Could you quit your job, sell everything, and say farewell to a comfortable life to become an expat?
Sure you can!
Just take the advice of Cheryl Howard – a Canadian who left it all behind to become an expat for 18 months in Berlin, Germany.
And you know what?
She loved every minute of it.
Cheryl has since returned to her hometown of Toronto, Canada but shares her experience becoming an expat, how she prepared for the move, and her tips for living/traveling in Berlin…
Interview with Cheryl Howard
What made you want to become an expat?
After travelling to Europe twice, I fell in love. I wanted nothing more than to make a base there and spend time getting to know every nook and cranny of the continent.
The idea of beginning a new life abroad was also exciting. I moved to Berlin alone, not knowing the language, without a job and ever having been there before!
Although my plans seemed crazy to others, I was absolutely sure it was the right move for me. While I somewhat feared the uncertainty of my future, I was up for the challenge.
I had plans to return in 6 months if things didn’t work out but lucky for me, my adventure lasted 18 months.
How did you prepare for the international move?
There was much that needed to be done in order to prepare for my big move abroad!
- Gave notice at work, giving myself six weeks to dedicate to my preparations. And trust me, this time was really needed as it was crazy busy.
- Similarly, I gave 60 days notice to my landlord so I could get out of my lease without any financial penalties.
- I delightfully booked a one way ticket to Europe!
- Applied for a working holiday/youth mobility visa that would allow me to live and work in Germany for up to one year. It was a tedious process but fairly straightforward to complete.
- Purchased health insurance for the first year which was one of the visa requirements.
- Said bittersweet farewells to loved ones through a series of parties and one-on-one meetings.
- Sold almost everything I owned, plus gave loads of stuff to family and friends.
- Took what was left and either put it into storage or shipped it to Germany.
- Found a furnished holiday flat to live in for my first few months in Berlin.
- Cancelled things like my cell phone, credit cards, electricity etc.
How did you research living in Berlin? Any specific websites or blogs that are good resources?
I knew I wanted to live in a city so I decided it would either be Berlin or Munich. On the advice of a good friend and some Berliners I met in Havana, I ended up choosing Berlin. Now knowing the two cities, Berlin was the perfect choice for me!
I used English sites like Slow Travel Berlin (www.slowtravelberlin.com) and Exberliner (www.exberliner.com) for inspiration as to what to do once I was in the city and which neighborhood that I’d eventually live in – Prenzlauer Berg, a very gentrified but quiet and beautiful district in East Berlin.
I found my holiday flat on Exberliner as well. Shopping for a new place to live through the Internet is a surreal experience! Once I knew I wanted to live in Prenzlauer Berg, I’d used Google Street View to get a glimpse of the street. Photos of the apartment helped and I was fortunate that my flat pretty much lived up to how it was advertised online.
What did you primarily do with your time in Berlin?
During the first six months, I took time to get used to my life abroad and didn’t look for a job. I took a one month intensive German language class, got involved in the expat community, started to meet locals, explored Berlin, travelled through Europe and got my blog off the ground. It was an opportunity to establish myself as a travel writer, a completely new career path for me!
After six months, I started freelancing full-time as a travel/lifestyle writer for my own blog and other publications. I also started doing project management work for a local company which was the primary source of my income.
What were your three favorite activities/sights in or around Berlin?
Of course, I did the usual touristy things like everyone else but these were my favorite things to do.
- Spending lazy afternoons drinking beer and sleeping under the sun in various parks around Berlin, like the Tiergarten or Volkspark Freidrichshain.
- I was (and still am) quite enthralled with Berlin’s epic nightlife scene. I spent many long nights drinking wine with friends until the sun came up.
- Strolling about the city taking photographs, especially in the autumn. Fall in Berlin is spectacular.
What were your three favorite traditional German meals? Please add details on what is in the meals.
- Currywurst is basically a sausage seasoned with curry flavored ketchup. At first I didn’t like it but after some time it grew on me.
- Spargel is white asparagus which comes into season every spring. Not exactly a meal, but can be paired with tons of dishes.
- Weiswurst is a white sausage from Bavaria. Add a fresh warm pretzel, toss in a beer and you have yourself a tasty dinner (or breakfast). Now that I’m home in Canada, I still have some of this now and again as a reminder of my beloved Germany.
What is the most common misconception of Germany and why?
That Germans are an unfriendly bunch. While it does take time to get to know people, they are not at all like the stereotype. I count many of them as close friends.
What was your biggest culture shock in Germany?
I think my biggest moment of cultural shock came the first time I went naked at a German sauna! Not a typical activity for a girl with a prudish Canadian background.
What challenges did you face as a woman travelling in Germany? What are your tips to avoid those challenges?
I didn’t really face any specific challenges in Germany that I wouldn’t face while travelling anywhere else. Germany’s safe and a pretty easy country to get around.
What advice can you give women about what to pack for their time in Germany?
I’d advise anyone coming to Germany (or travelling anywhere else for that matter), to pack their smart phone and buy a local SIM card whenever possible.
Being able to use travel related apps like Google Maps to find your way around or Four Square to discover restaurants is super helpful. It also lets you stay in contact with family – especially important if you’re travelling alone.
What was the greatest lesson you learned being an expat?
My greatest lesson learned being an expat is that I can do anything, even things that seem wild and crazy like moving abroad on my own.
You become very resourceful – like communicating with a Vodafone sales rep via Google Translate. Since he didn’t know English and I German, we used this to speak with one another and set up my new mobile phone contract.
What was your overall experience being an expat?
I learned some tough lessons during my time as an expat but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience which I hope to repeat somewhere else at some point. I made a new home halfway across the world and will always consider it as such!
My love for Berlin runs deep. I’m actually visiting Berlin now for a three week holiday and find myself not wanting to leave.
What advice can you give women considering becoming an expat?
To discard any fears they have about the possibility of becoming an expat and at least try it for a limited time. If worse comes to worse, they can always move home.
What challenges did you face moving back to Canada?
Settling back into my old life. I’m changed as a person and home feels boring at times.
I found myself longing for more but until I figure out what I want my next move to be, I’m happy working, spending time with loved ones and getting to know different parts of North America through a series of weekend trips.
So far, I’ve hit up Ottawa, San Francisco and Detroit. I hope to make it to Miami, New York and Montreal before the end of the year.
How did the experience change you?
It’s made me more open to new experiences and increased my overall level of self-confidence. It’s also ignited a flame of passion in me that drives me to live a more extraordinary life.
Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?
If you have the desire to make a change, like moving abroad then follow those dreams. If you wish to travel, do the same. Just do it!
Thank you Cheryl Howard for participating in this interview. For more info on Cheryl Howard, please visit cherylhoward.com.