Monthly Archives: August 2015

Finding a flat in Berlin, in 2015.

Adenauer Platz Suzanne ForbesYou might wonder what a picture of a cafe with a bunch of people eating and a large rotating ad for a sex-toy shop have to do with finding a flat in Berlin.

Sympathetic magic, I suspect.

Here is the story:

In January of 2014 we were hoping to move to Vancouver. It was our third choice city-wise, after London (my #1) and Berlin (husband’s #1). We were looking for a country with strong social welfare and a good or at least functional healthcare system, because we both have disabling chronic illnesses of various kinds that significantly impact our retirement earning capacity.

We also needed a place to make a stand for the global warming future, where we would suffer less from our extreme discomfort with hot weather and bright sun.

We wanted a place with good public transit, where everything stayed open late, where it rained a lot and was cold and grey the rest of the time.

London was ultimately ruled out because of the cost. While we knew the hubs could get a decently paid programming job, my research indicated that we would still not be able to afford the  >1000 sq. ft. flat in a hundred year old building we require for both sanity and my home studio. There was possibility on the immigration front, because my mother was born in Scotland, but it looked dicey; the matrilineal lineage rules for repatriation have changed twice in my lifetime.

Ultimately Vancouver was ruled out on the same grounds. Plus, they didn’t want us. The immigration index considered me to be too old, at 47, and D. to be undesirable because of his lack of a four-year degree. This was really disappointing, because Canada seemed like a great idea.

So we reverted to Berlin, where at least a dozen people we know have moved in the last decade. Germany, amazingly, appeared to want us.

By March we’d made a hard decision, and set a deadline of the following winter. Somewhere in there we also decided to get married, which turned out to be a really good thing for moving to Germany.

I am a compulsive researcher and planner, and I’d started my “We’re leaving the Bay Area” pinboard in January. I deleted the London and Vancouver stuff and went all in on Berlin. Immigration, taxes, medical care, pet care, pet visas, insurance, local customs and culture, language schools, shipping, postal regulations, grocery shopping, goth stores, bookstores, galleries, pharmacies, Etsy sellers for craft supplies. And most of all, housing.

Finding housing is a form of shopping, which is my superpower.

I have always been able to find a gorgeous hundred-year-old apartment or house in a desirable area, in a very difficult rental ecology, for 20% below market. My secret is insane determination and refusal to settle for anything less, and often being self-employed, which allows for those short-notice mid-day meetings with the rental agent the more responsible people of the world can’t make it to.

I knew I could do it in Berlin, despite the growing tide of warnings and negative reports about the housing market here.

But I had no idea just how hard it would be. I knew that the days of the 800€ three-bedroom were over and the window for any kind of affordable housing was rapidly closing; some people said it had already closed. Friends here warned that it would be simply impossible to get a long-term place, that the only housing available was sublets.

We arrived at our Prenzlauerberg Airbnb on March 24th, and that weekend I went to a “Moving to Berlin” workshop at Expath. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, thanks to my hundreds of hours of research, but they did offer the warning: “Don’t even try to look in Neukolln.”

When wonderful Mark The Man With A Van moved us from our Airbnb to our short-term rental from which I intended to launch our search, he warned, “Don’t even try to look in Friedrichshain”. Four weeks into the hard-core search, when I’d been spending every waking moment either looking at rental sites, emailing landlords, or visiting flats, a young guy at a dinner party told me, “An unlimited lease? In Berlin? Are you crazy?” He said it with the elegant contempt that is the birthright of urban gay boys under thirty the world over, and it shook me. But I said, “Yes. In Berlin.”

I saw 28 apartments to find our Craftsmen jewelbox place in Oakland, with its original wood paneling and double parlour. When I got to an even dozen here, my husband said, “Well, sixteen to go!”.

Knowing he thought that my approach was reasonable made a huge difference.

I’d come home exhausted from days of lurching through the sweltering subway (no a/c here! It “makes people sickly”!) in the 95° heat and 88% humidity. I was constantly frustrated by the poor transference of Google Maps to reality on the ground in the city. There were endless challenges because I didn’t have a phone. SInce we were waiting for a big check most of the time, I was almost always broke; when you’re out in the hot sun and can’t afford to sit down for a cold drink it sucks.

One time I needed to pee and almost didn’t have the .50 it cost; I have rarely been so grateful to find a linty nickel in the bottom of my purse.

There’s plenty of beautiful housing in Berlin; the problem is that there’s so much competition. I found five places that were fantastic and also acceptable to my stringent value criteria of 10€ per sq. meter: one in Schoneberg, my first choice neighborhood, one in Mitte, where our short term place was, one in Friedrichshain, one in Wedding and one in Wilmersdorf. I applied to all of them, over a harrowing month, and we were turned down five times. Each time involved submitting up to fifteen documents, translating a different application for each, and in one case (Friedrichshain! Don’t even try!) finding a German friend of my husband’s who’d act as guarantor.

We also had to get a Schufa, a German credit report, even though we’d only been here a couple months. All the EasyCredit stores, where you could walk in and get a Schufa, had recently closed. There was one place in all of Berlin doing “Instant Schufa” this summer, the Postbank branch in Schonhauser Allee Arcaden.

It was mobbed with terrified expats, all desperate to secure a flat.

Over and over i told myself, I’ve always done it before. I just have push through my fears and stick it out. One day near the end, when we had only 35 days left at our temporary place, I was starting to think about just getting a six-month furnished sublet in an ugly postwar Neubau in some neighborhood we’d hate. I came home and asked my husband, “Am I crazy? Should I be investing this much energy in trying to find a perfect place?” He didn’t even let me finish. He said, ” You’re not crazy. I trust you. Do what you’re doing.”

We’re homebodies, and I know what makes us happy at home; a second-floor apartment with a double parlour separated by an archway, looking out over a quiet street that’s still just steps away from shops and restaurants that stay open late. I knew we needed a big place, so I could have my studio at home, and to be just steps from the U-Bahn. I wanted to be over a restaurant or store, so our late-night walking about and the cats’ crazy antics wouldn’t upset a persnickety downstairs neighbor.

With thirty days to go I went to see a place a little farther West than we really wanted to be, in Wilmersdorf, and because I’d been betrayed so many times by Google Maps, I allowed so much time that I was an hour early. I located the building, a majestic Art Nouveau lady on a tree-lined street, and then went back around the corner to the cafes and shops.

I dug in my purse and found exactly enough change for a bottle of Apfelschorle, and I sat down and made the drawing you see above.

It was the only time I made a drawing anywhere during the flat search. When the hour was up I went to see the flat, which was huge and beautiful. Then I went home, because since most of the agents don’t speak a word of English, there’s very little to say. A couple of days later, when we’d gotten two more turndowns, I thought of the place in WIlmersdorf, which I’d initially dismissed as just too far West. I sent the application, for the hell of it.

Two days later, I got a reply, and Google Translate said they were ready to make the contract with us. I was so stunned I ran it through three other translation apps before I told my hubby. A week later, after a terrible morning of scrambling around Lichtenburg trying to find their office, we signed a lease.

We were late and I was so afraid. It was scorching hot and humid and we somehow found it and they were completely relaxed and nice.

They acted like it was no big deal to rent a couple of weird-looking Americans a gorgeous 1300 square foot Art Nouveau flat they might conceivably spend the rest of their lives in.

We scheduled the key and deposit handoff for Friday. Friday morning D.’s monthly check from his job hadn’t shown up in our bank account despite my many calls and emails to the company accountant and the assurances I’d received it would be there. You need at least a month’s rent plus a month’s cold rent deposit to get keys in Berlin, so several thousand dollars. Two hours before the appointment, I took the U to our bank and talked to the one guy who spoke English, and he said the deposit could show at any time. That’s right: with American banks, your money is there at opening or not til the next day, but in Germany it can show up any time, all day.

I frantically emailed D. at work and asked him to call the agency and ask if we could reschedule. They said no problem. Then I checked the bank account one more time, and the money was there.

We were back on: I had D. call the agency again and the agent agreed to give me an extra hour, but no more; she was going out of town for the weekend, like every right-thinking person in Berlin.

And I would have to bring the money in cash; it was too late for a bank transfer.

I Jumped in a cab, and my valiant Berlin cabbie set out into the summer Friday rush hour traffic. Twenty minutes in, halfway through Tiergarten, I realized the flaw in my plan of stopping at one of the Westside Deutschebanks to get my huge wad of cash. I hadn’t brought my passport. The guy at our branch had said earlier this week, Oh your license and PIN are fine for me, I know you, but they wouldn’t work for an official transaction. Surely withdrawing thousands of dollars was an official transaction? What if the strange teller asked for my passport?

My cabbie pulled up at a bank and I ran in, then waited for a thousand years while the line inched along. It was like watching paint dry with a gun to your head.

libraryFInally I made it to the teller, checking one more time that the cab was still outside, and asked for our money. She didn’t even blink, just counted it out and handed it over. “VIelen dank!” I yelled, and shot back out the door and into the cab, and minutes later we were pulling up on our tree-lined street, where the agent was pacing and looking around frantically. Her face lit up when she saw me. I gave the cabbie an American-style tip and twenty minutes later (there was a lot more paperwork) I had keys to our home.

An unlimited lease, in a rent-controlled renovated flat in Berlin.

Screenshot 2015-08-12 at 11.56.59 AM - EditedMy husband hadn’t even seen it yet; for the third time, he’d signed a lease without ever seeing the place we’d be renting. When he finally did, two weeks later, he said, “It’s like we’re rich, even though we’re not!”. He meant, it is palatial and elegant. Our huge balcony overlooks the lovely street and an outdoor cafe; nearby is the house where a famous German painter once lived and worked. Our flat is over a restaurant and around the corner is the U-Bahn, a late-night falafel place, a very good French bakery, the cafe where I made the drawing and miles of other Berlin pleasures. I am so incredibly grateful to have this beautiful home.

All it took was the belief it could be done, a husband who believed in me unhesitatingly, and over 400 emails.


Here in Europe you see some European-ass stuff.

I had to draw this from memory, as I saw this French mama and her little girl on my way to a meeting.

Original drawing Suzanne ForbesI took the best mental snapshot I could, which was a good thing because seconds later there was a small scooter accident and the charming scene turned to skinned-knee tears. Since it’s from memory and I was focussed more on the overall scene, I can’t say if the maman was really wearing quintessentially French rope-soled espadrilles, capris and a careless chignon. Since I can’t ride a bicycle and have no idea how they work, I used a reference picture of one that seemed right.

But the little girl, I guarantee you, is exactly how she appeared on an early summer evening, heading home with mama, possessed of exquisite sang-froid.

This kind of highly detailed and clean line drawing, with very little variation in line weight or idiosyncrasy in mark-making style, is the kind of drawing I specialised in as a teenager. Before I made the decision to draw comics at seventeen or eighteen, I had expected, since childhood, that I would be some kind of commercial illustrator. Children’s books, fashion ads, something like that. I’d developed a clean and precise style that would reproduce well. I had a full Rapidograph set and i was using the harrowing, exhausting-to-maintain 6xo.

But when I committed to comics, a whole world of new technical requirements opened up, like attention to light and dark values in a composition and the need for advanced perspective and anatomy skills, and I turned my focus to developing those. Sometimes I think it’s too bad, because these delicate drawings, their coherence dependant mostly on pattern and silhouette, are sort of pretty. My mom has some of the nicest ones framed.

Happyfuntimes at the Ausländerbehörde

If you are a foreigner hoping to stay in Berlin longer than 90 days, you must make yourself known to the Ausländerbehörde.

outlander_Aug_2015_Suzanne_Forbes - EditedThe Foreigners’ Registration Office or Aliens Department decides your fate. How long you get to stay, what kind of work you can do, what family members can come, everything.

Weirdly, it’s a quite relaxed and not-at-all terrifying place.

It’s a big shabby government building, but there’s a pleasant courtyard with trees, benches and lawns, where people are always picnicking.

There are signs everywhere, but there are no signs saying “No eating and drinking” or “no cellphones”, and everyone is enjoying a beverage, feeding a baby, talking on the phone, whatever.

And whenever you go you see someone you know- like the rockabilly girl with the black-and-white hair, who I’d seen at a flat viewing just a week earlier.

“Did you get that flat?” “No. We found something though.” “Did you find a place yet?” “No.” It’s impossible to find a place here.

This was our second visit, and our first time on our own without our “fixer”. But we got a super-nice case worker who spoke English and our appointment went fine, although the husband was denied the coveted blue card because he lacks a four-year degree and his Associates Degree isn’t in computer science. So our application was switched over to a regular work visa application, which unlike the freelancer visa we have now would allow us to get on German state-type health insurance. Which is basically the point of this whole move. Now we wait a couple more weeks to see what happens. If the regular work visa isn’t granted we appeal.

We have passed through eight of the ten major hurdles to this move.

1. Find a short-term place to lease where we can put our names on the doorbell and get registered with the Burgeramt. We used It was expensive as FUCK, but crucial to a full-immersion-in-the-system life here.

2. Get a German bank account (majicked by our fixer). We have Deutschebank. Our bank manager looks like a porn star.

3. Get our address registered at a Bürgeramt or Citizen’s Registration Office (you need an appointment; there are no appointments, no one speaks English. Thank the Goddess for our fixer).

4. Get health insurance the visa office will accept. Currently we have ALC. It is cheap but not good.

5. Get a freelancer visa before our 90 days Schengen visa is up. The binder I brought to the appointment had thirty documents in it, all of which had been brought from the US or carefully prepared here. Our fixer got us two years, because she is amazing.

6. Get a full-time job offer for the husband. This part was fairly easy- they are desperate for programmers here. Although please note that he is considered lucky to be offered less than half of what the position would pay in the Bay Area. Programmers have zero special status here. Our delightful porn-star-looking bank manager is considered as valuable a white-collar worker as any programmer and is as well-paid.

7. Apply for a work visa for that job. This part is pending.

8. Find a flat (sublets and short term are easy; an unlimited lease, where you could quite possibly stay the rest of your life in rent-controlled comfort, is insanely hard.) I started researching a year before we left, studying the major German rental sites, and once we got here I looked informationally for three months, getting the lay of the land. Then once the husband got his first check from the new workplace, I looked every waking moment for six weeks.

Getting German health insurance is nine and getting our shipping container here is ten.

It’s been one of the longest, most stressful and tedious summers of my life, but now we’ve signed the unlimited lease on our gorgeous flat I feel like it’s all worth it.

Eating Mexican Food in Berlin.

SantaMariaEastside_by_Suzanne_Forbes_July_2015Santa Maria EastSide. That’s where you go. That’s pretty much it, I’ve heard.

Or maybe a few other places. We went to EastSide, in Friedrichshain, with longterm SF residents who’ve lived here for a couple years. There was a lot of ranting about the poor quality of much of the food in Berlin – from them, not us. We have been so insanely broke with the costs of the move since we got here that we have eaten out exactly twice. And we never ate anywhere but taquerias and the occasional splurge on Indian in the Bay Area, so we’re not really up on what a nice meal should be anymore.

My fancy food business days are far behind me, and somewhere along the line, during the second divorce and the recession and the years of poverty and depression, I just stopped caring.

All I wanted was some simple peasant food to keep body and soul together, like a taco or a quesadilla, and a really superb banana cream tartlet, made with chocolate ganache, salted caramel, and Nels’ perfectly executed crème pâtissière and delicate pâte sablée, streets better than Tartine’s, from the bakery at Market Hall. Or a slice of classic American lemon meringue pie, as good as any I’ve ever had, with a four-inch crown of meringue, from Sweet Adeline. Or the unbelievable butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème at Town Hall. Or a scoop of Bi-Rite balsamic strawberry ice cream with the couverture sprinkles and marcona almonds (when they first opened Khris Brown said “this is so good I don’t even have to blog about it!” #bestlineofthenoughties). Or an exquisite yuzu truffle, available only a few weeks a year, from Chocolatier Blue. What? I said I was over food, not dessert.

I haven’t been able to afford dinner anywhere nice in the Bay for a decade, but I could almost always afford a perfect treat from a really good bakery.

Anyway, we don’t have really a lot to say about food in Berlin. We live on De Cecco pasta, which at least you can get at every grocery store, and yogurt. However, the food we tried at Santa Maria Eastside was good. (In the drawing our friend is explaining to my hubby how to make the German “o” sound. ) I had chilaquiles, which are possibly my favorite food on earth, and they were definitely as good as the weekend special chilaquiles at my beloved, cherished, treasured Cactus Taqueria or my equally precious and adored Los Cantaros.

I had tacos or chile rellenos or a quesadilla or chilaquiles at a taqueria at least twice a week for 18 years, and I will miss Bay Area Mexican food forever.

So it goes. At least we have doner kebab and falafel.

*About bakeries: when I first arrived in the East Bay it was as the Santa Rosa-to-San Jose sales rep for Albert Uster, a Swiss baking supply company used, then and now, almost exclusively by top-level professional pastry cooks. I had just spent a year managing the bakery at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown. Bakeries are very important to me, and my SF job was perfect because I drove all over the Bay Area meeting all the bakery managers and pastry chefs.

*About the bakery at Market Hall: I also worked at Market Hall as a cheesemonger my first summer and Fall in the East Bay, in ’97, and it was a great company to work for. Linda, the buyer then and now, and Sara the owner care deeply about food and educating the staff. We had classes where I learned things like how the microscopic texture of hundred-year-old bronze dies give the best Italian extruded pastas their sauce-clutching ability, and how to break a wheel of Reggiano. I tasted forty-year-old Balsamic just uncorked and Cowgirl Creamery farmer’s cheese barely a day old while apprenticed to a cheesemonger from Neal’s Yard. Nels, the bakery manager, left for a time and opened his own place, in one of those cursed restaurant locations on Shattuck. His business was killed by the dot-com bust, and it was heartbreaking, but he returned to Market Hall. His standards are as impeccable as ever, freshness and purity always on lock, and the prices have remained exceedingly fair. His butterscotch pudding is insane.

*About Sweet Adeline: the space Sweet Adeline occupies was for a short time in the late ’90s a goth store, back when there were several goth stores on Telegraph. I bought the dark red blouse I wore for my second wedding there. At some point it became a bakery, and it is a superb bakery. They do American and French basics, perfectly. The chocolate cream pie is, like the lemon meringue, as good as any I’ve ever had. The prices are very fair.

*About Chocolatier Blue: You know that scene in Cryptonomicon where Randy goes to have his wisdom teeth out and he is totally confident in the oral surgeon because the guy is an obsessive socially inept tooth-surgery geek? That’s what the chocolatier/confiseur guy at Chocolatier Blue is like. I went in to see him right after he opened his first East Bay store, because my heart never really leaves the business and I like to keep on an eye on things. He was like, local seasonal single origin I am an awkward maniac. The product is the proof, it’s fucking stellar and the prices are exceptionally fair.

*About the best banana cream pie in the East Bay: Fatapples. The shimmering, barely set custard, the perfectly flaky ( you know it’s lard) crust, the dusting of caramelised walnuts- it is the best in town. They try, over and over, to take it off the menu, because the freshness issue is a nightmare. People always hassle them til they bring it back. Their crisps, custards and eclairs are also very, very good.

*About going to Ici: don’t go to Ici. It’s overrated as fuck. Unless, unless, you get a bitter fruit sorbet with their incredible house-made copper kettle caramel and crystallized orange peel. Otherwise, skip Tara’s too and go to the idiotically named iScream, a fairly new traditional-style ice cream parlour on Solano. Parking on Solano is insane, of course, but I give you my secret: pull into the driveway of the bank next door and park in their lot. I can’t promise you won’t get towed, but I never did. iScream has house-made fudge and caramel sauces, fresh whipped cream, and lots of extremely good fruit flavors like blood orange and Meyer Lemon, plus Burnt Caramel and Salted Caramel.

*Where else to go: Feelgood Bakery in the Food Mall thing in Alameda. Another idiot name, but they do traditional French things very well. I had an oversize macaron filled with Crème Chiboust and fresh strawberries there before we left that was very good. It wasn’t an Ispahan in the garden at Ladurée Soho or the pistachio bavarian at Pierre Hermé, but what is?

*Bonus SF bakery: Pinkie’s in SOMA! Pinkie’s is so good. When Wicked Grounds first opened Pinkie’s did our bread and cakes. Cheryl does terrific work with simple classics.

*Where I never got to go: Craftsmen and Wolves on Valencia. I wanted to go so bad! They have a verrine with elderflower- I love elderflower. I totally wanted to try that $6 muffin! But we were just overloaded the last year or two, I never got around to it. Go there for me!

*About the time I spat up a gob of lavender mousse in front of the White House pastry chef: Weirdly, this is a recovery story, not a drinking story!

Managing a department at Dean & DeLuca was a big deal in 1996, and I was always getting invitations to fancy events held by fancy-food importers in the DC area. I was at a presentation at one of the import companies, and Pierre Hermé, then a celebrated young pastry chef and not yet a global brand, did some demos.

He showed what would called nowadays a “hack” for making lots of croquant quickly, and a lavender mousse with cherries in it. He spoke mostly in French; however most of the French I know is bakery stuff, so I was pretty sure there was no alcohol in the mousse. I was standing and chatting with sugar wizards Ewald and Susan Notter, who I was friendly with, and Roland Mesnier, the legendary White House pastry chef, when samples were handed out.

We were given little plates with a triangle of pale violet mousse, studded with deep burgundy cherries. It was so beautiful. I thoughtlessly spooned a bite into my mouth- and frantically, very thoroughly spat it out into my napkin. The cherries were macerated in liqueur, a product sold by the import company! Awkward.