Multilinguish Bonus Episode: American Expats In Berlin
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Have you ever thought about dropping everything and moving to another country? In that moment, maybe you were itching for a change — to experience a new way of life, to meet new people, perhaps even to learn a new language. Living abroad can be a life-changing experience for those who can afford the time and money required to make it happen.
In this bonus episode of Multilinguish, senior producer Dylan Lyons (that’s me) chats with three American expats who followed through on those thoughts of living abroad. They moved from various parts of the United States to Berlin, Germany, where they now work for Babbel. They share their stories — what made them decide to move abroad, how they’ve adjusted to living in another country, the challenges they’ve faced along the way — and give some words of advice for those of us who still dream of living abroad one day.
This episode was produced by Dylan Lyons and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Claire Larkin, John Quintana, Ted Mentele and Tom Crewther.
Season 2 of Multilinguish is coming this fall! Be sure to subscribe wherever you get podcasts.
Dylan: From Babbel, this is a bonus episode of Multilinguish, a show about language and how it connects us. I’m Dylan Lyons. Living in another country can be a life-changing experience. Travel is fun and all, but there’s something about settling in and fully immersing yourself in another culture that teaches you things you could never learn from a quick vacation. In this bonus episode, you’ll hear from some of our colleagues at Babbel’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany. These American expats — Claire, Ted, and John — give us an inside look at living and working abroad — the great parts, and the not-so-great. Let’s jump right in.
Dylan: All right. Well, welcome to the panel everyone. Thanks for joining me. So I guess to start, I just kind of want to get the background of why you decided to take the plunge and move out of the States and why Berlin, specifically? So I kind of just want to walk through that whole decision-making process. Claire?
Claire: Okay maybe I’m not the best one to start. But I’ll be honest.
Claire: So before I moved to Berlin, I was volunteering quite a bit on someone’s 2016 political campaign.
Claire: I’m not going to name names. But I said that if she didn’t win that I would move to Germany.
Dylan: Oh my God.
Dylan: Well, glad you didn’t name names so it’s not obvious.
Claire: So I’m not going to name names. I’ve only narrowed it down to two people. But so, I said if she didn’t win, I would move here. And I said it to dozens of people. So I sold all my stuff after the election and I moved here with nothing. No job.
Dylan: Way to keep your word. Wow.
Claire: Yeah. I really did it, so.
Dylan: Why Berlin?
Claire: Because I only speak English and German. So that really narrowed down the countries that I could move to. Switzerland’s really expensive and I don’t really love the Austrian accent. No offense to any Austrians out there. Berlin is really cheap. So I moved to Berlin.
John: Wow. Okay, so Claire, I am blown away because you are the first American that I have met that moved here for the exact same reason.
John: Yes. First time. Every time I talk to Europeans about why I moved here and they’re like, “Oh yeah, are there a ton of you?” And I’m like, “I’ve never met another.” So my husband and I were like, never going to happen. This unnamed person will never win the election. And then he did. Surprise, surprise. My husband and I looked at each other and after pulling ourselves together, we’re like I guess we’re moving to Germany. The very next morning my husband was at the German embassy. He’s like, I have a husband, I have a kid. What will it take to get us out of this country? So a little grim. My husband’s family is Jewish and left Germany because of political reasons during the pre-World War II era. So we were kind of like, we’re going to take those lessons and —
Dylan: A parallel there, yeah.
John: Yeah. So we moved to Berlin. We quit our jobs, pulled our kid out of daycare and moved here in less than two months with no job, no apartment, had no connections to Berlin. Actually, neither of us speak German and just started over.
Claire: Well I’m really happy we have a connection now.
John: Yeah. Well a couple because we’ve Slacked several times. Yeah.
Dylan: So Ted, you were six years ago, so was that because Obama was elected?
Claire: We’re not naming names.
Ted: Unfortunately, I think I have a little bit less of a dramatic story than you guys. I studied German at university and when I finished I was like, what am I going to do with a German degree in the States? I suppose I could’ve been a high school German teacher. But that’s not really what I wanted to do. Also, I didn’t get to study abroad during my studies and so I thought, all right, I’ll go live in Berlin for six or nine months or something like that. Do a little teaching, something along those lines. And just got sucked in and still here six years later. But I chose Berlin because I’d been here once before just for a couple days. I actually have a family member that lives here. So when I moved over I had some connections. I had a place to stay. It made the whole process a little bit easier, so.
Dylan: There you go. All right. That’s a good reason. I guess, does anyone have any interesting stories about what it was like to make the adjustment here? Was there culture shock of any kind?
Claire: Well, okay, I would encourage people to move to Berlin. That it’s a thing that you should do in your life.
Claire: But let me also say that it was not easy. I don’t know about your guys’ experience, but it’s a lot of work. Do you think the American bureaucracy is bad? Wait ’til you come to Germany. It’s like doing your taxes all day at the DMV nonstop for two weeks long.
Ted: The word I would use is Kafkaesque.
Ted: That’s … Yeah. One thing for me was I had to come to terms with the volume of my voice. There were so many times I was just walking down the street maybe at 10 at night and people would open up their windows and lean out and go, “Shh.” I was like, “But I’m just speaking in a normal volume.”
Ted: That was a culture shock definitely, so. We just have so much space in the States. We got to yell at each other all the time.
Dylan: It’s just what we do.
Dylan: Wow. Anything interesting from you, John?
John: Oh gosh. In terms of culture shock moments?
John: I mean, there were a lot. I guess coming from San Francisco, the biggest culture shocks were actually more around tech and having to carry cash with me wherever I went.
Dylan: Oh my gosh, yes.
John: And heavy coins everywhere, which kind of drove me crazy. Berlin felt kind of crazy when I first got here because I kind of felt like I moved 10 or 15 years in the past. And at the same time kind of in the future because like, oh my God, public transit is amazing. Healthcare infrastructure. It’s amazing. You know? In some ways it’s really lovely and everything that you would want and so it kind of feels like the future. But this is a city that never shook the eighties. And so I can never tell if people are wearing eighties stuff ironically in a hipster way or that’s just legit what they want to be sporting.
Dylan: Great. So, this is a language podcast, so let’s talk about it. Do you all speak German? How well? Have you found that it’s easy to kind of adapt to speaking with people here, et cetera?
Ted: Well, like I said, I studied German before I came here. So, I speak German fairly well, I think. But actually, my German has gotten worse since I’ve moved here.
Ted: Yeah. I mean, I was an English teacher for five years. So, nine to five every day speaking English doesn’t do wonders for the German. And then also going places and you speak German and they hear even a hint of an English accent and then you … They switch right to English. And I’m like, no, come on. I want to speak German.
Dylan: I’m trying to practice.
Ted: Yeah. I mean, it’s still there and it definitely helps living here. Especially with what Claire said with the bureaucracy. Doing your taxes, things like that. If you don’t know any German find someone who does.
John: Yeah. My Deutsch is sehr schlecht.
Dylan: Does that mean it’s very bad?
John: Yeah. That’s what that means.
Dylan: Thank you.
John: Yeah, no, my four-year-old speaks better German than I do. It’s embarrassing, yeah. But I know enough to get by if I’m really in a pinch and can use my hands to also convey my intent.
Dylan: It sounds like you don’t really need it entirely here.
John: No. I mean, unfortunately. Unless you’re going to a government office then, you know.
Claire: Yeah, I would have to agree with that. So I actually liked it. I had studied German in university and that definitely helps a lot. I mean, I love German and I’m really happy that I did learn German, but German is not a walk in the park. German is a lot of studying and it’s a lot of just memorizing rules that don’t make any sense. I’m really glad that I did it because in terms of bureaucracy, everybody in Berlin speaks English except when you go to the visa office for some reason. So, all the times when you’d need German you really, deeply need it. So that was good to have.
John: I actually want to caveat. I do think there is everyday life where my lack of German really frustrates me, which is actually shopping for stuff. So I’m one of those people that likes to read the back of whatever I’m buying and like, how do I use this product? What is this even for? And Germany does have a very different sort of household products and personal care products that you’re like, I don’t, is this to clean my clothes or my contact lenses? I don’t know. It frustrates me to no end that I’ve lived in this country for two years and I still read the French. If there’s French on the back of the package, then I’m like, oh, I understand what’s happening here. Whereas even simple instructions in German, I still don’t always get. So that’s kind of maddening.
Claire: I actually find that … I’ll have to agree with this. German instructions on the back of things, like the cleaning products, they’re written with some kind of German that I’ve never heard in my entire life.
Claire: I am looking at this, I’m like, how am I supposed to clean myself with this?
John: Yeah. I am constantly afraid I’m going to make some horrible mistake.
Claire: Yeah, I’m going to set my kitchen on fire.
John: Ruin my clothes. Yeah. Yes.
Ted: Do I ingest this or do I put it on my skin? That’s really unclear sometimes. Yeah.
Dylan: Do you think that, I mean, I guess it’s kind of obvious, but do you think that because you’re English speakers, you don’t need to be fluent in German and do you think for other people that move here from other countries that speak other languages that it’s more necessary that they either speak German or English?
Ted: I would say English is probably most necessary. Especially with a lot of the tech startups and things like that. A lot of these offices, the office language is English.
Ted: I have a lot of friends who live here. They’ve lived here for four or five years. And, I mean, they speak enough German to get by. But in a professional context, they don’t really need it. And because it’s so international, you know, you’re meeting people from all over the place. The lingua franca is English. I’d say it’s most necessary to have that.
John: That’s exactly what I was going to say. It’s not, I would say, because there’s a bunch of English speakers here, although there are, but it’s just like English is the default second language everyone learns. All of my mixed nationality couple friends. You know, German and French couples, Italian and Spanish, they speak English with each other.
Dylan: All right. That makes sense. Okay, so what is the one thing you miss most about living in the United States? And what is something that you like a lot better about living here?
Claire: Who wants to go first? This could take a long time.
Dylan: That’s why you have to pick the top, top choice.
Claire: All right.
Ted: I miss barbecue sauce. No joke.
Dylan: Very specific.
Ted: They can’t do it here. They think it’s ketchup with some pepper in it or something. I don’t know.
Claire: True. It’s terrible.
Ted: And salsa as well. It’s just ketchup with chunks of things.
Dylan: It’s just all ketchup!
Ted: So, sauces. I miss sauces.
Ted: But something that I really love about living here. Like John mentioned, healthcare is really great.
Dylan: That’s nice, yeah. Must be nice.
Ted: Working conditions and the amount of holidays we get.
Ted: Say goodbye to 10 days a year.
Dylan: I don’t know if I can talk to you right now. A little jealous.
John: I really miss good iced coffee.
Claire: Oh, yes.
John: It’s really hard to find. Yeah. I really miss that. Something that I never expected I would learn to love here is bread. When I leave Germany I really miss the dark breads of Germany.
John: Claire is like, what are you talking about?
Claire: No. I hate the dark breads of Germany.
Ted: I’m also not a big fan.
John: They’re so hefty and substantial. I don’t know. I’m a total San Francisco granola kid who, yeah, I love that dark bread.
Claire: Okay, this is going to be a very American thing of me to say. The thing I miss most about America is the goods. You can always get so many things. Shopping in America is so easy. You can go to a mall, you can go down the street, you can go online, Amazon brings it to you in one day. Here, even in the 21st century, getting all kinds of things that I need is a thing and a half to do. Grocery stores don’t really believe in keeping constant stock of things. So you could just like go to the store and like almost all the produce is sold out and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s just how it is for the week. Go to another store.” I love how America has things. There are not enough things in Germany.
Dylan: That’s fair.
John: Yeah. I mean when we do go back to America and we’re like-
Claire: Buy everything.
John: These shopping aisles are so packed full of things. Just the chip aisle, the selection of chips in the chip aisle.
Ted: It’s a little overwhelming though. I mean, don’t you think?
Claire: No, it’s not.
Ted: Wait a couple more years, you’ll go back and you’ll be like, where am I?
John: What do I do?
Ted: There’s too many choices.
John: But also enthralling. Kind of like, you know.
Claire: For me, beauty products.
Claire: There’s no beauty products in Germany. Maybe because people here are pretty naturally good looking. But I cannot find the brands that I want. You can’t ever buy conditioner for curly hair here. Not a thing. I don’t know why.
John: Maybe you’re not reading your labels right. It might be …
Claire: That’s true. It might be the labels.
Dylan: Okay. And then the thing that …
Claire: Probably healthcare. They look at me like I’m stupid every time I go to the doctor because I still ask at the end, “Do I need to pay anything?” And the lady is like, “No, you have health insurance, you can leave now.”
Dylan: And you’re like, what?
Claire: I have a prescription. I mean just to get into the details for people. Like I have a prescription that my doctor wouldn’t prescribe for me in America because it would cost $400 out of pocket and here I can get it at the pharmacy for five euros. It’s amazing.
Dylan: Amazing. Healthcare. That’s good stuff.
Claire: This is going to be a very political podcast.
Dylan: Must be nice. I know.
Dylan: All right. So, I guess if you could give advice to someone who was thinking about moving abroad and working abroad, is there any specific advice you’d tell them in preparation? Or when they get here? Anything come to mind?
Claire: The obvious answer is learn the language.
Dylan: Oh, wow. Way to be a good Babbel employee.
John: She gets it. She really gets it.
Claire: You’re welcome, Babbel.
John: I guess I would offer two pieces of advice. So one is like kind of just do it. I wasn’t expecting to move to Berlin at all and I’ve really proven a lot to myself of what I’m capable of doing. So why not just go for it? And I think Berlin also kind of has a reputation of being a tough city to integrate into. But I feel like we just kind of decided to overwhelm the Berliners with optimism and positivity and it worked out well for us. And I think you kind of chart your own course and if you decide that it’s going to be an awesome adventure then it will be, you will make it an awesome adventure.
Ted: I would say come with … Hope for the best plan for the worst kind of thing.
Ted: I definitely had some pretty awful experiences. Again, mostly with the German bureaucracy kind of stuff. The first time I went they looked at me like I was an idiot and they were like, “What are you doing here? You don’t have anything.” And I was like, “But what do I need?” And they were like, “Go online and look and then come back.”
Ted: That was really stressful and awful. So come expecting for it to not be the easiest thing in the world. But that it’s going to be a really, really rewarding thing if you can make it work.
Dylan: Right. Yeah.
Dylan: Have you all found a kind of a community of expats here that you hang with? Or do you tend to just mostly make friends with non-Americans? Or a mix?
Claire: I think it’s a mix. I actually have quite a bit of German friends because I actually really like Germans. That’s an unpopular opinion. I really like Germans and I really vibe with them. But there is a huge expat community in Berlin. So it would be, I think it would be kind of strange almost. Even most of the German friends I know have lots of expat friends because it’s really international.
John: Yeah. Yeah. I do think I have a good amount of German friends but I think it’s unfortunate that we speak English with each other. But I do think German friends are really great. They’re the most loyal friends you can ask for. I have lots of expat friends for sure. And I expect them to move in about a year.
Ted: Yeah, same here. I have an international group of friends but it is really nice to have some of those American friends as well. Because there are things that only only we understand, you know. Especially, I have a lot of French friends and we clash a lot, you know, especially over cheese. They don’t believe me that Wisconsin cheese is awesome. And so we get in fights about that a lot. And so it’s helpful to have some other friends. I have some friends from Wisconsin here and we can geek out about cheese and beer and things like that.
Dylan: Bond over Wisconsin cheese. You’re being such a stereotype right now.
Ted: That’s all right.
Dylan: Okay, so this final question is a little … It could be personal and you can say, I have no idea, but do you know what’s next for you? Do you plan to stay in Berlin longterm? Are you thinking of trying another place? Do you think you’ll ever go back to the States? Et cetera? You’re all like, I have no idea.
John: Well, considering two out of three of us ended up moving here for political reasons.
Dylan: You’re like, we’ll see what happens.
John: I don’t know. Claire, is that your answer?
Claire: I don’t know. It’s hard to say because I really do like Berlin. But it’s also, I mean, I know it’s not my forever city.
Claire: I like it, but I can’t imagine growing old here. I would not want to raise kids in Berlin. But I don’t really know where I would go next. That’s kind of the thing. So I’m just here. I’m going to do good work for Babbel. Then see where it takes me.
Dylan: Live in the moment.
Claire: Yeah, I know, I’m a free spirit. I’m not a free spirit.
John: I mean I think Berlin was definitely a tough transition and so I could maybe think, oh, I’ll go for an even tougher transition and move to Singapore or Tokyo or … No. I think this is as tough as I want to go.
John: If I were to move anywhere else in Europe, I’d want to move to a Romantic-language-speaking country where it would be easier for me to get by. Going back to America? Sure. Yeah. Family. I have a kid. It’s actually an amazingly kid-friendly city.
Claire: Where do you live? Sorry?
John: Prenzlauer Berg, of course.
Claire: Yeah, exactly.
Ted: Of course.
Claire: Yeah, exactly.
John: But the whole city is very kid-friendly. I will say the whole country is super kid-friendly.
Claire: That’s true.
Ted: The playgrounds here.
Ted: The playgrounds here.
Claire: They never play on the right parts of the playground is what I’m saying. They’re always passing up the best parts.
Ted: Are you a playground Prescriptivist?
John: My kid loves the playgrounds here and does miss them when we travel elsewhere, sincerely. That being said, for how wonderful it is to raise a kid here, it’s tough to be away from family.
Dylan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John: You know?
Dylan: That makes sense.
Ted: Right, that’s probably the only thing that would make me move back from Berlin. It’s hard to be away from family. But, like I said, living conditions here are really nice. Pace of life is a bit slower.
Dylan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ted: Yeah. I don’t see myself going back anytime soon. But I agree with you, Claire, Berlin, I don’t think, is my forever city either. But it depends on where life takes me. You know?
Dylan: Great. Love it. Any final thoughts? Or want to do a little chant of USA or something?
Dylan: Kidding. Definitely not. Great. Well, thanks everyone for joining me. This was a really fun discussion and we’ll talk again soon.
Dylan: This bonus episode of Multilinguish was produced by me, Dylan Lyons. Our executive producer is Jen Jordan. Ruben Vilas edited the episode, with production help from Tom Crewther. Season 2 is coming this fall! Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Multilinguish is a production of the language app Babbel. Learn more at babbel.com/magazine.