This post has been a long time coming, and frankly, it hasn’t been easy to write. As you can tell from our other posts, we’ve had lots of incredible times since we moved to Berlin. We’ve traveled all over Europe, shared experiences with our family, seen ancient and historic sights, made new friends, and adjusted to living in a new country. But it hasn’t been all sunshine and daisies. Yup, it’s time for that real talk I promised you. Now, these are things that I (Katarina) have experienced, so they might not ring true for some of you, but it’s what I’ve gone through in the past 14 months, and I want to get it off my chest. I also write this knowing full well that we’re extremely privileged to get to do this – we have supportive families, steady incomes, and the benefit of being from a country that is generally well regarded. We’re incredibly lucky (and hashtagBlessed), but it’s also been really really hard.
We can all get overwhelmed in this social media-filled world, where it seems like all you are seeing is new engagements, promotions, travels, and babies. It’s really hard to remember that you’re only seeing a glimpse of another person’s life, not all of it. I know very well that right now, I might have one of those lives to you. In this case, Facebook doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t show the whole truth either. It really has been an amazing year, but also an incredibly hard one. I want to share with you why, in the three “L”s.
If you asked me six months ago “If you could go back in time, what would you do?” I would have easily said I would tell myself “Don’t move to Berlin.” I know, dramatic. Still, it’s true. When Colin got his job offer, we had been spending about 6 months looking for jobs abroad. At first, we focused on the UK. We wanted somewhere we could speak the language, and I’ve always wanted to live in London. I strongly believe that certain cities call to you – it only takes a few moments there to know it’s somewhere you could be forever. London was like that for me, plus my wonderful cousin and her husband live there. However, job offers were slim there and the visa situation was very complicated. Colin suggested Berlin – it’s a tech hub and the visa situation is easier. Plus, he’d studied here before. When he got the offer, we were very excited. It meant I could also work here and that we were finally achieving our dream! Moving to Europe! Sure, I’d never been to Germany and had no idea what Berlin was like, but I’d figure it out along the way.
Well, I did figure it out, but it was really, really hard. My dreams of Europe involved cobblestone sidewalks, light-filled cafes, cozy pubs, friendly people, and general comfort. Every experience I’d had in Europe was of beautiful places or cities that called to me. Berlin is full of history, life, and art. What it is not is beautiful. Though I’ve grown to love it, I wasn’t ready for constant partying (especially from the bar below us), graffiti, dog poop on the sidewalks, old communist-era buildings, cold people, and the smoke everywhere (seriously, everywhere). It wasn’t how I pictured it at all, and I spent a lot of the first six months crying. I felt trapped by my own expectations. I had to make it through, or else we would have failed, and yet I was absolutely miserable. Thank God for Colin. If he hadn’t been there, I would have completely fallen apart – especially since my mom, my other life line, was hard to reach with a nine hour time difference.
It got better. Over time, the tears slowed a little. I was able to motivate myself to apply for jobs and found a good one. I discovered the Grunewald – a forest nearby the city that soothes my non-city girl soul. I took long walks and started listening to audiobooks. I started writing again – something that I hadn’t wanted to do for years due to a draining job. Most importantly, I discovered the things about the city that I do love. I love the international chatter around the monuments in Mitte. I adore the Christmas markets and other festivals, full of happy Germans and foreigners sipping on mulled wine. We found a wonderful white noise generator that I could tune to completely block out the bass from the bar below us when I go to sleep. I even came to understand that while Berliners aren’t the friendliest people, they can be some of the funniest and are very caring. I’ve come to find that even if a place doesn’t speak to your soul, that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy there. We carved out a niche for ourselves, and we found a new normal. It’s been worth it, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and our marriage.
Insert here any jokes you want about Mark Twain, long words that would win at Scrabble, and how harsh on the ear the German language is. Over time, I’ve actually come to see it as a really beautiful language, and I’m very glad I’ve had a chance to get to learn it. (Seriously, how many adults get to start a new language when they’re out of traditional schooling? Very cool.) But it’s true – it is a difficult one, and not just because of the cases and genders. It’s really hard to be thrown into a country where you know very little of what is said around you and have to adjust. Before we moved, people reassured me over and over that many Germans, especially Berliners, speak English. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean they are happy to do it.
Berliners are not exactly known as the world’s sweetest people, but it surprised me just how many angry responses I got for not knowing the language. I’ve gotten many frustrated looks and rolled eyes when I ask people to repeat something or timidly ask “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” Coworkers at my job, where English is the official language, would ask me with condescension about why I moved here in the first place, and I wasn’t learning fast enough to please them. People on the internet (I know, I know), chided me for asking for a doctor who spoke English (“Why do you live in Germany if you don’t speak German? Go home!”). Doctors were unable to communicate with me over troubling health issues. I understood for the first time the struggles and idiotic questions that immigrants in America have to deal with all the time.
It was hard, really hard. Colin speaks some German, but he’s rusty. He attempted to give me German lessons over the summer before we moved, but it wasn’t enough. For the first six months or so, I worked at Duolingo and became very proficient at reading menus and signs in grocery stores. I was finally able to add a German class to my schedule after work, which I just wrapped up, but it was – frankly – really bad. Our class switched from being painfully slow to skipping over large important explanations with great regularity, and it took us six months to cover what is normally taught at other schools in half the time.
So here I am, barely A1 proficient, and still struggling to learn. Languages don’t come easily to me, but I’m determined to keep working at it. I can’t wait to wipe the smug smile off the faces of my colleagues (especially the guy who constantly complains that Americans don’t study languages at all because we only care about our own culture) when I handle a whole conversation in German. Until then, it’ll be slow and painful going.
So, I know “life” as a theme is a bit of stretch, but bear with me. If language and location weren’t enough, there’s always a plethora of little things that life throws your way just to keep it interesting. For example, recurring illnesses that don’t seem to have explanations but lead to visits to about 10 doctors, weeks off of work confined to the apartment, and frustrating conversations with doctors that lead to either shrugs or blaming the symptoms on “emotional reactions”. (P.S. jerk doctor, when I burst out in tears in your office after throwing up through two hours of tests only to have you tell me you couldn’t find something wrong, that was not “an overreaction to good news” and I will not be “seeking psychological help for being sad at being told the tests are inconclusive.” That was in fact my sixth doctor visit with no answers in sight after six months of recurring illness. Screw you and your patronizing questions about whether it was that time of the month.) Yup, just one of those things, but it certainly hasn’t made life any easier. This is not a plea for attention or help. I’m going to keep working to figure out which doctors will actually help me and to manage my symptoms, but it’s been a pretty major bump in the road.
On a completely different note, another struggle was realizing how hard it is to make friends as an adult. Throughout school, it was always easy to meet new groups of potential friends or get involved in intersting activities. In Madison, we were fortunate to have Colin’s family and some of our best college friends already in town, plus a company full of young twenty-somethings eager for more friends. Here, it took about four months before we had a single event that wasn’t just the two of us. It’s hard, especially for two introverts who don’t love putting themselves out there. There were many nights where it was just easier to stay home with the cats and each other. Eventually, we started trying a little harder – we went to meet ups, joined choir (well, I did), and tried a little harder with colleagues. Luckily, some people out there wanted to be friends with us weirdos. 🙂 Now that we have people to talk to in the city, life is looking a little bit better, but it certainly was an uncomfortable period of growth (don’t want to come across as desperate for friends, after all).
Thanks for reading my novel of a rant. I felt like sharing it because I’ve been the one lusting after other people’s lives. Wondering how their hair is always so perfect looking, or craving the house and dog and yard and stability. I know our life here is remarkable and we’re making memories that we’ll cherish forever. But more importantly, I also know how hard it has been and how much growth we’ve been through, both as a couple and as individuals. After all, if something is worth having, it’s worth working for. We’ve put in a lot of work, and now it’s time to enjoy the rewards. Honestly, I’m pretty proud of us.
Next time, we’ll be back with a lighter, happier post, I promise. Until then, adventure on!