Since I’m asked so often about my move from NYC to Germany, I wanted to put the whole story down on paper. Here’s a not-so-brief rundown about my move!
Since I announced my plans to move from NYC to Berlin, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked is “why Germany?” Even after living in Germany for a year, I still get asked this on an almost weekly basis. My close friends and family know how far back my love of the German language and culture goes, but I’ve recently realized that I’ve never fully mapped out how my move to Berlin came about, which may have caused a little confusion for some people. Although my official decision to move to Berlin was sudden (more on that later in this post), my desire to live to Germany stretches back years.
Before jumping into the story of how I learned German and wound up living in Berlin, I wanted to mention upfront that I’ve been writing Expat Diaries since my move to Germany was announced. If you’re looking for a play-by-play of my move to Berlin, how the visa process was, how I found an apartment, etc. I recommend reading through those blog posts as well.
My First Foray Into the German Language
Growing up, my mom had a friend we called Dazzle. Dazzle grew up in a small town in southern Germany and moved to the US when she was 16. When I was younger, Dazzle would tell us bits and pieces about her childhood in western Germany and what it was like after the Wall came down when she came in contact with Germans from the east for the first time. As a kid, I thought her stories sounded so exotic and I loved when she’d say something in German. It was thrilling somehow, not knowing what her words meant. It made me realize just how many things I had left to learn about the world and its peoples.
In middle school, a guidance counselor from the local high school came to speak to us about planning our high school classes. Our school district had a core set of requirements each student had to fulfill in order to graduate, one of which being four semesters of a foreign language. My friends all signed up for Spanish or French, mostly because that’s what everyone else was doing and they thought they’d be more practical languages to learn. But I didn’t care about practicality. When I heard there were German lessons at the high school, I got so excited. At that point, I knew nothing about the German culture, but I was itching to learn the language.
Looking back, I’m so thankful German wasn’t a popular program at my school. That meant fewer students in my German classes and more attention from my teacher, Frau Steed. Although learning the mechanics of the German language was a pain (to this day, I struggle to conjugate verbs correctly auf Deutsch), I loved discovering new words and hearing about the many ways German culture differs from American culture.
My High School Exchange Trip
During my sophomore year of high school, Frau Steed announced that my school would be hosting German exchange students the following school year. Obviously, I texted my parents on the spot asking if we could host an exchange student. We talked through the logistics of the exchange program, and in the end they happily agreed to having a German student stay with us for a month and having me fly out the Germany the following summer as well.
The entire exchange program was a dream. I clearly remember being handed the paper that detailed who my exchange student was. It was a bit like a dating profile, in a way. It had a headshot of my future exchange student, Hannah, and it went through her basic details, likes, and dislikes. We immediately contacted each other on Facebook and messaged back and forth during the months leading up to the exchange program (her in broken English, me in broken German).
Hannah stayed with my family for a month, and the following summer I flew to Kassel, Germany to live with her family for a month. It was the longest I’d ever been away from my parents, and looking back I have to laugh at how many times I called home and wrote to them. At the time, a month away from my family felt like a lifetime!
It was a huge milestone in my life, though. The first few times you leave your family are a bit nerve-wracking but exciting as well. During my month in Kassel, I experienced everyday life in Germany — I trailed Hannah to and from school, she introduced me to Spaghetti Eis (ice cream that’s made to look like spaghetti, it’s amazing), we watched movies together, and took some day trips. Her parents didn’t speak any English, which was wonderful because it forced me to work harder at communicating in German. I felt like an idiot sometimes, but my German improved dramatically while abroad.
How My German Major Came About in College
I won’t bore you too much with the rest of my high school German experience. It was wonderful, and leaving Kassel after one short month was heartbreaking; let’s just leave it at that. I wound up studying at Indiana University (IU). My original plan was to study English, but my mom had done some research and told me to look into the International Studies major there as well. Because I had taken enough AP classes in high school, I didn’t have to do any of the general education courses required at IU. That left me with some wiggle room in my schedule, so I signed up for a couple German classes because I hated the thought of losing my language skills.
Two semesters into my college career, my guidance counselor told me I was on track to secure a German major. I was pleasantly surprised, as I’d been taking German courses purely for my own enjoyment. I loaded up my schedule a bit more to fulfill the German major requirements and patted myself on the back for reaching this milestone in my German language career.
Studying Abroad in College
A requirement for my International Studies major was to study a minimum of one semester abroad. Naturally, I applied to study in Freiburg, Germany. I’d heard that the Freiburg program was one of IU’s best and that Freiburg’s proximity to the Black Forest made it one of the prettiest towns in Germany. Spoiler: I was accepted into the study abroad program! Because the semester schedules in the US and Germany are quite different, I wound up spending over 3 months at home with my parents the winter of 2014 / 2015 while waiting to fly out to Germany.
During this time at home, I created Tall Girl Big World. I envisioned myself jet setting around Europe on the weekends, and I wanted a space where I could share my travels with friends and family while I was away.
My time in Freiburg wound up being one of the most influential periods of my life. Yes, I traveled a lot and saw parts of Europe I’d previously only dreamed about. But more importantly, my self-confidence grew in leaps and bounds during this time. Speaking in a foreign language forced me to become comfortable with making mistakes and feeling like an idiot a lot of the time. It made me realize that I was capable of so much more than I’d thought.
Not only could I express my thoughts and feelings in a foreign language, but I could also plan my meals for a week and handle shopping in a foreign grocery store. I could make friends more easily than I thought, and I could budget my time and money to allow for trips to cities all over Europe.
Leaving Freiburg is the only time in my life I’ve felt homesick. Getting on that bus and watching the town disappear behind me was awful. To this day, my heart aches a bit when I think of my wonderful semester there, but I know that even if I go back it will never feel the exact same since I’ve changed so much as a person since then.
What Prompted Me to Move to Germany
To be honest, I was a bit of a bump in the log during my last year at IU. After the non-stop adventure that was Freiburg, being stuck in the middle of Indiana for a whole other year felt a bit depressing. My last year in college was a blur of stress. Writing my undergraduate thesis, figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, applying for dozens of jobs and not getting a response from any of them — it was a lot to handle.
I graduated IU without a job lined up. At the time, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to live in Germany like I’d dreamed of doing since that month I stayed in Kassel. So, I channeled that energy into a new dream: living in New York City. NYC was another place that had my heart. My mom first took my brother and I to New York when I was in third grade. It was our fall break, and we were in the city just for the long weekend, but it was love at first sight for me.
After graduation, I told my parents I’d be moving to NYC in August if I hadn’t found a job by then. They were surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing and told me to do whatever I wanted with my life (thanks, mom and dad!). My mom wound up driving me out to NYC that August, and everything fell into place quickly thereafter. I lived with my cousin for a month before finding a roommate, an apartment, and a job all in the span of 48 hours. To say I was a grateful, crying mess is an understatement.
I won’t go into detail about my life in NYC since I wrote so many blog posts while I lived there. I will, however, highlight the experience that changed my life: the day I got laid off from work. Ugh. What a day. It was incredibly challenging to be laid off and subsequently have to figure out what I wanted to do with my life — again. Did I want to stay in NYC? Did I want to find another office job? Did I want to save up money and travel for a bit?
I had so many options, but the thought I had bouncing around my brain since the moment I was laid off was this: I WANT TO LIVE IN GERMANY. But how? After a few weeks of research, I discovered something called a Freelancer’s Visa. It seemed like it was easier to get in some cities than in others, and it required you to showcase your freelance experience in order to obtain said visa.
Huh. Maybe I should start freelancing?
So I did. And it was hard and scary and stressful and wonderful. I told myself I’d spend the next year building up my freelance business from NYC, and then I’d pack up my life and move to Germany. Somehow, the dream turned into reality and I secured a two-year freelancer’s visa in August 2019.
There are so many wonderful places to live in Germany, but I chose to live in Berlin because it’s the largest city. After living in NYC for three years, I wasn’t sure if I could handle living in a place that was dramatically smaller. Plus, I knew I wanted to live somewhere equally multicultural with lots of things to do.
read more: 11 Lessons I’ve Learned After 1 Year of Freelancing (the intro in this post breaks down my being laid off and what that felt like)
How Long Will I Stay in Germany?
My official one-year moving anniversary was May 29th, but this August marks one year since I got my visa. I already know I want to stay in Germany for more than two years, but at this stage it’s uncertain whether or not I’ll be able to extend my visa. To do so, I need to show proof that I’ve secured freelance work in Germany from German clients, that I’ve been a good citizen and have paid my taxes, etc. I won’t lie, I’m quite nervous about the visa renewal process since I currently only have one German client (my US clients are keeping me very busy, which is both a blessing and a drawback).
This is all to say that I don’t know how long I’ll live in Germany, but I’m hoping to live here for at least another few years. We’ll see how my life pans out!
I know this was a long post, but I hope you found it interesting. I get asked quite often how I came to learn German and what prompted me to move to Germany, and I wanted to jot down all my thoughts in one place for you to reference.
If you have any questions about my study abroad experience, being laid off, moving to Berlin, or securing a freelancer’s visa, please leave me a comment below! I’m happy to give advice / share more details.
Tell me: What’s one place you’ve always dreamed of living in?