Tag Archives: living in berlin

How to move to Berlin in 2016 or 2017, part 2: Registration!

Registered Future Past Suzanne Forbes Aug 24 2016About moving to Berlin: It’s a PROCESS!

There are multiple stages to moving to Berlin. Which ones you trigger first has a lot to do with your goals. If you just want to live here for a while, you can skip many of them. But since a huge, huge part of the benefits of living here come from integrating into the system, you should seriously consider it.

Benefits of living in Berlin as a peripatetic foreigner: housing still much cheaper than London, Paris, New York. Bars don’t have a closing time. Doner kebab for 3 euros.

Benefits of living in Berlin as a person whose hope is to become a citizen or permanent resident: incredible state or “public” healthcare plans much better value than private insurance, state pension, disability and long-term care plans, unemployment insurance, state-subsidized healthcare plan for artists, fantastic rent-control and tenants’ protection,  12-14 months parental leave and four weeks vacation for full-time employees, strong employment protections, the crazy concept of perfect credit as a default state.

I won’t lie to you: integrating into the system is a significant, front-loaded hassle.

But once you’re in, SO MANY of the things in your life that made you miserable in the US will be either gone or easier, cheaper and better. You just can’t imagine how much better things will be until you experience it. Unless you’re Canadian.

Let’s talk about the stage that I see the least discussion of outside of Germany: registration.

To reside in Berlin, rather than visit, you must be registered with your local burgeramt. You can do this without a visa, which is good, because you should do it within two weeks of moving into a new home. Whenever you move, you have to do it again, within two weeks. That’s right, you have register where you live with the German government. Sounds injudicious at best, huh? But it turns out that a) it’s the first stage of a cascade effect of integrating into the system that has many benefits and b) you have to do it. Just stop thinking about it and do it.

How? You go to the burgeramt. It’s like the neighborhood administration center.

burgeramtWhether you have to go to the one in your neighborhood or any burgeramt in Berlin seems to be in flux; check (gag) Facebook* for the latest status. Whether you can make an appointment online or you have to go and wait for hours also seems to be in flux. Your burgeramt might be in a huge government building, or it might be a little office in a mall. Again, check Facebook. Bring your passport.

You’ll need your passport for everything you do in the beginning. And technically, as a foreigner, you’re supposed to carry your passport at all times.

I had a passport card made when I got my latest passport, and I carry that. But our bank, for example, finds it unacceptable. For registration you’ll need a form called Einzugsbestätigung des Wohnungsgebers from the person who is the primary lease-holder or owner of the place you’re staying. You should prolly bring your lease too.

Registration generates a German Identification number for foreigners, aka Tax Number. You will need this number for most things. Registration starts the clock for so much; you simply can’t truly live here until you do it.

When registering, you MUST record your religious or non-religious status. If you leave the Religion box blank, you will not be subject to the 8-9% Kirchensteuer or Church Tax. (You also won’t be able to get married in a church or take communion. Not kidding. This is all real.) There is also a place on the form to put “VD” or “Verschiedene”, which means godless heathen I guess?

Bring someone who speaks German to every amt you go to. “Everybody” speaks English in Berlin, if they work in a third-wave coffee shop.

Nobody speaks English at any of the -amts, unless you get really lucky. And even if they do speak English, they won’t speak it with you. Why? Because Germans are stern judges about their English skills; they don’t speak it as a first choice unless they speak it really well. Or they may be pissed about you and your kind driving up the rents, or they just don’t like speaking English. I like to ask, “May we speak English?” before I say anything in English. It’s a tip from some blog I read; it gets consistently good results.

Here is the insane part of bureaucracy in Germany: it has a totally different end goal than bureaucracy in the US.

Here, the goal is to provide services to people. That’s it. There’s no catch. The lady at the burgeramt or health insurance company may *seem* rude and obstructive, but she’s just concerned with following the exact process she’s supposed to. Because following the process is seen as an intrinsic, collective good. She doesn’t want to prevent you from getting services. She doesn’t want to make you go away so she can move on to the next person, make a quota of denied claims, or protect her job from your possible lawsuit.

If you show yourself to be unbothered by the fact that there is a process, and willing to follow the correct procedure, you’ll be working together to get what you need in no time. If you say you need this thing, and you didn’t know you did the wrong step first or you should have had an appointment, she will sigh heavily, roll her eyes, possibly actually yell at you, but she will help you. There’s no benefit to her in blocking you- in a social welfare state, it all works better when everybody gets their needs met.

Get off on the right foot by respecting the fact that you’re a guest in their country.

Indicate you respect its rules and its love of rules. Then they’ll consider breaking them for you. What? Yeah, Germans break their systemic rules all the time. They just want to know the reason.

Helpful links: My German Expert, updated anmeldung guide at My German Expert, How to Leave The Church, guide at Red Tape Translation and the wiki of miserable expat board Toytown.

Next: VISAS!

*Facebook is so useful for expats that I had to open an account, after having deleted my US one a while back. The new one is under my legal name and is strictly for useful stuff; I hope to delete it soon.

*Note: I realize the joke of the drawing is in questionable taste. Once I thought of it I had to draw it, and I might have resisted posting it except it came out so well….


How to move to Berlin in 2016, Part 2: Things I hate about Germany.

Original drawing by Suzanne Forbes March 2016You might think, if you read my twitter or saw me in person, that my love affair with Berlin is blinding.

That I accept and adore every facet of the culture here, and have no complaints about my new life. Nah. I’m still a miserable, paranoid, hypervigilant grouch from New York, and there are plenty of things I HATE about Germany.

1. The fucking timers on the lights.

Lights in most public places that are occupied intermittently- apartment building lobbies and stairwells, public bathrooms and the hallways leading to them, etc.- are on timers. Their default status is OFF; you have to push the light button (no switches here) to turn them on, and they turn off automatically after some short, always too short, amount of time.

This seems insane to me, and it terrifies and enrages me. Don’t they care about women’s safety? Is the precious nectar of electricity more valuable than preventing muggings and rapes? Well, of course, there’s a lot less mugging and rape here than in a big city in the US. But still. And apparently this bullshit is now Europe-wide.

2. The fucking locks.

For some reason, apartment door locks in Germany (and presumably business locks as well) have a weird system where you have to turn the key in the lock counter-clockwise twice to lock the deadbolt, and you can’t unlock the deadbolt without a key. That means if you’re in your apartment and you deadbolt the door, you can’t get out without inserting the key. But if you leave the key in the door in case of fire, your husband can’t use his key to get in. If you leave the key in overnight in case of fire, your husband will have to take it out when he leaves for work, and may accidentally pocket your keys as he locks the door, locking you in the apartment for the day.

3. The fucking front door locks.

Also, it’s customary to deadbolt the front door of your building from the inside after 8pm or 10pm. That means:

A. if there’s a fire, only people with keys can get out. Of course, you’ll be carrying your keys, since you had to use them to turn the lock twice to get out of your apartment.

B. You can’t buzz your friends in after 8pm. You can try leaving the door un-deadbolted, but a helpful neighbor will lock it and remind you how important it is to keep it locked. Because twenty years ago junkies used to shoot up in the lobby.

4. The fucking doors.

Doors to businesses in Germany open in, not out. You push- drücken– to get in, rather than pull, ziehen. The doors are clearly marked with this information, but because doors that open in and trap you in case of fire are stupid, I am constantly forgetting. All-glass modern doors frequently open both ways, at least.

5. The fear of air-conditioning.

Germans think air-conditioning makes you sick, because of the shock to your system of changing temperature suddenly. Even though every single indoor space in the entire country is deliciously warm in winter, while it’s freezing cold outside.

6. The fear of harsh cleaners.

Germans don’t believe in using cleaning chemicals, like bleach. The whole country is like one of those Bay Area cleaning services that only uses natural stuff like vinegar and elbow grease to “clean”. I, however, believe absolutely in bleach and ammonia and Lysol and Comet,  and I habitually sterilize my home. I don’t clean much, but I do sterilize the dirty places!

I have a devil of a time finding bleach spray and the like here. So our sinks develop a grubby patina when I run out, composed of calcification from the hard water and other mysterious mineral residues. A bottle of SoftScrub would fix it in a heartbeat, but that’s like trying to find skirt hangers or Epsom salts or….

7. The preciousness of Ibuprofen.

You can’t casually buy ibuprofen, or a lot of other things you can just buy in any drugstore in the US, here. You have to go to the Apoteke, and request it politely at the counter. The pharmacist will ask if you if you’ve used this drug before, and go over the dosages, and then consent to let you have a box of eight blister-packed tabs, for like eight fucking Euros.

8. Last but not least, and worst of all: The fucking mail failure.

Wow, you’ve never seen anything like how bad mail and delivery services are in Germany. It is a seriously third world situation. It appears to be deeply corrupt, involving kickbacks to neighborhood holding stations and drivers who are paid by the unverified attempt, not the delivery.

I would rather be waiting for a packet of letters on a whaler rounding the Horn than be waiting for cat litter from Amazon.

Your odds go like this: one out of three times you’ll get your package, if you live in a good neighborhood near businesses and on the ground or first floor. One out of three times you will never hear about your package at all- no delivery notice, no doorbell ring, no tracking email. If you follow up with the sender, they’ll tell you that the package was delivered to the PaketShop affiliate or Post Office in the neighborhood since you weren’t home, and you never picked it up, so it was returned to sender or just lost. Then you can pay for shipping again to have your package redelivered.

And one out of three times, you’ll get a notice saying your packet was taken to the PaketShop, since you weren’t home (you were home, actually). Then you have to go to the PaketShop and claim it. But guess what? The notice or email only tells you which PaketShop or Post Office your package is at about half the time. If you call and ask, if they speak English, they have no idea which PaketShop, it should be on the notice. So you walk or take the bus around to the different PaketShops, asking about your package. Usually you don’t have a tracking number or know which service the sender used, so you just have to tell them your street and give them your passport, and then they hunt around. It’s astonishing.

And let’s not even get into what happens if you get a package from outside the EU. Which I do not ever intend to do if I can possible avoid it. Please, please don’t mail me anything bigger than a letter. And not anything important- the regular letter mail was on strike all of last summer.

9. Oh and one more: the fucking cat litter.

HygienePlusFor some reason, Germans use only clay and this CatSan clumpenstreu crap. Catsan is made of quartz sand and chalk. It not only doesn’t work, it makes the odors worse. Luckily, you can order pine and other effective modern litter options from online pet stores, and they actually do generally deliver it.


Of course, these few things do not deter me from being blissfully happy here. They are merely the grit in the oyster.