Five things I’ve learned from a year of living in Berlin

#1 The freelance struggle. When I decided to move to Berlin and enter the world of freelance I knew it wouldn’t be an easy gig. Away from the (relative) safety of a fixed salary with paid holidays and the luxury (!) of being paid for sick days, life is a whole lot tougher. Obviously these workers’ rights should be there for all, whether you have a permanent staff position, a temporary contract or if you’re freelance, but we live in a world where the power is heavily tipped towards employers.

So I knew what I was getting myself in for, is what I mean. I set myself one goal: to pitch a story and get it placed. One story, I thought, was enough. I pitched many stories and column ideas to contacts I knew and editors I had never met and I just hoped for one. I like to keep my expectations low so if I reach them I can feel that I’ve achieved something. But at the same time my enthusiasm and ambition always remains high. I pitched furiously and kept my brain switched on at all hours. My aim was for one story so I was overjoyed when I got more than one pitch accepted, and some more.

But the amount of energy I was putting in while trying to get pitches and then writing the stories if they were accepted far outweighed the amount of money that was coming into my bank. I learned the hard way by working myself into a state and becoming quite ill around this time last year.  My parents were visiting and I went to their hotel and they put me to bed there with a bag of Maltesers. I think they had a great time wandering round Berlin without me!

So I decided to change my tact. And this is one of the most important things I’ve learned since moving abroad just over a year ago. Freelance is a total hustle and you have to diversify. You need to have different things on the go at the same time.

I made the decision to train as an English teacher so I had another set of skills and another industry I could get into here in Berlin. It was a risk but paid off for me because I really enjoy it. I’ve met so many interesting people through teaching in a way I could never have if I had only stuck with journalism. I hear stories about how people live, Berlin’s history, as well as their take on local and world politics. It’s given me an understanding of the city, the country, its place in Europe and its people.  I think both the jobs I do support and encourage each other and they both involve a lot of listening, which is a great skill that I’m always trying to develop.

But it’s exhausting. The two industries I work in are definitely not where the money is but my plan was never to become rich (unfortunately?)  I balance teaching with pitching and writing or editing, and I’m also aiming for some shifts with media outlets here. I have mega respect to all the freelancers out there supporting themselves through a mix of work, whether it’s shifts in a company or remote working or the freelance workers who report or teach or do their work all over the world, often putting themselves in danger to carry out that work. I salute you all.

#2 There will be breakdowns. It doesn’t get easy. But this is okay! Why would you want things to be easy? If you wanted that you would have stayed in the UK. This is what I tell myself when I’m crying over buying the wrong ticket on the U Bahn machine (a complete overreaction and unneccessary) but, man, sometimes you’ve just got to roll with it.

I overreact to situations a lot. Whether it’s freaking out while trying to recycle bottles or getting proper down about not being able to speak German when I need to, the emotions just flow up and happen. Bodies do some strange things when under pressure. I sweat so much in my German class that it’s like a high impact sport without the benefit of making you fit.

It takes years to settle in another country, I imagine. And that’s fine. One day I might even get used to the supermarket system, also like a sport, in which you have to get everything packed into your bags in the shortest time possible. There is nothing more stressful than when your peppers and potatoes are piling up at speed at the cash desk, and the cashier is waiting for you to pay while the eyes from the queue burn fire into your soul.

On the other side, there are obstacles that I’ve overcome, such as getting to weird, random places in the Brandenburg countryside alone and safely. It’s these sorts of tasks that involve so much brain work and hopping from trains to S Bahns to buses to apocolyptic empty business estates, that I expect Richard O’Brien from Crystal Maze to be standing there at the end of the journey offering me a crystal to take home.
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Similarly there are small conversations that I have in German which make me feel like I’ll go home that day and write a short essay on the subject and frame it and put it on my wall.  There are good days and bad days.

#3 Friends and family are the absolute best. They truly are something I’ve been gripping onto and finding much comfort in. Sometimes just having a look at a picture from a wedding or Christmas or when I receive a ridiculous Dumb and Dumber meme or a bunch of delivery flowers from a pal – it’s enough to lift me and make me feel human again.  Although I should add: my situation doesn’t mean I’m having a harder time than everyone else, it’s just different. Everyone has their own things they’re getting on with or battling through so I aim to provide the same support for them.  Keeping up these relationships is healthy and important.

Similarly: new friends. The genuinely kind and interesting people I’ve met in Berlin or became closer to, who come from a variety of different backgrounds and places, are a reason enough for me to have moved abroad. If I didn’t get that pitch or any pitch, I’d still have met these humans and that’s pretty special.

#4 You need treats. I know it’s not healthy to eat sugar all the time so it doesn’t have to be sweet but a pack of chocolate biscuits or a seedy cheesy bagel or a bag of mango streifen (mango slices which I am obsessed with) help to get you through the days. Especially when the weather is rubbish. No one should feel bad about using food or drink as a little pick me up. How the hell else do you make a trip to the new Berlin airport in the middle of nowhere doable?! Sometimes a coffee and a pretzel the size of my head are the only things that pull me out of an early morning bad mood and, therefore, these snacks are worth every penny.

Also, going to the DM or Rossmann store is a treat for me because it reminds me of Boots the chemist back home. It’s Boots without the medication because, annoyingly, you can only buy drugs in the actual chemist Apotheke in Germany. Still, exploring these stores piled high with shampoo, shower gels, make up, cleaning sprays and toilet roll is a joy! I’m a child of capitalism despite my protestations so I can’t help it if I find happiness in a shop selling various beauty products.

#5 The NHS is the best, never stop appreciating it. This is something I already knew but my feelings for the flawed yet comforting beast of a system grow by the minute as I try to negotiate a country with private healthcare. For now I’ll leave it at that because the NHS and healthcare abroad subject deserves a whole other newsletter.

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