Jessica Buenaventura tells us why Berlin is “poor but sexy”… plus her tips on overcoming homesickness abroad
Welcome back to What I Love About My City—a series in which our favorite single girls dish on everything from the best places for a single girls weekend to the secret spots only the locals know about. If you’re thinking about moving or just planning your next trip, we’ll fill you in with all the essential details on the cities our crew knows best.
Germany as a whole seems to be underrated to us in the States, so after hearing from a few close friends just how amazing the country is I was eager to get the lowdown from someone who lived there for an extended period. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Jessica Buenaventura attended UC Santa Barbara and studied abroad in Berlin, Germany. After a semester as an international student, Jessica fell in love with the city and looked for opportunities to stay post-graduation. Here she sheds light on the different layers of Berlin and its inhabitants and dishes on the must-see sights and sounds awaiting us in this German stadt… as well as shares her tips on avoiding inevitable homesickness while living away from your friends and family.
Berliners are the work-hard, party-hard generation whose affinity for travel, impressive knowledge of global politics, and nonchalant hipster style make you ogle at how freaking über cool it is to be living in Berlin.
C: There are study abroad programs all over Europe. Tell me about your decision to go to Berlin and about your experience there as an international student.
Two of my roommates at UCSB were studying German, and another one was vice president of the German club. Our house became the unofficial headquarters of the German club; members (students studying German as well as international students from Germany) came over to celebrate traditions like making Glühwein (mulled wine) during Christmas time, singing German songs and, of course, practicing a very well-known German custom: drinking beer. I was immersed in the culture without intending to be. I was attracted to the idea of going to Berlin, because it is one of the most budget-friendly and international cities in Europe. If you’re looking to live in a city with a wide variety of entertainment, culture, and great nightlife without breaking the bank, Berlin is the place to be. The city is small enough for you to access by bike during the summer months and by public transportation the rest of the year. As a student, Berlin provides a great balance of German culture but is also inhabited by many other young international professionals and students, so it is actually very easy to get around as an English speaker.
C: What pulled you to the city after graduation?
Toward the end of my study abroad, I was desperate to find a way to stay in the city that allowed me, a broke and adventure-seeking grad, to live on a limited budget with limited skills. I always dreamed of teaching English in a foreign country, so I used my time in Berlin as an opportunity to do a little premature job hunting. I went door to door to language schools with my resume until finally I landed a yearlong freelance teaching position. The company helped me, a native English speaker, obtain my freelance visa which allowed me to stay in the country legally as a U.S. citizen for up to a year.
C: Tell us more about your experience teaching? What did it teach you?
Although I have been a preschool teacher before, I was nervous teaching a room full of German-speaking children. As a self-proclaimed introvert I never thought I could have the energy and charisma to charm an eager group of 6-year-olds. Children tend to feed off of the vibes you give, and I concluded that being optimistic and genuine go a long way. I was also very nervous about my German speaking abilities. After two quarters of German, I could only form a few basic phrases and get by with “Denglish.” When in doubt I would smile and do as my mom always says: “fake it ’til you make it.”
My students were in complete awe that I came from the land of McDonald’s and Obama. My primary school students loved to reference American pop songs—their favorite medium for learning English. One time we were practicing the phrase “how are you?” and a few goofballs in my class answered, “I’m sexy and I know it!” 😛 Like all teachers, I had my good days and my bad days. In the end, I am glad I was able to influence the lives of my adorable students. I hope I gave them a good first impression of learning English beyond the Billboard Top 40.
Teaching in the preschool and primary schools, I learned more about German culture and the German language than I ever did through formal instruction. My favorite memories were during the holiday season. In the fall, German children celebrate Laterne Tag (Lantern Day) and Nikolaustag—a holiday in the first week of December where St. Nicholas visits your house and fills your shoes with oranges and candies while you are sleeping.
C: Berlin sure is rich in culture and history. Give it to me from your perspective.
Berlin has so many layers, literally and figuratively. Because most of Berlin has been rebuilt since World War II, you will see modern skyscrapers and paved roads that make you feel like you are in any other metropolis. However, the parking lot across the street happens to be the burial site of Hitler’s bunker and your favorite club is actually a re-purposed factory building. In the past decade, Berlin has become a hub of hipsters, artists, and entrepreneurs crowding Germany’s capital with a vibrant and contagious presence. Berliners are redefining the “modern German.” They are the work-hard, party-hard generation whose affinity for travel, impressive knowledge of global politics, and nonchalant hipster style make you ogle at how freaking über cool it is to be living in Berlin.
C: What makes the city appealing for a Single Girl*? (*definition = young, ambitious, go-getter girl)
As a young lady, I felt safe living in Berlin. During the late (or early) hours of the night there were security personnel and other partygoers milling around the bus stations, so I had no hesitation in riding the train by myself at night.
Berlin is so intellectually stimulating. Since tuition is basically free, many Berliners are still pursuing masters or PhD degrees well into their late twenties. It is uncommon to start working full-time before age 25. You will meet people from all walks of life who are taking the time to pursue their goals while living life to the fullest. As a Single Girl I definitely felt encouraged to be ambitious and independent, but also to live in the moment. And hey, if I’m going to be having a quarter-life crisis, might as well have the company of other motivating international friends around me going through the same thing.
C: That sounds like an awesome environment, and one where they’ve learned how to overcome the crisis almost. What are your favorite things about the city?
I loved living in a city where a night out meant going to the opera house for less than 15 euros… or grabbing a beer for less than a euro and joining one of the free open-air DJ’d events down by the river. There is something for everyone.
C: Great affordable options! What surprised you most about living there?
How mentally challenging it is to get through the winter… I was very prepared to battle the physical cold. I bought thick-soled boots and hats and scarves galore. If you’ve lived in a sunny place your whole life, experiencing three weeks straight of gray skies can take a toll on you. The weather is one of the primary reasons I decided to move back to California. And I guess this was not surprising, but I had to get used to how blatantly honest and forward Berliners are. It was a bit off-putting in the beginning, but I learned not to take it personally.
C: A good life lesson, I’m sure. Any advice for someone looking to move there?
Finding housing is a lengthy process as many young Europeans and internationals are slowly migrating to Berlin for work, study and/or play. Berlin is divided into neighborhoods or Kiezes. My Kiez or neighborhood was Friedrichshain. If you have a friend who is already in the city, consider crashing at their place until you find the right Kiez for you.
Also, travel as much as you can! Take a day trip to a neighboring city or use RYANAIR or easyJet to find cheap flights to a city in another country. My favorite places to visit were Croatia, Portugal, and Spain.
C: Best spot for a first date?
Café Am Neuen See is a restaurant and beer garden located next to a small lake in Tiergarten. This is a bit pricey by Berlin standards, but the atmosphere is absolutely perfect for a date. After dinner, head to the Reichstag Building: Touring the dome atop Berlin’s government district is free if you register on the website in advance. On a nice day you get a great view of Berlin for the budget-friendly price of zero euros.
C: How did you make new friends in this city?
I found that Berliners are super private, so the best way to make friends is through mutual friends. I hung out with coworkers, friends of friends, and met up with a cousin who lives in Berlin.
C: What is the best time to visit Berlin?
In the summer. Winter is hibernation time!
C: Any celebrations or festivals that are unique to the city?
Every weekend is a party in Berlin, maybe even every day, but here are a couple of the most notable celebrations.
Karneval der Kulturen: Every June, dance troupes from all over the world travel to the city to perform in a parade. Grab a beer and dance in the sun with the rest of the spectators.
Silvester (or New Year’s Eve) is absolutely crazy. Fireworks are going off everywhere, people are guzzling champagne on the streets. I also participated in a fortune-telling tradition with molten lead called Bleigiessen.
C: Girls’ Night Out: where do you go?
Cocktails at Hannibal. Or wine tasting at Weinerei; pay 2 euro for your wine glass deposit, and sample as many glasses of wine as you want. At the end of the night you and friends decide on a collective tip for how much you drank. Any Berliner will tell you this is super touristy, but my friends and I loved to go to a club called Soda which celebrated Ladies’ Night every Friday. More than three dance floors, free entrance for ladies plus drink tickets! If you’re into techno music, check out Watergate, a two-story club right next to the river with amazing LED-lighted ceilings.
C: If you have girlfriends coming to visit. Where do you take them?
We would have a Princess Day starting with afternoon coffee at Princess Cheesecake or Cafe Sankt Oberholz, both have a delicious spread of cheesecakes and desserts to satisfy any Single Girl’s sweet tooth, followed by a visit a castle, either Schloss Charlottenburg or Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam.
C: I can hear readers looking up flights to Berlin now. You miraculously have a free Saturday. How do you take advantage?
I would start with brunch at Cafe 100 Wasser or Tempo Box; both of these restaurants offer all-you-can-eat brunch on the weekend for less than 10 euros. Then I would take a bike ride through Tiergarten or to a lake nearby before meting up with friends for a beer or to cook dinner at home. Another favorite weekend activity is flea market shopping on Sundays at the Mauerpark Flohmarkt.
3 words I’d use to describe Berlin: Frank, Nonconformist, and (in the words of Berlin’s ex-mayor Klaus Wowereit) “poor but sexy”
The tourist spot I secretly love: Rittersport Museum where you can personalize your own Rittersport bar of chocolate
When I’m hunting down a good sale I head straight to: Primark, Anne Christine, or flea markets at Mauerpark or Boxhagener Platz
You know you belong in Berlin when: Bread and beer are staple items in your diet. Tourists ask you if you speak English and can give them directions.
Jessica’s Tips on Overcoming Homesickness
Being so far away from California left me yearning for the company of my friends and family. I skyped with my family every couple of weeks and stayed in touch with friends through e-mail and facebook. I don’t know how I would have survived without the help of social media.
Find your homies.
I didn’t feel completely adapted to my new city until I found people from the same “tribe.” Being in a foreign country, I missed being able to hang out with English-speaking friends, so I felt really blessed to get to know some amazing people in Berlin. From learning how to bake scones with a coworker to running my first 10K with an Irish friend, discovering a new bar and dancing the night away with my English friend to attempting my hand at German schnitzel with a cool chick from Ohio, the power of friendship helped me overcome feeling homesick.
Laugh out loud… literally!
I adore stand up comedy, so when I discovered the small yet thriving underground English stand-up comedy scene in Berlin, it became a weekly ritual to pay the few euro for a live show… THE best (literal) comic relief from the dreary gray winter season. The comedy sketches paid homage to the awkward yet hilarious cultural tension amongst Germans and internationals.
Learn something new.
Distract yourself. If you fill up your schedule, you will have less time to think about how much you miss your mom, your favorite grocery store (Trader Joe’s withdrawals are a real thing), and the ocean. One of my German friends who studied textile design works for a really cool company called My Boshi that teaches knitting and crocheting and sells custom-made hats. With her guidance, I learned to knit my first infinity scarf. I also made it a point to visit as many museums in Berlin as I could. Berlin hosts a bi-annual Lange Nacht der Museen (or Long Night of the Museums) where you pay less than 20 euros for entrance to 90+ museums. It’s a fun night out with friends and a great way to keep those wheels in your brain well-oiled with new facts and culture.
Many of the universities in Berlin offer discounted sports and exercise classes. During college I danced for a few years with a Polynesian dance group so I was thrilled to find a hula class at a nearby university. Even though my German was mediocre at best, I signed up anyway. Dance is a universal language!
When the weather got warmer, I took up running and trained for my first 10K. This past year, Nike initiated a women’s 10K run called “We Own the Night” in a few major cities in Europe (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Milan). This race is a Single Girl’s dream. Before the race you had the option of taking professional pictures with your friends, and getting your hair and makeup done for free. The course provided constant entertainment with light shows, DJ’s, live saxophone players, and men in uniform handing out water. It was one of the best experiences I had in Berlin. I want to make it a goal to run this race in all the cities that host it. What better excuse to travel and stay fit at the same time?
*New to running? Check out Jen’s story and tips on getting started!
To see more of Jessica’s adventures abroad, check out her website.
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Catherine Abalos is founder and editor of The Single Diaries.