Keeping it in the room: health, happiness and living in Berlin
I moved here on Thursday, and so far it’s been complicated, but fun. The weather’s been great, and we went out at the weekend to our favourite club. Actually, just wandering around town over the past few days, in the warm sunshine, has been the best experience.
Our apartment is sub rented from a nice man who put an advert on Craigslist. Germans include living rooms, rather than just bedrooms, when saying how many rooms an apartment has, and usually quote the number of square metres – much more helpful than UK property listings.
So we have a 2 room apartment – it has a bedroom and living room, plus kitchen and bathroom, but faces north, which means that it’s usually quite dark. He usually has a cleaner who comes in every couple of weeks – who we decided we didn’t need – but goodness knows what she does. Being good gays, we immediately went out to buy kit to get rid of all the dust on the wooden floors, gave the taps a good polish, and got rid of all the cobwebs under the cupboards!
Velosaloon is a second hand bike shop which buys old bikes, refurbishes them with all new parts and sells them on – I got an excellent single speed road bike, which sadly already needs a repair after I was bit too enthusiastic going over a kerb! I had actually considered a very colourful bike from Urbike in Munich, but they couldn’t deliver in time – and I didn’t want to be bikeless for any length of time.
It’s a legal requirement in Germany that anyone who lives here must register at their Bürgeramt office, so that the government knows how many people live in each area, and can plan services, as well as know where to find you to collect taxes. There, they’ll give you an Anmeldung.
Germans tell me that this office can be scary and unfriendly – but having booked an appointment online, we didn’t wait long to be seen, and were greeted warmly by a nice lady who even said “viel spaß in Berlin” – “have fun in Berlin” as we left. She didn’t bat an eyelid at seeing two men with a civil partnership certificate from the UK – her only question was where the date was on the form, as it was written out in full, rather than digits.
It’s only with the completed and stamped Anmeldung that you can obtain any kind of official service in Germany: bank accounts and homes are only available if you have it with you. So with it in hand, we went off to the nearest bank, to open an account. Sadly, the promises from friends that bank staff speak English proved to be untrue – although the appointments we made were with English speaking staff.
Online, we found Expath, a new company which helps people get started in Berlin. We booked a two hour session for the following day, where us and six other people were given a guide to the bureaucracy which needs to be dealt with. We knew a lot of it already, but there were some handy hints and lots of web links to help us along the way. They told us the order things need to be done in, and pointed out that if we get poor service in a bank, it’s one of the few times in Germany that you can walk away and go elsewhere.
They also pointed out the high cost of living: Germans must deal with an extraordinary amount of tax law, and often use a tax accountant to deal with the associated paperwork. Freelancers must also pay for health insurance, either public or private. I’ll need to deal with that as soon as I start earning an income here.
According to my colleague Sarah, it’s important to be friends with the neighbours. This is not only because many apartments have very thin walls, but also because the postman will usually deliver your parcels to a neighbour if you’re out, rather than taking them back to the depot. Last week, two parcels for us were delivered to the downstairs neighbour – who was then not seen again for two days – and yesterday, two giant boxes were left with us for different people. I wish I spoke enough German to be able to interact with their owners when they came to collect!
Apartment rentals are usually dealt with by holding an open day. Rather than having the agent bring people round individually, everyone’s invited round at a certain date and time. The winner is the first person to say they’d like to take it and who can show they have all the right documentation. I’m not sure which system I prefer. In the UK, I’ve frequently been let down by agents not turning up for an appointment; and if I was already in the property, I wouldn’t want loads of people being shown round while I’m not there, or at inconvenient times.
However, as a non German speaker, the idea of going up to an agent and explaining that my income isn’t from here, and that yes, I can still afford the payments, despite not having a job; and that no, I’m not going to leave after six months, is daunting. Especially if three other people also want the flat – I guess they’re far more likely to get a look in. This is something to look forward to, along with something called provision – the fee you must pay to the agent, often 2 months’ rent – plus kaution, or deposit, which is also often 2 months’ rent. Plus the first month’s rent in advance.
As Expath said, if you want to rent a flat in Berlin, you’ll need a pile of money. And this is not to mention the spiralling costs of renting. As an article in the Guardian pointed out today, while migrants like me are often blamed for this, actually, it’s more likely to be the global financial crisis. As German investors look for somewhere safe to put their money, they found that property in Berlin is cheap and provides a reliable income. So as more people have looked to new property here, it’s pushed purchase prices up; and, of course, investors sought to recoup this cost by putting up rents.
There are also pitfalls to look out for, which only a German speaker could spot in a contract – things like having to replace the kitchen or repaint every few years.
Finding a bank account in Germany is interesting, since they often charge a monthly fee. Some offer big incentives to sign up – up to 50€ – but then charge a large fee if you don’t pay in enough each month; while others levy a smaller fee, but have no minimum income requirement. As someone who’s usually well on top of the finances in our household, this is a genuine quandary. I’ll probably pay in 1,200€ a month, so I’d quite like the 50€ incentive, thanks very much – but what if I don’t pay that much in? Finally, there are several online banks which charge no fee, but they then often require a German employer.
Next on our list is signing up to a language school. This can cost anything from 1€ per 45 mins upwards. Of course, what we want to avoid is chalk & talk lessons where we’re taught grammar – something which we suffered from in the very poor evening class we booked at King’s College a few years ago. I wouldn’t recommend that.
I’ll update you when I’ve learned more and signed up, but suffice to say, in a year’s time I expect to be able to write this blog in German!