Here’s a thing.
If you talk to the English-speaking migrant population of Berlin about living in Berlin, they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, of COURSE you can live here without German. It’s NO PROBLEM. Absolutely FINE.’
This is true to a point. You can definitely go into a restaurant in Berlin and order in English. You can buy U-bahn tickets from the little automated machines and you can do it in English. You can use google translate on German web pages and basically get the gist of what’s going on. You can even find work in English, watch English films, buy English books from English bookstores and find English-speaking friends (in fact, it may be impossible to find friends who speak any other language except English).
But, if you want to live there, actually, live there, on your own, without someone in your household who speaks fluent German and is forced to translate all your documents for you (forced because they are married to you, or love you, or just can’t get away), then you are going to find it rough. And you are going to find yourself paying a lot of money to a lot of people for reasons that you cannot fathom and seem completely unfair.
The main reason I’ve gotten into trouble is because of the Germans’ obsession with having everything written down. If you want to end a contract, it must be written down, signed and sent to them, usually, 3 months in advance of when you want to end a contract. Contracts can only ever be cancelled at the end of the month, regardless of when you started your contract.
I first encountered this problem when I tried to end our rental contract. I knew we had to give 3 months notice, so I sent an email to our realtor with, what I thought was, 3 and a half months warning. The realtor emailed me back saying it would have to be in writing. Something about her broken English made me assume that I had to sign a specific form and as she also wanted to come and see the house the next week, I assumed she would bring the form to me and I would sign it then. When she came to visit, she informed me of the cancellation ‘only at the end of the month’ issue. She then pointed out that it was now too late for me to cancel when I wanted to cancel – there was no special form, I just had to write a letter and I would’ve had time if I had sent the letter the day I received her email requesting a written cancellation.
There are many misunderstandings there, not least of all that an email actually IS acceptable – I checked with a German lawyer – but the only way to get the realtor to agree to that would have been to involve the lawyer and we decided we didn’t want the hassle. In the end, an extra month turned out not to be a bad idea – what with all the stress of my visa being rejected, I don’t know if we would have managed to get the place empty and clean in time.
But, in the last week, I’ve just noticed another massive error on my behalf. I checked my bank account to make sure that I had no standing orders left to various vendors in Berlin. That’s when I saw that a yoga studio I had signed up to for a 6 month contract in 2015 was still taking money out of my bank account every month.
Why didn’t I notice it earlier, you might wonder. Well, getting into my German bank account was quite stressful. Part of it was the language and part of it was that I could never remember my password (yes, if I’d signed in more regularly perhaps the language wouldn’t have been stressful and I would have remembered the password better). I had no German credit card, so I didn’t need to organise payments to it, which is one reason I kept a pretty careful eye on my Australian bank account. But, also, the design of the bank website was not very user friendly. When you sign into the account, it tells you the general overall statement. If you want to know about actual transactions, you have to type in the dates of the period you want, instead of just clicking on the account and having all transactions appear. I know that sounds like a pretty poor excuse, but it meant that I would look in a very specific window to find a specific transaction and wouldn’t just scroll through my transactions like I do with my Australian bank account. When I scroll, I often find things that seem suspicious – usually it’s just that I’ve forgotten the transaction or it’s a weird name of something that I did actually buy, but it’s a good habit. The design of my German bank account didn’t encourage that. So, my usual behaviour with the German bank account was, if there’s still money in there, then we’re all good. Not great for picking up yoga memberships you didn’t know you still had.
So, I feel an absolute tool. When I signed up in 2015, the woman could tell that my German was no good, so she offered to do it all in English. I originally requested a 12 month contract, but she said it wasn’t possible (they had 12 month contracts on offer, but weren’t signing people on to them for some reason), so I would have to sign up to a 6 month contract. She took me through the important conditions of the (German) contract in English. At no point did she tell me that it would be automatically renewed after 6 months, unless I cancelled (in writing) – and it seems bizarre in hindsight that she wouldn’t sign me up for a 12 month contract, when the 6 month contract was actually ongoing. Most likely to do with price changes, or the minimum amount of time you had to keep the contract, of course, but still. It was another huge part of my misunderstanding of what kind of contract I was signing up to.
SO, last October, I got very busy applying for universities (I developed a plan. A misguided plan, but I wasn’t accepted into university, so it was all ok). I stopped going to yoga and by the time I had got my applications in, it was 6 months from the start of my yoga contract. Ah well, I thought, I’ll wait until I get back from Australia in January and then go renew my contract. Of course, I never set foot inside that studio again. The yoga studio also didn’t contact me in any way – didn’t send me receipts every month (as my internet provider did), didn’t send me emails thanking me for being a good customer (as my gas & electricity companies did), didn’t send me a letter on the one year anniversary of my signing up to the studio (as… tumblr did). Anything, any kind of contact or marketing that could have alerted me to the fact that I was still, as far as they were concerned, a member of their gym.
I’m pretty disgustingly mad about it all. Especially as I am currently unemployed in the UK and I could really do with the all the excess cash they’ve taken from me. I also don’t sign up for ongoing contracts like this, because I know, I KNOW, that it is how gyms screw you over. I’ve always signed up for fixed-term contracts because, yes, they might be a bit more expensive, but at least you know in advance how long you’ve signed up for and you don’t have to argue with the company about ending the contract.
But, as I said at the start of this post, you might be able to order a coffee in English in Berlin, but trying to do things that are more complex are going to get you into trouble. As all the highly aggressive people on the Toy Town Germany forum would tell me, ‘IT’S GERMANY, OF COURSE EVERYTHING IS IN GERMAN, YOU ABSOLUTE TOSSING SHIT-FOR-BRAINS’ (it’s a really supportive forum of English speakers in Germany, offering sound advice and abuse to people who dare to ask for help). To which I say, ‘yes. Yes, I agree with you.’ Yes, I don’t think it’s easy just to live in Berlin without German. I don’t think people should just assume they can have everything translated easily into English, on the spot. However, when someone offers, of course your natural instinct is to go, ‘oh! You speak the language of my people? Oh, please, yes, let us speak in that language for I love it so and also don’t understand your language in anyway and it makes me red-faced and sweaty trying to speak it.’ It’s kind of hard to have people act very kindly towards you, assure you that everything’s fine, and of course you can sign this German contract, here, let me explain it to you in English, and then have them to turn out to have screwed you over. Sure, I shouldn’t trust everyone. But, also, why shouldn’t I trust them if they seem like they’re being kind and helpful and reassuring me that I do understand the contract that’s been put in front of me? It would be SO RUDE and inconvenient to tell them otherwise. Besides, how often do I read the T’s and C’s of contracts/companies/internet data-scraping apps even when they’re in English?
Up until recently, government offices have refused to speak to foreigners in English. It seems harsh until you realise it actual protects the office from accusations that they have mistranslated something (and people have been disadvantaged because of it) and it protects the foreigner from signing something they haven’t properly looked at. Sure, I couldn’t understand a lot of the German forms that were handed to me. Yes, I needed an evening with them, plus some Google translate, plus a German friend to help look them over again. But, that’s a GOOD thing. That meant that I had really looked at the goddamn thing and kind of understood what was going on.
I spent a lot of time in Berlin being highly anxious. Part of that was the circumstances of my job. Part of it was that daily interactions were sweaty, panic-attack inducing mumble fests of wrongly pronounced words and misunderstandings. And part of that was the feeling that I was maybe, probably, absolutely definitely missing *something* that was going to get me into trouble somewhere down the line. And that was because, due to my lack of German, I kept myself distant from so many things that happened in German. Another, less anxious person would have confronted that anxiety head on, tried to be proactive about stuff and refused to sign things unless a German-speaking friend had looked it over for me. But, that would require making requests of people, spending time doing difficult things and possibly telling people, ‘no, wait, I don’t understand.’ All of which are things that I don’t do very easily.
So, yeah. You can live in Berlin with no German. But don’t think it will be easy. And best be prepared with some big ol’ pockets.