Reflecting on my Third Year Living in Berlin
Thoughts on the language, people, aesthetic, and life here.
This week I dedicated time to reflecting on living away from home for the third year running. We moved from Singapore to Berlin in October 2019, before the pandemic and, now, the recession.
A lot has happened in these years. Each year presents new learnings for me, some of which would escape my grasp if I didn't sit down to reflect and write. So here's me, writing the learnings from my third year living in Berlin. Enjoy!
I'm able to speak German better now, and life has become more enjoyable. This aligns with my expectations.
Knowing the language is useful in Germany but also in Austria. It has also been useful in northern Italy, like in South Tyrol where most residents speak Italian and German.
My wife has a friend who learned French and moved to Switzerland at around the same time as we moved to Germany. That friend is learning French now, and she said something that I found surprising: that French sounds better and is easier to learn. Me? I've learned French for one semester in university and I have to say, I find German easier to learn and to speak. It's a language that the internet seems to like to make fun of for its rough phonetics, sure. French, in the meantime, often gets celebrated as being almost melodic. These days, though, I find myself enjoying the sound of the German language much more than French! German is a beautiful language.
We bought a campervan this year! This is one of the biggest decisions we've made this year. Campervanning is a fantastic way to experience Germany and Europe. We have so far driven to: Hannover, Bayreuth, Rügen, Dolomites in Italy, and will be driving to Warsaw this weekend. At the end of the year we're taking a long drive to the south of Spain (some 3,000 km) as we've planned to spend winter there.
I don't yet know how costly the van will be to maintain since it has not been a full year yet. But I did glimpse the bill of the servicing that happened before we took over the vehicle. Six hundred euros. And that's expected once yearly. It sounds expensive, especially when you consider that insurance costs an extra 60 euros per month. I help me sleep by remembering the savings that come from not needing to buy tickets for trains and flights anymore. Who knows. I'm not keeping a spreadsheet...
Life in Berlin as a parent has been pleasant. I've written about the pleasures of being in a welfare state in my 2nd year reflection so I won't rehash that here. Berlin has a lot on offer everyday as a youthful, cosmopolitan, and energetic city, but for me, I've shied away from most of it this year, and it's been okay because Berlin, with its still-somewhat-low costs of living compared to the rest of Europe makes living here with a baby relatively stress-free, especially when I compare it to how it would have been if I were living in Singapore.
My wife and I revisited our decision to have a child recently and one thing we are quite certain about is this: we don't think we would have decided to try for a baby if we hadn't moved out of Singapore to Berlin! (See, mum? There is one good thing of us moving away!) We think that financial stress would have been the biggest obstacle for us, even as two young professionals capable of earning a decent wage (I'm a software engineer and she's a makeup artist).
That said, I am beginning to feel more thankful to be from a country like Singapore. If things don't go well here in Berlin, I have a pretty good place to go home to that is safe, prosperous, and where I feel I belong. Life would not be miserable in Singapore by most measures. Yes, there are things that we don't like about the place that we would have to live with, but if I'm honest with myself, those are not show-stoppers. Singapore is a good place to live in; it's just not for us at the moment.
Food wise, I've found myself missing kaya (sweetened coconut, egg, and pandan jam) and milo (an instant chocolate malt drink) the most. I would crave black fried carrot cake and chicken rice. One of stronger reasons for visiting Singapore again soon would be the food. I have through the course of this year in Berlin heard several people rave about Singaporean food, and I always give a big smile (of pride) followed by a "I know, waaaa" face, like this emoji: 😭
Personal safety is high but not guaranteed in Berlin. One person in our neighbourhood said a drunk guy ran after him trying to stab him one night. I also saw a series of cars parked on the street I live in with smashed windows one morning, with the police on-scene commiserating with the victims. Personally I have also been a victim of a burglary - our cellar got broken into and around 2000 euros worth of things were stolen. I even foolishly left a spare key in the cellar in case we'd lost ours while we were out - thankfully the burglars didn't take it and open our apartment with it. That definitely could have extended to physical danger. I'm never putting a spare key in the cellar again... stupid to think that it was a good idea in the first place!
Refugees from Ukraine have been pouring into the city and it is a triumph of the German population for accepting them into the country in times of sudden crisis.
Wife and I decided to engage a photographer to do a photoshoot for our family when our daughter turned one this year, and the talented photographer we found was a Ukrainian mother living in Berlin with her son (we hadn't sought her services because of this, to be honest - it was her good work that drew us). They are living through a difficult period of their lives, but I am glad to see them alive and able to subsist on some work. Here is a photo from that shoot:
More Singaporeans are visiting Berlin! The budget flight operator Scoot has resumed direct flights between Singapore and Berlin. These two are reinforcing each other - supply and demand. It's nice that while my two homes are thousands of kilometers apart, there's a way to commute directly if we wanted to. This year I've had the pleasure of being visited by a few of my Singaporean friends: James (here for business), Greg (here resting for a day as a pilot), Joel and Christian (here for a vacation and business), Rama (here for a vacation and sussing out Berlin as a potential place to live in), and soon Gillian and Sam and their boy Oliver (who will be here for a vacation).
We also joined national day festivities with fellow Singaporeans in Berlin this year, and drove to Hannover to meet our Singaporean friend Jessi who is clearly having a good time living there with her partner and their family. This is more interaction that we've had with Singaporeans than any other year so far. It's nice, although I wouldn't quite say that there's a community thing going on, which I'm supposed to feel sad about, I think, but I'm not really. We have a light relationship with many of these people but a strong connection - to me that seems enough for most long-distance friendships.
The contrast between my mentality and that of Singaporeans who are living in Singapore is becoming starker. I'm talking mostly about our attitudes towards work and living. I've noticed that generally speaking, Singaporeans are much more prone to being stressed about their work, worry more about money, and spend more time and money on things that prop up their social status; in other words, they're much more into "keeping up with the Tans and Lees" than people who live in Berlin, wider Germany, or most parts of western Europe. I've noticed a softening of my attitude towards these things over the last 3 years, and I'm quite happy about it.
That said, I did buy a campervan... but you know I have my justifications (don't we all?) and I believe I didn't buy it to signal my social status but to enable mobility for traveling as a family around Europe while our stay here lasts.
The Berliner aesthetic is something that has grown a lot on me this year. Berliners, which include everyone living in Berlin (because Ich bin ein Berliner!), dress like they're living in the 90s, which is to say, casually, in scrappy clothes with baggy heres and theres. How we feel is associated with what we wear (think uniforms) and really, the attitude of Berliners is to take it a bit at a time, casually, accepting that life is hard and we try our best in the things we do without coming close to killing ourselves over them.
I find myself attracted to this aesthetic because I've always embodied it. It's the "wrong" one for Singapore, though. Let me be as clear as possible here about what I'm saying. The Singapore aesthetic is to be clean, educated, well-travelled, hardworking. The Berlin aesthetic, on the other hand, is to be steady, accepting, creative, smart-working. It's a feeling, one I thought is worth pointing out.