In May of 2016, I put into action an idea whose seeds had been planted nearly 10 years ago, when I first visited Italy for a semester abroad in 2006. I was just about to turn 21. That summer, I spent two months studying in Florence and took trips to Paris, Venice, and Rome; I also spent 10 days backpacking by myself in Ireland and Austria. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that the world was much bigger and different than I had imagined. How can I describe what a revelation it was to step outside my country and discover how small it really is? My eyes were opened to the limitations of my worldview.
But I couldn’t stay. I came back from Italy and graduated college, moved to DC where I worked for four years, and even moved across country and explored the west coast with Reno as my home base. I forgot my Italian. I made halfhearted attempts to keep up with drawing and painting. I took trips to Paris to visit my sister, who had moved there. I took road trips across the country, visiting more than half of the continental US. None of it was right.
I couldn’t have put it into words then, but I had a feeling that there was unfinished business waiting for me in Europe. I had begun an education into the world outside the US (other American travelers will know what I mean when I say it is an isolated country). Two months on the outside just wasn’t enough.
In the summer of 2014 I quit working for the company I had been with since college. I had known for a while that it wasn’t where I wanted to be forever, but I kept making excuses to stay, and two years turned into six before I knew what was happening. Finally I knew if I didn’t leave soon, I’d end up stuck there, so I made my own excuse, put my affairs in order, and left in July.
I had always wanted to take a long backpacking trip, after having met other young people who were traveling for 6 months or a year and staying in hostels. I tried it out for myself – you can read my travel stories in this blog. But it still wasn’t right. I was getting the real-world education I wanted, but it felt aimless. I know now that it’s a mistake to travel without a frame. If you don’t believe me, spend some time talking to “hardcore” travelers – people who have no home base, who have been backpacking for 2 or 3 years, who never stay in the same place for more than a couple of months. You’ll see an emptiness in their eyes. They’re miserable, even if they don’t know it themselves. Humans aren’t meant to be constantly mobile – at least, not alone. Think of the Berbers, or the Roma. They travel in packs. Solo travel is terribly lonely – and my experience was no exception.
So what’s a single, 30-year-old American with an unscratched itch for the international lifestyle supposed to do?
Move to Berlin, of course.
Berlin is a popular city for expats. It’s legendery among travelers looking to stay in Europe past the Schengen area’s restrictive three months because of a permissive freelance residency permit, the so-called artist visa. It works like this: normally, to acquire a freelancer’s visa in Germany, one needs to work in a field where the is a demonstrated economic need for your skills (a need for engineers in a manufacturing town, or UX/UI designers in city that’s home to tech startups, say). For a visual artist this might normally be a challenge, since we don’t think of artistic disciplines as being economic drivers so much as cultural enhancements that rely on donations or social funds. However, Berlin’s former mayor Klaus Wowereit, who coined the famous description of Berlin as “poor but sexy”, also officially designated art as an economic need in the city. That has made it relatively easy for people working as visual artist to be granted freelancer visas here.
This visa is somewhat legendary among travelers, and you hear stories about people who have picked up this visa by cobbling together a portfolio (which may or may not be their own work) along with a few forged letters of reference. Berlin has gotten a lot more popular since that time, and a few new regulations on housing documents have made it a bit trickier to complete all the necessary forms these days. Still, my experience at the Auslanderbehörde can only be described as painless. Nervous and anxious, I scurried into my assigned meeting room with a German friend who had agreed to act as a translator. The casually-dressed, tired-looking official grabbed the folder full of documents I had spent the past two months assembling (sometimes with tears involved), pulled out a few at random, and shooed us out the door. His comment to my friend, “The North Americans always bring too much.” 20 anxious minutes later we were called back for what I assumed would be a brutal grilling of my personal history, artistic abilities, and financial solvency. Instead, the same official glanced up as he stamped the residency visa into my passport and mumbled a few instructions at us for where and how to pay. And just like that, I’m legally a resident of Berlin until June 2018.
And what now?
I’ve gone from nomad to expat. I have a lease, flatmates, steady freelance work, and a growing social network. I’m working on my German, practicing Spanish, attending drawing workshops, and stubbornly riding my bike through Berlin’s cold autumn rainstorms.
I’ll always be a traveler, but to be honest, at the moment I don’t miss traveling. Loneliness is hard on a person. I’m more than happy to feather my little Berlin nest (at 12 m square, my room in the shared flat is best described as “gemütlich”) and deepen friendships in the way that is only possible when you hang around for longer than a couple of months. I meet lots of backpackers passing through when I show up to Couchsurfing meetups around the city. One day I’ll be ready to be one of them again, and when I do, Berlin’s trains, buses, and airports will be waiting for me.