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  • Writer's pictureDIe Frau

On our first year

A chronicle of the waiting foretold

Sunday marked the first anniversary of our arrival in Germany.

A quick recap of that adventure: My two kids and I flew from Atlanta to Berlin (connecting through Paris) at the exact same time our two dogs were taking a live animal cargo flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam. My husband took a six-hour train trip to pick them up and bring them here, leaving my sister-in-law to meet us at the airport and help us get to our apartment.

(You can read all the crazy details here, if you’re interested.)

What we expected to happen: We would land in Berlin about 8 p.m. local time. C would help us get to our apartment in Mitte. My husband (DM) would bring the dogs back from Amsterdam via train, arriving early the next morning.

What actually happened: Our flight got delayed by four hours in Paris. Then, after taking off and flying half way to Berlin, a mechanical problem forced the pilot to turn around and land back at Charles de Gaulle. (Again, gory details here.)

We waited another two hours in the crowded terminal at CDG before getting on a replacement plane, flying to Berlin, landing just after midnight, and meeting my (very patient and awesome) sister-in-law who got us to the apartment — where we met my husband who had just arrived with the dogs!

Happy, safe reunion in the end.

And, it turns out, a pretty apt introduction to our new life.

Our two dogs just after arriving in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The Breakdown

What we expected to happen: Because we had both done months of prep and research before we moved – everything from finding a place to live, to opening a bank account, to looking up visa requirements, to how and where to enroll the kids in school – my husband and I felt pretty confident we would be able to settle in easily. We were learning German, we had moved internationally before, we knew to be flexible. We had this.

What actually happened: I will just sum it up by using one of my 12-year-old son’s favorite phrases: “Yeah, no.”

What ensued often felt like a cross between a real-life version of Survivor (Who will get voted off this week?*) and this scene from the movie, Mr. Mom (“You’re doing it wrong”). Every process seemed to involve multiple hidden steps that no one told us about, plus the usual one step forward and then three steps back.

Immigration Issues

Before we got here, we carefully collected the documents we were supposed to have for our residence permit and visas, including getting the appropriate ones apostilled.

Our first look at Brandenburger Tor, July, 2022.

Then we found out that the immigration office (the Landesamt für Einwanderung – popularly just referred to as the Ausländerbehörde), was not accepting in-person appointments for new applications. We were required to scan all of our documents and submit them with an application by email.

So, we did that. Scanning more than 30 separate documents (birth certificates, diplomas, marriage certificates, vaccination records) for all four people. Then, we waited. We knew that it often took more than six weeks to get the in-person appointment to complete the application.

Three months later we are notified by email that our scans were not in the appropriate format – so our application was being rejected.

They were in the requested format, but the person looking at them said they “looked like” the files had been converted to the required PDF from a JPEG instead of converted to the PDF from a *scan.* We were never able to figure out how to scan directly to PDF but always had to scan to some kind of image file.

So, instead of just asking for the files again, or asking us to bring the originals all to an appointment, they rejected us and required us to start over. At least, that is what the relocation agent hired by my husband’s company claimed. As we later found out, they were either mistaken or not truthful about multiple other things, so I am not sure whether I really believe that, or whether they just didn’t make the effort to pursue it on our behalf.

All told, it took us seven months from the time that we arrived to the time that we were issued our visas and residence permit. Three months to apply and get rejected, then reapply and wait three more months to finally get an appointment.

We’ve since learned from people coming after us that the typical wait is now even longer. During that time, we could not travel outside of Germany and we techically had no valid form of ID other than our passport, which showed our (expired) entry stamps. We were told to keep copies of our emails showing that our visa applications were in process, in case we needed to travel outside Berlin or needed to show ID.

Issues with Schools

Getting our kids enrolled in school was similarly daunting. Our daughter was already in high school when we moved, so we planned on enrolling her in an international school so she wouldn’t be off track for getting a diploma and going to college.

Our son had just completed sixth grade in the U.S. and we were torn between enrolling him in German school or international school. We asked people we knew who had either moved before us or had recently moved back from Germany, who said that enrolling him in German school would be his best chance to learn the language and really integrate into the community.

Just keep swimming – a stingray at Aquarium Berlin.

But we also knew that the Berlin schools were overwhelmed with enrolling new refugrees from the war in Ukraine. We wondered if we should put him in an English-focused international school for the first year, to make it easier and to not add to the Berlin school-crowding problem.

Quick digression: Because we are American, many (many) people told us to apply for the John F. Kennedy School (JFKS), a public, English-German school that is funded by both the German government and the U.S. Department of State. Their classes are 50 percent English-speakers (with priority given to Americans) and 50 percent German. 
JFKS does have an English-only track, and will always maintain places for the children of members of the U.S. diplomatic corps. But it very rarely has free spots in the upper grades for newcomers that aren't here with the embassy and it is very selective. 
Apparently, it is a common misconception here that Americans will "automatically get a spot" at JFKS. That is not true.
Also, for families who are still outside Berlin, the application deadline is in early March for the following year, with no exceptions. My husband was offered his job in Berlin the week after their deadline. The earliest we could apply there would have been this February be for a spot for this coming year. 

In reality, the influx of both economic migrants (people like us moving for work) and refugees in such a short period of time has overwhelmed all of the schools. All of private schools, international and not, have waiting lists for enrollment. There are waiting lists for placement in a welcome class (mandatory for children not fluent in German) in the public schools.

This is something that I plan to do several more posts on because I don’t think many people are aware of the problems with teacher shortages and cuts to school funding in Germany.

Fortunately, we were able to secure a place for my daughter at an English-language international school for this year.

(Just an aside, the annual fees would not be affordable for the vast majority of families who move here. We are using the profits we made by selling our house in the U.S. and funds from college savings. Some of the Berlin private schools get support from the Berlin government and have a sliding scale for tuition based on income.)

We applied for both kids to five different private schools all over the city and received an offer for just the one spot.

That school also happens to be just outside Berlin on the opposite side from the side we live on. (I don’t want to share too many personal details about the kids for privacy reasons. But if you are at all familiar with Berlin, you can probably tell both what school it is and around where we ended up living.)

She’s a pretty independent teenager, and we live a short walk to one of the larger rail hubs, which is the only thing that makes her 1.5-hour commute to school feasible.**

My son needed to enroll in the local schools. He was put on a waiting list for a spot in a welcome class because the ones at the secondary school level were full. After four months, he was assigned a spot at a school near our home. But that’s the short version.

My husband and son walking into the train station after a boat ride on the Spree.

The long version: During this time, we received no information about his status. So, up until the day he got the spot, he was doing online classes and I was calling around to other private schools again, trying to see if we could get him in. Trying to figure out what we would do next year if there still wasn’t room. We just had no idea.

Out of the blue, we get an email from the Schulamt telling us he had been assigned a spot in the welcome class at [Local School Name] and to “contact the school and work with them to further his education.” No date or time for when he should start – no specific person to talk to – just call this place.

So, I emailed the school using the email that the district sent in the letter. When I did not get a response after waiting a day, I tried calling the office. The first two times, someone picked up and immediately disconnected the call without saying anything and before I could say anything!

I waited a few hours (still during the school day) and called again, and this time the phone just rang without answer.

After checking for advice on various expat and parent groups, I learn that it is expected I should go over in person – which would have been nice to know.

So, I go to the school and check in with the school secretary. She says that she got my email the previous day and forwarded to the welcome class teacher who is in charge of enrolling students in those classes. The teacher should have contacted me. Since I hadn’t heard back, she offers to schedule an appointment with her for me.

She does so for the Thursday of the following week. She tells me to bring all of his documents (passport, anmeldung, vaccination record, etc.) She does not say to bring him to the appointment.

I go the following week to the appointment, and the teacher – who never responded to the initial email at all – is surprised that we have been in Germany so long and are “just now” registering for school.

Also, she wants to know why he is not with me, and that I should have brought passport-size photos for his school folder and ID.

Street art in the Natur-Park Südgelände.

I will say that we are very happy with the education both kids are receiving. The teachers are excellent and very caring. I

t just took a lot of deterimination and effort (and money!) to get to this point.

I mention the money part (for tutors, translators, online learning, etc.), not to complain about paying. We can afford to. But to point out that many people cannot.

Paradigm Shift

For all of the stress and delays, we were able to get our residence permit and visas. We are here legally. Everyone is safe. And the kids have places in school.

I think a big key to coping with these issues (and other, similar ones I won’t bore you with) is understanding that we needed to adjust our cultural expectations.

Just like Americans here often have trouble adjusting to businesses all closing on Sundays, nothing but the ER being open 24 hours, etc.

We have to adjust to long waiting lists, multiple competing levels of bureaucracy, is just the way things are done. When you need to deal with the government, everyone understands: It’s going to take a long time. You’re going to have to wait.

You will be asked to get a copy of X form, take it to Y office, there be told you actually should take it to Z office, instead. Then, the person who works in Z office is on leave for four months, and on and on. ... It’s how things are.

But it does get done. Eventually.

Admittedly, I still have a lot of opinions about how the German government should move to better support the integration of immigrants it encouraged to come here.

But for now I am learning to embrace living in the present. Berlin is an amazing city. Germany is a beautiful country. There is so much history and culture to learn about that every day really is almost like an adventure.

I am still glad that we decided to do it.


Editing to add the footnotes …

*We do know several families who arrived around the same time who either gave up and moved back to the U.S. or on to greener pastures due to visa delays, difficulty finding housing, no school places for their kids or all of the above.

**I am gong to do a longer post about the school situation alone, because that was a major sticking point for us and something I really wish I had understood better before we moved.


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