

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast. Have you ever visited a city in a foreign country, and just felt immediately at home? That was Laurel Wright’s experience whilst on a solo European holiday from the USA. Wanting to escape the hustle culture of LA, she decided to pack up her life, and move to Berlin.

We recorded this chat a couple of months back, and talk about what Berlin is like in the summer, how she found a job and navigated German bureaucracy, freelancing in Berlin, workplace culture and making friends with locals. Laurel also explains the ways in which her quality of life – and perspective – has changed for the better since her move abroad.

Laurel, we’re recording this in the summer. Is Berlin a bit like Paris where all the locals get out of town as soon as mid-July hits?

Laurel: I would actually say no, and I think it’s because a lot of people in Berlin, or I’d say most people in Berlin, look forward to the summer here. Like, there’s a lot of really nice open air concerts or dance parties and stuff like that, festivals, whatnot. So I don’t think there’s the same culture like there is in Paris where, in July and August, all of the locals are gone. A lot of people do travel in July and August, but I don’t think it’s at the same rate as what they do in Paris.

Carlie: But they just say, see you in September.

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Laurel: Yeah. I mean some people do that but I feel like a lot of Germans, or a lot of people, are more likely to, you know, take a summer holiday but not use all of their time in two months, like for  every summer.

So yeah, I think it’s a bit different. Like yeah, like there’s still a lot of locals here and there’s still quite a bit going on and so I think that gives a lot of people incentive to stay. Just because everybody looks forward to summer all year round. Like every time I meet somebody that moved to Berlin during the winter, or like we were in the two years of the pandemic and so we weren’t really able to have a proper Berlin summer like last year and in 2020, and so this year’s the first proper summer that we’re having in three years.

And so when people get down about the weather or you know, dealing with German bureaucracy or things like that I tell people, and I think a lot of other people say this, like Berlin is a different place in the summer. Like people are nicer, there’s so much going on, it’s so much fun. And I think because of that people look forward to it and they make a point to stick around and experience as much of it as they can.

Carlie: My first and only visit to Berlin was actually in the middle of a summer heat wave. And I was there for five days and I remember my friend, who was living there at the time, taking me to this really cool pool in a shipping container that was in the river. I don’t know if that’s still there, but like that stands out.

Laurel: Yes, it is. You’re talking about Badeschiff. Yes, I go there quite a bit, yes. Yeah, it’s really cool.

Carlie: I remember thinking how awesome that was, because we were in the middle of this, you know, bustling metropolis and here is this cool like oasis situation. And so many city rivers you can’t swim in, but here’s one in Berlin that they have adapted to mean you can kind of enjoy it, you know?

Laurel: Yeah. And then I think another perk of Berlin that a lot of other big cities don’t have, is there are several lakes that you can get to via public transport within an hour or less. And then obviously if you have a car that opens up even more options. But I think that makes a difference.

So if it’s hot, like I know while I was gone there were quite a few really hot days, you have options, like go swimming at a place like Badeschiff or go to the lakes. And so I think that also makes a difference, whereas in other cities you might have to go a bit further out and actually make a proper weekend or trip out of going to a lake.

Carlie: Holiday. Yeah. Mini break.

Laurel: Whereas in Berlin, like I said, it’s only an hour on public transport and so you can just spend the day there and then come back home. So that’s, I think, something else that’s very unique to Berlin that a lot of people really, really love.

Carlie: A lot of people want to spend time or live in Berlin for a while. So I’m curious what led you to move from the USA? I’m assuming it was from the USA to Berlin.

Laurel: Yes. So prior to Berlin I had been living in LA, in California, and I had started traveling. I think the last two years I was there I was doing a lot of solo traveling. And I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot of companies in the US don’t give a lot of vacation time. Like I think the average is like 10 to 15 days per year.

Carlie: Yeah. Like two weeks a year. Yeah. Something crazy.

Laurel: Something like that. And so what ends up happening is, a lot of people only do one big trip every year because that’s all the time that you have, and for a lot of people that’s all they can afford. And it’s a lot more expensive to travel around the US than it is in Europe. Like there isn’t like, you know, Ryan Air, Easy Jet or like, you know, these really cheap flights that you can get. Like even this year, with the demand for travel being so much higher, it’s still a lot cheaper than what it would be in the US.

And so I had done my first solo trip to Europe in 2015, and I just found myself observing how people were living and everybody just seemed so chill compared to how Americans are. And I mean, at the time, I’m sure people had worries or they had stuff that they were stressed about but, just collectively, everybody just seemed so chill and they seemed so, like they were actually enjoying their lives.

And I feel like in the US, especially in a city like LA, the hustle culture is really glorified and so you’re constantly thinking about work or going from one thing to the next and not really taking the time to enjoy your life and just sit still or spend time with family and friends.

And so that was the first thing that struck me. And then back to the vacation time thing, like I got to a point where I didn’t want to just come over here, use my only vacation time to come over here once a year, and then only get to see like Paris for four days and then never see any other part of France. Or like, only go to Berlin and never see any other part of Germany.

Carlie: That’s the the funny thing for me, when you talk about all of your vacation days, and they are only about two weeks in total, and I think, what can you see in that time?

Laurel: Exactly.

Carlie: You know, no wonder itineraries for Americans in Europe are usually so rushed, you know?

Laurel: Yeah. Because it’s like, you’ll be in like London for three days and then like, they try to go to three or four places in a short amount of time and it’s like, you can’t even really see anything or do anything.

Carlie: You can’t absorb a place, right?

Laurel: Yeah. And then, like I said, there’s so much more to every country in Europe than the major cities or the capital cities, and so I wanted to be able to experience that. And I think that, along with being just fed up with the American rap race culture and… I knew I wanted to leave LA.

Like, I had been there, I think when I had decided I wanted to work toward moving abroad, I had been there for almost four years and I was like okay, like I need to make some change because the longer I stay here, the less sustainable this is getting budget wise, because it’s extremely expensive to live in California.

And yeah, so that’s kind of what got the ball rolling. And so the next year, I had read an article about Germany, because I had taken some German classes in high school and in uni, and so I was already familiar with the language, and then I had read an article about Berlin being, at the time, an emerging tech city. Like, Google is about to build. I mean, they ended up not doing this but at the time they were talking about building a campus on Berlin, and there’s all this really cool stuff happening. And I said, okay, well, let’s check it out.

And so I visited Berlin in November 2016, I think. Yeah, the end of November. And I just fell in love with the city. Like, I didn’t even really do a lot in the way of like partying or anything like that, because I was by myself, I just spent my time walking around the city, trying cafes, doing other things. And I just really liked being here and it just felt right. And I don’t really know how to explain it any other way than that. Like, it just felt right at the time. And as soon as I got home, all I thought about was; what could I do to make this move to Berlin happen?

And, I think, right after Christmas, so this must have been in early 2017, I connected with a woman who’s a relocation specialist. We found each other in a Facebook group, and she has a company called Nomad in Berlin and they specialize in helping people move to Berlin and get set up here and help navigate the bureaucracy.

And like, basically you would pay, I think it was maybe like 2000 euros, and it was like you got accommodation and they also helped you with navigating the German bureaucracy, like getting registered, helping you find a job. They didn’t like, actively help you find a job, but like giving you resources to help find jobs and stuff like that. And so I said, okay, I’ll give this a shot, because worst case scenario, like, I go there, I’m there for a month and I just say I lived in Berlin for a month. You know?

Carlie: Which is still cool.

Laurel: Yeah, exactly. And so, I gave it a shot. And so I decided okay, I’m going to move to Berlin at the end of the summer. And then I got a bit of a curve ball thrown at me, I think in April of 2017, because the company I was working for at the time was restructuring and so I ended up getting let go from the job I had. And, I mean, at the immediate moment I was like, I lost my job. How am I supposed to continue planning for this international move?

Carlie: Yeah. Suddenly, yeah, some important funds are cut off there.

Laurel: Yeah. But after a while I realized, well hey, I could use this to my advantage. Because, you know, I got a severance package and I was collecting unemployment, and when you’re collecting unemployment you have to be showing proof that you’re applying for jobs, but they never said like, oh you have to be applying for jobs in the state of California-

Carlie: In the USA.

Laurel: -and so I started applying for jobs in Berlin. And so, I think by the end of that summer, I had heard from a couple of companies and had some interviews, and then I had interviewed with this one startup company that was in the B2B software space, and they offered me a job. And so it was really cool that I was able to have something lined up before I even got here. But after I arrived in September of 2017, I basically just did my registration and then I signed my contract for the job, and was able to start in October, which was really, really cool how that played out.

Carlie: So, you said that you actually engaged a company to help you navigate German bureaucracy. What did that bureaucracy look like for you, as an American citizen wanting to move to live and work in Germany?

Laurel: So, I feel like a lot of the German bureaucracy, there is stuff that you have to do to get set up here, it’s a quite outdated. Like for example, you have to do what’s called an Anmeldung, which is your registration, which is like basically saying, hey, this is me. I live in Berlin. Or I live in whatever city or town in Germany.

Carlie: This is different to a visa?

Laurel: Yeah, so everybody has to do this. Like, even Germans have to do this.

Carlie: Okay.

Laurel: Like, you have to register. And like every time you move to a new apartment you have to register or do an Anmeldung. And so this is just like a general thing that you do when you move to a new apartment, or like when you move to Germany from somewhere else. And so I thought that was interesting, because there’s nothing like that in the US. Like you just, you know, if you’re moving apartments you just move and then you update your address and all of your bank accounts-

Carlie: Just move. Don’t have to tell anyone.

Laurel: -and, you know, bills and everything. And then there’s a form that you can fill out with the post office to have your mail routed to your new address, and that’s really all that you do. And so, I remember thinking like, okay, this is interesting.

And then the kicker for me is, you actually have to make an appointment to go to an office to do this, and this appointment takes maybe 15 minutes max. Because, literally, they just look at your passport and then you have to take some documents with you from your landlord or from wherever you’re staying, basically giving permission for you to be there, that you’re saying that there, you’re renting there, that you live there, da da da da da, your rental contract and all of that. And so, yeah.

And so I remember thinking like, okay, like this could all be done online. Like, that was the first thing I thought. Like that’s just-

Carlie: It could have been an email.

Laurel: -that’s just a general feeling I have about a lot of the German bureaucracy. It’s like, a lot of this stuff could be automated, it could be digitized and, for some reason, it’s not. And I think that was a shocking thing when I first got here. Because, you know, on the global stage, Germany is known as like, being the country that-

Carlie: Very efficient.

Laurel: -efficient.

Carlie: Yeah.

Laurel: Like, they make all these cars, they’re supposed to be high tech, and then you actually get here- especially Berlin, because it’s my understanding that you know, some states are better than others when it comes to how they manage these different things- and so, yeah, when you get here it’s like, okay, it’s actually not very efficient at all. And that makes it quite annoying. You know, because stuff like this, that should be super simple, ends up being so much more complicated and a lot can be lost in translation, and I think that makes a lot of people very frustrated. And so it’s nice to have somebody that knows the ins and outs of the system to help you because if you are trying to navigate this on your own, it can get really frustrating

Carlie: And I’m guessing your German probably wasn’t up to dealing with administration standards when you first arrived?

Laurel: Exactly. Because, I mean, like I said earlier, I took it in school but I hadn’t been using it on a daily basis for years. And so, yeah, I wouldn’t have been able to get through an appointment. Like my first appointment, like, I probably can do it now with no issue, but, yeah, when I first got here…

So yeah, it was definitely nice to have that. Because, I think, when people are deciding if they’re going to stay in Berlin long term and make it work, and if they just decide to leave, it’s the bureaucracy, and the roadblocks that that bureaucracy produces, that can be a very big determining factor of how successful someone is here and whether or not they choose to stay long term.

Carlie: You have to enjoy life admin, I’m guessing? Well, if not enjoy it, tolerate it.

Laurel: Yeah, exactly. You do really because, especially with like your residents permit and stuff like that, you have to keep records of everything. And, I mean, I was doing that already, but you really have to be on top of like, making sure you have certain documents and all of that,  and like, always keeping everything. Which, you know, I was always the type of person that I would scan everything. Once it’s on my computer and my Dropbox I can just get rid of it or whatever, and it’s like, no, no, I keep the hard copies though.

Carlie: I actually, a few months after we moved into our house here in France, I went out and bought a physical filing cabinet, because I realized there was so much paperwork that we had to keep in hard copy. And my partner, he just stored everything on the top shelf of his desk. And I’m like no, like I need life organization, and we need to keep these papers for the next 30 years, so, okay, filing cabinet is the way to go. And that blows my tiny mind because I’m like you, I’d prefer to scan and throw away the hard copy but…

Laurel: Yeah. But like here, and I think this might be a Europe wide thing, like, it does seem like in continental Europe, there’s still a lot that needs to be done in terms of like, modernization and digitization. And I think a lot of it has to do with, if these places ever digitize these processes, a lot of people would not have jobs anymore.

Carlie: True.

Laurel: I honestly think that’s part of it.

Carlie: And so, you mentioned that you were searching for a job and you landed a job in Berlin when you were still in the States. So did you need to arrange a visa before you arrived? Or did the company organize that for you when they decided to hire you?

Laurel: So basically, how it works for Americans or people from the US, and then I think Australia, is you can be in a European country for up to 90 days on a Schengen entry visa. And then after that you have to have some sort of residence permit. And so basically, what I did was, I entered Europe with the Schengen visa, and then once I got here and I had my work contract, I think after that I went and got my health insurance set up. And then, I had already done the Anmeldung or the registration, and I think I had some other documents that I had to get together, that were filled out by my employer. And then I went to the immigration office and submitted everything and then I was able to get my resident’s permit back in like, two and a half weeks.

Carlie: And it was done.

Laurel: Yeah, exactly. So in Germany, basically, from what I understand, like I’m not well versed on the rules and I think they’ve been recently changing them quite frequently these past couple of years, but the way I understand it is, Germany is not like the UK where you have to pay a lot of money to sponsor somebody. That’s not an EU citizen. And I think there’s like even a specific agreement between the United States and Germany-

Carlie: Right.

Laurel: -in terms of workers and stuff. So basically, the only requirement is that I’m being paid the same salary as a German person would be paid.

Carlie: Okay, so there’s no exploitation going on.

Laurel: Exactly. And then the immigration office will make sure you’re making enough. And then like, recently, like in the past – I’d say three or four years – they’ve even gotten stricter. Like, having to submit like your rental contract so they know how much rent you’re paying, and then based on that they’ll come up with a figure, okay, this is your minimum that you have to be paid-

Carlie: To be earning.

Laurel: -every month. And if you’re not getting that minimum, then you need to go back to your employer and be like, okay, like-

Carlie: -I’m not gonna be able to afford to live here.

Laurel: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah. And I do know a couple of people that ended up having to leave Berlin because they were going back and forth. Like, the employer was telling them they would be paid this much and then the immigration office was saying, oh that’s too low, you need to ask them to raise your salary by like two or three hundred euros a month, and the company wouldn’t do it. And so, yeah. But that is nice that they do that.

Carlie: And so you started at your new job in Berlin, and you work as a web developer. Can you tell me a little bit about what you remember your first impressions of a German workplace being?

Laurel: So, my Berlin journey didn’t start out with me being a web developer. I actually pivoted into that a few years later. But I’ll get into that at some other point. But to answer your question, the startup I was working at was… I remember it being a bit isolating. Like, I think they could have done a bit more to accommodate me. You know, because (inaudible)

Carlie: From a language perspective?

Laurel: Yeah. Like, basically, they’d be having a conversation and speaking German to one another and then they’d only switch to English if they wanted to ask me something. You know, and so it was a bit difficult to, you know… Like I’m not expecting to be BFFs with these people, and I know that’s not the culture in Germany, or in Europe in general.

Like, I don’t know how it is in Australia, but I know in the US, a lot of people tend to get really close with their coworkers or colleagues and become really good friends, and I think a lot of Germans aren’t into that. And so the culture’s a bit different in that way, but at the same time it’s like, there was just like, nothing. And so I think that made it a bit isolating.

Carlie: No one was inviting you for an after work drink or showing you pictures of their baby?

Laurel: No. I think at the beginning… Like, I remember on my first day, the CEO took, like, we all went out to lunch and he bought lunch for everybody. That was really nice. And there were a few other times where we would go to lunch together. And then I think I got to get to know some of the dev team a bit more, and so I would sometimes go out to lunch with them. But like, the German colleagues, like unless it was something work related, they never invited me out for anything .

Carlie: I’ve had this discussion with people before. Because it’s similar and different, depending on the different part of France you live in, as to whether people are open to making new friends or whether they have their friends they grew up with, their family friends and they don’t see the need to add to their friend collection. You know? And as a foreigner, that’s really difficult, to break in with locals.

And I didn’t think that was really the case in Australia because I worked in the media and traveled around a lot for radio jobs, and so you did party with your colleagues because you all came from different places to work in these radio stations in different towns. And everyone was in the same boat of not knowing many people in town, so you all just became mates.

And so I think back to, okay, if I was in a different profession in Australia, would I be friends with my workmates? Or are we more like Europeans, where you can make friends with locals, but it’s that little bit harder, especially if they’re a colleague, you know?

Laurel: Yeah. And I did have that thought too because, I mean, in the last job I had in the US, like I got really close with a lot of my colleagues and it wasn’t the nicest place to work. And so I think it was kind of like-

Carlie: Bonding through trauma.

Laurel: Yeah. Trauma bonding. You know, like I think the people made that place worthwhile. But then I’ve had other jobs where I felt like maybe I was on different life paths from my colleagues.

Carlie: Yeah.

Laurel: And so they would be friendly at work but it’s like, I wouldn’t call them up on a Saturday and be like, hey, do you want to have a drink or do you want to go for a walk or something? So, I think maybe it’s the same here. Like, I do know people at other companies, like larger companies, that have made friends through work. And I think there’s several tech companies in Berlin that have gotten quite big, that do attract international talent, and so you’re going to have colleagues from all over the world.

Carlie: Yeah, and you’re going to be buddies.

Laurel: Yeah, exactly.

Carlie: You mentioned that LA has very much a hustle culture. Do you find the same culture in the tech world in Berlin? Or how is it different?

Laurel: So, in German there’s this word called feierabend. I don’t think there’s a direct English translation. It basically means the time after work. Like, close your laptop, go do sports, go have fun with your friends. And so I think, in general, in German culture there’s a really strong division between, okay, I’m at work, and then when it gets to be five or six o’clock, I’m going to close my computer and leave work at work.

Obviously there are some people that are probably workaholics, but  I’d say like, culturally, there’s not a hustle culture in the same way as there is in LA. Whereas in LA, it’s a huge flex to talk about, oh man, I worked like 14 hours today or I’ve been working on stop and blah blah blah blah blah. Because I think in LA and in the US in general, a lot of people wear that as a badge of honor. You know, how much they (inaudible)

Carlie: I even watched that YouTube video of the Google employee that lived in a van in his company car park.

Laurel: Yeah.

Carlie: Just, you know, can work more. No, I don’t think it was for that. I think it was for money saving reasons, but it still struck me as very, very dedicated.

Laurel: Yeah. So I’d say just based on the culture aspect alone, that there’s not as much hustle culture. I would actually say like, yeah, people here in the tech world do care about their jobs, but it’s not at the level of what it was in California, for sure. Because I think people in Europe, generally, work to live. Like, that’s just one part of their life. And in the US, people live to work. And I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years of being here is like, a weird job doesn’t have to be your full identity. Like, it’s only a part of who you are and you don’t have to define yourself through that.

And that’s one really nice thing that I’ve learned through being a part of the culture here or, like, being in Berlin and experiencing what life is like here. As I think, in so many places there in the US, there’s so much pressure to perform well and to be the best and have a plan and all of that. And all of that makes it hard to really get into other things.

Carlie: And so what other things have you become interested in since you moved to Berlin? What extracurricular activities have you added to your agenda outside of work time?

Laurel: I try to exercise or do some sort of sports. Sometimes or better than others. And then, I mean, traveling is obviously one of the driving factors to me moving here. So, pre pandemic I was doing like a trip every two months, maybe not like a week long holiday but maybe like a long weekend somewhere. And then recently, since the pandemic, I’ve been trying to get into rediscovering hobbies that I may have had when I was younger, that I abandoned for whatever reason. So like, I’ve recently gotten back into photography and editing and stuff like that. And then, yeah, other than that, it’s just trying to meet people, like meet friends and all of that as much as I can.

Carlie: And how do you go about that? Because I know there are different groups that you can join for foreigners. Do you tend to gravitate towards those sort of communities in Berlin? Or are you kind of more tapping into the groups that are majority German?

Laurel: So, in the beginning, I joined a group called Girl Gun International. They have communities like all over the world. I think there’s probably like 200 groups on nearly every continent. And so that was where I met the majority of my friends initially, because they would do different types of events every week, you know, like happy hours or dinners or brunches, you know, stuff like that. And so I got to meet several great women through that.

And then, I think the best way to meet Germans, or like local people, is through activities. Like, that’s what people say all the time. Like, go do a sport or a hobby because you’re going to have this one thing in common and that’s eventually going to be a reason for you people to bond. And so I think GGI was the original way of meeting people, and then now it’s been more through hobbies or going to different meetup groups that are based around things that I’m interested in.

Carlie: And you’re not with the original company that you started with in Berlin, are you?

Laurel: Like I said earlier, I had started out working in marketing and project management and I wasn’t really loving that anymore. I decided I was just going to freelance for a little bit and just really take the time to figure out what I want to do next. And so that’s pretty much how I slowly got into the career that I’m in now, because I already had some experience with web design and coding and all of that, and I said, okay, well how can I parlay what I already know into freelance work.

Carlie: So it’s pretty easy to get solid freelance work in Berlin?

Laurel: It depends on what you’re doing. And not everyone I worked with was in Berlin. Like, one of the companies or clients I worked with were in the US or maybe they were in the UK or…

Carlie: Because you could have clients anywhere.

Laurel: Yeah, exactly. Like, Germany does have a freelance residence permit, and I believe that one of the requirements is that you have at least, I forget how how much it is, but you have to have a certain percentage of your work, or your income, from German clients.

But other than that, you can work with whoever you want. And so, yeah, I got to work with companies and small businesses that were based in Berlin or in other parts of Germany, and then also in the US or the UK. And then in 2019, I decided I was going to apply for a bootcamp, and so I did a lab development bootcamp at the beginning of 2020.

Carlie: I was going to say, this isn’t a fitness bootcamp, this is a professional bootcamp.

Laurel: No (inaudible)

Carlie: Cool. I mean you could be coding on exercise bikes, but…

Laurel: Yeah.

Carlie: …not the most fun.

Laurel: Yeah. So I did that at the beginning of 2020, and we literally wrapped up the bootcamp and everything right as Germany was going into lockdown for Covid.

Carlie: Oh right.

Laurel: So I went back to freelancing for a bit, because I wasn’t sure how the job market was going to be and I thought, okay, I’ll just continue building stuff, working, getting experience. And so I did that through last summer and then I started working full time with the company that I’m at now. There is a really strong network of freelancers and self-employed people in Berlin. I do wish that it was a bit easier to be self-employed.

Carlie: I was going to ask, it is a very attractive? Because I know self-employment in France, compared to being an employee, doesn’t come with the same level of benefits or even pension credits, for example.

Laurel: Exactly. And it’s the same in Germany. Like I think, you’re paying for all of the insurance out of pocket and you usually, unless you were already employed with a German company before, freelancers usually can’t get on the public health insurance, so they have to go with a private insurance company and that’s usually a lot more expensive.

And then you’re having to make your pension payments, and you’re out of your budget. Whereas when you’re working for a company, all of that’s taken out before you even get your salary. Like your health insurance, anything with unemployment, anything with the pension, you never even see that money.

Carlie: Yeah, whereas as a freelancer it’s kind of more up to you, isn’t it?

Laurel: Yeah, exactly. So you have to make sure that you’re getting all of that paid.

Carlie: I’m wondering Laurel, after five years living in Berlin and in Europe, how your perspective has changed since your Europe trip, where you came back to the States all those years ago, thinking about wanting to move?

Laurel: I would say my perspective on a lot of things have shifted. I think, in general, I’m a lot more open minded. And I don’t know if that’s because of moving abroad in general. Because, you know, going through all of these different things and in a language that you don’t fully understand, and I think being on the other side of that, it makes you have more empathy.

Not that I didn’t have empathy before, but now when I think about people who might be dealing with US immigration, for example, and thinking about like, oh shit, like it probably sucks to deal with US immigration. And you have so much more empathy because, even though it’s been in another country, you’ve been in their shoes.

And so I’d say more empathy, more open-minded, because Berlin is quite liberal and left leaning. And you know, I’ve always considered myself quite progressive, but there’s been a lot of things that I’ve learned over my five years here, that maybe I didn’t know a lot about, and when I first got here, maybe I had more conservative views on, that now I’m a bit more open minded about, especially in terms of gender expression and stuff like that.

When I look back at the US, I mean I think anybody that lives in the US now, that is looking at things objectively, knows how deeply flawed the country is. Like, I don’t think you have to tell anybody that, regardless of if they’ve traveled or lived abroad or not. But I think it’s more glaring for me now because I’ve seen how Germans live, or how Europeans live, and I keep asking myself, well, why can’t they do that in the US? It’s totally possible, you know, for people to have at least 20 vacation days or have proper parental leave.

Like, I remember a friend of mine, another American girl that I know in Berlin, she had a kid, I think at the end of 2019 she had her son, and she told me like, yeah, when I was still living in the US, I never would’ve thought I would’ve had a kid, just because of the cost and the situation with the parental leave and stuff like that. And so now, being able to be in a country where they actually value those things, she’s like, yeah, now I feel like I could have a kid. You know, just stuff like.

Carlie: That’s big. That’s that’s really big, isn’t it?

Laurel: Yeah.

Carlie: It’s like a total life perspective and plan change because you’re in the right environment to feel like you can do it.

Laurel: Yeah. I feel like I put more priority, or like emphasis, on enjoying my life and not so much on work. And that was what I wanted because, when I came here seven years ago for the first time, just seeing people carrying on at a cafe and no laptops, no talking about-

Carlie: No laptops, does that even exist anymore?

Laurel: -you know, like stuff like that.

Carlie: Yeah. It’s so refreshing.

Laurel: It is so nice to see them. So, being able to actually say like, okay, I’m going to end my day every day at six or whatever and I’m going to try to have other hobbies outside of work, I think that’s been another big thing.

I was actually thinking about this a week ago, when I was in uni and thinking about all of the stuff I want to do and where I was going to be career wise. I think I was thinking about this because it was my birthday last weekend and I was thinking about what I was saying I wanted by the time I reached the age that I am now. Like, when I was in my twenties, where I thought I would be when I would be how old I am now. And it’s just like this whole shift. Because I think through these five years I’ve realized that the things that I may have wanted back then versus what I have now, and it’s like, what I have now is so much better.

Carlie: At the start of our conversation we spoke about the crazy bureaucracy that you encountered in Germany and how it is so different from how the world views Germany as this, you know, very efficient nation and presumably quite progressive with its technologies and its processes. Can we do a little bit of myth busting? So we figured out that, administratively, Germany is not all that.

Laurel: No.

Carlie: Where else do you think the whole German efficiency reputation is possibly not quite the reality?

Laurel: I would say the financial system, like banking. Like, in some ways it’s more advanced than the US because like for example, people don’t use checks anymore, like paper checks.

Carlie: Ah, I can’t wait for that to die here in France.

Laurel: A lot of people still pay with cash. I think that was the biggest thing that I had to get used to being here because in the US, other than I think when I would do my laundry and I would get quarters because in the apartment building I had, we had a shared washer and dryer and you’d pay like a dollar 25 cents, I cannot think of any other thing, other than that, where I actually used cash. Like, even if you were to go to a festival, like even some of the taco guys had little card readers attached to their phones. And so it’s like, going to the post office, like some of them don’t take cards or they only take what’s called a Girokarte or an EC-Karte, which is basically like, I guess-

Carlie: A certain type of bank card.

Laurel: Yeah, it’s like an ATM card. Like, it’s not like a Visa or MasterCard but like a step below that. And so I think just stuff like that. Like anytime I go out to eat I’m just like, does this place take card or not? And sometimes I have to call ahead because you never know. And that was really shocking to me because like, I came from this environment where you were doing everything with your credit card or your debit card or PayPal or Venmo or whatever. So like, everything electronically.

Carlie: And what about public transport? Because I have heard, and I feel like I remember experiencing years ago in Germany, that they were extremely punctual. Is that still the case?

Laurel: So, there’s joke with Deutsche Bahn, which is the national train service, like apparently they’re never on time. My personal experience, like every time I’ve ever taken Deutsche Bahn, as I’ve used it to go to Hamburg, I’ve also gone to Frankfurt and Munich with the Deutsche Bahn, as far as I knew, like the train left on time and arrived when it was supposed to. But it does have a reputation of being late, so much to the point where on the Deutsche Bahn TikTok account, they actually kind of poke fun at it sometimes.

Carlie: I love that they have a tick TikTok account.

Laurel: But in general I would say, you know, like in Berlin the public transport is good. And when I came here from the States I was over the moon about being able to be somewhere where I could use public transport, not have to drive everywhere. Because LA is the opposite, or pretty much the whole of the US is the opposite. Like, there’s really only three or four cities out of the entire country that have efficient enough public transportation where you can get around without a car. Being able to be somewhere where I don’t have to have a car and I don’t have to spend money on a car payment or car insurance or stuff like that.

Carlie: Laurel, you spoke earlier about how different your life living in Germany is compared to, you know, what you pictured for your life at the age you are when you were back in the States. Do you have a vision for where you want yourself to be and what your life to look like say in another five years?

Laurel: I would say, five years from now I hope that I have a lot of flexibility in terms of location. Like I do love being in Berlin, but it would be nice to, I don’t know, like live somewhere else when it’s winter time.

Carlie: I can imagine it’s not the the funnest climate in winter, in Berlin.

Laurel: I mean like I said, I grew up near Chicago and Chicago has some pretty crazy winters. So as far as weather is concerned, Berlin is actually quite mild compared to that.

Carlie: Oh, that’s good.

Laurel: The thing I think that gets me, and gets a lot of people, is just how gray it is. Like in December, January, February there’ll be several days in a row where it’s just gray and cloudy and you don’t see the sun. And I think that gets to a lot of people. It definitely got to me this past winter. And I also think it’s because the weather last summer wasn’t that great. Like, we only had a handful of really warm days and I think it rained quite a bit last summer. So this summer has already been worlds better than it was last year. And so I think, when you have a not so great summer weather wise, and then you have to deal with that winter, you’re just kind of just like, ugh. And then in December and January, I think it will start getting dark at like three thirty in the afternoon. And yeah, it’s just…

So, I would say like, being able to split time between Berlin and somewhere a bit warmer and sunnier in the winter, or just being able to have more freedom and flexibility with location, and like being able to work from anywhere, is definitely really important to me. And being able to have the financial freedom, or be in the place financially to have the freedom to be flexible like that, I think that’s what I’m going for.

Like I don’t want to say like, oh, I want to have this big flat, or I want have this, I want to have that. I think I want get to a place where I feel like I’m stable and thriving financially, so that I can have the freedom to do whatever it is I want to do. Whether that’s split time between Berlin and Mexico or buy a flat or whatever. I’m in the position to do that.

Carlie: Do you think Berlin will remain some kind of home base wherever the future takes you?

Laurel: I hope so. I really do. I feel I really do like it here, and it’s funny because it will have been five years on the 1st of September, or will be five years on the 1st of September, and that was about as long as I was in LA. And when I was in LA, I think by year three I was ready to go. And then here it’s like, I don’t feel like I’m ready to go yet. Like, I haven’t had that feeling of, I’m over Berlin, I’m going to start making an exit plan. I really do feel like there’s a lot more for me to experience and discover here. So I do think, one way or another, I’ll have a presence here for sure.

Carlie: Well Laurel, thank you so much for coming on the Expat Focus podcast and sharing your story and experiences of living in Berlin.

Laurel: Oh, no problem. Thank you for having me. Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If a move to Germany is on your radar, roll back through our podcast archive and listen to my chat with American, Jake Doherty, who shares his experiences of running a business in Bavaria. You can also listen to Michelle Purse Sweeney who discusses her experience setting up her own business in the country. And you can also find out about teaching in Germany in my chat with John Siskar. Don’t forget to follow us on social media, we are ‘Expat Focus’ and subscribe to the podcast so you never miss an episode. I’ll catch you next time.


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