A Millennial In Germany
Moving To Berlin & Assuming Money Will Work Itself Out
I graduated in December with a very expensive piece of paper that now qualifies me for approximately zero concrete or lucrative careers. I have no money and no well-crafted ideas or conniving plots about how to make money. That, I thought, was A-OK; it’s the quintessential liberal arts student post-graduation conundrum. I am fulfilling expectations, I quipped to myself.
Marching to my own impulsive drum, I moved to Berlin, Germany. I decided there I would “figure it out” financially.
Initially, funds were not going to be a problem. I was employed as an au pair. This means, although I would only be making a few net euros a day, I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for the basics, i.e., rent, health insurance, food, coffee. Ultimately, though, my desire to “live my life” won out. I kept the job but ditched the digs.
I left the bright, natural light-filled, paid-for apartment my host family had so graciously shared with me. The family for whom I am working will no longer be footing my room and board; however, I will continue to receive the same paltry salary I was before. Now I must also use that meager sum to pay my rent, my own health insurance, and my own food. Thankfully I still have access to their espresso maker.
It may sound as if I brought this sad financial plight upon myself. I did. Now I have, true to the German form I seek to emulate, dutifully dubbed myself a freelancer. I walk around boasting that I work as a nanny but moonlight as a translator/copywriter/blogger/editor/proofreader/sometimes smutty romance novel writer.
What this really means is that I hunt every day for odd-jobs and tiny thesis editing projects in order to cobble together some semblance of a living. I have a very (very) part-time job at my old study abroad program center and will make a few cents a week interning at a kindergarten. I scribble ideas for articles and blog posts and listicles on my limbs as well as any scraps of paper I happen upon — diaries and journals cost money, after all. I have written nineteen cover letters in the last two days for various freelance jobs in the marketing field. It’s a field in which I don’t actually have any experience, but I’ve heard that the Berlin startup scene is more about talking the talk than walking the walk.
I’m approaching the job hunt this way because it is incredibly challenging to acquire a visa for a regular nine-to-five job in Germany. As a non-European, qualified and spunky or not, having the aforementioned dearth of qualifications for any normal job, I am severely disadvantaged in the eyes of many potential employers. In Europe there is a special onus placed on employers when employing non-Europeans; they must prove to the government that there is a true and pressing need to hire someone of non-European heritage so as not to be seen as giving away positions to foreigners that could be filled by natural citizens. In practice this means that when applying for full-time positions, I need to indicate that I do not actually have a work permit allowing for Europe, at which point my application becomes virtual kindling.
Instead, the preferred route to visa acquisition in Germany is the “selbständig” or “freiberufler” visa, which can also be viewed as the “I’m going to take my sweet time bumbling around on German territory and snapping up whatever pitiful contracts come my way” visa. A favorite job-title among actual Germans too, this visa ostensibly allows you to work an infinite number of jobs in an infinite number of offices for no more than twenty-five hours per week per job. Theoretically there are a few more nuances to this visa. For example, you can only technically be contracted to work within your field, and you must declare your field when you apply for your tax number. What constitutes a field is a bit of a gray area. The most critical piece of maintaining this visa status is to charge by the hour and send clients a bill with your tax number, tax ID, and bank information on it.
This brings up the interesting topic of the tax number. Germany is notorious for its convoluted bureaucracy. Lucky for the confused newcomer, their tax system falls comfortably under this confusing umbrella. To obtain this number, I filled out a fourteen page form of redundant and seemingly fruitless questions, and then waited thirty plus days for the tax office to send me my number by post. (This information is far too classified to be sent via world wide web.) It was required that I had the number before I was legally allowed to collect any money working in Germany.
The nonsensical caveat in this system is that in order to be granted the freelance visa, I needed to prove I could make at least eight thousand euros in a year and that I already had contracts and contacts that would provide me with an income. In other words, I was supposed to have already found some sort of work between the time that I arrived in Germany and the time that I went to the immigration office for my visa appointment, but I was not allowed to have collected money for any services I provided. Well, not technically.
In order to even qualify for the right to apply for this fabled tax number, I needed to register my address at yet another town hall sort of building. This can cost around fifty euros and two to twenty hours of time, depending on luck. And in order to get to this town hall, I needed to take the subway. A one-ride ticket costs 2,70. The four ride ticket — which is the smartest buy for the infrequent subway rider — costs 9,00. That was probably my better option, considering one almost definitely will not get an appointment the first time one goes to the town hall and waits in line for three hours. In that case, one has to go back, making the extra tickets worth the cost hazard.
Only after I had registered could I get my tax number. And only then could I get my visa, for which I shelled out another 100 euros and another two to three hours. I also got my portfolio professionally printed and bound, which cost me around 30 euros.
Only upon receipt of my visa could I rest easily, knowing I was legally allowed to continue to struggle to piece it all together in this fine land to which I willingly expatriated.
All of this I did, while paying my rent, and nourishing myself, and not forgetting to budget for the little things like toothpaste and a daily soft pretzel.
This impulsive international move has proved to be a much more financially and patience straining one than I had anticipated. My total startup costs have been approximately 2,000€, and I haven’t even bought any furniture yet. (Here’s to having benevolent friends willing to host me indefinitely in their extra rooms!) At the end of the day, when I’m surly and frustrated with myself and my financial predicament, at least I can be happy that beer costs less than water.
Meredith Alongi is a graduate of Tulane University and an oddjobber extraordinaire. Follow her on Medium to read more.
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