5 years in Berlin

November 3, 2019

Five years ago on this day I moved to Germany. Several months later, my wife and kids joined me. It’s been the roughest, the best, and the most turbulent five years. I mean, I’ve been through some difficult times in my life. Like growing up in war-torn Yugoslavia and dealing with all the perks that came with it, living in poverty, or being forced to leave my home. So I’m no stranger to adversity. But there was something about moving to Berlin that made it the most difficult of all times (disclaimer that I have a recency bias).

It’s a fusion of many things. I was 39 when I moved here. I moved before, but this time, I wasn’t alone. My wife and I were responsible for three small human beings who completely depended on us. We had a successful service design consultancy that doubled the revenue every year and it was difficult to say goodbye to a growing business. We didn’t speak the language and didn’t have a support network. We felt utter uncertainty. How would we be able to work and dedicate enough time to our kids who need additional support from us? How can our family thrive, and not only merely survive in the new place?

Being a parent is difficult. Being an immigrant is also difficult. I have had experience with both. But being an immigrant parent stretched my understanding of what difficult means. From not knowing the rules and making terrible mistakes in the beginning, to having difficulties integrating all the kids, to having personal struggles, financial issues, separation depressions – the complexity of our lives grew too big.

So why did we move then, you might ask? Why did we put ourselves into such a difficult situation? Well, it wasn’t an impulsive decision. We have been talking about this for quite some time before we made a decision. We wanted to do something different in our lives, to meet new people, to try doing things that we couldn’t do in Belgrade. We just didn’t know what was coming.

But we did it. Our kids love it here (kudos to my wife for orchestrating an immense complexity and freelancing at the same time, while I was away for work). We got to do some amazing things, be part of amazing conversations, do interesting projects, and meet fantastic people. So yes, it was difficult to move and start a new life, but the ground is slowly settling down after the earthquake (apart from some occasional aftershocks, but that’s like Richter 2 now).

Today, we all speak the language (well my wife and kids speak fluently, while I’m still just above the Tarzan level). We have our favorite Brazilian place with an amazing coffee. We have someone to say Moin’ to in the morning. We have new friends, and we’re in touch with our old friends and families thanks to WhatsApp and Skype. I met fantastic colleagues and some of them are friends now. I know every crack in the street on my way to work. My commuting habits changed when I moved here. I’m traveling over 4000km per year with my bike. I don’t use a car and I rarely use public transportation. I learned to play the guitar. I went dressed in pajamas to work once. Here, I can be a person I wanted to be for a long time.

Berlin just treats me differently. This is the place closest to being home. Now, home, for me, is a fluid concept. Berlin is (still) not entirely home. At least not in the same way Belgrade was when I was a kid. Safe place. Warm place. But Belgrade isn’t entirely my home either, even though I grew up there. I actually lost the feeling of having a home when I moved to Harare 20 years ago. That’s where I met my future wife. Each one of these cities is a piece of home. So, home, for me, isn’t a physical place. It’s an abstract, warm image in my mind that I can retreat to. Not having a home makes me unrooted in any culture, nation, or boundary of any kind. I like to roam free, in liminal spaces between societal categories and constructs. It is liberating. And frightening at the same time.

But of all these places, Berlin is the most special one. It’s a mixture of cultures, languages, styles, and histories. In a way, Berlin is in a liminal space, too – being in Germany, but being unlike anything else in Germany. Being a metropolis while being so immature. It is both East and West. Both rich and poor.

I like Berlin. We understand each other well, and that’s enough for me.

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  • Darshan Gajara (November 4, 2019)

    I would call it a tale of courage and perseverance. Experiences like these humble you down as a person and provide you with a different lens to look at the world around us. Thanks for sharing, Janko.

  • Dinke (November 4, 2019)

    I have similar story and still love/hate relationship with much smaller city (Munich) where I moved 3 years ago. Unfortunately current real estate situation will not allow us to settle here long term (current buying price is about 10k€/m2). Therefore I often think about moving to Berlin, because it’s cooler place, without Oktoberfest (aka Seljana) and (little bit) cheaper, but I also like proximity to Alps and safety here in Munich. \

    Personally going work in Pyjama would be enough for me to move anywhere, but I don’t think that my wife and daugthers share the same opinion :)

  • Janko (November 4, 2019)

    Thanks Darshan. It does change the way you look at the world around you.

  • Janko (November 4, 2019)

    @Dinke I hear you. If you ever decide to move to Berlin, I’d be happy to help.

  • Tijana (November 5, 2019)

    We are really proud to have you as our closest friends!

  • Sinisa (November 5, 2019)

    I can relate to your words on all levels.

    Amazingly, I was also 39 when I moved to Trondheim, Norway with my family, but I’m still on Richter 5. I’ll write my article in 2022 :)

  • Janko (November 6, 2019)

    Thank you Tijana, likewise <3

  • Janko (November 6, 2019)

    Sinisa, I hear you. Let’s have a chat I’d love to hear how you’re coping now.

  • Ursula (November 6, 2019)

    Thank you for sharing, Janko. Made me think of this video: https://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local.

  • Janko (November 6, 2019)

    Great video, thanks for sharing Ursula!

  • Vladimir Nikolić (November 7, 2019)

    When we (my parents, brother and myself) moved to Berlin, my grandfather was first against it (WW2 was still fresh).
    After a short visit, he said:
    “Home is not where you are born, but where you live.”

    ‘Here, I can be a person I wanted to be for a long time.’
    -> This sentence explains it. Worth all the trouble.

    Enjoy your life, and thanks for sharing.

  • Janko (November 8, 2019)

    Thanks Vladimir, those words are so true.

  • Cesare (November 9, 2019)

    Thanks for sharing your experience Janko. Today I celebrate 4 years in this special city and I can see myself in your words, even if I was alone when I moved and I can only imagine your struggles.